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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.