I was born in 1959, on the eve of ‘the sixties’, a last echo of the baby boomer generation. I grew up in the north London suburb of Barnet and I have three brothers. I am son, number three. At some point I realised that my family, far from being completely like everybody else’s, was rather odd. I suppose my parents could be described as being upper-working to lower middle-class2. My mother’s parents came from a very impoverished background in inner north London. My grandfather often told the story of how he had lied (as many did) about his age in order to get into the army at fifteen during the First World War and had found life more comfortable in the trenches than at home because at least he had a bed to himself. My maternal grandparents were determined to ‘better’ themselves. My grandmother did not go out to work but my grandfather worked at a number of jobs after the war; as a steward on passenger liners, as a warehouseman on the London docks and finally talking his way into a job ‘on the print’ in the days when the print workers’ union ruled the printing shops. My grandfather eventually became ‘Father of the Chapel’ in his union. This family history is derived mainly from the stories my mother told me later, my direct memories of my grandfather were of a cantankerous old man who spent a good deal of his retirement in the pub with his mates and who rarely talked about his past. He was more interested in railing against Harold Wilson and Barbara Castle who he blamed for betraying the labour movement3. So my mother4 grew up in a politically active family dominated by my grandfather (we called him ‘grandpa’), part of the ‘working class aristocracy’.
My father’s family I know much less about, partly because he never talked about them to us and partly because they lived sixty miles away and so we saw them very little5. My father is half-Irish but we did not visit our relations in Ireland until I was in my teens and other than my name this ethnic background cannot be said to have had any noticeable influence on us. Even my father’s Catholicism was dropped early on in favour of his new secular faith6. The left-wing political convictions came also from this side of the family. Both my father and his older brother were committed members of the Communist Party. My father worked as an accounts clerk and later chief group accountant, in the heart of the City, for a large insurance company, which did not leave much scope for his political activities. He must have had to keep very quiet about his communism in the Square Mile.
My mother suffered from an ear disease in her infancy which left her partially deaf and had a significant effect on her. She struggled to hear radio and television and so turned to books. Like other working-class girls in the 1940s, she left school at fourteen with no qualifications and began to train as a dressmaker; however, she hated this and found herself a much more enjoyable job as one of the growing army of office workers in the City. Despite the sheer hard work of bringing us up and her sometimes precarious health, my mother’s restless intellect needed a challenge. There were no part-time courses to speak of in those days and so she studied for four A levels and then an honours degree in history from London University, entirely by correspondence course.
My parents’ hope for a swift workers’ revolution after the war soon gave way to the usual disillusionment. My mother returned to her childhood love of the Church of England. My father clung on to his political faith for a few years longer, but as with everything else, eventually followed my mother’s determined lead. I too became a regular church attender and a member of both the choir and religious youth groups as did all of my brothers to a greater or lesser extent7.
I thus grew up in what became a middle class suburban family but one with a serious political and intellectual atmosphere. I was surrounded by my mother’s books in almost every room in the house. Almost inevitably I too became a bookworm, browsing freely from the family book store. Left wing views had to be absorbed from the atmosphere, my parents rarely talked about politics directly to us. I can remember being shocked at the existence of opposing opinions at secondary school. We found ourselves swimming against the tide of our middle class peers almost without realising it.
I did not enjoy my school days either at primary or secondary school. Perhaps inevitably, given my family background, there was always a strong sense of rebellion against authority and being told what to do. I was a bright and articulate child who chose to channel these abilities into arguing with the teachers and this made for a great deal of conflict. This was not of an overt disciplinary kind but rather a background war of non-cooperation and refusal. I still managed somehow to get to the local grammar school, probably because my English was considerably in advance of most of my peers.
I hated my all-boys grammar school with a vengeance: I made a point of being scruffy and uncooperative, I never did my homework and the usual punishments for not doing so did nothing to change my behaviour. I do not think that all of this was deliberate resistance, I just could not manage to fit into the system or to overcome my reluctance to waste my home time on dull school work.
The inevitable result was that I came bottom of the class in every subject for the first four years of school except where a particularly empathetic teacher managed to coax me into greater cooperation. I irritated my teachers immensely. I was clearly not stupid or uninterested in many of my subjects; I just refused to cooperate with the requirements of homework or to make an effort. I hated coming bottom of the class, knew that this did not reflect my ability, but was unable to break out of the spiral. Simple self-preservation, and a determination to prove the dire predictions on my reports wrong, induced me to do just enough work to pass my O levels. I left school at the earliest opportunity, aged sixteen8.
I then went to the local further education college to top up my O levels with maths and science, none of which I had undertaken at school, being totally unable to motivate myself in these subjects. For the first time I enjoyed being in an educational environment. We were treated like adults (mostly), given a good deal of freedom about attendance and I had chosen what to study. However, it was at this point that my father made one of his intermittent interventions in our upbringing.
