Working Life V: The HP Way 2004-2008

Following 15 years at Sun Microsystems and the sudden layoff that ended my work for a company that I fully expected to stay with until I reached retirement age, as described in my Working Life Part IV, I faced the challenge of making a living in Silicon Valley. Luckily, I had developed a network.


My first few months after leaving Sun with a small but welcome severance package were spent looking for freelance speech writing jobs. I was fortunate to have kept in touch with a colleague from my Sun days, who had been a speech writing mentor. Joel Postman had left before the layoffs took effect to work in executive communications at Hewlett-Packard. He helped me pitch for a freelance opportunity to write speeches for Nora Denzel, who headed a software division at the company. I met with her several times and wrote two presentations. By the end of 2004, I had been brought into the company as a full-time employee.


Coincident with joining HP as a freelancer, I started kicking around the idea of this website and blog to build my portfolio and reputation as a freelancer. I took an entire year, but in January 2006, I posted my first blog entry. I’d developed my WordPress skills with Joel, who also promoted himself online. Something he and I, in our different ways, have continued to this day.

The HP Way

I joined a behemoth of a company with over 300,000 employees worldwide formed by the merger of HP and Compaq back in 2001 (and described at the time by my old boss Scott McNealy as the “slow motion collision of two garbage trucks.“)

However, working in the comms division in the HQ building was a smart team that brought professionalism to their daily work. I enjoyed writing content for Nora, who presented with pizzaz and appreciated my work. We traveled to HP facilities in Europe, including the labs outside Bristol, where I’d last lived in 1999. The city streets were familiar. Later that same trip, I booked a presentation at the Telco World Congress conference in Barcelona in January 2005. Nora had to return to California for meetings and then back across the Atlantic for this event. Unfortunately, it was the Friday before the formal event opening that weekend, and a mere 20 people were in the audience.

It was on that trip that we were sitting at breakfast in a hotel when Nora glanced at a message on her phone, gasped, and handed it to me. The HP Board had just forced CEO Carly Fiorina out.

Fiorina had riled many of the old guard at HP, who still clung to the “HP Way” created by the company founders back in the 1950s.

Shortly after, Nora’s responsibilities changed, and I was reassigned to support the head of HR, Chilean-born Marcela Perez de Alonso. I only supported her for a few months. However, my one contribution was her presentation at an Organizational Development conference in San Francisco, where I took the initiative to record the presentation and have it transcribed. Bizarrely, this is still available on the HP website.

HP Labs

After my brief stint supporting HR, I was asked to move into the storied HP Labs and support the newly appointed Prith Banerjee. He had spent many years in academia and was well-respected by the Labs 500 engineers in seven worldwide locations. However, he had to fall in line with the new CEO’s cost-cutting initiatives and canceled some “fringe” projects. Nevertheless, there were plenty of fascinating research topics to write about. I attended a ‘poster session’ at an HP Labs gathering in Boston where I asked researchers to describe their project so their grandmother or young child could understand the technology. There was work on the environmental impact of data centers, insights into the future, and an opportunity to meet retired employees who had been there in the early days.

HP Labs occupied the building where founders Bill Hewett and Dave Packard had their adjoining offices, kept as a shrine to their vision and innovation. Prominently displayed on the 60s-era desk was the icon HP pocket calculator. (Between the two offices was the private washroom they shared!)


One of the unexpected benefits of my association with the Labs was an early introduction to the MagCloud print-on-demand service for magazines. Engineers Udi Chatow and Andrew Bolwell explained the ease with which anyone with a PDF document could produce excellent quality ‘evergreen’ magazines. At the time I was the president of the Northern California Chapter of the National Speakers Association and convinced the members of the value of own high-quality magazine. Six editions of SPEAKER magazine resulted. Later, I helped Kombucha Brewers International produce SYMBIOSIS. Editions of both remain online and available as PDF downloads or printed magazines.

Mark Hurd

In March 2005, Mark Hurd was recruited from NCR and appointed CEO. His tenure was, to say the least, interesting.

He started out focused on ROI across the company, and cost-cutting measures were implemented. Wall Street was delighted. Wikipedia:

Under Hurd’s tenure, the company met Wall Street expectations in 21 out of 22 quarters and increased profits for 22 straight quarters, while its revenue rose 63% and stock price doubled. He laid off 15,200 workers  — 10% of the workforce — shortly after becoming CEO. Other cost-cutting included reducing the IT department from 19,000 to 8,000, reducing the number of software applications that HP used from 6,000 to 1,500, and consolidating HP’s 85 data centers to 6. During the 2009 recession, depending on job role Hurd imposed a temporary 5%, 10% or 15% pay cut on all employees and removed many benefits.

