Alternative CVThere's now more! Alternative CV will soon bring me up to date. Becoming Solvent and Becoming Virtual much extended. Becoming an Entrepreneur is on its way. And more Becoming still to become!
Becoming a Servant to the Stars (see below) now published as a chapter in Ava Gardner: Touches of Venus published by Entasis Press, 2010.
Becoming an Art Student"Fencott!", demanded the headmaster, "What on earth are you going to do with your life?"
"I'm going to be an architect, Sir", I said.
"Well, you'll need 'O' Level latin to do that," responded the corpulant edifice.
I never did manage to find out why he said that. Was it ignorance or malice? Whatever, it remains one of my main memories of being at a state grammar school run by the Church of England. At the time I was studying for 'A' levels in maths, physics and geography and it had never occured to me that latin might be a prerequisite for 20th century architects. Actually, the problem went away in the sense that I was struggling with the maths which meant that I had increasing trouble with the physics and by the end of the year I was left doing just geography.
Becoming a PoetAll in all, a change of pre-career plan seemed necessary. I decided to go to art school instead. I had always been good at art and so I enrolled at Croydon College of Art the following September. Art college was hard work but fun. You have to be very disciplined and take responsibility for much of your own eductation. Something that would be good for many students;
There were also a lot of parties.
I was doing what is called a Foundation Year, which is a general introduction to all the main discuplines of ART as it was then, fine art, commercial art, print making, theatre design and so on. At the end of the year you choose a further course which will be your specialism. I chose Environmental Design at Barnet College of Further Education.
Environmental Design was/is on of those 1960's type of courses that could mean almost anything you wanted it to. It could be designing bollards for shopping malls, painting murals, cladding for ugly office blocks, street theatre and so on. My roommate in halls, for instance, spent much of his time building wattle and daub huts on the college lawns. He never got very far with them but it was always a great talking point.
I became really interested in language in the environment. Both in terms of street signs and advertising hoardings and in terms of buildings as cultural symbols in the sense of semiotics and Roland Barthes. This turned out to be one of the very few things Environmental Art at Barnet did not include.
My interest in language and in particular poetry went back to my schools days. When I was about thirteen or so a student teacher had set us a ballad to write for English homework. To my surprise I found the exercise both easy and fascinating and have experimented with various forms of poetry and creative writing ever since. As I became more disallusioned with the course I was studying - the feeling was mutual on the part of the staff teaching it - I become more and committed to the idea of pursuing a career as a writer. I send off a collection of what I called poetry to a small independant publisher suggested to me by one of the lecturers who had a side line in designing sleeves for poetry books.
Becoming a Sound PoetThe effects of this small action had dramatic repercussions on my life. Not that the publisher wanted to publish my work. Far from it. His main comment was that no real publisher would touch stuff like this with a barge pole. However, there was one eccentric character, by the name of Bob Cobbing, based at the National Poetry Centre, who specialised in the unusual. I went to see him and discovered a crowd of like minded souls who were doing work very much in the vein of my own but they were also performing it. They ran a printshop and organised meetings, discussions, performances, exhibitions and art festivals. It turned out that this was not an isolated group. On the contrary they belonged to an international art movement loosely called Sound Poetry.
So I left art college without completing the course and threw myself into the Sound Poetry movement, going to workshops and gradually getting myself invited to take part in performances and contribute to exhibitions. I also learned to publish and distribute my own work - considered a virtue, not a cop-out, in such circles.
As you might guess, my new found career was high on aesthetic and emotional rewards but decidedly low on the financial kind. I had to get a job.
Becoming a Civil ServantThis was in the days when clerical jobs with the Civil Service were going begging. I knew of several cases of people who had signed on for the dole one week and found themselves on the other side of the counter dealing with claimants the next. I was instantaneously sent for a job in the Home Office where I worked for a number of years before going to the Land Registry. If you have ever bought a house in the UK then you may have seen the rather attractive little plan of your property that you purchase at great expense from this organisation. It comes complete with a nice red line showing the limts of your new estate and has pretty colour washes in blue and yellow and brown showing rights of way and such like. My job was to paint the colours onto the plans.
