Before I was Me

My story begins long before I was born. My mother’s grandfather ran away from his Jewish family in Riga, Poland, and after a series of adventures arrived penniless in London, then converted to Christianity. That side of the family lived in Ilford. My father lost his mother at a very early age, and was brought up by his Aunt and Uncle in East Ham. Both my parents lived through the War years as teenagers, and when my father was eventually called up he became a “Bevin Boy” and mined coal in Lancashire. After the war he went to what was then Persia to earn enough to marry my mother and set up home in Sutton. They and their families were part of a very devout and true Christian group who kept themselves apart from the outside world, and that was the environment I arrived into on 28th October, 1957. The Silver Cross pram shows they wanted the very best for me. The funny thing was, they did not listen to the radio so we had no idea of the other significant event going on - the birth of the Today Programme.


Animals Everywhere

When I was two, we moved to a wonderful house in an Essex village. We had gardens and paddocks extending to two acres, with trees, shrubs, old farm buildings and plenty of secret places for a child to play in. Although my father was brought up in East London, I think he was really a frustrated farmer, because bit by bit the menagerie grew. Over the years we had the usual cats, dogs, rabbits, guinea pigs, mice, fish, then hens, bantams, ducks, geese, ferrets and Soay Sheep. One winter we borrowed a Soay ram from Colchester Zoo, and before we knew it two ewes had become a flock of fourteen. The ram knew no fear and would have a go at anyone. My father used to fend him off with a bucket when he charged, and you could hear the crash from indoors. One day my mother was one side of a wire fence and the ram charged from the other. She laughed thinking he would be stopped by the fence, but the ram knew better, the netting fence stretched and he got her. We used to loan grazing for local ponies in exchange for rides. My long-suffering mother finally drew the line when my father arrived home with a car-load of pig-rearing equipment he had bought at Chelmsford Livestock market. Perhaps luckily, it was never used.

We lived near enough to London for visits as a treat. In those days the drive up was on single carriageway A roads, parking was no problem, and you were allowed to feed the pigeons in Trafalgar Square.


Religion and Holidays

Because of the Christian circle the family were part of, our friends were those of the same persuasion. We did not need radio or television, and chapel attendance was intensive – every weekday evening, Saturday mornings and several times on a Sunday. We never attended all of them but we were expected to do our best. This withdrawal from the outside world and frequent chapel meetings seems odd now, but to me it was normal. Holidays were rather private, we would rent a cottage or a caravan, and attend the local chapel meetings. The journey from Essex to the South West took two days in my father’s old Hillman Minx. I distinctly remember the elephant made of concrete pipes that stood by the A30 in Camberley – it in fact it is still there, although now dwarfed by a large warehouse. The Christian beliefs, high moral standards, ethics, and consideration for others has given me a frame of reference that will stay with me for the rest of my life. When I was thirteen, that particular Christian community became more restrictive than we thought was right, and we left. We bought a television and I went to the cinema for the first time – but I’m getting ahead of myself. There’s more to say about my childhood.


First School and World Events

I went to school at a nearby private Prep school called Elm Green in Little Baddow, which I started early at the age of four. Within a very few years I was walking to and from school on my own, a distance of half a mile or so, but a journey involving a main road, footpaths and a dark and rather scary wood. There was a short cut across a field that avoided the wood but the field was occupied by a large red bull. Every day was a choice: was the bull far enough away to chance a sprint across the grass, or would I have to risk meeting goblins in the wood? Far more worrying than child abductors or perverts – they never even featured in our vocabulary. (My father has since reminded me I was not supposed to take that short cut anyway!)

The school was an intimate, family-run business and the Headmistress would invite selected classes into her sitting room to watch momentous world events on her small black and white television. I am sure I saw several but the only one I remember with any clarity was the launching of the QE2. As we did not have radio or TV at home we relied on the papers for news. I remember bouncing on my parents bed when my father came in the room with the Daily Telegraph and said "Kennedy's dead" and they both stood silent, shocked. I carried on bouncing.

