Odyssey, Pt. 8

Up and up

January 2007 would kick off another period of big changes. It would see me back in another relationship, a change of occupation to the profession I am still in now, and start the final chapters of my time in Southampton. I would leave the country within five years, but I didn’t know any of that yet.

I had quietly – and by my standards calmly – calculated that I needed to move on from City College. As detailed previously, while Fred was around, I had no prospects, and I had resolved to start shopping around for a career in information technology. I’d take whatever I could get. I was on my fifth boss by this time at SCC, could practically do the job in my sleep (some would argue I did..), and I had the sinking feeling the department wasn’t going to last (and it didn’t…) The amount of managers that had been thrown at us was not a good sign. They were all put there on their way to something else – nobody wanted it. We were also charging more and more money, a sign funding was drying up. I’d been around long enough to see the writing on the wall.

Around this time I met Alice, a vocational student that on completion of her IT skills course, asked me out for a drink. I was a bit taken aback, this didn’t usually happen to me. Alice was a perennially serious Polish expat (Southampton having a huge Polish population since joining the EU in 2004) and she was definitely the right person at the right time, seeing more in me than the low-drag lifestyle I’d sort of lazily eased into. She civilized me a bit.

In February I spotted a job opening at Solent University, for an IT technician in the business school. Solent was the new name for Southampton Institute, which had achieved university status in 2005. I’d applied to Solent previously (I think it was a library job) with little success, but this time I reckoned I’d found a good score.

I took the risky step of contacting the administrator (named in the job posting) to introduce myself, and asked if it would be worth applying, given my lack of experience. I would never do such a thing now, but at the time I remember thinking they might remember my name and show me a little sunshine. She was very nice about it, probably thought I was a bit of a wanker, but It gave me some cheer.

I applied, interviewed with John Ince (Senior management at SBS), Nick (who managed the main campus IT operations), and Malcolm, a faculty member. I wasn’t sure how I’d gone over, but I really liked Nick, and I’d given it my best. The biggest obstacle was despite having the right ticket I did not have direct experience – I know from recruiting in my present world how this can be a problem for applicants. Usually they just don’t stack up. I left just as another candidate stepped into the interview room, and kept my fingers crossed.

I got the job. My foot was in the door at Solent, a growing organization, and it was doing work I was interested in. I don’t think it can be overstated how much that job would come to mean for me. If you were to imagine a pretty much perfect support tech job, this was it. I’d be largely responsible for myself, had all the resources I would need, and was encouraged to learn.

I handed in my notice at City College. They had been good to me over the 3.5 years I’d been there, but I knew it was time to go. I would see Fred quite a bit over the next few years (usually passing on his bicycle) and there were no hard feelings, but to me this was a lesson in how not to treat staff. If you fuck people about, they’ll just leave. And tell their friends. My housemate Nick would follow me to Solent about a year later. It was a complete coincidence, but migration of staff between neighbouring educational institutions is pretty common.

I had my own office. it was a nice little perk. It overlooked the quad between the canteen and the library. It was great being at a university; there’s an energy from the kids that creates its own atmosphere; I still enjoy it today. I was one of three techs assigned to the different schools of the university, we all worked independently and ran our own little fiefdoms, with escalation support from the central office when needed. I was in a corridor of lecturers, and the place wouldn’t have won any prizes for modernity, but it was cozy, especially when filled with cardboard boxes of toner and computers. My immediate neighbors were Stewart and Matt, the sports science guys who paraded around in football kit and were clearly living the dream, and Bryn, who would talk at enormous and occasionally exhausting length about any subject. If you were procrastinating and wanted an excuse, go find Bryn.

Most work came from supporting the administrative offices, which were scattered about the building, but the most concentrated was a large open-plan room on the main business school floor. Everyone was great. My whole time at Solent was marked by the notable fact that I did not encounter a single person I disliked. I don’t know if the feeling was mutual, but they’re not writing this.

Shortly after I started I got a pretty big bump in pay, as HR had done some kind of calibration exercise to bring salaries in line with the rest of the sector, nationally. This study concluded the university underpaid us (and quite amusingly, HR themselves, of course). For the first time in my adult life, I was making some decent money. My dad always told me money wasn’t everything, it was an enabler, but it was definitely nice to be enabled. I was able to take regular holidays for the first time, and finally upgraded from Asda value baked beans to Heinz. This was the life, folks.

Alice lived in a tiny little apartment on Lodge Road, about five minutes from my rental house on Avenue road. I preferred spending time at hers, as Nick frequently had his partner over and I had no desire to be in the way, plus Alice spoilt me with great meals and her library of DVDs. We decided we’d move in together when my lease was up, in August. I recall Nick remarking he thought it was a bit soon, which I did not welcome at the time, but he was probably right.

Alice had a colleague who owned a one-bedroom apartment on Queens Terrace, at the Southern end of town, close to what Southampton pretends is a waterfront. We could rent it at mate’s rates, not perhaps as cheap as you might think. It was easily the nicest place I’d ever lived in. It wasn’t big, but the space was well organized and the living area was perfect for two people. It was an older building that had been extensively refurbished, so it all felt very modern. The bathroom was all black tile and chrome. It was a bit Scarface and I loved it. P visited once (on what must have been a rare occasion, he didn’t come down too often by now) and remarked “The 80s called, they want their bathroom back”

I liked this end of town. It was behind Oxford Street, which is easily the nicest street in central-ish Southampton, a weird little oasis sandwiched between the docks, a dual carriageway, and a housing estate. There was one minor downside. Southampton has dead zones either side of the busy town centre. Businesses and places to go just sort of evaporate, and on the Southern side it gets very sparse until you reach the rather spotty waterfront developments. It feels like a sort of hinterland. Oxford street is really the only place to go. There is the absurdly named Ocean Village a bit further along the road, but even that didn’t have much apart from a tired multiplex cinema and a couple of pricey bars, intended to service the housing blocks sitting atop them. Beyond that, it’s the Itchen River and Woolston. I was going to make some pissy remark about nobody wanting to go there, but thought better of it.

