In January, 1979, Ultra Electronics Components Limited was based at the Loudwater end of the Wye Valley, one of a straggle of no-man’s land factories merging vaguely into High Wycombe. Three or four hundred people worked there, turning out hundreds of tiny plastic bits, squeezed and trimmed to the specification of the motor industry, the telephone world (still blithely unsuspecting of Californian upstart Apple) and various telly manufacturers. The inner workings of most TV sets remained as solid as a mangled locomotive.
I’d taken seventh term Oxbridge exams, enjoying being a prefect and luxuriating in the privileges afforded to pupils in their last months at a boarding school. Somehow, I had managed to wangle my way in in to Oxford (A Levels: 2 ‘A’s’, a ‘B’ and a ‘D’) on a flukey ticket. I was heading to Brasenose, to study Geography. One of only two students of the subject to be taken on that year, we knew that we would be taught by an external tutor at Saint Catherine’s. Catz was a modern, rebellious, car park of a College, seething with very different values from any experienced at Marlborough College, Wiltshire. They’d had sit-ins, strikes and near riots amongst the highly politicised student body. Brasenose, stuffed with lawyers, was invisibly complacent by comparison.
Home for Christmas, my next quest was to earn some money before heading off somewhere exciting for a few months. The notion – or cliché – of “Gap Yah’s” hadn’t really entered popular culture yet as a good, bad or divisive institution.
I started in the accounts department at UECL thanks to a placement from a job agency. My mum drove me to the gates my first Monday morning. It was a fiddly, 25 minute journey. She was to ferry me there and back for the next 9 weeks. I was earning the princely sum of £1.30 an hour. By the conclusion, I’d taken home about £300. (In turn, she had spent the best part of 90 hours helping me amass that.)
That first morning, I was shown to a large space where twenty or thirty people sat at school-style desks, staring up at a raised platform where the chief accountant looked down on us. I was given a large calculator and an enormous file. Within was a list of 18,000 components and their individual prices. My job was to put every single price up by 8%. At the next desk was a charming Jehovah’s Witness, recently married. She and I chatted about carefully innocuous subjects.
About two hours into my new job, trying as hard as I could to hide my accent, any sense of entitled privilege, or that I might have been some kind of posh boy, I had worked out the simple mechanics. Take the price, multiply by one-point-nought-eight, scribble down (by hand) and then check. I was quietly retreating into happy anonymity. In a few days, I might become one of the team. My smiley looks to the Jehovah’s Witness grew in confidence.
Out of nowhere came the announcement. Over the tannoy. Loud and horribly, horribly clear. Through every single speaker on the site, on the production lines, in the yard and our echoing hall of an office room.
“Would William Awdry please come to the gate house where his mother has just delivered his sandwiches.”
Every worker had heard. In my first day at school nerves, I’d left my packed lunch on the dashboard of the car and run in. My mum had returned to hand it in to security.
Face burning, a little Lord Fauntleroy with precious, priggish steps, I shuffled out to the gate, past the forklift drivers and yard workers who stopped and stared with blank hostility. I picked up the tupperware box. Radiating constipated, mortified shame, I made it back to my desk without looking anyone in the eye.
Home made brown bread, I seem to remember, with corned beef, cucumber and Little Downham green tomato chutney. A carrot peeled and ready. A ‘Club’ biscuit and an apple. And, looking back, a very long time later, something I took far too readily for granted.
Love from Ma.