Towards the end of my Elm Green years we drove to London for one of our days out, it must have been '67 or '68. We drove through Trafalgar Square but the traffic was heavy and there were crowds of people with placards. We were trapped by the mass of people, and then realised we were between the crowd and a wall of police, some mounted. The crowd were chanting "IRA, IRA". Suddenly someone threw a metal news stand at a police horse making it rear up and nearly crash into our car. Two policemen rushed out and grabbed a man, pushed him onto our bonnet and gave him a good beating (short rubber truncheons then, not riot sticks and body armour). The crowd wanted revenge, my father wanted out. We shot off, and the side of the car took a hammering from scores of angry boots and fists. Scary enough, but how soon the Republicans lost sympathy in London. Within a short time we were entering a decade of bombing and tension, luckily I never came close to the worst of it.

The Dish (Little Baddow)

Did you ever see that excellent movie, "The Dish"? We had our own version. Our neighbours were the Gibson family, and I used to play with the two boys. Their father John Gibson was an exceptionally talented engineer (still is actually) who worked for Marconi Communications. In the early 1960's, communications businesses around the world were gearing up for the Apollo missions, and signal tracking dishes were being installed to relay messages from the space missions back to Houston - hence The Dish in the movie. In 1965, the team at Marconi needed to test a 32 foot dish aerial. John Gibson happened to have a five acre field, and a clear line of sight over the Essex countryside (rumour had it there was nothing between us and the Urals).

Unfortunately his access lane could not accommodate the vehicles, dish and mobile cabins that were needed so they had to come down our lane, through our front garden, across the paddock having removed the fence, and into the Gibson's field. There the whole rig was set up, and the signals tested successfully. I remember going over to have a look in the trucks, where there were glowing green lights, lots of wires and some engineers having a heck of a good time with all their kit. In fact they were able to get a grainy TV picture all the way from the USA via a satellite called Early Bird. This was all part of the preparations for the 1969 Apollo moon landing.

Ships and the Sea

I think I have salt water in my blood. One of my distant relatives was the skipper of a sailing trawler out of Brixham, and my father, although never a true seafarer, has passed on his love of the sea. This photo was taken in Tilbury Docks around 1960. Stratheden had been a WW2 Troop Ship and then plied the UK to Australia routes under the P&O flag. Note the period details in the photo: van, RAC sign, ship - and the blazer!

When I was at pushchair age, my parents took me sailing in their wooden dinghy, but after a slightly risky episode they realised the danger and we didn't sail together again until very much later. But the damage was done, I had tasted the salt water.

In 1970 my father heard that the great Dock Strike had stranded a number of big liners in Southampton, so we piled into the car and drove down to the docks, where enterprising local fishermen were running sightseeing cruises. Both the original Queen Mary and Queen Elisabeth liners were there, and they were incredibly impressive.

In 1973 my father bought a wooden Norwegian fishing boat and we worked on her together to convert her into a little cruiser, in which we explored the estuaries of the Essex coast. We had no VHF radio, no chart-plotter, no GPS, no electronic anything except a depth sounder that worked with a rotating flashing light. You had to learn a lot before you ever dared cast off. Now, it is too easy to buy a boat, fill it with electronics and drive off as if it is a car. Here she is, being launched in a small dock at Maldon. You can just see me, aged 15, in flares and (yuk) two-tone shirt. I can see Dad was worrying she might not float...

Many years later, after university, a job and first house were taken care of I bought my own small boat, and I have been messing about in boats ever since. In 2006 I self-published my book "Angling Boats", which thanks to Amazon has been very popular. I have owned my boat "Salar" since 1993, and we are often spotted fishing together off the Isle of Wight.


Planes Big and Small

Planes were always a fascination, I was in the Airfix Generation after all. From the age of six or seven I would build plastic models of aircraft involving lots of glue and paint going where it shouldn't, but I was happy for hours. My bedroom was festooned with planes dangling from fishing lines. Any casualties of the duster were finished off in the paddock with a banger up the fuselage, or out of season, a dose of paraffin and a match.

Another treat would be a trip to Southend Airport to see a freighter take off. This happened approximately twice an hour. An alternative was Stanstead, but that could involve a wait of over an hour between planes. As an aside, Idi Amin used Stanstead at the time to fly out his personal supplies, including cases of whisky - there was a weekly "whisky run" flight that was well known locally.

