We arrived in London in early December 1968; we had been travelling for more than three months since we left Toronto. It was the era of ‘Europe on $5 a day’. I had even bought the book. It weighed almost as much as my meagre luggage. After carrying the wretched book for a couple of weeks, I put it in a bin. At the time, five dollars a day seemed rather extravagant to me. Of course, with inflation, today a coffee in Paris can cost more than that.
After having spent a few days in New York, completely failing to understand why anyone could possibly rave about the city, we sailed in the bowels of the Queen Elizabeth to Southampton, via Cobh and Cherbourg. It was a cold and stormy crossing, one of the last voyages of the liner, and there were few passengers. Not very long after, it ended up on the bottom of Hong Kong harbour.
But once back on dry land, we had almost three months of glorious weather. We wandered around south-west England and Wales, a visit to Dublin and my parents in Ulster, then through France, Spain, Gibraltar, Italy, Austria, Switzerland and back through France to England.
For the first few weeks, we hitch-hiked, eventually as far as Biarritz. We survived on my schoolboy French, but with no basics of Spanish, Italian or German, we took to the trains, mostly in third class wherever we could.
Once back in London, we had to decide: to go back to Toronto, where work was easy to come by and we had lots of contacts, or to stay in London in the unknown, at least for a time. It was not a hard decision to make. We bought the evening newspaper and looked for a room for rent.
We were staying in a cheap ‘bed-and-breakfast’ near to Victoria Station, so we concentrated on finding accommodation on the main-line into Victoria. On the first day we noted three rooms that we could afford. When we arrived at the first room, it was already taken. At the second, there was an obvious sign stating that no Irish need apply. And at the third, we were met by a rotund Jewish gentleman, with whom we quickly felt totally at ease. We signed a lease there and then, paid the deposit and the first month’s rent, and left with the keys.
The ‘apartment’ was a large room on the ground floor, with a high ceiling and a partitioned kitchen, that also contained a bath. The toilet? That was on the first floor and each ‘apartment’ had its own toilet. And electricity and heating were paid for by inserting coins in a box on the wall. In Toronto, I only used to have a tiny room and a shared bathroom. I felt as if I had arrived!
But now we needed to find employment and soon, for our reserves were getting alarming low. Sandra was soon employed. She was a beautician by training and found a job with a salon at the corner of Oxford and Dean streets, removing unwanted facial hair, using electrolysis. Most of the clients were West-end showgirls, but it was Sandra’s boss who took care of hair removal from the client’s private parts!
In the meantime, I went to the Institute of Quantity Surveyors, just up the street from the Houses of Parliament. I left the meeting with the feeling that I had little chance of finding employment; construction in England was suffering a severe recession and the unemployment queues were long and there were no quantity surveyor jobs advertised in the evening papers. What a contrast to Toronto, where construction was booming at that time. So, it was ‘back to the drawing board’.
I quickly found a temporary job, selling potatoes, door to door. It lasted one day. I have never aspired to be a salesman and there are limits as to how many doors being slammed in my face that I could take, often coupled with expletives. I soon realised that being Irish in London was no advantage.
Then I found a temporary job distributing leaflets, door-to-door, for a carpet company. I had to note every address and a salesman called soon after. It was a success, at least for the company. But I soon ran out of addresses within a feasible radius to leaflet, although I loved the walking.
Just before New Year, I spotted an advertisement for an ‘Institute’ training Cobol programmers, with a guarantee that the training would continue until one found a position. Their office was just around the corner from Hector Powe’s main store on Regent Street. My father’s best friend worked for Hector Powe and I took that as a good omen. I signed up for the training and paid the fee. It was a gamble on my part, for by then I had little money left. Sandra earned enough for the basics, but not enough to cover the rent.
The first two weeks of the course were an eye-opener for me. I found that I had a natural talent for programming and at the end of the second week the tutor took me aside and told me that a friend of his had just called, looking to hire a junior programmer. When he asked if I would be interested, I could hardly contain my enthusiasm.
The interview was on the following Monday and the company was Singer Sewing Machines, in Uxbridge, west of London, about two hours travel from our little apartment. I met Robin Nicolson, was offered me the position, and needless to say, I gratefully accepted. I started the next day.
I have never once since looked back.