After about three or four years in various bits of the Civil Service I was making a bit of money from poetry and thought I should give up the day job. By this time I was heavily involved with education schemes which placed writers in residence in schools and colleges for short periods of time. I was writer in residence at a large London comprehansive for a number of years.
In addition, several of us had formed a group to perform and exhibit our work collectively and had begun to be invited to art festivals around Europe including such cities as Stockholm, Amsterdam, Berlin. As a result of this we also did some radio shows and the odd, very odd, TV spot. Word must have spread because we were soon invited to a major art festival in Toronto. However, by the time we got there the group had fragmented and we all turned in solo contributions. I carrried on quite successfully as a solo artist for a number of years during which time I toured France with the help of the British Council and took part in a big festival in New York.
Becoming a Servant to the StarsThe money supply was erratic. Particularly in the summer months when the colleges and schools were closed. I got round this by joining an unorthodox employment agency doing jobs for the rich and famous and not necessarily either. You could work when you wanted and as often as you wanted. This usually meant being a char-person in posh houses in and around Chelsea and Kensington. I was Ava Gardner's odd job man for a few weeks. One of my responsibilities being to put her record collection - mainly Frank Sinatra - in alphabetical order.
For some time I worked in a select little hotel in Kensington where film stars were wont to stay when in town working. I had a job as a room service waiter and had many envigorating conversations with the stars.
"Can I get you anything?", I enquired.
"Is there anything else?", I enquired.
"Is there something wrong?", I enquired.
Scatman Cruthers also stayed at the hotel while he was filming part of 'The Shining' with Jack Nicholson. He was full of stories and would get out his tenor ukelele at the drop of a hat and sing old comic songs such as 'Some of My Best Friends Are Shoes'.
Becoming EsotericGradually I needed the agency less and less. Mainly because Bob Cobbing and I were working together more and more and gaining something of a reputation. We made four huge tours of North America covering the continent from coast to coast and all by trains such as the Canadian Pacific all the way across Canada.
By then the alternative cabaret scene scene was thriving in London and we did turns at some of the more esoteric venues. We also, somehow, ended up several times on a Saturday morning TV show for kids called "No. 73". We regularly did TV and radio slots in continental Europe and many radio shows in North America but getting involved with any sort of mass media as an artist in the UK was almost impossible.
But I was changing. I had discovered computers. This all came about through working with a saxaphone player, Steve Moore, who was doing a PhD at the Royal School of Mines - part of Imperial College. We used one of the School's computers in the evenings and developed as system for turning words and phrases into graphic images. My colleague did all the programming and the ideas were largely mine. This prompted me to buy a Sinclair QL, which I still have to this day. I started to learn BASIC.
I also discovered the philosophy of science through reading some of the text books for my wife's psychology degree which she was taking a Birkbeck College. I was now just over 30 years old and it felt like time to go back to college myself.
Becoming a MathematicianEventually if found a course at North East London Polytechnic - now East London University - where you could do a Degree by Independent Study. This is a degree you design yourself and then get it approved by the School of Independent Study. It is a marvelous course for mature students, the average age was in the late twenties and the percentage of women and ethnic minorities was very high. I say was because the School was abolished a few years after I left.
I embarked on a designer education that was to be composed mainly of the philosophy of science and a significant amount of computer science just to see how far I could get with it. I found a lecturer on the BSc Science modular degreee who was able and willing to supervise me and set off. To my surprise I had some aptitude for computer science and actually enjoyed the maths, discrete maths that is. So I could do maths after all.
As the course progressed I build more and more logic and computer science into ti while retaining the philosophy of science. My interest was such that when I graduated I determined to continue work in computer science and was able to gain a place at Imperial College to do an MSc in Fait (Foundations of Advanced Information Technology) under such people as Robert Kowalski and Igor Alexander.
Becoming SolventThis all lead to a job a the University of Teesside - then Teesside Polytechnic - where I started out teaching and later reserching in formal methods, which is the use of mathematics to design computer systems. Basically you took the obscure, largely unfathomable mysteries of computer programming and translated them into the completely opaque and completely unfathomable mysteries of mathematical logic, set theory, number theory and ... and ... It was pretty big at the time and is still used in the design of safety critical software systems.
The poet, me, I had become a mathematician!