Southend was fun because there was always a gaggle of anoraks on the open observation deck, listening to air traffic control on their radio sets. You could wander up to the low fence and hang over it to see the planes more closely. The one in the picture is a Bristol Freighter, run by British Air Ferries. These had noses that opened and cars could drive in - probably only a couple at a time. I think the families would sit in a cabin at the back. The planes would hop over to France - a lot quicker than the ferry, which at the time was a very time consuming affair. Goodness knows what the cost was in real terms - it must have been horrendous.


Winter 1962-3 and Keeping Warm

This is included in the Met Office's list of "severe winters", and most of us were under snow from Boxing Day to early March. I had just turned 5 and as far as I was concerned it was great fun. My mother dressed me up warmly and put my legs in plastic bags held in place by elastic bands (which you can just see!). It was not so much fun for my parents. Our water supply pipe ran close to the surface and froze solid, so we had no water for weeks. My parents had to carry water from a newer house next door in buckets. I remember being bathed in two washing-up bowls, my feet in one and my bum in another. We had no central heating that really matched the description, just a couple of rusty radiators fed from a coal-fired boiler. The rest of the house was heated with open fires or electric heaters when you needed them. We would run upstairs and put an electric fire on in our bedrooms and a hot water bottle in the bed half an hour before we turned in, so it wouldn't be too unbearable. In those days everyone watched the pennies and lights were turned off if you didn't need them. That meant upstairs was dark, and worse, the light switch was upstairs. I used to run upstairs with my eyes shut in case I saw something scary up there. One night I came back down with two huge black eyes - I had run smack into a wall.

War Left-overs

When we were born in 1957, the Today50 Generation arrived on the scene only 12 years from the end of WWII (and to put it in context, the Falklands War was 25 years ago). Peacetime conscription to National Service was still running until 1960. The end of all rationing did not happen until 1954. Small wonder then that there were still strong influences from the war-time years. My parents had lived through some pretty severe privations, and frugality became a habit. They were careful never to waste anything: my mother had a tin in our walk-in pantry, with rubber bands stored around it, plastic bags in it and carefully folded paper bags underneath. String was re-used, and wrapping paper usually salvaged. My father's workshop had boxes and jars of rusty nails and screws, extracted and straightened so they could be used again. They could easily have afforded new, it was just habit.

Our house had real leaded windows, which meant small individual panes were joined with lead strips. This gave the window a degree of flexibility. In the 1940's a V1 flying bomb had missed London and landed near the village with a massive explosion. The rush of air into the space created by the blast is actually stronger at a distance than the blast itself, which meant our windows all bowed outwards slightly. When we went to Chelmsford shopping, we did not need to look for a car park. There were plenty of vacant lots as a result of the bombing, which had been flattened and left ready for re-building. We just casually referred to these spaces as bomb sites.

The old village school had a large concrete air-raid shelter in the yard. One day a crane came with a huge steel ball to demolish it. We all went to watch but it took them hours just to make a few dents. There was a lot of work still going on to remove wartime structures and rebuild damaged buildings.

There had been plenty of aerial dog-fights over Essex, and when 'planes fire guns, the spent cartridge cases fall to the ground. These could often be found buried in the earth, I still have a few of various sizes.



Regular shopping was done mostly within our village or the next one, with occasional trips all the way to Chelmsford (7 miles) for clothes or special items. Food was bought at the village post office stores, the local butcher, from the milkman who also carried most staples such as cheese, eggs, cream, orange juice, or the bread van. There was also a weekly grocery delivery - my mother would phone Mr. Pegram and read out her list, and next day he would arrive with all her items in cardboard boxes. The milkman was a friendly chap, in my school holidays he would let me ride with him in the electric float as he did the rounds of the village, and drop me off on his way back. The trip to the butcher was also fun, in those days they started with the whole animal and you could go and marvel at all the bits, and watch sausages being fed into their skins. At the end of the day he would scrub his huge wooden chopping block and leave it outside in the sun to dry.

