Tuesday 31 July 2012

Early days in Ashby (leicestershire) - Part 3

Intially I had worked for United Biscuits down in their Osterley factory - just off the A4 - and I had lived in Acton. When I had been offered the UB job, following an interview up in Ashby, nothing was said about me working in London so it was a bit of a shock to receive a letter telling me of the change of plan. I enjoyed my time in London and there was always plenty that needed to be done.

I was never really clear why, after 3 months, I was moved (back) up to the Ashby site. If anything the department there was rather overstaffed even before I started work there so when I arrived in January 1977 there wasn’t much for me to do. Most, if not all, of the more interesting work was hijacked by the senior staff and as the “new boy” I either had nothing whatsoever to do and was literally sitting around all day feeling bored and demotivated or, if I was really unlucky, I was sent off on fairly pointless missions to Grimsby or Fakenham for several days at a time so I could feel bored, lonely and demotivated over there instead! I spent many nights at the Humber Royal or at the Grimsby Crest hotels and many days at the Grimsby factory for no tangible benefit to either me or to my employer.
Eventually I started working with Doctor Terry Sharp. He was OK as a line manager and I rather suspect that he shared my reservations about the department.  Most of the time he and I seemed to be working on “Lewis Wheat” products. I think the idea was to make instant wheat rather like instant rice by soaking the wheat grains in salt water, then cracking the grains open by passing them between rotating steel rollers before drying them prior to adding flavours.  I thought we made some quite good products but as far as I can remember none made it to large scale production.

During my time there we took on even more staff – including the former Nottingham University graduate Ruth Henry (was Ruth Biggin) - but without there being any increase in the total amount of work that needed doing. Even with hindsight the unrestrained "empire building" that went on was bizarre. I do think that the people that ran the graduate trainee scheme didn't co-ordinate well with the people who were supposed to supervise the graduates on a day-to-day basis. .

Wednesday 25 July 2012

Early days in Ashby (Leicestershire) - Part 2

I had made a number of assumptions about my new job at United Biscuits that proved to be incorrect. The combined effect of all of these was to make my time there both unhappy and professionally unproductive. Well, I say assumptions, perhaps more correctly I should say that I had expected what was told to me both at and after my interview would bear at least some resemblance to what really happened!

I had expected that the job – Product Development Technologist – would make use of the knowledge and skills I had acquired during my three year degree course at Nottingham University. It is fair to say that it didn’t. The creative side of the work was done by the departmental chef (Bill Tidman), and the scientific and technical aspects of manufacturing the tiny percentage of products that made it through the product development cycle from initial concept to product launch was almost always done by factory staff based at the relevant United Biscuits’ sites.

Convenience Foods, where I was based, was the smallest of the three product development groups and was very much the poor relation in terms of the number and range of products being worked on. When I arrived the focus of the section was almost entirely on “KP Ooodles” which was a Japanese idea with a pilot plant initially in Carlisle and then in Grimsby. It was never a particularly high quality product and since the only place it was being manufactured was 3 hours away from the base of staff tasked with over-seeing its manufacture it was rather a poisoned chalice that people were happy to unload onto me.

Eventually there was some diversification into instant wheat – a good idea that never seemed to take off – and also into pouch packed meals. These meals, initially produced under the name of Howards Haute Cuisine, had a manufacturing base in Fakenham (Norfolk). Again this was a lengthy journey from Leicestershire and it should have clear to the bosses that having a research base in the middle of the country responsible for products only manufactured on the east coast wasn’t a great idea!

As a scientific aside - the under processing of the pouch packs was potentially quite a serious issue public health issue and even with hindsight I don't understand why the quickest and easiest solution wasn't adopted.

Wednesday 18 July 2012

Early days in Ashby (Leicestershire)

When I moved up to Ashby-de-la-Zouch from Acton (west London) I had three months living in a horrible bedsit while Claire and I waited for our house purchase to be completed - all the time hoping it would happen before our wedding in April. Claire was still living at Springhouse Farm, of Kegworth air crash fame, so she was fairly comfortable and she also had our mutual friend Ruth for company. I, on the other hand, was living in attic room with no proper heating in a massive house run by a dragon.

