Category Archives: RUG – Researcher

Counterfactual #7

Delving still deeper into the past, and the counterfactual imaginings are getting all the more murky.

When I was studying at the Rijksuniversiteit of Ghent, I had to postpone my calling up for the national service for every year that I was due to study. So when I finally completed my studies in July 1979, I had a call-up date somewhere in the autumn of 1981 – just making sure that I had indeed passed and not having to endure the ignominy of having to resit my last year.

When I had the confirmation that I had indeed passed I could have have revoked my delayed call-up, but in the end didn’t and went to work for nearly two years at the laboratory of professor Dilewijns. What if I had decided to forego temporary employment and get my military service out of the way straight after leaving university?

It would have meant leaving the army in June 1980 rather June 1982. Would the economic situation have been better to find a job as a metallurgist? Would I ever have worked as a researcher at the university? After all this time it’s very hard to gauge which way the dice would have rolled. What’s certain is that I would have entered the job market without any practical experience (even though my job at the university didn’t seem to count for much anyway), and it’s really a toss of a coin whether I would have managed to get my foot on the first rung of the job ladder at all.

I also wouldn’t have gone on holiday to Iceland in 1981 and wouldn’t have met my wife. If I had a job in 1983 I wouldn’t have applied for a job with Iscor, and chances are that I would have stayed in Belgium. In short, this counterfactual really would have changed everything that happened later on in my life.


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 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.

Not a Proper Job

That’s what I found out when I was trying to land a new job after my time in the army : a job as a researcher at university is not considered to be a “proper job” by someone working in industry. Even when professor Dilewijns’ laboratory had close ties with Sidmar, and some of my work (such as the examination of welds on steering columns for Volvo Trucks) would be the type of job carried out by a “proper” company if they had bothered having their own testing facilities.

The strange thing is that, when the shoe is on the other foot, you can’t but help but harbouring the same kind of thoughts about people working at nearby universities. From the British Steel days onwards, there’s been a close cooperation with Swansea university on the EngDoc scheme which for many EngDoc students meant the start of a career at British Steel or its successors.

And still you have this image in your head of professors and other people employed at a university as being somewhat other-worldly and slightly mollycoddled against the hardships of the real world. Why, when I’m half aware that this is at best an overgeneralisation ? And why, when I know from firsthand experience that some worthwhile work often goes on at universities for which industry just doesn’t have the patience or inclination ?

Maybe it’s because some of the work does not always lead to practical outcomes – after all, that’s often the name of the game with open-ended research : unlike the targeted research in industry, it can happen that your research tends to prove to be a dead end.

Also, there’s also the feeling that people’s jobs are not on the line if someone’s activities don’t ultimately add to the bottom line. So in a way, rightly or wrongly, academic jobs are considered to be not in the same league as the hard world of industry. I’m very much aware that these are caricatures, but if that is the idea stuck in an interviewer’s head, then there’s very little you can do about the bias that follows from it.

In practice, what it meant for me was that I was seen as on a par with students fresh out of their studies, only just a few years older. In the end I had to be rescued by the same people whose experience had been rubbished in my failed job search.