I wanted to study Chemical Engineering but I failed the GCE Advanced Level exam in of all things, my best subject, chemistry. It was not the whole of it which I had flunked but the ‘practical’ where we were given a mixture of two chemicals and had to analyse them. I simply got them wrong.
Therefore, from late 1961 to late 1962 I worked full time at the Albert E Reed & Company factory in Maidstone, Kent, in the physical and chemical laboratory of the Packaging Division Development Department (PDDD). The colleagues I worked with wore white coats, but some of them were quite base, smoked all the time and did nothing but play cards in the lab where they also ate their lunch.
I hated my work, squashing boxes and sewing paper sacks and the like and would often stand on my own in the balance room and wonder what I was doing there. My whole intent was therefore to get out of Reeds and get into a university somewhere, anywhere. There were some pleasant reflections however, when working on milk cartons from various places around the country, I would feel better when seeing names like ‘Bowater Perga Gateshead.’
But there was also a secondment for a few months into another section of PDDD where a terrific group of people worked on interesting things, always met around a single table at break times and chatted together. My line manager too would have noticed a difference in me and gave me considerable praise when that secondment finished. It also involved going on the back of a colleague’s motor scooter to pick up and deliver samples and a memorable once-off visit to an extreme cold store at a government research facility in Maidstone. This was for the purpose of placing samples at minus 40 degrees Fahrenheit. We were warned to wear warm clothing and heavy gloves and not to touch anything metal to avoid getting burned. That is where I first learned about cold-burns.
While working there, I also studied towards ‘A’ Level chemistry again at night school at the Medway College of Technology (McOft). I rode my pushbike from Strood to Maidstone daily and for night school, I had to ride to the College at Fort Horsted, Chatham and then home – a long trip all up. Chemistry was taught by a Mrs Rattenbury whom everyone appeared to dislike. But the redeeming feature for me was the practical sessions where my supervisor made clear to me that the examiner can only go by what is written in front of him, and when I failed, I had written little. It was he who led me to learn the importance of logging every action taken. This time I did so and passed with a top grade but still, without being able to correctly diagnose the chemical mixture provided.
I was then offered a place by University College London, Swansea University and Kings College in the University of Durham – I chose Kings College which later became Newcastle University where I finally gained my Chemical Engineering degree. I chose this one because they were less demanding in grades required and because my girlfriend at the time, was at the local teacher’s training college.