Category Archives: Iscor

Saying Your Goodbyes


Whenever I left one job to go to another, there usually wasn’t much of a goodbye involved, and even less so as time wore on.

When I left the laboratory of professor Dilewijns, there was an informal get together with the technicians, but as far as I can remember no speeches and no presents. Maybe followed by a few pints in the pub, that’s about it.

The farewell was a little bit more official in Iscor, with a conference room booked and full of people that I’d known and worked with in the technology department. Can’t remember too much about the speech, apart from flattering my audience by saying that South Africa would always have a friend in me. I received a watch as a present, although it can’t have been a very good one, since it fell apart within half a year of me receiving it.

The farewell from Allied Steel & Wire was a bit more awkward given the circumstances, but there was a skittles evening as the Christmas do, which doubled up as a farewell do for me. I must still have the pewter cup its the AS&W logo, but it’s packed away somewhere – I still don’t see the point in putting it on display. In my reply to Tony Franks’ speech I stated that, while I would miss them as colleagues, I wouldn’t miss Allied Steel & Wire as a company.

And that was really the last of the official farewells. When I left Tinplate R&D for Ebbw Vale, it was initially only as a secondment, and by the time the secondment became permanent due to the reorganisation of R&D set-up, there was no-one left to say goodbye to. Likewise when I left Ebbw Vale for Llanwern: by the time I was making the move there were very few people left to say goodbye to.

The move from Llanwern to Port Talbot turned out to be so gradual that there hardly seemed to be any point having a farewell do, because by the time my move to Port Talbot became official, I had already spent quite a bit of time there.

When I finally decided on my retirement, I was so busy until the very last day that all the farewell consisted of going to see a few the closest colleagues and shaking their hand, receiving two £25 vouchers as a thank you for services rendered, and a final email containing the message “So long, and thanks for all the fish” – I didn’t want to come across as too sentimental, and I thought the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy reference couldn’t hurt my geek credentials.

Canteens


Canteens have been around in most places from my student days to my final days in Port Talbot, although I must admit that most of the time I didn’t make use of their services.

During my days as a student, it was only in my first year, when I was still commuting between Bruges and Ghent, that I made use of the student canteen in the St. Pietersnieuwstraat. In subsequent years I just returned to my rented student room or stayed in the “Plateau” cafeteria as the whim took me. Afterwards, during my time as a researcher, I totally failed to make use of the canteen facilities, even though it was only next door to professor Dilewijns’s laboratory – instead we tended to consume our sandwiches in the technicians room whilst having a lunchtime chat.

The first few years as engineers-in-training at Iscor we often made use of the canteen facilities, although this was more an excuse to gel as a social group of people in a similar situation of immigrants in a foreign country. Later on, I either had my own sandwiches, or had a snack in one of the smaller facilities near the Technology building.

Allied Steel & Wire didn’t really have a proper canteen, just a place where you could buy sandwiches and assorted snacks. That’s why most people brought their own lunch, or went outside to the nearby shops, rather than buy something similar at inflated prices.

At Tinplate R&D the Port Talbot canteen was only across the bridge from Welsh Labs, but even then it was a rare occasion that we gave it a look-in. The option of a canteen did not exist in Ebbw Vale as far as I can remember, so by the time I moved to Llanwern I had got out of the habit of using a canteen and relied on my own sandwiches instead. There used to be a canteen near the far side office blocks, but this one disappeared soon after I joined once the heavy end had been demolished. I heard that there must have been some sort of canteen in the mill end of the shrunken site, but I never found out where it was.

Anyhow, once I returned to Port Talbot I had got so much in the habit of bringing my own sandwiches, that I did not make use of the canteen, either the main one near the site entrance, or the one next to the Hot Mill offices. That changed once I joined the Operational Research team in the AGO, where we got in the habit to either visit the Welsh Labs canteen, the nearby Tollgate park on a nice day, or the main canteen if all else failed. Some team members bought the food on the menu, especially on curry days, but I stuck with the habit of having my own sandwiches.

Which meant that when I moved to the Coke & Iron Admin block, and the distance to the canteen became too large for an easy lunchtime transfer, I continued with the tried and tested routine of sandwiches, apple and can of coke at my desk.

All in all, I can’t really comment on the quality of the good on offer, since most of the time I brought my own. All I noticed was that once Port Talbot stopped subsidising the canteen food, and the prices started to reflect the real cost, many people stopped buying the meals on offer, and either brought their own grub, or stopped coming to the canteen altogether.

Music and South Africa


When I arrived in South Africa, I had just spent several years steeped in the punk and new wave of the late 70s and early 80s, and with sufficient money to build up a sizeable record collection. I think this period also saw the start of the music CD, but at the time this was seen as a niche for artists that shift large numbers of records.

The transition to the situation in Vanderbijlpark couldn’t have been more stark. From being surrounded and immersed in large quantities of modern music, I was relegated to what felt like a backwater. One of the last records I had bought was the latest one by Eurhythmics, a record that took about six months before it made the shelves in South Africa. Clearly a different world from the present-day music scene where downloads are available at practically the same instant across the world.

