Category Archives: RUG – Student

Counterfactual #8

The last counterfactual goes back deepest in my personal history and consequently its outcome is even harder to predict than any of the others.

As I have described in my blog on Career Advice, prior to my studies I had been given some advice on what study options were available for someone with an aptitude for maths and who didn’t want to go into teaching. The career adviser outlined that doing a 3-year course for technical engineer (a non-university equivalent of the 5-year civil engineer studies) was a safer option, because if you passed these you had one degree under your belt, and could then, if you wished, start in the second year of the university degree.

That’s about as far as I can go with the possible outcomes of this non-university degree. I don’t know where you do these studies, what jobs are open to you after you’ve qualified, and how easy it is to then move on to university studies.

Still, knowing me, and considering that I would have finished my studies in 1976, chances are that if I found myself a job (and after getting my military service out of the way at an earlier stage), I would have stuck with t and not continued to a university degree. But where this would have led me, and how my career (if any) would have developed over time, there’s absolutely no way of telling.

As I said at the start, this is a counterfactual at its most blurry.



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.


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.

Helping the Farmers

The autumn of 1974 (September, October and November) was one of the wettest in living memory in Belgium, and to my knowledge still stands as a record in my lifetime for the amount of rainfall (at 411.6 litres per square metre).

This meant that especially in the clay grounds between Ghent and Antwerp, farmers could not use their harvesting equipment for fear of getting them stuck in the mud. I see from records of that period that the army was called in to help with the harvest, but what appears to be less reported was that students also helped their bit.

I had just started the repeat of my first year, this time better organised and prepared and staying in student accommodation in no.4 Van Hulthemstraat. All I know is that I heard of the intention to bus in volunteers from the student population in Ghent to do our bit for the farmers.

To be honest, I can’t remember too much about it, apart from the fact that a group of my friends were coming along (maybe that’s why I decided to tag along), that the fields we were doing contained maize, and that at the end of the day we were all sitting together in the farmer’s large room having a hot drink before being bussed back to Ghent.

It was just a single day we were asked to take part, some time towards the end of November or the start of December (hence not yet in danger of interfering with the first semester exams), and as far as I’m aware nothing of the sort ever happened again in my days as a student or any time I was at university.

Did it make me feel all virtuous? Hardly. It was more like a fun day out with friends, a bit like doing an outdoor activity, except that you didn’t have to pay for it. I just hope we really made a difference and it wasn’t just a grand but largely meaningless gesture.

Holiday Jobs

During my time as a student, I rarely had a holiday job. The exceptions being 1976, when my parents insisted that I contribute to the cost of an Esperanto trip to Athens via Yugoslavia. There was this toy wholesale business in Varsenare where I spent about a month doing all sorts of menial jobs, nothing too onerous, but definitely not the type of job you would want to do for the rest of your life.

The next summer I didn’t have any job planned, but a student in a fish freezing company in Ostend had to default for a 2-week period, and I stepped in the breach at the request of my cousin who was already working there. That was the time one worker there fell to his death (see an earlier blog, entitled “Seeing Someone Die“).

Apart from that, nothing. Meaning I had 2 1/2 months of dolce far niente, most of the time with a 2- or 3-week family holiday somewhere in July / August. In hindsight, it wouldn’t have hurt my chances of future employment if I had done the occasional stint of being a summer student at a company like Sidmar. As it was, neither I nor my parents had any experience of how too make the most of student activities, so I didn’t feel the gap until I went out looking for a job.

In hindsight, it’s obvious that once your face is known in a workplace, and you haven’t made too much of a pig’s ear of it, chances are that when you’re looking for a proper job you have one up on those who, like myself, were a totally unknown quantity.

Still, that’s all water under the bridge by now. I can only assume that present-day students are a bit more savvy about what it takes to prepare yourself for the job market.