Itchen Bridge 2
The Itchen Bridge, about a 5 minute walk from Oxford St. By me.
Oxford Street, Southampton (license: See watermark)

Nick would move in with his partner, and find a place not too far from Avenue road. We’d not really spend much time together, and our respective moves had left us quite far apart. That chapter would close for now. We’d both had over a year of fun and hedonism in the little house on Avenue road, but it now felt like we were rejoining civilization and being all grown-up, like.

That August also brought a two-week holiday in Poland, which was utterly fantastic. I saw a lot of the country, swam in the Baltic, and camped in a tent for the first time in about 20 years. I liked Poland, against all my expectations, knowing nothing about it. Krakow is a beautiful city, like Prague but without the insane tourist numbers, and the mountains around Zakopane are breathtaking. They like their beer and food, too. I was startled to realise I’d been staying within a few miles of what used to be Auschwitz the entire time, but it’s just part of the history, and history is all over Silesia.

Gubalowka, Zakopane.
Zakopane, Tatra Mountains. By me.
Wawel Castle, Krakow
Wawel Castle, Krakow. By me.

Work would give me a golden opportunity. They ran evening classes for Cisco System’s CCNA certification. This remains the single most useful knowledge I’ve acquired in my career. It’s golden, and it only cost me my time. Being able to do this was highly influential in informing my own attitudes to professional development. It was three hours every Tuesday, and was taught by a lovely bloke named Imran who worked in IT for the National Air Traffic Service (NATS). Instructing was his side gig. The knowledge continues to serve me to this day. If you work in IT you should take the CCNA. It’s unbelievable how handy it is.

Solent had a pretty fast social life, and Brought a lot of new friends into my life. Andi worked in the office upstairs, and we became good friends over time. Through Andi I’d get to know his friend Jen, whip smart, very beautiful, slightly intimidating, and great fun – if you could keep up. Then there was Berenika, another lovely Polish girl who was absolutely on my wavelength, and an absolute blast. I always felt a bit guilty around Berenika, because I liked her so much. She could charm the dead, that girl. Tessa worked right next to Andi and started around the same time as me; she’s in virtually every photo I have from the nights out. You don’t realise how much you miss people until you think of these things. Everybody got on with Andi, he had that kind of character, and he would go on to do me a huge, huge favour much later on.

I finally had something I could call a profession. I had come a long way. Maybe I could go a little further?

Life comes at you fast, as the internet likes to say. In Autumn 2008, a position for a support analyst opened in the main computing office in Solent. In IT terms, this would put me behind the curtain. It would take me away from directly supporting users, which I liked a lot more than I’d ever admit, but it was necessary to learn more and start taking on more responsibility. I’d been in post about 18 months, I didn’t feel too bad about moving on from the business school, on the very shaky assumption this would go my way. I remember thinking I had an outside chance, but didn’t think I’d swing it. I knew everybody up there, maybe that would count for something?

I applied, and to my surprise, got an interview. I recall being pretty stressed out about this, because I considered landing the job a bit of a stretch, but still definitely within reach. In hindsight, it really wasn’t a big deal, I just wasn’t familiar with doing well so quickly, after years of trundling through bumfuck go-nowhere jobs.

Nick (another Nick, not my old housemate) would be on the interview panel. He was already technically my boss, but in this role I’d be a direct report. Also on the panel was Stephen, and John, who ran the whole show. I gave an okay account of myself, but very much kept my feet on the ground. The worst that could result would be staying in the business school, but I had a feeling I was tantalizingly close, and I remember It driving me a little mad.

To my astounded delight, they offered me the job the next day. I was elated. It was an exciting position, and a good bump in pay. It might seem strange but I felt like after years of fucking about, I was finally doing something decent.

I would lose my own office, and join the cramped but cheery computing office on the top floor of the library. I’d be an understudy to Neil (my de facto supervisor), and Nick would be in the corner diagonally across from me. James was the Mac specialist and was directly opposite. A team of techs would fill the rest of the floor. Veejay was the nearest to me, and I’d known him since he oriented me on my first day at SBS. My job was essentially image creation and application packaging for the configuration management infrastructure, which was looked after by Neil. It was a time of transition to Windows 7 (remember that?) which offered different methods and would have to all be learnt and tested. Neil would do most of this work during my first year, then it would be up to me for the full switch to Windows 10 and a new configuration management solution the following year.

Before starting the new role I’d spend a week in Spain with my dad; the 2nd of that year, on top of yet another trip to Poland in Summer. I’d also go out to Poland again in December. I travelled so much those days, thanks to the liberal UK holiday allowance and increased means. It is something the US could definitely learn from.

I’d also started journeying to Hertfordshire on the regular to see P, who by now was well established in his Pharma career. I’ve got many happy memories of evenings watching films in his flat, with the warm buzz after a few beers down the pub, then the subdued feeling at 3pm on a Sunday of having to get the train to London as the first leg of the journey home. It was a long 90 miles when you’re feeling a bit blue. I don’t know why, but I preferred to go to Herts rather than host him in Southampton. I put it down to a slight feeling neither of us really cared for the place that much. We had spent a lot of time there, after all. There was nothing new to be experienced.







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