I'll be honest I struggled at school even though I passed the 11+ exam. I always performed poorly and in the first two years at Grammar School the best I ever achieved for term work was second from bottom and for exams, twentieth out of twenty seven – not good.
In 1970 the school became comprehensive and they stopped reading out the results in assembly – about the only good thing I can say about the comprehensive system. Anyway the only subjects I found interesting were Chemistry and History though I sometimes used to like composing essays for English Language. The education system seemed to be largely a waste of time for most children and an even bigger waste of money for the taxpayer. I still think it is now.
Because the only subject I was good at was Chemistry I decided that the best career (note how career sounds so much better than job) for me was in the Civil Service as a Scientist. I struggled to get five O'levels after two attempts and then after a bit I managed to land a position as an Assistant Scientific Officer.
For a while I had visions of a slow but steady rise through the ranks. I also used to imagine me coming in to start the day in a smart blue suit greeting the junior staff with a cheery 'morning' before pushing back the frontiers of mankind's knowledge, which would of course lead to Utopia…
The actual position entailed analysing engine oil samples from helicopters. Basically we determined the amount of wear metal by using an Atomic Absorption Spectrometer. If the wear metals began to rise too fast then it would suggest that vital bearings were about to break up. It gave advance warning of catastrophic engine failure which not only saved pilot's lives it also saved millions of pounds for the taxpayer.
I was quite proud of my job and I thought I was good at it. I was good at it in actual fact because I was conscientious and accurate. But the head of department took me aside one day and informed me that I wasn't going anywhere because I lacked ambition and drive*. I responded that I did everything I was asked to do. He then told me that I didn't show enough interest in the rest of the department. I explained that I was taught to respect boundaries and not to poke my nose in where it wasn't wanted. He dismissed that.
The boss was a highly educated man who only failed to attain his PhD because a fire destroyed his work before he could submit it. He was basically a decent fellow but he didn't suffer fools gladly. He was also a bit of a snob and looked down on the working classes. Naturally, he was a socialist and voted Labour.
The upshot of this encounter was that he wanted me to undergo an I.Q. test – the other members of the department had taken it so I couldn't really refuse. I took the accursed test and my I.Q. was measured at 105. It was higher than the man in the street but the lowest in the department. shades of Grammar School and end of term assemblies.
I felt humiliated and my confidence never recovered. I also failed an exam at college. In truth my career was over before it had even started but what could I do? I soldiered on and tried to make the best of things. I was not yet twenty, unable to get a girlfriend (well, a decent girlfriend, I could pull sluts) because I was plain, spotty, big nosed and skinny and to boot my professional dreams were shattered. I did think about suicide.
I eventually left the establishment much to my colleagues' relief but not before a few rather satisfying incidents which consoled me a little.
As I explained earlier my job – which a trained monkey could do according to my immediate boss – was to analyse oil samples from helicopter engines to pick up excessive wear and prevent system failure. One type of engine was prone to aviation fuel seeping into the lubrication system. If too much did then an engine fire was a possibility. It was due to a design fault on a seal which was being looked into. In the meantime we were to sniff each oil sample and then determine how much fuel as a percentage was in the system – if it was more than ten percent then the oil system was to be drained and then replenished with new oil. After a while one could guess just by sniffing what the level was. If not we would distil some of the oil and determine it more scientifically.
One day I came into work and the boss was absolutely incandescent. An engine had burst into flames and it was thought the cause was fuel seepage.
“I want to find out who analysed these samples and didn't check for contamination. What are we doing paying good money to these retards who can't even be bothered to do the job properly!”, the boss had ranted before storming into his office slamming the door behind him and probably more concerned about how this would affect his career than any safety issues.
I said to the fellow who worked with me analysing oil samples who was even lower than me in the hierarchy, “I don't think we're retards, and I know you are conscientious just like me. Something isn't right here.”
