Category Archives: Life

On reaching seventy

At the start of July I reached the Biblical threescore years and ten: Our days may come to seventy years, or eighty, if our strength endures; yet the best of them are but trouble and sorrow, for they quickly pass, and we fly away (Ps.90.10 NIV). Thankfully most people live beyond eighty but living a long life is a mixed blessing if our last years are marked by physical or mental impairment.

I kicked off my birthday dinner with a short speech reflecting on fifty years of adult life:

  • In my 20s I was a council building inspector and originally expected to be there until I retired. My holiday ambitions went no further than Southend-on-Sea, 40 miles (64 km) east of central London.
  • In my 30s one throwaway comment from a friend’s wife set me on the path of 37 years of self-employment. Another throwaway comment from another friend led to me making my first overseas trip as an adult. Since then I’ve made around 30 UK-USA trips, 15 trips to Australia as a British tourist and a similar number as an Australian visiting the UK, four trips to Africa and some other places too, and, in recent years, multiple cruises.
  • My early years of self-employment did not go well: the low point was reached around my 40th birthday when I was deep in debt and my bank threatened (metaphorically) ‘to send the boys round’. Yet another throwaway comment from yet another friend to me back to uni to study Business Studies and this was a key driver to my business coming good.
  • Five years later I was back in Melbourne enjoying the Christmas sunshine when the notion came to me, ‘you’re so happy here: you should move here’. Finally in 2008 I was able to do so – the best decision I’ve ever made.

Regrets – here’s just a few

If I could re-live my adult life knowing what I know now, what would I change?

Study: I took my first degree with University of Reading, the first year being based at the College of Estate Management in Kensington, then in the new FURS building at Reading Whiteknights. I commuted from home and the experience was an extension of school. Being then very introverted, going to a university that would have required me to live away from home would have been very challenging, but I see now that it would have been good for me.

Home: After leaving university I began to think about having a home of my own. At that time (mid 1970s) the general rule was that you could borrow three times your salary plus, where applicable, one times your fiancée’s/wife’s salary. As I was single this left me able to borrow around £6,000, not enough for the average house. My interest was taken by a house in Warwick Road, Twickenham, a rundown two-up, two-down terraced cottage. This didn’t worry me since I would have enjoyed renovating it but given its condition at that time the only mortgage available was from the council at 17½% interest! My dad’s opinion was ‘you’d be daft to spend £7,000 on a house like that’ and I followed his advice. A year later my salary had all but doubled and interest rates had fallen, so the pain would have been short-lived. Houses in Warwick Road now sell for £600K and more!

Exercise: In the UK once I became self-employed I ran my car as a company car. Under the tax rules then in force failure to do at least 2,500 miles a year resulted in a tax surcharge so I used my car whenever possible. In retrospect it would have been much better to walk to the post office each day but this was in an era long before your smartphone was checking on whether you walked 6,000 steps a day. I also justified using the car on the basis on time saved, but the walk would have been good for my mental as well as physical well-being.

People: I’ve always been guilty of trying to do much in the time available. When it came to church I was always the one walking into meetings a few minutes after they’d started, having tried to do one more thing before leaving home. On Sunday mornings I didn’t count myself late if I slipped into church before the first hymn finished. Now I so wish I’d made time to walk to church and get there ten minutes before the service started, giving myself time to talk to other members, especially the older ones. Those brief conversations might or might not have meant much to me, but many of the older folk might have appreciated a short friendly chat and I would have begun the service in a much more receptive frame of mind.

Cars: I bought my first car as soon as I could. It was old (11 years, which was old then) and an endless money pit. My dad had never held a licence (eyesight problems) and took the view that if he could manage without a car, I could too, so no help was forthcoming. And yet an offer (say) to match my £100 savings would have meant that I could buy a still modest much better car. Later it was me not being prepared to spend more: as a building inspector I drove a fair distance and mileage allowances depended on engine size. I put too much emphasis on choosing cars that would show a profit (a Chrysler Sunbeam 1.3 and Austin Maxi 1750) rather than some cars I might have enjoyed more. At one point I was seriously interested in buying a Saab 96 but let head rule heart.

