8: Small Triumphs

For my final year at Wolverhampton Polytechnic, I shared a flat in a new Halls of Residence – in one of the less salubrious part of town – with four students from my degree course and a complete stranger, Rj, who I am still friends with to this day.

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1980 – Lomas Street Halls of Residence (background), in one of the less salubrious parts of Wolverhampton

Ironically, the ‘cool kids’ on my course – who had started talking to me when word got out about me singing in a rock band in France – went back to ignoring me after they heard about my initial parachute jump ‘failure.’ Not that I cared what they thought. It had been a personal challenge, and I had emerged victorious. Their opinion couldn’t have mattered less. Besides, they hadn’t deigned to be my friends before, so I really hadn’t lost anything.

To stay fit I took up badminton again, and signed up for judo club after a break of several years. I also discovered squash – which became my favourite game, because I didn’t need a partner. Having few sporty friends in Wolverhampton, I liked the fact that I could play squash on my own – hitting the ball against the front wall, or walloping it so that it also bounced off a side wall or the back wall before coming back into play. Being non-competitive by nature, I enjoyed the challenge of playing alone, rather than keeping score against a competitor. And it was fun to win every game…

* * *

After Easter, and my final parachute jump, I decided to buy a car. I couldn’t actually afford a car, but I felt I couldn’t afford to be without one. Every time I was offered a lift to the skydiving club, there was the expectation of a reciprocal favour – which I had so far managed to talk my way out of. But I felt on edge all the time, and I craved independence.

I found a dirt-cheap car advertised in the local paper – but I knew nothing about cars, so I wanted someone with me, for advice. I asked Ls, who lived in one of the flats next door and claimed to be an expert. When we arrived at the seller’s house, I instantly fell in love with the car – a conifer green Triumph 1300. It was old-fashioned, with a walnut veneer dashboard, and it brought back happy memories of family cars I had ridden in as a child. Ls said the car appeared sound, so I bought it – unfortunately his expert opinion was less sound.

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1980 with my first car – a Triumph 1300

That was three days before I was due to take my driving test. It’s not that I was being over-confident – it simply never occurred to me that I might fail my test. So it was a small triumph when I passed.

* * *

I had learned a bit about entrepreneurship from Dt and decided to try my hand at business. I had previously worked in shops and offices, but I had never tried being entrepreneurial before. My first venture was taking Polaroid photographs of newbie parachute jumpers at the skydiving club. I sold a grand total of one photo – but I guess that wasn’t bad for my first attempt. Next I pinned a poster on the Students’ Union noticeboard, advertising hand-painted T-shirts. I didn’t attract many customers, but I learned a bit about promoting myself – and I enjoyed the process of painting the T-shirts.

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The T-shirt I hand-painted for Ls to wear to the Rush concert

My biggest commission was for Ls, who was going to a Rush concert and asked if I would paint a T-shirt based on a couple of their album covers. I was happy to oblige, and I enjoyed the challenge. Ls proudly wore the T-shirt to the concert – and he was so pleased with the design that he paid me double what I was asking. I consider that a major success.

* * *

Around Easter time, I noticed the more dedicated students were spending most of their time in the Library, revising for the final exams. It suddenly hit me that I had only attended three classes for one of my subjects – a history course, delivered in a truly uninspiring manner and crammed with names, dates and facts, which I found difficult to remember. I needed to pass all my exams in order to be awarded a degree – fortunately, a couple of friends were happy to let me photocopy their notes, so I had some data to work with.

I do better in subjects that require analysis, or the application of a formula to arrive at an answer. If I understand what I’ve learned, I usually remember it. I also have to remember some building blocks, such as vocabulary in the case of languages – but I can generally make myself understood with even the most basic vocabulary. whereas some friends I admired, who were like walking dictionaries, often struggled with the structure of language and found it difficult to string a sentence together.

My preference had always been to work smarter, not harder – long before I heard the saying – so my approach to revision was analytical too. At school we had practised answering questions from past exam papers – so, as my final exams approached, I bought copies of old exam papers from the Library, to analyse the questions. I found that roughly 50% of the questions were repeated – they were phrased in different ways, but the information required to answer the questions was the same.

Just as I had done for my History ‘O’-level exam – which my teacher told me I would fail – I made concise notes about the topics that were repeated. There would be other questions on the final paper, but that didn’t matter. I was aiming for a Pass, not perfection.

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1980 graduation photograph

In the lead-up to the exam, I read my notes over and over, every day, to cram as many details as possible into my brain. Outside the exam room I remained calm and refused to talk to anyone – while everyone else was panicking and comparing revision notes.

Once we were seated and told that we could turn over our exam papers, the very first thing I did was to scribble down on a piece of scrap paper all of the facts I could remember. I knew that, as soon as I started to read my exam paper, I would forget the details I had crammed into my short-term memory – so it was important to do a brain dump immediately.

