It was forty years ago today…

As I don’t keep a diary, I don’t know the actual date in 1980 when I stuck my thumb out, at the beginning of the M4 motorway, on the Newport roundabout starting a holiday trip that would take me away from the UK forever. It was, however, sometime in the middle of a mild September. I had intended a trip of a few weeks maybe a couple of months but I have now lived outside of the land of my birth for forty years.

As I look back I wonder where the time went. What follows is a brief survey of some of the things that have filled out those forty years. The astute reader will note that they add up to more than forty years because many of them took place concurrently. 

I started out by going down the Orwell route and worked for six months as a dishwasher in a luxury hotel. If you don’t speak the language! That ended when I walked out after calling the manager a racist, because he was. I could never keep my mouth shut. This was followed by a period of working as a freelance gardener; growing up in the country, in a house with half a hectare of garden had to pay off sometime. Gardening brings meagre pickings in winter, so I got a job as an industrial cleaner, the man for special jobs, for the next four years. I got around quite a bit and got to see the inside of quite a lot of leading German companies. If you keep your ears and eyes open you can learn an awful lot, nobody takes any notice of cleaners, so you get to see and hear things that are supposed to be kept secret! 

The language thing was the most important problem and right from the beginning I started going to evening classes to learn German. This was too slow so I looked around for something better and started a German as a foreign language course at the local university. German lessons in the morning, cleaning factories and office blocks in the afternoon, the high life. This was the start of twelve years spent at university as a mature student. The first three years studying mathematics and philosophy, with an emphasis on history and philosophy of science. Then I shifted to philosophy, same emphasis, with English philology and history. For nearly all of those years at the university I worked as a research assistant in a major research project into the social history, read external history, of formal logic, my real apprenticeship as a historian of science.

Before I quit the cleaning firm I had already started working in a local cultural and youth centre that would become my home from home for fourteen years. Here I managed a jazz club for ten years and worked for a couple of years, as a fly poster. I spent two afternoons a week, for many years, working in a self help bicycle workshop, where people could maintain and repair their own bicycles, with assistance from people like me if required. For ten years I was one of the centres evening shift managers responsible for the running of the whole building. With up to three thousand guests on a Friday or Saturday night and a shift from six in the evening until four in the morning a more than somewhat strenuous task. In the same building when I wasn’t being evening manager I also worked as a live concert lighting and sound technician. I had been lighting and sound technician for theatre groups earlier in the UK.

In the middle of the 1990s I was studying full time working a paid thirty to forty-hour week and an average thirty-hour unpaid week, whilst basically living on drugs and alcohol. What inevitably had to happen, happened. As I have documented elsewhere the wheels fell off and I discovered the joys of German heath care for the mentally ill. I spent several months in the loony bin followed by several years as a very active member of the AA and even more years in outpatient therapy. These days I’m reasonably healthy, mentally that is, fairly stable but I am very much aware that I will never be cured; there is no cure for my afflictions.

In Germany I also became a dog owner for the first time in my life. I have owned loved, cared for and lost four wonderful dogs over the last thirty years. They have been my constant, loving and true companions through thick and thin. My dogs helped me to cope with and overcome my mental illnesses and I owe them big time.

When I was reasonably sober and stable, being aware that I was never going to become a professional academic, I quit my studies shortly before my master’s exams and left the research project. I was the most sensible way of reducing the stress in my life. A few years later the cultural centre dispensed with my services. After a period of unemployment, during which I was official classified as unfit for work, a judgement that is still formally valid, I spent a year working for a mail order company selling Apple computers and accessories. As a result, I acquired my first iMac a cute, Bondi Blue G3. There is a certain irony here, during my research project I had become an expert on the history of the computer but unlike many of my contemporaries I had never previously owned a computer. 

The computer company was bought up by a larger rival and moved to Stuttgart about 240 km from where I live and I became unemployed again. I then ran into the problem of agism, a concept which up till then I had found mildly amusing. I was only around fifty but apparently too old to be employable. A typical telephone conversation from this period:

Me: Good Morning, my name is Christie and I ringing about your job advert

Them: How old are you?

Me: fifty something

Them: Thank you for your call.

Some didn’t even bother to say thank you before ringing off, so I became self-employed.

Since then I have tutored school kids in maths and English, taught, mostly business, English to adults, copyedited a very wide range of English texts written by non-native English speakers and translated an equally wide range of German texts into English. It has never made me rich, but I have over the years mostly managed to pay my bills. Four years ago, I officially retired.

Somewhere down the line I got back into the history of science and seventeen years ago began holding public lectures on a diverse range of topics. Eleven years ago, I started this blog, having previously discovered the world of #histSTM blogging and having been encouraged by other #histSTM bloggers to do so. It still feels kind of weird but somehow late in life I seem to have carved out a rather strange career as a historian of science. 

I suppose the final consequence of my forty years of living, working, studying, loving, and suffering in Germany is that last year I became a German citizen. As should be obvious from this very brief sketch, my life has followed anything but the normal life and career path, or at least what is considered normal for a white, male Northern European, but has meandered over a wide terrain, taking quite a few detours along the way. I wonder what the future will bring, knowing me and looking back over the last forty years it probably won’t be anything normal or conventional.


Filed under Autobiographical

3 responses to “It was forty years ago today…

  1. What a great lifestory! I notice that the one theme that keeps reappearing is the study of the history and philosophy of science. Seems like it was meant to be, whatever the route.
    It’s worth noting that many full-time academics nowadays spend most of the time on teaching and admin. I don’t begrudge this, but it does means that most research is done at weekends, or outside the teaching semester. So there is a sense in which we are all part-time researchers. The real difference between us is the nice, cosy salary – where that goes remains a mystery to me.

  2. Liam Wasserman

    Reading this was pretty interesting. It resonated somewhat well with me (though I don’t have issues that are debilitating.) I’m currently going to a community college, getting rid of general ed requirements, reading Apostol’s calculus book on the side. I’m going there because, due to lots of auxilliary issues and one breakdown, I left high school with a 3.0 – 1 ish (can’t quite remember.) I’m really interested in world history, history of united states, and history of mathematics and related sciences too. I’m trying to get good grades so I can transfer, get a bachelor’s from some good place; but I really want to work in another country for a while, doing math or something like that.

    • Liam Wasserman

      Note: I went to some private high school where you could basically pay to take classes again, that’s why I got that GPA.

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