Despite his successful stewardship of the company finances, Hurd was — like Fiorina before him — forced out by the board over a dubious HR issue in August 2010. He went on to a successful career at Oracle and sadly passed away in 2019, aged 62.

Pretexting scandal

“A fish rots from the head.” (Turkish proverb)

For a company founded in a garage listed as “the birthplace of Silicon Valley,” the period I worked there was not a happy one. This was not the fault of the many dedicated employees, but more the actions of leaders, especially the Board of Directors. Wikipedia again:

On September 5, 2006, Newsweek revealed that the general counsel of Hewlett-Packard, at the behest of HP chairwoman Patricia Dunn, had contracted a team of independent security experts to investigate board members and several journalists in order to identify the source of an information leak. In turn, those security experts recruited private investigators who used a spying technique known as pretexting. The pretexting involved investigators impersonating HP board members and nine journalists (including reporters for CNET, the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal) in order to obtain their phone records. The information leaked related to HP’s long-term strategy and was published as part of a CNET article in January 2006.

Patricia Dunn claimed she did not know beforehand the methods the investigators used to try to determine the source of the leak. Board member George Keyworth was ultimately accused of being the source and on September 12, 2006, he resigned, although he continued to deny making unauthorized disclosures of confidential information to journalists and was thanked by Mark Hurd for his board service. It was also announced at that time that Dunn would continue as chairwoman until January 18, 2007, at which point HP CEO Mark Hurd would succeed her. Then, on September 22, 2006 HP announced that Dunn had resigned as chairwoman because of the “distraction her presence on our board” created. On September 28, 2006, Ann Baskins, HP’s general counsel, resigned hours before she was to appear as a witness before the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, where she would ultimately invoke the Fifth Amendment to refuse to answer questions.

I witnessed the challenge the scandal posed to my colleagues in the Corporate Comms department.

Soon enough, however, the restructuring in the company came to the team I was part of. A new head of Marketing followed the CEO’s directive to cut costs, and in August 2008, just under four years after joining the company, I was one of a large group he dismissed.

It was back to the freelance life.

Booch News

In November 2018 I launched a new blog.

Booch News is the premier source for independent news about all aspects of the kombucha industry — the beverage that is taking the world by storm.

It offers an in-depth look into the kombucha industry,  discusses the latest trends, marketing techniques, news, profiles, and other topics related to kombucha.

I’ll still post occasional updates to Professionally Speaking, but most of my attention these days is on Booch News. Meanwhile, the 900+ posts and 100+ podcast interviews on this site will remain as an archive of useful information.

A Working Life IV: Sun Microsystems, 1990 – 2004

After attending a recent Sun Microsystems Alumni Reunion I’ve been inspired to continue the series on My Working Life that I last updated in May 2018 with Part III: My Early Career. As mentioned at the end of the last installment, I attended an interview in Milpitas for a position in tech support with Sun. I clearly remember the day of the offer. The recruiter brought me a cup of tea, and for the first time in my life I joined a company with more than 100 employees.

SalesDesk Support

Sun Logo

I was hired as the 14,672nd employee at Sun (badge numbers were sequential) and joined a small support team tasked with implementing the home-grown SalesDesk system in Sun offices worldwide. This is software that did the same tasks as Salesforce software would fill for companies today: lead tracking, quoting and configuration checking. The configurator was known as SPOC (the Sun Product Order Checker).

I enjoyed my daily commute from our home in Richmond which combined exercise and alone time. I would leave home at 6:30am; spend an hour on BART followed by a 25-minute bike ride (at a furious pace) to the Dixon Landing Road facility.

We worked out of a corner of the manufacturing facility in Milpitas, answering installation and user questions and traveling across the US visiting sales offices to train the salespeople and systems engineers. I was delighted when the quick reference card I developed was awarded a Carol Bartz ‘Ease of Doing Business’ $5,000 bonus. I enjoyed visiting sales offices in Albuquerque, Denver, Portland and other cities

It didn’t take me long to realize that the sales offices were far more dynamic and exciting than the back office and after 18 months I applied for a job as a Systems Engineer (SE) in the sales office in Pleasanton, California.

Systems Engineer: Pleasanton

I had to leave the bike at home and commute to Pleasanton by car. I worked with the sales team in the Reseller Area and called on systems integrators and third party Sun Resellers in the East Bay. I began to enjoy summarizing the latest product announcements and delivering lunch-time presentations to clients. I somehow managed to avoid having to actually install systems myself, which was way beyond my limited technical abilities.

