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Chapter Four

1953 to 1956 - Battersea Polytechnic, the undergrad years

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In those days , an engineering degree was just that, a thorough grounding in all aspects of engineering followed by specialisation in civil, mechanical or electrical engineering. All through my working life I was able to do work that those with more specialised training could not do and I always thought of myself as a specialist generalist. When I first arrived back in Australia I was, in fact, employed as a mechanical engineer.

London University was an enormous institution with over 30,000 internal students, far too large to house in one campus. There were several Colleges and many "Institutions with Recognised Teachers" of which Battersea was one. The research was generally, but not always, better at the colleges but the first degree course was identical throughout the University and the exams were conducted by the University so, from a non-academic engineer's point of view, the degrees were the same wherever you studied.

When I passed the A levels and was accepted into London University I could have moved to one of the Colleges as many of my peers did, but I chose to do my degree at Battersea. This was not a considered decision but rather one made to minimise the disturbance to my life. Having settled into the social scene at the Poly, I didn't really want to start all over again at a new place.

At Battersea I had the benefit of studying with people from many parts of the world who were studying many different disciplines including nursing education, music, and hotel management as well as the technical disciplines. I never regretted this decision and am sure that I got a much broader education as a result.

The academic year was divided into three terms and for the first five terms of the engineering degree we all studied engineering drawing, mechanics, hydraulics, strength of materials, structures, metallurgy, and electrotechnology. We had most of our classes in an annex a few miles away from the Poly in Putney. This had been converted in the late 1940s from a school to a tertiary college for the instruction of Polish refugees and had been taken over by the Poly to cope with the increasing engineering student intake. The Poly itself was a grand old building in Battersea Park Road. It had been built in 1894 as an institution for the education of the children of the mechanic classes. The building had seen better days but it certainly had character, a thing lacking in the more modern buildings of most of the more prestigious parts of the University.

Early in my time at Battersea, I was elected to the Student Representative Council. We were lucky that, while the buildings, playing fields and so on were provided by the government, we were left pretty much to ourselves to manage all the extra-mural activity at the Poly. Though we didn't appreciate it at the time, we learned a lot about democracy and about people. More about that later.

When my parents returned to Australia, I went to live in the college hostel on Clapham Common. This was OK as the social life was very good but eventually the restrictions of hostel life began to pall and I decided to move out of the hostel. I lived in a number of places with several different groups of people.

The most outrageous place was a flat above the shop next to the pub, the Grove, which we called our local. I could walk out of my first floor bedroom window, along the awning and into the window of the room above the pub which we used for unofficial meetings of various kinds.

Because there was a preponderance of males at Battersea, the Union had organised associate membership for the young ladies at Manor House, the local domestic science Teachers Training College. We young single men would travel across the river to their hostel in search of congenial female company. At the beginning of each new academic year we would check out the new intake. It was on such a mission that I found myself the evening of 13th November 1954, with some of my friends, at a coffee shop in Kensington in the company of some of the new arrivals. I was taken by a particular young lady named Jean despite the fact that she was interested in a handsome young Scot named Murray McGrath. I wasn't about to let him get in my way and history shows that she and I married some years later and that he is still unmarried.

Engineering students were expected, during the summer holidays, to work as vacation apprentices in some kind of engineering organisation. In 1954, I worked for a month at Marconi in Chelmsford. Some of the time was spent in a development lab working on someone else's unfinished project. I don't remember getting any supervision and I didn't learn a lot. After that I worked in an assembly workshop under the supervision and guidance of skilled tradesman and I began my real education in engineering. For the second month, I worked for the BBC, firstly in a development lab in London, and then in Bristol. This was a most rewarding experience as Bristol, while being on the fringes of the BBC, did some of everything and I was able to sample many aspects of real broadcasting. The people at BBC Bristol were very keen and innovative and made great programs with limited resources. They established a fine reputation and are now known worldwide for their nature documentaries.

After these experiences, I chose to work outside the engineering business and got a job at Mann and Crossmans brewery in Putney. I must have done something right because I was quickly promoted to drayman, the person responsible for all the beer on the truck. One day I was sent to work with the horse-drawn dray which serviced the local pubs. I had a miserable day as I was suffering from food poisoning from something I had eaten the night before. At the end of the day, I was asked to tend to one of the horses but I copped out because I was sick and because the horse was so much bigger than me. After that I always worked on the trucks. I believe that my time at the brewery was a valuable part of my education as I came into contact with the working class on their terms and learned a good deal about real people.

I learned to drink beer early on. A group of us went out to celebrate the first of our exams and, though I thought it tasted vile, I drank a few half pints with the "boys". There were many pubs near the Poly and each group adopted a different one as their "watering hole". Ours was The Grove which was run by a kind old fellow, a typical Londoner. I guess many of us used him as a surrogate uncle in times of stress. There were eleven pubs in Battersea Park Road between the Poly and the Latchmere, a mile or so down the road. The challenge was to drink a pint in each one in one evening. To my knowledge, nobody ever succeeded in this endeavour but not for want of trying.

The social life of the Poly was dominated by regular Friday night socials generally with a trad jazz band and always with a cabaret put on by one or other of the departments. These shows were surprisingly good given that we were all techies of one sort or another. I had been co-opted onto the Entertainments Committee and we eventually decided that trad jazz was not the only option. We booked an up and coming modern jazz group called the Johnny Dankworth Trio which featured a teenage female vocalist with an amazing voice. She was the young Cleo Lane and I was totally taken by her and spent the whole night just watching her and listening to her.