I can't remember my mother ever buying a ready-cooked meal, apart from the treat of fish-n-chips, everything was home cooked and wholesome. Fruit and vegetables were very seasonal, particularly so as we grew a lot of our own. Choices were limited - Weetabix, cornflakes or Rice Krispies for breakfast was about as long as the list got. By comparison, choices today have gone crazy, partly because people want a lot more variety than we had, but mainly because they do short-cut cooking, where most of the ingredients are already in the packet (and probably a lot more ingredients in there than you would really want). Although I welcome the adventures in taste that we now have, I really think we have lost a lot of the emotion in cooking - Marco Pierre-White claims that preparing a meal is an act of love, (he said "luuurve") and I know that my mother expressed her love in the care she took with our meals. I don't think kids eating a stir-and-serve pasta sauce will feel the same way as we did.


Playtime and Weaponry

A sandpit in the garden was a real treat. My father is very practical and made me many toys and play areas. This is probably the first (and he still has the hammer!)

With no TV to distract us, and no worries about child molesters, we were free to roam about the countryside from an early age. The best play involved making dens or shelters in the woods, which meant a lot of muddy digging and the collection of large quantities of corrugated iron and timber. Another favourite was swinging on a rope suspended from a tree, over a perilous drop with barbed wire at the bottom. We always carried knives - graduating from penknives to sheath knives, and every stick that came into our hands had to be sharpened. Guns featured prominently in outdoor play and we all had arsenals of plastic and metal replicas that fired caps or just went click. The same weapons were used whether we played cowboys, gangsters or soldiers.

When it rained, I read avidly. Enid Blyton soon gave way to Biggles, Willard Price and The Hardy Boys. Paul reminded me of the "Look and Learn" weekly. When I was smaller I played with Britain's farm and zoo animals, and later I had an impressive train set that took up much of the bedroom (Hornby vs. Tri-ang was a heated debate). I had a Meccano construction set but I probably had more fun with Beta-Builder, the failed competitor to Lego at the time. But as I mentioned earlier my real love was Airfix kits. There was even an Airfix Magazine for boys as obsessed as I was. Every toy shop stocked a good range and most kids had a go, although some were more gluey fingered than others. I think the main difference between my childhood and that of my own children was that very little was organised for us, we had to make our own play, use our own imaginations and make do with what we had. Happy times though.


Half a Century of Telephones

When you start to blog your life, you realise that it is the differences in everyday things that is more interesting than a life story. So I have dallied a bit to write about telephones. When we moved to Essex in 1960 our house had a telephone - the number was Danbury 2148. Note the exchange name, you had to know that. It was a heavy, black phone made of Bakelite with a physical dial - you could hear the clicks and imagine the machinery clicking at the exchange. Many people we knew still did not have a phone, if you wanted to get in touch you had to write a letter, or in an emergency send a telegram. We had something which appears very odd now - a Party Line. This meant we shared the line with our neighbour, although we had different numbers. Sometimes you would pick the phone up to make a call and you could hear their conversation, so you had to put the phone down and wait until you thought they would have finished, then try again. So much for privacy! Calls were expensive, and tended to be short. Compare that with the way we live with phones now - mobiles, answerphones, Broadband, direct dial anywhere in the world, faxes, all taken for granted. There is one completely daft thing about modern telephony: I have a mobile phone that takes photos, records videos, is a MP3 player, is a radio, has my diary, is a calculator, is a cool piece of social jewellery and has a string of games on it. Can it always get a signal to make phone calls reliably? No. You would have thought they would get that bit right.


Big School

Going from a village Prep School to a grammar school in the next town is a life-changing experience. I went to King Edward VI Grammar School (known to all as KEGS) at the ripe old age of 10, and went from being a biggish tiddler in a small pool to the lowest form of pond life in a very big lake. I had to travel in by bus every day (7 miles, one hour), and the local authority kindly issued us with Bus Passes. The bus, by the way had one of those lethal open platforms at the back. How nobody ever tumbled out at speed is a miracle, there was more than one narrow squeak. We all wore uniforms, Long Trousers to prove we have moved up in the world, and horror of horrors a Cap. That wretched cap made life outside school a misery. We were punished if caught without it on, and marked out as juicy targets for every lout between school and home if we wore it.