Systems Engineer: Minnesota

Minnesota Winter

After our son was born I persuaded my wife that we could not possibly afford a three-bedroom home in the Bay Area and when an opportunity came to transfer to the Bloomington, MN office in the same role I took it.

We visited the region on a warm Fall day when the leaves were golden and the weather warm. That Thanksgiving we drove out in a truck filled with our belongings and arrived to frost, followed by snow, followed by the “bitter cold sun” the local weather forecasters described with glee every January and February.

My first sales call was to a mail-order operation called the Sportsman’s Paradise. The IT Manager took one look at the Limey across the table and said “Son, we sell everything needed to still a beating heart…”.

A highlight of the four years (three months and twelve days, as my wife would say) in the State was helping promote the Sun-sponsored NetDay event. I came to know the irrepressible John Gage who invited me to Washington DC for a national NetDay event where I spoke from the same podium as Vice-President Al Gore. We helped volunteers across the state wire schools for internet access in classrooms.

I was lucky to attend two SunRise sales award conferences, in Rome and Sydney, where the company spent umpteen millions feting the top sales teams.

Six Weeks at IBM

After six years as an SE I was interested in getting a shot at the commissions salespeople enjoyed. Sun did not make it easy for SEs to transition to sales. IBM did. So I applied for an SE position with IBM, was accepted, and before taking the job took a trip back to California with the family.

My wife saw the Bay, burst into tears, and said we had to move back.

I gave my months’ notice at IBM a couple of weeks after starting. They were not happy.

Meanwhile, I was hired to return to Sun’s Menlo Park HQ working in Field Product Training.

Field Product Training

The next few years were spent rolling out interactive training to field salespeople around the world. I used “McNealy Bucks” to motivate salespeople in Sao Paulo and Singapore; produced multi-media CDs and DVDs; and hosted an “SE TV” program from a small studio in Palo Alto.

I also volunteered to deliver the Company overview in the customer briefing center. My first presentation was to executives from Pfizer, the makers of Viagra. Luckily they were amused by my opening comment that our companies had a lot in common as Sun servers were noted for “continuous uptime”.

Australasia Liaison

My time in the Briefing Center brought me in contact with the Asia Pacific customer liaison team. I was hired to work alongside native Korean, Japanese and Chinese speakers to support Australia and New Zealand (perhaps on the assumption I would understand the rules of cricket when talk turned to sport?).

I flew business-class to Sydney once a quarter, visited every Australian city at least once, and learned to appreciate the rather more robust, and politically incorrect, Aussie sense of humor in business.

Following a weirdly unfair performance evaluation I took a look at the team who produced the company overview presentation I could by now deliver in my sleep. It turned out to be a small team of executive speechwriters. They needed someone with a love of communications, presentation skills and technical understanding. After a decade at the company I fit the bill and was hired.

Executive speechwriter

For someone who was hired to work out of a warehouse and take support calls, sitting in the executive suite listening to SVPs and the CEO develop strategy that would then be rolled into speeches was heady, vertigo-inducing, stuff.

I certainly felt moments when I experienced the imposter syndrome in full force. I was often the only person around the table who did not have a few thousand people reporting to them and a multi-billion-dollar goal.

It was exciting, exhausting, terrifying and the most fun at work I’d ever had.

I started out supporting the global head of sales (a fellow Brit, so my appreciation of irony helped), then worked for the head of the software group until I landed a role as one of the team supporting Scott McNealy, the CEO and co-founder. The main deliverables were a set of OpenOffice slides and a summary of the script on a set of 5×8 blue cards that he carried onstage each time he gave a presentation.

I traveled on the company jet to the east coast and Europe (a chance to meet my parents for the night in Ayr after the jet landed at Prestwick). I sat in the office of the head of the UK Civil Service (the very same used in the TV show Yes Minister, overlooking Horseguards Parade), ate pizza and banquet food, and worked around the clock when needed.

Then, in 2004, the company laid off 3,000 people, including the speechwriters. So I started this blog and looked around for another job.

Sun was, without a doubt, the best company I have ever worked for. I helped deliver network computing to the world, propagating TCP/IP and bring the Internet into existence.

The network really is the people.

A Working Life III: My Early Career

In the spirit of full disclosure I should say that, following my adventures in America detailed in Part II of this series, I returned to England in the Summer of 1978 after three years in the States without a graduate degree. My studies at Tufts had been frustrating, and had cured me of any desire to become a sociologist. When I landed in England the customs agent said “Welcome home, sir…” but I really felt America was my home. The next two years were spent in Bristol, but my heart was in California.