Relationships: I won’t say too much here. I’m now 70, single, never married. Several times in my life there have been women who I hoped might be more than just friends but it was not to be. Do I regret not having children of my own? In the absence of a strong, stable marriage, no. I have though had the joy of ‘borrowing’ other people’s children as babysitter, twelve years as a Beaver (Joey) Scout leader, and thirteen years (so far) as a church creche helper.

No regrets

The last fifteen years have been the best years of my life and I have never once regretted making the move to Melbourne after 55 years in Twickenham. I’m not rich, but I have no financial concerns, no real health issues compared with many of my contemporaries, a rich varied life (read my other blog entries) and my birthday dinner reminded me of my rich circle of friends. Could anyone want for more?


How I became a Building Inspector and why I left

Note: many of the UK public still refer to a ‘building inspector’ though since the 1970s their formal title has been ‘building control officer’.

After leaving university I joined Royal Borough of Kingston upon Thames (RBK) as a maintenance surveyor. Initially I joined a team responsible for school building maintenance, then moved on to maintenance of social services buildings. I worked alongside some great people who nearly fifty years on I still fondly remember. But our overall boss was quite the worst person I have ever worked under. Being torn to shreds (usually with no justification) in front of your workmates was a regular occurrence. And yet – Stockholm syndrome at work? – when he called me in and told me that to broaden my experience I was to be seconded to Building Control for three months I was apprehensive about moving into the unknown.

How wrong I was! The atmosphere was so different. After my first day over dinner – I was still living with my parents – my mum observed: “I’ve never heard you talk about work with such enthusiasm; I think you’ll end up staying there”. How right she was! At the end of my secondment my temporary boss, Ken Beer, Borough Planning Officer, offered me a permanent position, along with a salary increment. I said that I would be more than happy to take the job with no increment but he insisted. When I told my old boss about the offer he exploded with rage, accusing me of ingratitude, underhand behaviour, disloyalty and the rest, adding that he would be going to see the Borough Engineer (my ultimate boss) to have my move stopped.

Back from his meeting he called me in and told me that despite his efforts my transfer could not be prevented: to his chagrin there was apparently a provision in the ‘Purple Book’ (local authority employment terms and conditions) that stated that your existing manager could block an intra-LA transfer BUT only if it didn’t involve a salary increase. That was why Ken Beer had insisted on me having the increment.

With my month’s notice served I went back to Building Control where I was to stay for eight years. RBK had been formed in 1965 as a merger of three local councils: Kingston, Surbiton and Malden and Coombe (M&C). Building Control might now occupy one office, but worked as three largely autonomous teams, as if amalgamation had never happened. Each had a District BCO, Assistant BCO and a trainee. Overseeing these was Peter Fuller, Principal Building Control Officer, who exercised a benevolent oversight over the office, largely leaving each District BCO to run their section as they thought fit. I started as M&C assistant, moving up to District BCO a year or two later. Each of us three had a very different approach: Paul went by the book, insisting on plans being correct in every detail; Peter, older than us, relied on his ability to get things right on site (which he invariably managed) and my approach was somewhere in between.

Several happy years passed during which I decided that I could see myself being M&C District BCO for the rest of my working life. I got to know my patch intimately and took a great interest in its history. Then the time came for Peter Fuller to retire. His replacement had a very different, hands on, approach to management. Before too long he said that things could not continue as before, observing (with some justification) that when someone submitted a plan, they were submitting it to RBK and for the response to be quite different depending on where within the borough the site was, was unacceptable. He produced a document setting out exactly how we were to do our jobs.

Us three District BCOs were self starters, each used to running our own shows, and under this new regime the job satisfaction disappeared. Within a relatively short period we all left. In my case it was to embark on nearly forty years of self employment. I joined RBK with the expectation that I’d spend my working life in public service. Instead, my ten years there were just the warm-up act!