My father came from a more middle class background than my mother and had stayed on at school until sixteen and taken his ‘matriculation’ as the school leaving exam was then called. He had then gone to work for an insurance company in the days of paternalistic financial institutions. He had a break from this work while he served in the RAF during the Second World War but returned to the same firm after this, where he stayed for the next 45 years until his retirement. For my father, this was the model for our working lives also. He wanted us to leave school and get nice secure jobs in banks or insurance companies, which is just what my eldest brother did.
It never crossed my parents’ minds that people of our social class could send their children to university. My eldest brother had not passed the eleven plus and so had been sent to a secondary modern school where the emphasis was on vocational education not academic achievement. By the time my next eldest brother left school, it was a different matter. He did his A levels at the local college, rather than at school, and then went on to university, with the support of my mother and the reluctant acquiescence of my father. When my turn came my father appeared to have won the debate and I was encouraged to stop studying and find a job. I duly worked for two years in insurance companies.
My first job was a disaster, I felt like I was back at school being given endless dull but detailed tasks requiring a numerical precision I was incapable of and there never seemed to be anyone I could ask for help. I was sacked for general uselessness after three months9. I then spent three months ‘on the dole’ which I quite enjoyed until I got bored of it and began to feel the pressure of the expectations of my parents and others that I really ought to do something with my life. I then got a job in the City as a marine insurance clerk, following in my father’s footsteps. This was better; I liked the people I worked with, going out to lunch with them each day usually followed by a trip to the pub.
With hindsight this office and the culture of the City was about to disappear and I was working in a living museum. There were no computers or even electronic calculators, everything was recorded in great leather-bound ledgers and I spent most of my days updating piles of policy records by hand and then re-filing them. Charles Dickens would have been instantly familiar with the setting. The company seemed to run entirely under the steam of its own bureaucratic rules. There was a hierarchy but management seemed to happen invisibly. One’s superior showed you what to do when you arrived and usually checked and initialled your completed work but after that you just got on with it. The work was easy, untaxing and rarely changed and so the sort of pro-active interventionist entrepreneurial management more familiar to us now simply did not exist.
The lack of overt authority left me feeling quite content in many ways with this job and it was nice to have a bit of money in my pocket (annual salary £2000) but even a benign bureaucracy has a down side and in this case it was the sheer soul-destroying boredom that built up over a period of weeks and months10. As my eighteenth birthday slipped away I realised that I would have to get out. The only solution was to return to college and then go straight on to university. In this way I could have five years of relative freedom, studying what I wanted, and could thus avoid having to face the unpleasant and boring business of earning my living for what, at eighteen, seemed like an eternity11.
When I returned to college I found studying very different from before. My time at work had changed me more than I thought. To spend four or five hours a day at college and another couple of hours a day in private study seemed a permanent holiday compared to office drudgery, for the first time I began to do well and was regarded as one of the brighter prospects by my teachers. I got decent ‘A’ level grades and went to Hull University to study geography, again with no particularly clear strategy other than it was my strongest A level subject and so was a convenient ticket to a continuation of my student life.
Being very politically aware, even though distracted by my first enjoyments of the various pleasures of adulthood, I was acutely conscious that things seemed to be going seriously wrong. The Callaghan government ran into the sands and the first election in which I voted brought Margaret Thatcher into power. The progressive sixties and early seventies were giving way to something quite different12.
Hull University was, in most respects, a continuation of my college student life but with the added bonus of not being at home. The other difference was that it quickly became evident that studying Geography was a mistake. By the end of the first term I had completely lost interest in it. I read, as usual, voraciously, but not in my subject. Other than this disappointment my student days wore on in a mostly happy alcohol induced haze but I always had a clock ticking in the back of my mind; the moment when I should have to decide what to do with my life. In the meantime I met my future wife. By my third year we were pretty serious about each other and decided to move in together. She was only in the sixth form and so we planned that she would go to London University, enabling me to return home and find a job, the trouble was doing what?
In desperation I applied for a long shot, a job in financial journalism in London. What possessed me to apply for it, I have no idea but, to my great surprise, I survived two interviews and was finally offered the job. I was both pleased and appalled. The problem of earning my living was solved and my parents and girlfriend’s parents were pleased with me. It was a bit of a ‘flash’ job that I could show off about to my as yet un-placed friends. On the other hand, I had no idea whether I would like it or whether I could do it and worst of all my dread of the boredom and oppressiveness of employment was as strong as ever, I simply did not want to go out to work.
I found a flat in Stoke Newington and my girlfriend moved in. Another big change: living as a couple and going to work everyday. My job quickly turned into a nightmare: I liked the writing but my boss was a hard-nosed journalist of the old school and an incredible bully. I felt trapped by the expectations of family and friends in a job that confirmed all my fears about the world of work13. I became more and more depressed until one day, after about four months, I woke up and realised that I couldn’t face going back and so I never did. I was free but unemployed and it took me another eight months to find a job, this time working for Harrods in the wine department, which again was un-taxing and bearable but quickly became incredibly boring as well as physically very uncomfortable.
