Odyssey, Pt. 6

Big Things Have Small Beginnings

– David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia, 1962.

Cranbury Place had started out too damn small, and only got worse. My girlfriend of the time (herein referred to as SG) was already fussing about it and had one day announced she wanted to look at a flat in Portswood. I explained I’d rather be sealed in a pit of my own shit than live in Portswood (all that wasn’t good about Cranbury Place, but even further out), so we found a much nicer flat right on Southampton’s High Street. It would become one of my favourite homes. Excellent location, right at the liminal space where town started to quiet down some between the centre and sleepy waterfront, High ceilings and Edwardian vibes. I loved it there. I think it was around £500 pcm, which was at the upper end of what we could afford but easily worth it. I had, for now, escaped the clutches of SO14’s gravitational pull.

I’d firmly resolved to get out of Natwest, and saw an ad for a position at none other than Southampton City College, as a coordinator for an IT basic skills program. I leapt at the chance, and in July got an interview, and – despite not a huge amount (just the audit work) of educational experience – got the job. I’d start early August. I had entered the world of education, one I have been in ever since. To give you some perspective in how my days of chopping and changing were behind me, this was only two employers removed, from my seat in the USA Today.

The college was in a transitional period. It had undergone serious financial hardship and was under some kind of special fiscal management. This was a huge deal at the time and a lot of people were relieved their jobs were safe. Colleges can, and do, go under. What this also meant was a new sheriff in town.

City College senior management was dominated by women. The principal was Lindsey Noble, the director of HR Tania Burton, and together they’d introduce a lot of – not always popular – changes. Performance related pay was one of them. SCC had a fairly militant staff, and strikes were not uncommon. I wasn’t union (strike was teachers only) and so I crossed the picket lines a few times. I was on good terms with all the union people, and had a lot of time for them. There was zero acrimony.

My outfit was part of an ‘enterprise’ (quote marks doing some heavy lifting there) initiative, meaning we were supposed to make the college money, but my specific bit was state-funded so we didn’t really fit in, and in time we’d be spun out from them. We ran three types of basic skills courses: Learndirect, CLAIT, and ECDL. The latter two were pretty good – and they were free. Learndirect was well-intended but from my point of view all they did was print endless glossy reports and send them by the tonne – It seemed intensely bureaucratic, and the tutors didn’t like delivering it.

The department was run by Fred, who disliked me, and Julie, who did not. More on Fred later. Becky was my immediate boss, and I liked her a great deal. Sadly, as is often my luck, she’d leave not long after I started.

We were based in the library, and teaching staff initially had crazy long hours (I think it was very tough on Becky and her family) but I was 9-5 thankfully. We dealt with a lot of foreign students (Asylum Seekers and economic migrants from the EU) and I liked that part of it. It played to a lot of my strengths in desktop computing – I’d been into computers for years – and this lit the spark of what would come next.

Lindsey Noble set the college on an aggressive redevelopment plan. The campus was a bit of a dump, and prior to the Noble era the most recent building was the 1995 library. She did a great job here, completely changing the appearance of the campus from its Victorian edifice to something modern. And we were moving into the flagship new bit!

We occupied the ground floor of what became known as Z-block and set up shop. We shared it with an art class, and occasional health and social care students. A large number of the latter were single mothers that were doing the course as an incentive from the local Council, and it was my first experience of being some kind of supervisory person, because I had to learn to deal with them as well as my own students. I learnt (after a rocky start) to like them a great deal. They’d tell you all about themselves if you gave them a minute. Nobody really cared about them outside of college, and they were a Tory bogeyman. They all wrote me a lovely leaving card, which they absolutely did not have to do.

I got to know Nick at this time, whom would play a much bigger part if my life in due course. He was one of the library staff, formerly managed a big comic shop in town, and we would share many lunchtimes and the odd beer together. His girlfriend of the time also worked there, as would his future wife. It was a place I built a lot of relationships, and that had really started back in 1999 with Ray Howell.

As much as I was satisfied, SG was restless with my lack of any real profession and the fact I was still on a low salary. She had ambitions to start a family and get a house, and honestly I didn’t care for any of those things. Be that as it may, she did have a point, and I decided to get my ticket in IT support, which was a City & Guilds qualification the college offered. I could do it for free.

I spent one day out of my working week taking PCs to bits and putting them back together, as well as some learning some theory. I loved it. It was my first ‘class’ as it were since the university fiasco, and, reader, I aced it. I’m forever grateful that the college gave me this chance, because it started me down a road.

The IT manager of the college, a real card called Andy, tipped me off that he had a Helpdesk position going. He wanted me for it. Excellent news. I completed my application that same day, and dropped it off directly at HR. And waited. And waited. And waited. Something wasn’t right.

Andy later took me aside and apologetically (I could see he wasn’t pleased about it) gave me the bad news: Fred (now Andy’s boss) had vetoed my application, for reasons unknown. In weeks to come during weekly pints with my old gaffer Ray, the story would evolve thus: “For some reason Fred did not want you in that role.” Then, “For some reason Fred did not think you were best for that role.” Finally (actually much later): “You know, Fred never liked you.”

During this period my mother got diagnosed with terminal cancer. The autumn of 2004 was, in memory, a long black march towards trauma and the realization my mum was almost certainly going to die. The final chapter of that is described here, and I don’t need to say much more. For my part, I would be drinking a little more than was healthy, put on a lot of weight, but I would survive. I was not easy to be around at this time I am sure, and it didn’t help things with SG. Becky’s successor, Susan Vance, was absolutely fantastic throughout. If you ever read this Sue, you have my gratitude, and I don’t think I showed it nearly enough. Sue was one of the best managers I ever had. My mother would pass away February 25th 2005. It would be one of the defining moments of my life. I didn’t know that yet.

When The Student Is Ready, The Teacher Will Appear

– Some good-sounding bullshit

One of the computing lecturers, who I shall refer to as AJP, was a great bloke, and a Northerner to boot, so of course I liked him. He told me of a new Higher National Certificate program for IT Systems Support. An HNC is essentially equivalent to the first year of a degree. This was a 2 year part-time program they intended to compress into one year, and would I like to enroll? I had to get approval from the department head. I was allowed, but I would have to make up the hours. That was one full day a week. I’d take it. Fucking right I’d take it.

Things were deteriorating at home. SG had a close mate whom had a new boyfriend, and SG had fully immersed herself in their social circle, to an extent that concerned me as it was beginning to get uncomfortable. One of these lads is now her husband, if that lends any perspective. Her mother had also made no secret of the fact she didn’t want us together. I gave us a few weeks.

Relief had presented itself in the form of her colleague offering us her old home at a very discounted rental rate. It was in Calmore, well outside of the city, but as a conciliatory measure, I was willing to give it a try. It was, I knew at the time, a stupid mistake. We should have called it there and then. It was the natural, synchronous point to go our separate ways. Instead, I left a flat I adored, letting the zombified corpse of our relationship stumble on for a while longer in a house I fucking loathed, out in some anonymous shithole suburb. Plus, I had to ride the bus. The indignity! I am still angry with myself I let this happen, but it wouldn’t be for long, as it turns out.

My outline notes for the end of this just say “Strap in for 2006”.

It’s a fun one.






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