Help The Aged Youth Campaign1978-80: Fundraiser, Help The Aged Youth Campaign, Bristol: On my return to the UK I visited friends in Cornwall and decided the stop off in Bristol on the way back to my parents home in Cheshire. I’d been in the town 15 minutes when I ran into Faith from the shoe store in Oregon quite by chance. I took this as an omen that I should move there, and the very next day was hired by the charity Help The Aged as a fundraiser in their Youth Campaign at a salary of £2,000 and the use of a Mini. Help The Aged StaffI drove around to Primary schools in the South-West organizing sponsored walks and, together with other Youth Campaign organizers, worked on larger fundraising events in London, and, rather embarrassingly, Leicestershire (which took me back to Wreake Valley College where a couple of the 6th Form remembered me as their first year teacher “who couldn’t keep control of the class…”). After two years I left on a summer holiday to the US and stayed on.

Again, in the spirit of full disclosure, as I first wrote in this blog eight years ago, I lived in the States for six years without papers, until President Reagan granted ‘illegal aliens’ amnesty in 1987. During this time I kept my nose clean, paid my taxes, and even, for one surreal week, helped the Immigration Service design a database that tracked immigrants (see Bytel below).

“To live outside the law you must be honest”
— Bob Dylan, Absolutely Sweet Marie

Temp Work

1980: Whim Agency, Mill Valley, CA: On my return to the States I settled in the San Francisco Bay Area and signed on with the temp agency ‘Whim’. I completed a broad range of casual work assignments including: Window washing; Balloon Delivery; “Ian The Butler” catering private events; House cleaning; Father Christmas appearances at malls and in private homes; bartending and much more. One gig as Santa Claus took me to the Sausalito home of Ron Cowan the property developer who was hosting a private dinner party where Santa’s gift for California Speaker of the House Willie Brown was a pair of bright red woolen gloves.

Construction_Site1981-82: Construction Labor, San Rafael, CA: I was hired (via Whim) to dig the foundations in clay baked as hard as steel by the summer sun on a hillside home above San Rafael. I worked with Rolf and the crew building the home from the ground up. I learned to use a hammer and skillsaw and managed not to amputate my leg or fall off the scaffolding.

The Right Stuff1982: Movie Extra, The Right Stuff, San Francisco: I was in the elevator ‘enema scene’ as a young doctor with a clipboard as well as a couple of other moments when they needed a man with short back and sides in a white coast. It paid $50 a day and all the food you could eat for a week’s filming above Buena Vista Park off Haight Street. On the set I saw Chuck Yeager, Scott Glenn, Jeff Goldblum, Jane Dornacker and of course Phil Kaufmann the director.

1982: Office Manager, Fields Construction, Sausalito, CA: I worked for Howard Fields, one of Time Magazine’s “most interesting people of the year” back in the 1970’s. Howard was a true Renaissance man who had dropped out of medical school in LA to start a company manufacturing waterbeds. He was a private pilot, sailor, and fan of Ayn Rand. He lived above his office at Schoonmaker Point in Sausalito and built commerical-sized pools in Reno and San Francisco. Tired of seeing me hammer out correspondence on an IBM Selectric he suggested I learn to use WordStar on a TRS-80 PC.

Personal Computers

Time Magazine Cover1983: Freelance WordStar consultant, San Francisco: Howard introduced me to a couple of small companies who needed help with their mailing lists and customer correspondence. Then, with a few months experience under my belt, and a growing fascination with PC’s I was finally able to launch a career. Time Magazine had just named the PC as “Man of the Year” and I was in the right place at the right time, 10 years after graduating, to catch the computing wave that would define my working life from here on.

MicroPro1984 – 86: Dealer Support, MicroPro, San Rafael: I hired into the three-person dealer tech support team at MicroPro where I expanded my hands-on computer knowledge from wordprocessing to databases and spreadsheets, from CP/M to MS-DOS. It was a short 10 minute commute from my home in Mill Valley (living in a cottage behind a home on Shell Road) to the old International Diamond Building next to the Civic Center in San Rafael. The company Seymour Rubinstein had started was booming. However, customer and dealer support was not a priority. When WordPerfect in Utah staffed up their support center we started to lose market share (and when CEO Glen Haney pushed for copy protection on WordStar 2000 it did not help matters). One vivid memory was a company meeting where Rubinstein mocked customers who used a mouse, since this required they take their hands of the ‘home row’ which touch-typists used.

1986: Telemarketing, Software Recording, San Rafael: After MicroPro I tried my hand a commission-only software sales for Randy Hayes’s company. I quickly went broke.

Dbase_III1986-88: Tech Support, Bytel, Albany: I was the sole tech support person for Genifer, the dBase III code-generator working for Dan Pines in his start-up, Bytel. It was a scrappy small company playing in the big leagues of the booming PC database market. I had fascinating conversations with users building databases used for everything from counting boll weevils in cotton fields to tracking immigrants at the immigration service (that was an interesting conversation!)