We were all addressed by our surnames, and there were many kids whose first names I never knew even after seven years. Teachers were addressed very respectfully, either by their full name or "Sir" or "Miss", although all had nicknames allocated either in fondness or hate. Most wore gowns, with coloured hoods and mortar boards on Speech Days. We all had to stand up whenever a teacher came into the room, and only sit down when told to. Lessons were formal - all the classic subjects but well taught and most teachers were actually very good indeed. They must have been to get me through 11 O levels, 3 As and into University, even though I was more interested in fishing and other hobbies than my academic subjects.

Punishment in those days was something to be feared. As long as a child was not hospitalised, most forms of corporal punishment seemed to have been allowed. There was the cane of course, but that was unimaginative. Far nastier was Big Bertha, a size 12 slipper sole that one master had, and the chemistry master used a length of rubber Bunsen burner tube to very good effect. But one occurrence of a punishment sticks in my mind. The school was built around two cloister-like quadrangles, with the centre of each grassed over and Out of Bounds. Two lads were caught fighting (once too often I guess) and were made to stand for an entire lunch break in the centre of the quadrangle holding hands. Did I mention it was a boys-only school? They were never seen fighting again.



Transport was a problem. Although there was an hourly bus, the last one home was far too early for respectable socialising so we had to rely on bikes or kindly parents. A car was out of the question, so as soon as I was 17 I bought an old motorbike. It wasn't much more than a pile of bits joined together but after many hours in the garage and help from a girlfriend's dad it was serviceable. In those days, if you had enough money you could buy a 250cc Japanese bike capable of 100mph+, jump on and probably kill yourself. Lessons were optional, and only the smartest or luckiest survived. I was lucky, only one spill in four years and my old Triumph Tiger was my main means of transport all the way through University. It all came to an end when I had to go to work in a suit, as my bike was greasy (like my biking clothes), unreliable and actually rather cold. I sold it and learned to drive a car instead.


University Years

University was something you did after grammar school, there wasn't much of a decision to make. Unlike today, where I am sure kids are far more aware of the opportunities available, we just followed our noses - I hadn't much of a clue at all. I had found geography relatively easy at school so I stuck that down on my UCCA application and got on with my hobbies. Amazingly, I passed enough A levels to get a place at Nottingham University in 1975. There were far fewer universities then, that was before Polytechnics and colleges all started calling themselves universities. Nottingham not only had a good academic reputation, it also has a superb parkland campus and is close to all the action of a vibrant Midlands city. We had real luck with the finances - I had a grant, which I didn't have to pay back, and wonders, it covered everything I needed. Beer was 20p a pint, and 10 weeks accommodation, all meals, laundry, cleaning and facilities in a hall of residence was £90. Putting aside a modest amount for books, stationery and basic clothing, the rest could be spent on fun.

Looking back, we were a fairly serious lot. The student power and love-ins of the sixties were in the past, and we had not discovered fashion, lifestyle, and gadgets that were to come in the eighties and nineties. There were no Starbucks, or even McDonald's at that time. We drank instant coffee and cheap beer and never felt the need to spend a lot. We all wore jeans and sweatshirts and studied hard in the library. Or were supposed to. I actually did just enough work to convince my tutor I was doing OK, and spent as much time as possible not doing anything at all academic. A cold realisation dawned in my last term but one, that Finals were coming and I would have to earn a living soon. I shifted up to fifth gear, worked solidly day and night for the last few weeks and gained an Upper Second BA Honours. This totally infuriated my then girlfriend who had spent three years being very swotty and achieved exactly the same result. Those three years had passed very pleasantly in a rather cocooned world, but now I would have to find a job.


