- Published: 11 April 2013 11 April 2013
And so I ended the last chapter foretelling a whole new phase in my life that involved my time and truancy at Rayleigh Sweyne Secondary school, Southend pier and amusement arcades, markets, clubs and my eventual departure from living in Hawkwell and this is how it all happened.
I did not make a very auspicious entrance to Secondary Education and, despite my very good early education with Mr Brookes and other teachers in London, I had regressed terribly at Hawkwell Holt where there was little or no preparation for the 11-Plus examination. I did not pass outright but was one of two pupils considered ‘marginal’ and then successfully impressed at Interview and was therefore lucky to qualify to attend the very new Rayleigh Sweyne Grammar Technical School. It had just been completed with brand new laboratories for the practical sciences and craft machine shops for metal and woodwork and was a model example of preparing pupils with both academic and practical skills for what life had in store.
I entered the school in the very lowest stream 1g and continued through 2g, 3g and then 4ET, the technical lower stream. As well as the main academic subjects I studied only one language, had my sciences grouped into one subject but was then also able to study Technical Drawing, Woodwork and Metalwork. The latter machine shops had lathes, grinders and milling machines which provided a very good basic grounding for anybody seeking a technical or engineering career.
However, I turned my back on most of that which the school could offer: I had grown to my present height (6ft 5.5ins) by the age of 14 years and was quite a freak really at a time when most people were very much shorter. My parents had never bought me the proper PE kit, and I was hopeless physically anyway, and so games lessons were a disaster and I hid from them. In the end, this developed into almost complete truancy with me being absent for weeks at a time. I started in the summer, cycling to nearby Southend to play on the amusements and play table tennis with my friend Michael Blakely (a co-conspirator) at the end of Southend Pier and then this continued into Winter and beyond. Mike showed me all sorts of ways to make money. The straighter ones involved things like bait digging for lugworm and ragworm for which I attached a digging fork to my handlebars and arrived with newspapers to wrap the worms in as they were dug, before taking them to the bait shops for sale to fishermen. Anglers would caste underhand from the top deck at the end of the pier, often fouling their lines and grapnel weights on the safety chains on the floodable storey below and another way of making money was to retrieve them and sell the lead weights back to the anglers or the tackle shops. When there were none to retrieve, business could be livened up by catching the weights as they cast and wrapping them round the chains for retrieval later, which was very naughty! By wearing waders (with the anglers only being in shoes or boots) they were unable to follow us through the labyrinth that made up this barnacle covered underworld and so could only shout and wave their fists in anger!
Through sheer boredom and ingenuity, attention then focussed on the penny gaming machines; often involving a sprung lever propelling a ball bearing into possible winning holes. Eventually some dexterity would result in successive wins but there were other machines that were faulty and could be ‘milked’ or vibrated to pay out anyway. A more honourable pursuit involved working out the sequences on the electronic machines that invited the player to guess what would be coming up next and to bet accordingly. The sequence of these early primitive controls were all-to predictable and I came away with pockets laden with old pennies. At one time, I had a complete collection of all of the old pennies from the late 1800’s to the then present day; a remarkable sequence, but it has been long since lost.
Eventually the proprietors of these amusement halls twigged and started banning us from using them and I was forced to accept employment as a bingo collector, a sort of ‘poacher’ turned ‘gamekeeper’. Our job was to collect the money from the players and encourage others to join. A colleague worked this task during the summer and had a paraffin delivery round in the winter and my friend’s brother worked the markets as a trader and so I started to think about how to make more money. The inspiration came from the way in which the prizes were valued and the bingo game played. There would be a ‘practise race’ when fewer people were playing to make the game viable for a small prize (something for your ‘bottom drawer’) and then, once the requisite number of players were seated, the real game commenced. It did not take much arithmetic for me to realise that these prizes could only of cost some 50p each and so I set off in search of where they bought them from and found some cheap Jewish workshops in Westcliffe churning out these cushions, puffets and tables for next to nothing.
I then followed the supply chain back and established that even cheaper and better goods could be bought in East London and so I set off in search of them. Now, by this time, I had acquired an old 3-wheel Reliant van from my father in exchange for £3 and a rusty bike and so was mobile; the law enabling me to drive this thing on a provisional license and without a driving test. Carrying a ten shilling note, I arrived at one of these London warehouses and tried to bluff my way to buy goods and the owner soon saw through me, recognised that I was a youngster just starting out, and gave me a range of cheap goods with the offer to exchange them if they did not sell. Thus armed and equipped I drove back and started attending local markets with my friend Herbie Dawkins, selling bowls, buckets, pillows, car mates and all manner of ‘foam rubber goods’ to sell.
The markets operated like this: A Market Superintendent (normally working for the local council) would be supervising and the stalls would be set up with regular traders occupying their positions. If it was a poor venue for trading, you might get a stall straight away, but for good markets you had to wait until it was obvious that a regular stallholder was not coming that day and then you would be allowed on. Eventually, you would graduate to a regular stall of your own (normally in a very poor position) and then you would get promoted as they left or retired until you had a good stall in a good position. By talking to others stall-holders about what other markets they attended, you then built up a portfolio of markets and stalls until I had a good stall on every day of the week apart from Sunday, when I would drive to London for more stock!