Around this time I was granted Amnesty by the US Government and given my Green Card which legally allowed to me to work in the US for the first time since 1979.

Tex Logo1988 – 1989: Tech Support, Personal TeX, Mill Valley: I worked for Lance Carnes in his beautiful office near the Sweetwater Bar in Mill Valley. On October 18th I’d left work on the dot at 5:00pm and was just driving through the center of town when the Loma Prieta earthquake struck at 5:05. I arrived home to a shaken-up wife clutching our six month old daughter. Later, I met Donald Knuth at a Stanford conference on TeX and extended my knowledge of this arcane programming language.

1989-1990: Tech Support, Medicus, Alameda: I worked the 6:00am to 3:00pm shift supporting both UNIX and MS-DOS versions of their medical records encoding software. I learned more that I wanted to about ICD-9 and CPT codes and the disputes that can arise over billing and denial of payment for medical services. I had a front-row seat in the dysfunctional world of American health care and medical insurance. Apparently US politicians find the system here preferable to the “socialized medicine” that the Europeans inflict on their citizens…

One day in 1990 I took a call from a recruiter who asked if I was interested in interviewing for a job at a company called Sun Microsystems in Milpitas. “Where’s Milpitas?” I asked. When I found out where, I began the next stage of my working life.

A Working Life II: Going West

“Go West, young man.”
— Horace Greeley, 1865

This is the second part of the review of my working life. Part 1, The Early Years, covered the part-time jobs I had while in school in England. In Part 2 I graduate from college and move to the States.

Student and Teacher

1972: Traffic Survey, Leicester: The summer before my final year any student who wanted to work could find a job on the traffic survey being conducted in and around Leicester. We got up before dawn, sat at intersections and counted cars. Stationed outside the local prison I was often face-to-face with uptight guards delayed for their shift by a long-haired layabout with a clip-board. A local vicar once asked me “Do you enjoy your work, my son?” and I had to honestly say, yes, I did. Fresh air and mindless checklists were a welcome change to the life of an undergraduate.

At this point in the story I must mention a 15-minute conversation that, quite simply, changed the course of my life. In my final term at Leicester I had already secured a place on a post-graduate Sociology course at the University of Bath. It would have given me a path to a PhD and a life as a Sociology professor in England. Then I had a 15 minute meeting with my tutor. He asked me what I planned to do after graduation, I told him about Bath and that “meanwhile over the summer I plan to tour the USA on a tourist visa”. “Oh”, he replied, “why not do your Masters in the US and then come back to finish your PhD here?” I had no idea you could! He suggested the names of a half-dozen American universities with good Sociology departments (Brown, Boston University, Brandeis) and after sending off applications to those colleges which all required a non-refundable $25 application fee I noticed Tufts University which did not require a fee. So I applied there, as an afterthought. I was too late to attend in the Fall of 1973 so had to apply for the 1974 academic year. Tufts was the college that gave me a scholarship and the offer of a job as a teaching assistant to cover living expenses. Academically, it was a poor choice — the focus was on quantitative studies, survey design and statistics. Not my cup of tea. It cured me of a desire to become an academic. But I instantly fell in love with America and that explains the rest of my career, and my life since. That conversation *did* change my life.

Wreake Valley College1973: Humanities Teacher, Wreake Valley College, Syston, Leicestershire: After graduating, and while waiting to go to the States for my graduate education, I was a three-day-a-week substitute teacher. In those days anyone with a BA was considered qualified to teach. There was no training. I had no clue. I was terrible teacher.

Tufts1974: Teaching Assistant, Sociology Department, Tufts University, Medford, MA: During my first year as a graduate student I was tasked with supervising Soc 101 classes. My abstract philosophical approach did not go down well with the undergrads, many of who were college athletes taking Introductory Sociology as a “gut” course. I was still a terrible teacher.

1975: Casual Labor, Cambridge, MA: When I teaching assistant job was not renewed (no surprise!) I had to find another way to put bread on the table. IRS regulations allowed me to work 20 hours a week while studying. I found work with Bobby Ferant, a local contractor, who had me doing odd-jobs remodeling commercial space in Harvard Square, digging foundations, painting hair salons and more. He used to offer me a hit from from his opium pipe on the way into work. The sixites were still alive in Boston in those days.