Eventually, after meeting an FE lecturer at a party, I realised that this could be a lifeline, a straw to clutch at. I had loved my days as an FE student, and being a lecturer was the next best thing. I got a place at Garnett College in Roehampton, leaving Harrods after a year to become a full time student again. When I began my teaching practice at Hackney College, I realised that I could teach and that I enjoyed it. For the first time I could envisage a job that I might enjoy doing, find interesting, and that I felt good at. At the end of the year I walked into a job teaching economics and have been a professional educator of one sort or another for the rest of my working life. I had finally found my vocation and no matter how bad some of my jobs in education have been, my love of teaching, and the pleasure of knowing I do it well, has always been enormously comforting and satisfying.
My first teaching job started to go downhill after an LEA re-structuring and my wife was becoming fed up with her teaching job as well. She got a job as a trainee chartered accountant in London but we started to look at jobs in the north, where house prices were more reasonable. Eventually I got an FE lectureship in IT and my wife transferred to an accountancy firm in Manchester, I was to be to be the first member of my family to settle outside of ‘the south’14.
Oldham, a run-down mill town on the edge of the Pennines, was very different from our life in London but I enjoyed my job for the first year. I was second in charge of the computing department. Everything seemed to be going well until I managed to fall out with the new vice principal, although I’m still not quite sure how this happened. When my boss was forced to leave under a cloud, I found myself passed over for promotion and feeling increasingly vulnerable. I had only been at Oldham for a couple of years but I started looking for new jobs once more. During this time we decided to start a family and when a senior lectureship came up at Hull College, I applied, as much as anything else because we thought it would be handy to be near my wife’s family when our first child was born15.
So, as I turned 30, we moved to Hull as my first daughter was born16. I was a senior lecturer in computing at Hull which I hated almost from the first day I started work, although later I found camaraderie, friendship and solidarity there as well. The college seemed a cold, impersonal and unfriendly place after Oldham and the students dour and uncommunicative. Management was autocratic and relationships between senior managers and lecturers mutually hostile. Within twelve months all senior lecturers were moved onto new conditions of service and I lost my treasured long summer break17.
I seemed to be well regarded by the college management, however, and after two years I was transferred into the business studies department to be Head of School of IT and Computing. I was now a ‘proper’ manager, with staff to manage, budgets to monitor, targets to meet and plans to present and implement. For the first year or so I enjoyed this immensely. I led a small but generally committed and effective team of staff and got great plaudits for managing to turn around what had been seen as a problem department. However, FE was coming under increasing pressure and I found myself under great stress in the classic middle manager’s trap, caught between the demands of both subordinates and superiors, with little control over either.
I began applying for assistant principal jobs and picking-up interviews, as by now my CV was quite strong. The experience of going for the interviews was salutary; the colleges I visited were even worse than the one I was at, senior managers were invariably expected to be macho arse-kickers and at their desks seventy hours a week, when they were not at meetings spouting strategic management gobbledegook. I oscillated between the desire to do well at the interview and the dread of actually being offered the job. After one interview where I had come a very close second I decided I had to make a more fundamental break. It seemed at the time and in retrospect to be one of the few moments when I really made a decision that changed my life rather than drifting into things. I can remember driving back from Northamptonshire having not got the job and feeling nothing but relief, suddenly sure that I could not stay in FE any longer.
Changing jobs now though was much more daunting. I had a well-established career in further education, responsibilities for two children and was moving all too swiftly into middle age. What I would really like to do, I decided, was to be in higher education. I had always thought of myself as having a good intellect and had always pursued my intellectual interests over the years through my reading. The problem was that I was not very well qualified, only having a first degree. The first step then would need to be a Masters degree and the logical qualification was an MBA which would enable me to make use of my experience as a manager. I signed up for a two year part-time MBA programme at the local university.
For a couple of years after graduating, my escape plan seemed to have failed. I had got some part-time university teaching but I was an expensive proposition for straight lectureships at cash-strapped new universities and didn’t have the research credibility for traditional ones. Then I got a lucky break. I had applied at York for a hybrid administration and teaching post in a small management centre. Over the summer I got a call. Was I still interested in a job? After Hull, York seemed incredibly free. I had a fraction of the work load and almost none of the stress. All this was very welcome but in other respects my position was precarious. I had wanted an academic contract but my lack of research credentials in a traditional university made this difficult and I had had to compromise by accepting an academic related administration contract albeit with vague promises of a transfer if I proved myself as a researcher. And I was attracted by research, which simply seemed like an extension of the studying I had enjoyed during my MBA. The next step then was to turn myself into a ‘proper’ academic and so I signed up for a PhD, which is where this thesis begins.
As I write this I might be said to have succeeded in my latest attempt to make working life bearable or even enjoyable. I have managed to present papers at academic conferences without totally humiliating myself, have had a couple of things published and eventually persuaded the university to give me a full academic contract. My PhD studies are nearing their end and so the title of ‘Doctor’ is within reach. My department is expanding and so my future in many ways seems secure. But like the end of all histories this is a very arbitrary place to stop. Looking ahead to the future there seems to be just as many uncertainties and who knows whether I won’t feel that I have to escape again?