At the time, the only local music I was aware of was the Afrikaner boeremuziek, which seemed to be somewhat related to the German oumpah music. Most of the time I did not have to suffer it, although at one time some students next door came home on a Saturday night, and decided to continue their night out with some of their preferred boeremuziek tunes. Revenge was sweet when early on Sunday morning I retaliated with “Never made no the bollocks, here’s the Sex Pistols”.

Still, in the more than five years I lived in Vanderbijlpark I probably bought something like between five and ten records. It was not until towards the end of my stay there that I became aware that there was a worthwhile black music scene to be enjoyed, first through a concert from Johnny Clegg & Juluka, and later on from Paul Simon’s Graceland album. Maybe if I had heard of this type of township music I might have sampled some of the local bands – provided that they were available in the white music shops.

When I started to get ready to leave South Africa, I had trouble finding new boxes to pack my albums in, presumably because by then CDs had taken off and were rapidly replacing vinyl – something that had totally passed me by during my time in Vanderbijlpark. I made up for this oversight in subsequent years, but my music collection still doesn’t contain much in the way of South African music, with only the already mentioned Paul Simon album, a Juluka compilation, and an album by Ladysmith Black Mambazo bought after I had seen them perform in the UK.

That’s probably more of a sign of how I had become less involved with the current music scene, and the fact that the transition happened during my time in South Africa my have been purely accidental.

Animals and the Steel Industry


You wouldn’t think of wildlife whenever the topic of steel plants turned up. And you would be right – mostly anyway. Even when there’s been some effort to embellish certain parts with greenery, many steel plants are a collection of concrete, roads and dusty bits in between.

Still, being near the sea, both Port Talbot and Tremorfa Works had their fair share of seagulls, which, I’ve been told, could be quite a hazard if you had to work on the corrugated roof of some plant buildings, especially during the breeding season – a hard hat is definitely not a luxury under those circumstances. You were not even totally safe when entering Tremorfa Works from the Splot entrance, where the low workshops past the entrance were often occupied by cackling seagulls.

A little less threatening were the foxes in Port Talbot and Llanwern. Still, they paraded like they owned the place, and sometimes they were even seen in the coil yards where the crews fed them on leftovers. I’ve also seen them on a number of occasions near the canteen, presumably looking for something to scavenge near the bins. Maybe that was one of the reasons why Port Talbot’s canteen only managed a 4 out of 5 for hygiene.

Whatever the case, the UK steel plants could not compete with South Africa, where the team doing slab yard inspections once encountered a rinkhals (a type of spitting cobra). Or the time I visited the iron ore mine in Thabazimbi in the northern Transvaal with the engineers in training, where after a downpour enormous snails and millipedes could be seen. Or during the same trip in Grootegeluk when a rather large bat had managed to get its wing stuck under a door, and I had to try and rescue it by placing it on a nearby tree.

Sometimes the crews also fed feral cats, and even though one in the Tremorfa Bar Mill looked well-fed, at one time I saw it eying up a pigeon. On my return on the same route, I noticed a large patch of feathers, so presumably the cat, well-fed though it might have been, was adding to its diet by catching the odd bird as well.

So although it wasn’t common place to see animals around, it added some interest when it happened.

Typewriter


Some time ago, when visiting the Design museum in Holland Park, London, I saw the following picture of the first typewriter with a rotary head, from 1961:


This made me think of the electric typewriter that I used to type out my thesis, and how, although it was an improvement over the old Remington on which started my initial typing lessons, it was still hard work when compared with later word processors. I’m reasonably OK when it comes to typing speed, but accuracy has never been my forte, so the Tip-ex strip and the reverse ball movement were my friend there.

Also, arranging the text so as to fit in graphs required some planning, and to be honest, I can’t quite remember how I managed it. It definitely meant I could only type up the index with the relevant page numbers at the end, with the possibility that the insertion of a paragraph or graph could throw out the numbering, and you had to make sure that you adjusted the modified page numbers wherever they were referred to in the text. It also meant the addition of an errata, to be added once the final copy was complete, and your final proofread highlighted errors that could no longer be changed in the original text.

The last time I used a typewriter rather than a word processor was in Iscor for the second part of my hydrogen embrittlement report, where I wrote up on the various experimental results. The first part, the literature survey, had been sent to the typing pool, and I found that any mention of “hydrogen embrittlement” had been typed out as “hydrogen embittlement”. Also, I wanted to get the report out sharpish, and the typing pool route would have taken too long. Still, at one point Ferdie Lemmen poked his head around the corner as I was typing away and declared that I must be the highest paid typist in the whole of Iscor.

Fortunately by the time I joined Allied Steel & Wire they had just ditched Samna as their word processor (which, by all accounts was a pain to come to grips with) and had just adopted Corel’s WordPerfect, which to me was everything a word processor should be, and miles ahead of anything a typewriter could achieve. No wonder that when everyone could become their own typist, secretaries became a thing of the past, or became restricted to senior managers, where they became a bit more than merely glorified typists.