First Jobs

I had sampled paid employment before university. The Post Office rashly assumed grammar schoolboys were hard working and trustworthy, and recruited sixth formers for the Christmas post round (22p an hour). We were given a very industrial-looking bike, brief directions and a huge sack of envelopes and sent out into the cold rain, while the regular postmen warmed themselves in the sorting room. Unfortunately for them, we finished our heavy Christmas round in about a third of the time they took to deliver a normal round. We were promptly intercepted by the union steward and told to go to the canteen if we knew what was good for us, so we spent the rest of each shift drinking coffee and eating cheese sandwiches, which cost approximately the same as our earnings.

In university holidays I applied for an office job with Marconi, and spent two Summers putting on a gruff voice, phoning suppliers and telling them off for being late with deliveries. I had one fill-in week at another factory, where I had to empty rubbish bins. Again, I finished the days work in about two hours and as a warning, I was sent to scrape rust off a huge oil tank for the rest of the day.

I started full-time employment as the British Manufacturing Industry was in its last blaze of glory. I joined an industrial truck manufacturer as a management trainee, and was sent to work in every department for a few months at a time. That was an eye-opener, and a very valuable experience too. The factory employed several thousand people and was a living microcosm of the industry. The Chairman turned up occasionally in a Rolls Royce, but he never spoke to us. There was an active apprentice school which turned out skilled fitters if they survived the pranks. There were also three separate canteens; one for factory staff, one for office staff and one for "management". You knew your place. We made very high quality products and were proud of them, but it was obvious that there were huge inefficiencies and gross over-staffing by today's standards. It was strictly 9 to 5, and the pace of work was very easy compared to the pressures of today. Within a short time of joining, Ted Heath took on the unions and the Three Day Week was imposed, so we all took a massive pay cut and only worked three days out of seven. This was a disaster for many of us because we didn't have much left at the end of a month at the best of times. Still, we struggled through somehow and went back to full time work as soon as we were allowed. Here is a photo from 1979: my boss Cliff, the two office girls, me and our beer-mat collection that covered every wall surface.

There are lots more stories I could tell about factory life in the Seventies - practical jokes, scandals on the Night Shift, old-fashioned ideas - but that would make me seem like an old codger. After a few years I became interested in a very innovative technology at the time - business computing, and moved on to the very different world of IT.

My first employer was taken over by a German firm, all production moved to Europe and most of the site was sold off for warehousing. My second employer's factory was merged with another for efficiency, the site was sold off, and now is a retail park with a Toys 'r Us where my Planning Office used to be. That was typical of the way Britain's traditional manufacturing industry gave way to the economy of the 80s and 90s.

We saw them arrive

Polly got me thinking about the things we take for granted now, but never existed in our youth. Here are a few, with some memories thrown in.

Barclaycard was the first credit card to be introduced outside the USA in 1966. My Dad had one in the early days, and I remember it came with a booklet that was a list of all the places where you could use it.

The first cashpoint machine was opened in Enfield in 1967. There are now over 60,000 of them. I don't remember much about the introduction, I never had enough cash to bank for a long time. My father knew his bank manager - yes, banks had staff and phones that they answered.

Low cost package holidays were introduced by Thomas Cook in 1851, and package holidays were popular all the way through to the sixties - but based on coach or rail travel. Holidays involving cheap flights only started in the early seventies, I remember being envious of a schoolfriend who went to Spain on one of the first ones in about 1972.

Windsurfers were not a feature of the seaside until after the seventies. I remember a lone windsurfer sailing up the Thames in 1977 doing a sort of promotional display and generally showing off to the crowd who were waiting for the Queen's Jubilee firework display.

McDonalds were unknown in Nottingham in 1977. We decorated our Hall for a themed party with images of America. The significance of the Golden Arches had to be explained to a number of people.

In 1978 the Christmas Lights in Regent Street included lasers. We didn't know what they were, and they didn't look very impressive either. We never realised at the time that they would become indispensable for shopping, as price labels (which were then individually applied) would go and instead a bar-code would be printed on every product and scanned by laser at the till.

Mobile phones were unheard of in the 1970s, although Motorala demonstrated a prototype in 1973 that was about the size of someones head. My employer finally allowed me to install a "car-phone" in 1989 after being stranded and out of contact with the office as a result of the storm that year. It had a full sized handset with a curly wire, a box in the boot the size of an encyclopedia and an aerial that stuck out of the side of the car. (An encyclopedia was one of those things we used before Google).