Roots Shoes1975-76: Shoe Salesman, Roots, Cambridge, MA: Once I’d had enough of demolition work, painting and decorating, I found part-time work selling ‘recessed heel’ shoes in the Cambridge Roots store. The manager was a delightful Swiss woman with a passion for photography and red wine. The other employee was a Rajneesh ‘sannyasin’ who dressed in orange robes. I remember a HBS student who surveyed us as part of his study comparing Roots and the more popular Earth Shoes in the hippie retail shoe market niche. Australians would sometimes walk by the store, do a double-take, and double over in laughter. I later found out why.

Taxi1976: Taxi Driver, Ambassador Cabs, Cambridge, MA: A *very* short-lived stint as a taxi driver. I had only just learned to drive, did not know the streets, and could not understand the Boston accents of the dispatchers on the radio. Apart from that it was a piece of cake. My first fare was a blind guy I took to Church on Sunday who gave me directions from the back seat (he made the same trip every week). After getting lost trying to find the airport with an anxious passenger I packed it in.

Streets of San Francisco1976: Shoe Salesman, Roots, Polk Street, San Francisco: With my East Coast experience selling shoes, my friend James (a fellow Leicester graduate) found me a fill-in job for the summer working in the Polk Street Roots store. It was located opposite the Adidam Bookstore, next door to Buzzby’s (the largest gay disco on the west coast). When the store was quiet, I was sent home early to an apartment I was “house sitting”. Which is why, early one afternoon, I opened the door to find a guy rifling through the place. He jumped out the way he’d come in: through the window and onto the fire escape. Despite everything I’d seen on The Streets of San Francisco, the detective who came by later was not much help. Where was Michael Douglas when I needed him?

SW Portland1976-1977: Shoe Store Manager, Roots, Portland, OR: My first full-time paid employment! I managed the Portland store with the help of two part-time assistants, Faith and Martha. I lived in a wonderful house in SW Portland and walked down the hill to work on SW Broadway with views of Mt. Hood in the distance and the Rose Gardens above me. It was the year of a drought in Oregon so I avoided the incessant rain. Ranchers from eastern Oregon bought our high-top boots which they appreciated because “they sure keep the burrs out”.

Then it was time to return to the UK and find work, which I’ll discuss in Part 3.

A Working Life I: The Early Years

Last month marked the end of my official full-time employment. This used to be called “retirement” but neither my past working life nor my future activities are so easily compartmentalized. I never really “began work” in a career role until I was in my 30’s and don’t expect to spend my future on the golf course or fishing.

However, as a way of taking stock, I decided to draw up a list of all my paid employment I can remember since my first evening newspaper round in England when I was thirteen.

To make this project manageable, and hopefully easier for you to read, I’ll take my working life a stage at a time, starting with the early years.

The Early Years

1963-65: Evening Newspaper delivery, Wistaston, Cheshire. This was my first paid job. My parents didn’t approve of me working the more lucrative morning paper round because it might make me late for school (so they said) so I jumped on my bike each weekday evening after school and cycled the leafy lanes of my home town delivering the Sentinel. This came to an end when we moved to Shavington.

Old_Farm_Shavington1965-68: Weekend farm laborer, Jack’s Old Farm, Weston Lane, Shavington, Cheshire. I mucked out the cows in winter and helped bring in the hay in summer. Some highlights were rat catching among the sacks of grain, holding down the bullocks while they were castrated and the smell of fresh milk in the dairy. After work my Mum would make me take my jeans and shirt off outside the back door and jump in the bath to get rid of the smell of cow muck. I was, as John Fowles noted in the opening chapter of Daniel Martin:

“…a boy in his midteens, his clothes unsuited, a mere harvest helper…all life to follow…collecting this day, pregnant with being. Unharvested, yet one with this land…Inscrutable innocent, already in exile.”

Fine Fare, Crewe1969-70: Shelf Stocker, Fine Fare Supermarket, Crewe, Cheshire: In my final couple of years in Grammar School I worked an eight-hour day each Saturday at one of the only two supermarkets in town. I was paid 19/6 which was less than £1 and while a pound was worth more then than today it was still piss-poor wages. However, us Saturday boys from the Grammar School got to hang out with the full-time workers who’d left school at 16 and shared a slice of their lives from the other side of the tracks. We stocked the shelves and talked about sex.

Butlins1970: Waiter, Butlin’s Holiday Camp, Pwllheli, North Wales: together with my school friends Alan and Bryan (pictured), Richard and Steve, we waited tables and worked as bar staff in the evenings for the happy campers in this uniquely English working-class holiday-cum-prison camp. Room and board (in a double-bunk chalet), a small stipend, and a summer of love that was a prelude to University passed in a drunken haze.

Next up, I work a couple of part-time jobs in England before moving to America to teach undergraduates, drive a cab and sell shoes.