One of the clubs in the Union was the International Society. In retrospect I believe it was set up by a Palestinian student for propaganda purposes but we were pretty ecumenical and we put on the most stunning show every year. The audience was so big that we had to run two nights and the show had so many acts that there was no time for dancing. One year, Steve, a Hungarian refugee friend of mine, was the stage manager for one of the shows. The Greeks had failed to appear on the Friday night and caused him considerable trouble as he had to reschedule the show at next to no notice. They turned up on the Saturday night, causing another reschedule, but, because they had not had time on stage on Friday, they thought they should have double time on Saturday. When Steve pulled the curtain on them, one of their number came at him with a knife. The amazing thing was that the knife-wielder and all of the Greeks were overwhelmed by those of us who were nearby and were bundled off the premises without further ado and without the audience noticing anything.

That year I was joined by another Australian at Poly and, because there were two of us, we were "required" to put on some kind of act. It was a front of curtain skit with a cow-cocky and an aborigine telling very bad jokes. I drew the short straw and got the part of the aborigine. Jean took great delight in doing my make-up, a full body brown water-based paint job. The season was winter, the weather was close to freezing, and I was blue all over under the brown paint.

We also had a Dramatic Society and an Operatic Society which each put on week long season every year. I joined the stage crew as a stage electrician. When I caught up with my brother many years later, I discovered that he had been a stage electrician for the Melbourne University Dramatic and Operatic societies.

In 1955, we engineers had exams in March rather that June, and so we had plenty of time to organise the Going Down Ball, an all night dance we put on every year as a celebration for the graduating students. We determined that this year was to be a never-to-be-forgotten experience. We found a road house in Esher some miles out of London which had been flooded in the winter and which needed a fair amount of work to get it back in operation. We laid on a huge marquee, a portable dance floor, a stage, and flood-lighting for the marquee, the gardens and the swimming pool. The entertainment was provided by several bands, a stage show, a water ballet, a bar, supper and breakfast. We bussed everyone there in double decker buses in the evening and back to town in the morning.

In 1956 I did my final exams and passed my degree with 2nd class honours. My teachers all said I would have got a first but for the awful hand-writing in my course work. I was never bothered as I had already established in my own mind that it was what you did, not what certificates you had, which mattered. One needed a university degree to get into the industry but once in, performance was everything. I can happily look back on my whole career and say that I was right. I never had to ask for a raise and I never had any trouble getting a new job. I look back with considerable satisfaction at all the good things I did, proud to have contributed to our society by building excellent products.

I had been going out with Jean ever since I met her that night in 1954. She had not survived teacher training, finding the face to face classroom experience overwhelming. She went back to her home in Whitchurch and eventually trained as a Comptometer Operator in Manchester where she worked for a time. I would travel north to visit her and she would come to London to visit me when she could.

A student's life in London in the fifties was pretty good. The city was just returning to normal after the ravages of the war. One feature of interest to us was the new coffee houses which served cappucino and espresso. We spent much time too much time in the various coffee houses we frequented. There were many jazz clubs and we were the audience for such up and coming groups as the Chris Barber Jazz Band and Lonnie Donegan's Skiffle group. Theatres were many and one could go to the West End, pick out a likely show, pay three shillings and six pence and sit on the steps of the dress circle.

One theatrical occasion deserves a special mention. It had been decided that a whole group of us should go and see "Grab Me a Gondola" at the Lyric Theatre in Shaftsbury Avenue and somebody was delegated to buy tickets. By mistake the tickets were for a show at the Lyric Theatre in Hammersmith and the show was "the Birthday Party" by a rising new playwright called Harold Pinter. Rather than wasting the price of the tickets, we decided to go. We were all in the mood to have a good time but the play was a very dark drama. Our irrepressible mirth did nothing for the rest of the audience and when it was revealed that one of the strong characters was called Goldberg, as was one of us, we almost stopped the play with inappropriate laughter. After the interval, the girls came back from the loo in tremendous giggles because the porcelain in there was all decorated in willow pattern. Pinter has gone on to become one of his generation's most serious playwrights, but we will always remember "The Birthday Party" as a comedy.

The University always had an all night dance in the early spring. Our first was in the Royal Festival Hall and was particularly memorable for a couple of reasons. Before going to the ball, we all went for dinner at one of our favourite Chinese restaurants. The waitress came to take our order and when Duncan had finished ordering, she made to go away but he said the rest of us hadn't ordered yet. She thought there would be enough for everybody with just his order, and so it turned out to be. The second was the drawing of the raffle. I won a prize which I received from the young Petula Clarke. It was a bottle of gin, the bar had closed, and we were thirsty so the gin was put in a jug of ice cubes to get around the house licensing law which precluded drinking after bar closing time. Someone came back to the table from a particularly energetic dance set and, thinking it was water, poured a glassful, tried drink it, and choked and spluttered as though poisoned. I remember having the most monumental hangover the next day and couldn't stand the smell of gin for many, many years.

In 1956, I broke up with Jean and led a bachelors life for some time. Our friends had kept in touch with her and had decided that I had made a mistake. They realised that we were meant for each other and that we were both unhappy so they engineered for her to visit London and we were re-united. She moved back to London, found work, and lived in a variety of flats with a variety of female companions including, at one time, her sister.

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Created: 29/1/07 and last revised 6/2/07
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