House price changes make interesting reading. From the Halifax web site, in 1957 the average house price was £2,030 and in 2007 it is £182,000. Even when inflation is taken into account that is a staggering multiple.

Some things do get better though. My first house was bought when the mortgage rate peaked at 15.8% - that is not a mistake. It actually was that high, and the current rate of 6.6% is highly affordable by comparison. It's hardly surprising we decorated our houses with awful wood-chip paper and magnolia emulsion - we couldn't afford anything else.


Final Thoughts: Computers

Of all the changes that have rippled through the world in the last 50 years - and I have touched on more than a few - the development of computers has been the most mind-boggling, society-changing, terminally frustrating and generally brilliant evolutions in our time. That makes me sound geeky and I'm not - and because I am not, I constantly marvel at the way computing and communications are changing our societies. Sure, there are bad things on the Internet, but so much good has been done I hardly know where to start.

Getting back to the point though, what has happened in 50 years? This won't seem a big deal to folk older than us, but it will to the young 'uns. The first integrated circuit was demonstrated the year before we were born, but we went though school without even knowing what a pocket calculator was, and my first contact with a computer was at University. Contact is a loose term, as we had to painstakingly punch holes in cards, leave a wad of cards in a tray somewhere, and a day later the cards were replaced with a pile of strange, green-striped paper with holes down each side, usually printed with strings of messages like "****error****error****error***". We never even saw the beast, I think they kept it in a pit and fed it coal and Christians.

My first employer was very forward thinking for 1978, they had several mini-computers to work out what needed to be bought and stocked. It produced a lot of paper, it ran "batch" which meant it only processed its main calculations once a month, then spat out the answers in a pile of paper we literally had to collect in a van. We then spent a month trying to work out what it was on about before the whole cycle started again. Business computing moved on slowly, we started to see the occasional computer screen (heavy lumps, with green letters on a black screen and an irritating blinking cursor). The first commercially mainstream PC was the IBM PC in 1981, although Apple had produced a PC in 1977 and there were many predecessors for the home boffins. The IT Departments resisted these PCs as if they were a disease, insisting that all serious computing had to be done in an air-conditioned room. Eventually PCs were produced with software suitable for small businesses, and the IT empires started to wobble. Wealthier people bought one or two for home use, micro-processors were put in things other than computers, and gradually, computers became part of our lives.

What computers costing a few hundred pounds can do now, compared to those expensive lumps of tin we used to revere, is as different as we are from a bracheosaurus. If you are into statistics, Google it and marvel. Not just marvel at the stats, marvel at what you have just done. Think that when we were kids, the only way of finding anything out was to look it up in an encyclopedia, if you had one, or go to a library. To communicate in writing meant sending a letter and waiting for a reply. Generally you only knew people you had met. You only heard or read news that editors had deemed you should receive. The world is so, so different now. The next 50 years are going to be either very exciting or very scary. I think it will be both, actually.


Last Post (in this Blog anyway)

This Blog was created at the request of BBC Radio 4 Today Programme, and although the original purpose was to provide them with material for the BBC web site, it was good fun to do. It reminded me of many of the details of life that I had forgotten, it made me find some answers to some very old questions (like what was that Dish for?) and best of all, it has enabled me to contact some very old and dear friends.

If you arrived at this point via the BBC web site you will know that there are about a dozen other Today50 Bloggers, and we were rewarded with an invitation to the BBC's own 50th Birthday party. Here are a few of us with John Humphries and James Naughtie.

This photo makes it look like we are the only ones there but in fact there were many hundreds of guests (most a lot more famous than us), and the photo opportunity was snatched in the few seconds that we were allowed John Humphries attention, before he was rudely dragged away by one of the many lobbyists that were taking advantage of the occasion. The hand on my shoulder belongs to the politician on my right. I tried to explain that that sort of thing was not obligatory outside of politics but it didn't seem to make any difference. This whole project has also been a learning experience about the BBC and media relations - not all positive unfortunately, but all of it valuable. I'm glad I did it.