Mum and Dad

My parents funeral took place on January 30, 2018 at Crewe Crematorium. This is the eulogy I read in celebration of their lives.

Mum and Dad

Shakespeare wrote in his play The Tempest:

We are such stuff as dreams are made on / And our little life is rounded with a sleep.

Mum and Dad were together for over 70 years and rounded out their lives when, both aged 97, they passed away together earlier this month. Over the course of their very long lives they saw many, many changes.

Mum was born on June 10, 1920 in the leafy Nottingham suburb of West Bridgeford. We always knew when it was her birthday because they played God Save the Queen on the radio, not for Gwen, but coincidentally it was also the Duke of Edinburgh’s birthday on June 10, he was a year younger than Gwen, born in 1921. Another coincidence is that 53 years ago today, on January 30, 1965, the largest funeral since the end of the war took place in London, when Winston Churchill was honored at St Paul’s. Our memorial today is a lot smaller, but no less significant for those of us here today.

Gwen was 15 when her Dad moved the family to Derby where he told her, “y’know, girls don’t really need to go to school, so you should probably find a job…” In some ways, she already did have a job. She had to mind Jack, her younger brother, most evenings, while her parents made the rounds collecting payments from the mining families they sold clothes to. Years later, she vowed to always be at home when her own children came home from school, and not leave them in an empty house. Her first job outside the house did not last long. She had a position with the Post Office transcribing telegrams for delivery, until a supervisor noticed she had atrocious spelling – something I’ve inherited.

During the war she worked as a PT instructor and helped build scale models of the French coastline that were used to train troops for the liberation of Europe.

She met Dad at Rolls Royce in Derby where he worked in the drawing office at the aircraft engine division and she was what was known as a tracer. He would offer her a lift after work on the back of his motorbike to her parents’ house on Hillsway where she was living. They were married on Feb 10, 1949 in St. Peter’s Church, Littleover. It would have been their 69th wedding anniversary in a fortnight.

Mum was the bedrock of the family. She kept her promise to always be there when Elaine and I got home from school. For many years she was the lunchtime cook at the Horseshoe Inn in Willaston where, rain or shine, she’d ride her moped the mile and a half there and back. Her most famous customer was probably the comedian Frankie Howard who stayed at the Inn when he appeared at the Town Hall in Nantwich one year.

Mum might have served chips with everything to Frankie and her lunchtime customers, but at home she was always conscious of feeding the family healthy food. I remember she started making her own yoghurt in the early 1960’s. I mean, who’d even heard of yogurt back then? For many years she always had a crop of alfalfa sprouts going on the kitchen counter. While Les could put food away like nobody’s business, she was frugal in her diet, her lunch was often just a Ryvita and an apple.

Gwen was also adept at crafts: making lampshades, arranging flowers and kitting. All her grandchildren – Christopher, Emily and Neil – were kept warm as babies with her hand knitted jumpers.

She was a stoic, uncomplaining, Derbyshire lass. My cousin Philip has researched the Adshead family (her maiden name) and found they were originally silk-weavers from Cheshire, before that industry collapsed. And so, by way of Nottingham and Derby, she returned to county of her ancestors.

Macular degeneration slowly robbed her of her sight over the last 15 years, and her hearing was not what it once was. But Gwen soldiered on: cooking, brewing endless cups of tea, washing up and generally making sure Les behaved himself in the house. Eventually, they left their bungalow at The Beeches and moved into the warm and caring environment of Brookfield House.

When she slipped away on the afternoon of Tuesday January 16th Les was asleep in bed with a chest infection. Mercifully, he did not wake up to ever hear of Gwen’s passing until he, too, passed away in his sleep at noon the very next day.

Les was born in Oulton, Staffordshire on January 1, 1921. His family go back generations in those parts, all the way to the Norman Conquest when the French nobleman De Gryphon settled in Staffordshire. He was so clearly identified with that part of England that, on their first trip to visit me in America in the late 1970’s, a chap on the ‘plane heard him chatting to Mum, tapped him on the shoulder and asked, ‘What part of Staffordshire are you from?” (This is something that always astounds the Americans I tell that story to.)

Les was taught in a two-room schoolhouse in Oulton and left school at 14 to pursue his engineering education at night school. He earned his UEI certificates in engineering drawing in 1938 and was a draughtsman in the war while also serving in the Home Guard (very rightly called Dad’s Army) during the war. His work then took him to Rolls Royce in Derby and to his wife-to-be.

After they were married, Gwen and Les first rented a flat in Crich, a safe 17 miles north of the in-laws, and then bought their first home in Horsley where they kept chickens in a huge garden and set about starting a family. Just before I was born he transferred with Rolls to the car division in Crewe, where they moved into their first house at number 2 Clyde Grove in 1952. In 1957 they moved to a semi in Sandylands, Wistaston, just off Church Lane, which Les bought for the princely sum of £2,000.

