Computer commuter

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Computer commuter

In an attempt to avoid unemployment, in 1977 I signed up for a course in computing at the Polytechnic of Wales, situated in the hang gliding country of south Wales, where, the previous year, I had worked as a hang gliding instructor. At the computer centre, where we used teletype terminals to access a ‘mainframe’ computer in its air conditioned room, the students’ terminal room was closed for a while (for what reason I do not recall) and we used a smaller staff terminal room. A couple of times when I was in there, the computer centre manager, a chap with neat dark hair and wearing a suit (always a bad sign) was there too and I remember speaking to him at least once (about what, I do not recall). After I left the polytechnic, tragedy struck when his wife drove over the precipitous edge of a road connecting the valleys and the wreckage burned.

Down stairs in the computer centre, there was a reception desk where you could hand in hand-written ‘coding sheets’ to get ‘punch girls’ to type in your programs and, after a certain time, you collected your printer listings from them. (Yawn.) One of those girls, with long frizzy blond hair, was rather attractive and I tried to chat to her. It is not every day that an up-and-coming hang glider pilot talks to a computer receptionist. She walked off laughing at me.

Experimental hang glider launching

One of my experimental hang gliders (this one in 1979)

On arriving and sitting down in one particular room, always in the same place next to a window, one chap would throw his duffel bag onto the window sill. In the hot summer he failed to notice that the window was open. He discovered the fact when he reached up for his bag. We all looked out and down — we were two or three stories up in a glass and concrete block — and his bag was on the ground, its contents blowing across the concrete in the breeze. We should all have been concerned about possible loss of his valued lecture notes and whatnot, but instead we were incapacitated with laughter!

After obtaining a higher national diploma (two years of study instead of three for a degree) I worked as a computer programmer, mostly in the defence electronics sector. I rode my Ossa trials bike on the Frimley ranges, right by where I lived, in Surrey. (The place is now — in 2019 — a golf course.) I then resumed flying hang gliders, mostly on the South Downs in Sussex.

Two years after leaving the polytechnic, when I was in hospital with my back injury (hang glider crash sub-optimal landing at Steyning) my mother visited me and brought a copy of the Daily Telegraph newspaper, which told of how the computer systems manager at the polytechnic had been jailed for strangling his wife and pushing her car (with her in it) over the edge of the road and setting fire to the wreckage. When he subsequently went off with my blond receptionist, somebody became suspicious of what had been assumed to be an accident and they looked into it further.

Sea Harriers

Sea Harriers shortly before war broke out in the south Atlantic

The Falklands War came along when I was working in radar (mostly) for a defence contractor. The army used ‘Rapier’ anti-aircraft missiles for airfield protection. Some of these, deployed around Port San Carlos, were guided by DN 181 ‘Blindfire’ radar, for which I did some work in a programming language called Coral66. (In those days I was not a good programmer, which I put down to absence of enthusiasm for the end product.) The Blindfire was about 15 feet tall and, when it got going, you had to stand clear because it swung around and juddered under control of powerful hydraulics and it made a hell of a noise when it did so. We had a demo of the thing — we were watching from an adjacent room — and one young lady mathematician put her hands over her ears, totally shocked!

What I disliked about the whole thing is that I was just a ‘back room boy’ while the ‘real men’ were flying low and hazardous missions. My job supposedly was aimed at shooting them down, which seemed all wrong to me. I nearly volunteered for the Argentine air force…

Plastic model kit

1/48th scale Super Etendard of the Falklands War of 1982

I quit a short time later and, a few years after that, the company was closed down by the government because, relying on the ‘cost plus’ method of pricing (rather than the market-driven approach that the masses had voted for) it treated the taxpayer as a ‘bottomless pit of money.’ I read that the government even sent in the Ministry of Defence police. Naturally, nobody was ever brought to book. The defence sector employs too many sons and daughters of the wealthy and educated, who are also highly conformist and believe that it is not the individual’s place to decide for himself (as I did) whether their employer is doing right or wrong. I can see their point — up to a point. However, one difference between me and them is that, as a hang glider pilot, I still saw myself as a ‘leader of my generation’ and held to a higher standard than most, although by then such concepts had been erased from the vocabulary of popular thought. (That’s one reason I would not really have volunteered for the Argies: A corrupt and brutal regime that throws away the lives of other people’s sons for the sake of political expediency.)

We don’t need no education

This is an observation on the difference between those educated in the British ‘secondary modern’ schools of the 1960s and those who went to ‘grammar’ schools or private schools (misleadingly termed ‘public’ schools).

Like most of my generation of Brits (b. 1956) I went to a ‘secondary modern’ school in which we studied engineering, physics, math(s), biology or chemistry, and technical drawing. (Girls did needlework and ‘domestic science’ instead of TD and engineering.) The defence electronics company where I worked in about 1980 was largely staffed by folks with advanced degrees, at least in the radar and missiles division in which I was a computer programmer. All of them, as far as I recall, had been privately educated or had gone to ‘grammar’ schools, for which selection was made at ten years old (via the misleadingly named ‘eleven plus’ exam). All the same, there was no ‘them and us’ about it. They did not speak differently from me or have particularly different interests.

Another brick in the wall by Pink Floyd video still

Another brick in the wall

However, one lunch time a bunch of us stood together chatting and somebody said something, the next guy along laughed and said something else, which I did not understand, then the next said another thing. Then they were all looking at me, waiting for me to carry on quoting Shakespeare, as it turned out. Of course I was clueless. They could scarcely believe that we did not do Shakespeare in secondary moderns any more than we did Latin or ancient Greek. Similarly, they did not do engineering (until university) and they had apparently never heard of technical drawing.


Fly Navy in Hang gliding 1980s

Falklands War in Other plastic model aircraft

External link

Pink Floyd – Another Brick In The Wall, Part Two (Official Music Video) on YouTube