There was snow lying when I arrived just after Christmas and I can remember catching the bus over to Loughborough to collect my motor bike from the railway station only to find that the office was shut. I then had to repeat the journey the next day. Much the same thing happened the first day I arrived at the United Biscuits factory. The Convenience Foods section was still closed for the Christmas break and I had been hanging around for quite a while before anybody bothered to tell me. The letter I had been sent was quite clear that I should have been starting that day – I was paid for that day and it wasn’t taken from my meagre holiday allocation so it was all a bit of a mystery.

David Williams was my boss. He suffered from “small man syndrome” more than anybody I had met before or since. He didn’t ever seem to do anything and it was a mystery how he managed to fill his day. Bill Tidman was his lap-dog but at least Bill was always busy being the creative brain behind some of the projects the department was working on. I cannot recall any of Bill’s projects becoming a commercial success so perhaps he wasn’t quite as wonderful as he was always claiming to be!

Friday 13 July 2012

The New Biggles Companion.

The economics of publishing a physical, as opposed to an electronic, version of the New Biggles Companion have improved quite significantly over the last couple of years. When I first discovered Lulu I seem to recall being shocked at how expensive short run printing remained so I can only assume that Lulu have changed their business model. 
It is going to be an interesting exercise to compare the sales of the two versions over the next few months.
What is contained in the New Biggles Companion?

Biggles 1899 to 1945 - Part 1 covers the First World War and Biggles' service in the Royal Flying Corps.

Biggles 1899 to 1945 - Part 2 covers his "footloose and fancy free" life between the two world wars.

Biggles 1899 to 1945 - Part 3 covers his military service during the Second World War.

The complete who, what and when of Biggles' work in the Special Air Police.

An in-depth review of Biggles Second Case.

In theory it should only take a few weeks for the physical book to be available through Amazon but it always a bit of a lottery as to how quickly and how smoothly the different distribution channels swing into action.
I would love to see the sales figures of all the different books that Lulu publish. I suspect that the median and mode sales (excluding sales to the different authors) is probably under 10 copies. "Never is the course of human history was so much written by so many to be read by so few."

Saturday 7 July 2012

No More Loneliness - Eva and Ella's book

The book I have been working on for so long with Eve and Ella's book is finished - much to the relief of all concerned - and is now available from Lulu.


“No More Loneliness”, perhaps unsurprisingly, transcends the traditional book categories used by retailers. Yes, it is biographical and yes, the two heroines are lesbian, but there is far more to it than this. One thing it definitely isn’t is "misery lit".

Two girls, one abandoned as a baby and with a whole series of failed foster placements behind her – the other physically abused for years by her sadistic father – meet in a Children’s Home and become friends and then lovers. Their true life stories, told in poetry and prose, will amuse, frustrate and inspire even the most cynical reader.

Information on the major traumas has been kept to a minimum and the focus is far more on the daily problems faced by young people who lack parental support and for whom friendships can make the difference between success and failure or life and death.

Eve and Ella are both thrilled by the final product and that is by far the most important measure of success. They are now keen to start wotk on the second volume that will cover their pregnancies and will also include contributions from a number of their friends - most especially Didi. I have asked for a short sabbatical before I start work on this as I have a number of other projects that still require marketing material to be generated.

Monday 2 July 2012

Mentoring young people (2)

You don’t normally expect to agree with everything a person writes. But when you find yourself holding no views in common with a person it is rather disconcerting.

This week I have had a series of emails from the Grand Parent of a student I am mentoring. He has been in dispute with my “client” for some months now and both parties were keen to seek help from outside the family. The only reason that I agreed to get involved was that the vast majority of the facts were not in dispute. The conflict between them seemed to revolve around why things had happened rather than what things had happened. Give me a “why” rather than a “what” dispute every time!

The Grand Parent was articulate, educated and wealthy – and most unpleasant to work with! Common sense and compassion didn’t seem to have been included in his character: neither did even the smallest fragment of empathy with either his grand daughter or with me as the mediator. His starting (and finishing) point seemed to be that both she and I had to accept everything he had said or done was 100% reasonable. If we dared to venture any opinion that differed from his we were either being “unprofessional” (me) or “disrespectful” (her).

He didn’t give any ground on any issue and it was hard to understand why he had signed up for mediation. Only once before have I ever had to work with a person so totally uncommitted to the process and in the end I had to share this opinion with him.

Sadly, I now think the matter will have to go to Court. I think the facts speak for themselves and that he has diverted substantial sums of money from his daughter’s estate into his own pocket to the substantial detriment of his grand daughter.