Thanks to my revision strategy, I passed my final exams, got my degree and was awarded the grade of 2(ii) predicted in my first year. I was over the moon.

* * *

After graduation, I didn’t want to go back to living in Birmingham with my parents, no matter how much I loved them. Having lived independently for five years, it felt like a backward step. So when a fellow student said he had a spare room in his house, just outside Newcastle-upon-Tyne, I jumped at the opportunity to spend the summer in a part of England I had never visited before.

I packed what I needed and drove north – aware that my car was unreliable and probably wouldn’t manage the journey. But I had faith, and we got there in one piece. Shortly afterwards, on a trip out to the countryside with my landlord friend, I was not so fortunate. The gearbox got stuck in fourth gear after an emergency stop – when a tractor unexpectedly charged out of a field in front of me. I successfully drove back to Newcastle – over twenty miles, up hill and down dale, in fourth gear – but the repairs to the gearbox would have cost far more than the car was worth.

It had served its purpose, and it was time to let go – so I decided to scrap it.

I had always managed to find office work during previous academic holidays, in Birmingham and Manchester, so I assumed it would be just as easy getting employment in Newcastle. I was wrong. After a one week assignment, I was left high and dry. I didn’t really want a permanent job, as I didn’t know how long I would be staying in Newcastle, but it seemed like the only option.

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1980 – the beach at Tynemouth, near Newcastle-upon-Tyne

I was offered an administrative job by a Norwegian dentist-come-poet, whose intention was to start a new business in Consett, County Durham – an area badly hit by the closure of the steel works. His plan was to rent a small industrial unit, with his American business partner, and sell two things: revolutionary conical-shaped hair curlers; and microlight aircraft.

On one occasion I was tasked with transporting furniture, on the roof of his car, to a house he was buying in Consett. Two months later, when I returned the furniture to where it came from, I realised he had overstretched himself, and it was time for me to move on. So I caught the bus home to Birmingham.

Back in Birmingham, I succeeded in finding some work through temping agencies – although it wasn’t as free-flowing as it had been in previous years. In December I got a contract for a whole month – earning just enough to cover the cost of train fare plus basic accommodation for a two week trip to France, visiting friends between Christmas and New Year.

Revitalised by jubilant birthday celebrations with Julie and A, New Year celebrations with the band and its entourage – and a heart-to-heart conversation with F’s mother about my future “plans” – I headed back home to Birmingham in early January, in search of a career.


8 thoughts on “8: Small Triumphs

  1. Oh my god! We’re meant to be friends – I’m another female Rush fan. My ringtone is the overture from 2112 and my wake up song is Closer to the Heart. If you’ve not seen Cinema Strangiato – Craig can play La Villa all the way through on the guitar by the way. We both love Rush. I got him vintage concert Rush shirts for his birthday last year!

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    1. Haha! I have to admit, I’m not actually the Rush fan – my friend was. I don’t think I’ve even listened to Rush – not even while I was painting the T-shirt!! Perhaps I need to have a listen, just in case I’m missing something… 😉

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      1. You must – start with the song “Closer to the Heart” you’ll love some of their stuff. Craigs a huge fan and he also plays a mean guitar and can play their entire songbook but focuses on the really hard pieces. They do a lot of music influenced by literature, too!

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      2. Thank you so much for the recommendation, Ilene! I just listened to “Closer to the Heart” and it wasn’t at all what I was expecting. I thought it would be heavy metal, but it reminds me more of early Led Zeppelin. I shall listen to some more – it might even get me into the mood for painting again 🙂

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      3. It’s surely a song for all time. I wake up to it every day. It’s happy and hopeful. Rush isn’t truly metal. They’re considered in the same subgenre as Pink Floyd, progressive rock or prog rock. They have a few songs I think you might like – Subdivisions, The Trees, Spirit of Radio, Time Stand Still (Aimee Mann sings back up on it I love the message in the song.) I’m a true blue fan. I love Zeppelin if you really want to get emotional look up Heart doing Stairway to Heaven on YouTube as LZ are being honored at the Kennedy Center by Obama. My favorite song by them must be Ramble On. My all time favorite album Wish You Were Here by Pink Floyd and I think I was supposed to marry David Gilmore about 30 years ago. He doesn’t know this of course. But I have a thing for musicians – Craig plays guitar like no ones business and we share a love of music. During his depression our house went silent. But the music has returned along with his mood. Now if we are able to sustain it I’ll be ecstatic. As we get to move into the new house on Friday he’s getting down and I cannot figure it out, but that’s depression.

        Listen to those songs I think you’ll really be surprised.

        Much love and music,
        Ilene

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      4. No way. Well we’ve got way too much in common -the bad thing that made us friends and for supporting one another and the the good things we wouldn’t have known if not for the bad thing. Cancer conundrum number 957!

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