A few minutes later the boss emerged and said to me, “I want you to dig out every oil sample from this engine, determine how much fuel was in each, and more importantly I need to know who was responsible. I'm considering disciplinary action.”
Sure enough I re-checked the samples and discovered who had analysed them – not one had me or my colleague been responsible for. They all had above-levels of fuel in with the last one being well over the safety level. The last one I had real trouble in finding out who had done it because the record card had gone missing, surprise, surprise. I persevered in my search and eventually found it - the last oil sample had been analysed by the boss's ‘blue-eyed boy’. Result or what!
Because we were a seven-day-a-week facility other staff members of the lab would work weekends analysing samples – ‘trained monkeys’ on double time and expenses. In the rush to get away for sailing or golf they had failed to perform the job to the standard of the 'retards'. I'd felt totally vindicated. Of course, no disciplinary charges were levelled against the ‘blue eyed boy’ but for the sake of appearances we were all called in to listen to the boss give us a pep talk on the importance of vigilance. At the end of the talk the boss turned to me and said, “Matt, you look like you have something to say.”
“Yeah, I was just wondering what we are doing paying good money to these retards who can't even do the job properly.”
The boss looked daggers at me and then stormed out. I felt like I had just scored the winning goal for England in the World Cup.
Not so long after the boss challenged me to a game of chess. We went through a phase of playing chess during the dinner hour and had a chess ladder. Despite my low I.Q. I could hold my own and while never top I was never bottom either. The boss possessed a very high I.Q. and obviously felt he could thrash me – the 'retard' remark had rankled with him and it was only fitting that I be put in my place. I agreed to the challenge and looking back it was Mensa versus 'Denser'.
We commenced play and there was no doubt that he was very clever – he set up some very subtle traps for me which it took a lot of concentration to suss out and then avoid. In fact he spent all his time scheming on them whilst I carefully set up my attack. It was a real shock to him when I announced 'check mate'.
“That was a fluke. I'll play you again!”
He played me again and it was exactly the same pattern – I won. This time he was absolutely livid.
“Put your lab coat back on and get back to work - NOW!”
He spent the afternoon in his office sulking. I had now equalled Geoff Hurst.
His weakness of course was that he couldn't see the bigger picture – depth reduces field of view. Is it more desirable to have less resolution and 180 degree vision or to be focused with tunnel vision? I'm putting it simplistically but I think there may be something in it. I have another speculation about this but I will leave that for another day.
Okay, one more World Cup goal…
The fellow who was my immediate boss wasn't that keen on me and he often treated me like shit – dressing me down in front of others when he should have taken me to one side. I really needed to get him back. And I did.
The main laboratory was the largest section of the establishment with the smaller offices radiating round it. There was a lot of equipment humming with cooler fans and ticking over. We would finish work at a quarter to five and just a few minutes before that time I would switch everything off. The boss wouldn't allow it to be turned off too early so as to create the impression with his superiors that we were an establishment always ready for everything. I noticed that as soon as I turned everything off my boss, like Pavlov's Dog, would get into his motorcycle waterproofs, put his helmet on and then shoot off. My boss if the big boss was away would come in late and go home early but the week previous he had been driving out of the yard only to be caught by the big boss – he had been bollocked and everyone knew he had been bollocked too. This one afternoon I waited for the big boss to go and visit some big wig and when he did I clicked off all the instruments – it was twenty past four. My boss fell for it, put on his wet weather gear and left the lab about twenty five minutes before he should have. Once he had gone I'd switched back on all the instruments. A few minutes later the big boss returned and had asked where my boss was.
Dishonesty isn't really a part of me. “I think he's gone home,” I'd said.
He was called into the big boss's office the next day first thing. I didn't laugh. Much.
*A couple of years later I attended a career appraisal. The guy who interviewed me said during it, “It has been suggested that you lack ambition, Mr Triewly.” I had replied: “Well a man who is thinking about the next job is a man who isn’t concentrating on the job in hand.”
He never had an answer to that.