Les was extremely handy and loved tinkering at a succession of “blinking jobs”. He kept a series of second-hand cars roadworthy: rebuilding engines, re-boring cylinders, adjusting spark plugs and so on. I can still remember the license plate of his beloved Morris Minor – HWM 775. It was a constant battle. Our annual holiday trips to North Wales often involved long stop-overs at garages in the depths of Snowdonia waiting for a replacement radiator hose to be fitted that would allow us to continue the journey to the caravan at Black Rock Sands or the holiday cottage in Borth-y-Gest where we’d join my cousins Michael and Philip and their parents Marjorie and Jack.

Those cars also took us every Easter and Christmas on the long road from Crewe to Stone where we visited his Mum and his sister Rita’s family: Margret, David and Andrew are here today. Then onto Derby and Gwen’s parents and our other cousins. We’d count the Christmas trees on the way there and sometimes stop for fish and chips from a van outside the Swan with Two Necks on the way back.

Les loved his music and he’d hum along to Sing Something Simple on the car radio. Bing Crosby was a particular favorite and he knew the lyrics of many of the crooners’ hits by heart.

Dad worked tirelessly on DIY projects, wallpapering and painting a succession of homes in Wistaston, Shavington, Winterley and The Beeches in Nantwich. He converted attics into bedrooms, erected garden sheds and much, much more.
Les was admittedly accident prone. He was famously late for my cousin Philips wedding having driven the car clear across a roundabout on the journey there. His excuse? “Well, it wasn’t there last time I drove along that road!”. Never at a loss for a project, he also tried my wife Sandra’s patience on a visit to spend the holidays with us in America when he decided to build a shelf behind the cooker just as she was getting the turkey ready for the oven on Christmas morning.

He had a life-long interest in photography and when they moved out of the Beeches I sorted through a vast collection of over 6,000 photos he’d taken over the years. Following his retirement, Les took up art with his usual passion and dedication to detail. His architecturally precise paintings of Church’s Mansions and other Nantwich landmarks hang in our homes today.

Throughout their time together, Gwen and Les enjoyed their lives to the full. They visited many parts of the UK in their caravan, spent wonderful holidays in Ireland with Sandra’s parents. Richard, Sandra’s brother, and his wife Dierdra are over from Limerick. They visited National Trust gardens around the country, including, of course, those at Dorfold Hall their son-in-law Nigel and my sister Elaine maintain so well. On multiple trips to America they visited Yosemite, the Sierra Nevada, Death Valley, New England and many other scenic spots.

I’d like to specifically thank Elaine and Nigel for the support they provided to Gwen and Les. If it was not for them, our parent’s final years would have been much different. Thank you.

However, as a wise man once said, all good things come to an end. When life had run its course, Les, ever the gentleman, let Gwen pass through the doorway before him, if only by a few hours. Many people have remarked how beautifully appropriate it is that a couple who were together so long were together at the end. It seems a very acceptable way to die.

I’ll leave you with another quote:

Death is utterly acceptable to consciousness and life. There has been endless time of numberless deaths, but neither consciousness nor life has ceased to arise. The felt quality and cycle to death has not modified the fragility of flowers, even the flowers within the human body.

Thank you all for coming to celebrate the 97 years Gwen and Les spent on the earth. Unlike the flowers, their memory won’t fade.

Those were my prepared remarks. However, earlier this week I spoke with Gavin and Max, the funeral directors. They explained that Gwen and Les will be placed in the Rose Garden behind the crematorium. A hole will be dug in the flower beds and our parent’s ashes will be placed in the earth. This reminded me of the lyrics to an Irish musician Bob Geldof’s song on the 1992 album ‘The Happy Club’. It wouldn’t have been Les’s cup of tea, in fact you probably couldn’t get further away from Bing Crosby. The words seem very appropriate given what Gavin and Max told me. So I’ll leave you with ‘The Soft Soil’:

Let the soil be your soft pillow
The grassy blanket keep you warm
Let the leafy branches cool you
And the blue skies keep you from all harm
Let the wind keep fresh your memory
Let it blow across the land
Let the rain refresh your spirit
Let the damp earth hold your hand.

Now the evening sun is racing on
Lying flat on wintery fields
It carries on its restless winds
The sounds of fifty church bells pealing.

And all the bells you’ve ever heard
Are ringing out for wat you’ve done
Like all the dreams in all the world
You’re shining reckless like the sun.

This video is a memorial to their lives.