This was the swinging sixties and the economy was buoyant and you could sell out an entire stall in a good day and, by buying more stock and taking on neighbouring pitches you could end up with a huge spread which was very impressive and satisfying. It would be hard work, involving very early and physical starts, loading and unloading, but was becoming very lucrative.
Now, back at school, my attendance had been very patchy to say the least. I was always in trouble with the staff and headmaster, Mr Bowman, who by this time, due to my size had given up caning me and had made me a prefect to help control the other boys. My arrival at school in the van had been a spectacle to behold and was the constant source of mirth. Having a motor-bike set of girder forks sticking out the front, it was a strange sight and, when the headmaster introduced a new rule that cars passing through the playground to the parking beyond had to drive at less than 3mph, I put the thing in reverse and walked in front steering by holding the wheel as the forward gears would not go that slow! There were many other stories about the van and the exploits of me and my friends which I might share one day but the development to report here was the impending arrival of my A level GSE examinations and the discussion about what I was to do as a career!
I had not been totally without plans; in those days companies were hunting for graduates as engineers and management trainees and would pay students salaries and the costs of grants and fees and there was a short list of two companies that were interested in me. The first was the National Coal Board but when I had been interviewed at Hobart House and said that, due to my height, I ‘would not have to go down coal mines, would I?’ they asked me to think whether a career in the coal industry was really what I had wanted to do! The other sponsorship I had obtained was with ICT (International Computers and Tabulators) Ltd and my interview in Putney went much better.
All this was far from my mind as I had submerged myself into my Market Trading and had little or no expectations about passing my examinations until my parents got a message from school. I called them back when the headmaster came on the phone and said, ‘what are you doing Broad; do you not know what days it is?’ It was a rhetorical question and he gave me no time to reply before saying, ‘It is results day. All of your colleagues have been in early today to collect their results and we are waiting here for you and want to get off home!’ I had mumbled some excuses and said I would be there directly and was told that he would have probably left by then and his deputy would be there to give them to me as they had to be collected in person. I made my way there in my old van, parking outside and walked into the reception area and knocked on the hatch. Bowman himself threw back the sliding door, plonked the results slip on the shelf, said ‘Congratulations my boy, you are off to University’ and slammed it shut again.
I was shocked, as I was very happy with what I was doing and feared the reaction of my parents when I was to tell them that I did not want to go. I drove home, dreading this confrontation and there then followed several days of rows, shouting matches and general angst until a compromise was duly reached. I agreed to go to Brighton but I would come back at weekends to trade on my Saturday market, my most successful, and it was agreed. I had enrolled for a ‘Diploma in Technology’ at ‘Brighton Polytechnic’ but, even before I started there, it was upgraded to an Honours Degree course under Harold Wilson’s plans for a ‘white hot technical revolution’ and later it became Brighton University. This was all very daunting but I started the following September, studying there until February on a sandwich course followed by alternate six-month periods in Letchworth Hertfordshire.
Each Friday, I would drive back the long distance to Hawkwell, take the lads out in the van to Southend Clubs, then get up very early on Saturday to load the van from my garage store to drive to Hitchin market; then home and to unload Saturday afternoon before another evening out with my friends before bedtime. Early on Sunday, I would drive to East London for stock, back to Hawkwell to unload it and then off to Brighton again, arriving late Sunday night and that sequence prevailed for a year until I reckoned that I should give it up.
I was still not sure that this life and career was for me and so also studied ‘O’ level British Constitutional History and Law until I eventually passed those exams and also qualified for the entrance requirements for the London School of Economics to study Law when I seriously considered changing tack accordingly.
In the meanwhile, my alternate six month periods started in Letchworth, which was a god-forsaken ‘dry’ model Garden City established by Quaker Ebenezer Howard with no pubs, dance halls or forms of entertainment other than a cinema. I was sharing a Stevenage pub annex with two friends having parties and starting to take more of an interest in girls. It was under these circumstances that I met my future wife to be, Diana, the daughter of a local solicitor. We had crept into the laughably named ‘Hearts and Beds’ family planning clinic which was situated directly under one of her father’s three legal offices in Stevenage as the era of ‘The Pill’ had started with all of the freedoms and opportunities that had provided. Once I had returned to Brighton, Diana and I could not bear to be separated, and so we married on the 28th December 1968; between Christmas and New Year, the only time we could fit it in!
Work had also taken a more interesting and rewarding turn and so all thoughts of changing careers had subsided. I had been placed as a ‘Student undergraduate’ with senior managers throughout the company, which had been re-named International Computer Limited, learning the skills of running a computer company which was to become very useful in my subsequent life.
My computing career will be the subject of the next pre-journal chapter of my life