The really big advantage of formal methods was that students never questioned the correctness of anything or suggested better ways of doing anything because most of them hadn't a clue what the poet was scribbling on the blackboard. Yes, the blackboard. A fifty five minute lecture would be made up mostly of me copying in chalk on a blackboard pages and pages of notes made up of really obscure, unfathomable grouping of mathematical symbols. Students had to diligently copy for themselves everything I wrote. This generally only allowed for a few minutes of explanation and a quick round up at the end. Teaching has gone down hill ever since the introduction of the Over-Head Projector and, worse still, computers. Now giving a lecture means saying and doing educationally significant things for almost a whole hour. This isn't good for staff or students.
After a year or two of getting used to the job, the start of the academic year was marked by a big pile of lecture notes sitting face-up on my desk. The arrival of the first lecture of the year required me to grap enough notes from the top of the face-up pile to keep me scribbling for forty minutes or so. Lecture finished I would place the notes I had just used face down on the other side of the desk. At the end of the year the face-up pile had disappeard and was now upside down on the other side of the desk. Some time in late summer preparation for the next academic year would begin: the upside down pile would be turned up the right way ...
I was now solvent, I was a mathematician, I was a dad and I had a mortgage. I liked living by the sea in the north east of England. I liked, still like, the north east of England.
And some of us started doing research into 'Methods Integration': making formal methods easier for software engineers to use by adding in diagrams, explanations, heuristics and so on. We went to conferences, published papers, and three students went on to get their PhDs out of it. Of course most of the world of computer science academics let alone software engineers and computer scientists working in industry completely ignored it.
Becoming VirtualBut I was changing, reverting maybe, becoming my own throwback may be. All that mathematics didn't sit quite naturally with me. I just didn't have the same kind of intuitive understanding of it that my colleagues seemed to.
And worst of all: Tim Berners Lee went and invented the World Wide Web. Bastard!
Computers could be used and useful by/to almost anyone. A one term sabatical at the end of 1996 alowed me to finish off some research and a book on Formal Methods for Concurrency. It also allowed me to install Mosaic and log on to the WWW for the first time. Within days the evil Time Berners Lee had forced me to code up a simple html page and then there was no turning back. Maybe computers could actually be interesting!!! I had rediscoverd the fun in computing. I wanted to use computers to create things again! I wanted a change! I wanted to play Microsoft Golf!
We had a PC at home for the first time and it a came with that damn golf game. I got round the Torrey Pines championship course in sixty eight or something like that and put the score sheet up in my office. A golfing colleague was really impressed. My son had a SNES by then and was playing Super Mario World and Sim City and I was hooked those too. And the WWW people had invented the Vitual Reality Modelling Language (VRML) for the WWW and I tried that out to. And ... It was time to retrain
I retrained in Virtual Reality (VR) which meant I had to read a load of lot of cyberpunk novels: William Gibson, Neal Stephenson, Bruce Sterling and the like. Academics said VR was going to take over the world: everything would be virtual. I fell for that for a while but it became more and more evident that VR wasn't taking over the world. It was clunky and expensive and very unconvincing and, unless you really had to know how to fly the lates jumbo or shut down a nuclear reactor, pointless. But I was an academic and I was paid to teach and research it so what the hell. That golf game had 3D graphics and that video game of my son's I'd been playing had really great 3D graphics. It was a point-and-click adventure called 'Normality' and you could actually 'walk' through doorways, go in and out of rooms, talk to people, the taps dripped in the sink. VR had happened; but it had happened as entertainment. All that high-end, expensive, academic sort of VR stayed where it was created: in universities.
I applied what I knew to video games. I got paid to play lots of video games and talk about them. All of a sudden there were degrees in video games and I had to try and get video game students to think about and analyse games. That turned out to be one of the most difficult things I have ever tried and mostly failed to do: to get a game player - someone who's been playing games as long as they can remember - to answers questions such as: 'What is a video game?' 'Why are people taken in by them?' Almost no one seems to want to know the answers to questions like these.
But I published quite a few papers (follow the Research link at the top of the page) and got a PhD trying to build theories that would help me as well as my students answer those types of questions and it was a lot more fun than formal methods and I got to use my interest in semiotics and Roland Barthes.
Becoming an Entrepreneur (as well)Coming soon.