Was African Eve our forebear?


I can’t resist a good science documentary, and I’m fascinated by genealogy. So I watched an interesting two-part film on British telly last night, fronted by comedian Eddie Izzard, about the notion that the entire world population of modern Homo sapiens can trace its ancestry back to Africa.

Well, if you think about it, we had to start somewhere. We evolved perhaps from a single mutation of the preceding Homo erectus, which then led to a few more, which because they were slightly better suited to their environment thrived and passed on their new improved genes while the earlier species gradually passed into extinction.

The film then told of the ‘single African mother’ hypothesis, which reckons that every single person currently alive on earth can trace their female line directly back to such a common ancestor, whom the scientists in 1987 who first proposed the theory dubbed ‘Eve’. This probably happened, we were told, as comparatively recently as around 200,000 years ago. It’s an intriguing, almost poetical thought. The film probably presented it in an oversimplified way, but then it probably had to. It does seem logical though: when you think about it, in an ideal world, given a benign and suitable environment with no predators, populations tend to grow in an ever more complex and branching family tree, so if you looked backwards along that tree you would eventually funnel back to a single slightly mutated individual who was just a little bit better than the then current lot and ready, with the help of a willing male, to mother a superior species.

The theory postulates a single African ‘Adam’ too, but he and Eve couldn’t have been an item because he’s reckoned to have lived about 84,000 years later than her. (No; I couldn’t figure that out either. Perhaps the suggestion is that there were earlier Adams too – there must have been – but their lines all petered out. Or something.)

Intrigued and wanting to find out more as a subject for this blog, I Googled ‘African Eve theory’ and found a muddier, somewhat contentious picture with lots of abstruse and sometimes contested science about things like mitochondrial DNA which females gift in a continuous stream of inheritance, and Y-chromosomal DNA for the boys although they don’t, quite, pass their information on as completely. Some scientists, it seems, hotly dispute the theory, suggesting instead a ‘multiregionalism’ model, whereby early populations evolved separately much further back in time from Homo erectus to create the (slightly) physically different racial groups on earth today. (But then, if that happened, why didn’t a multiplicity of much more distinct sub-species evolve?)

The trouble is, science is a complex and serious subject and it’s easy to become deafened by the noise of controversy and competing opinion, and not know what to believe.

Presumably, and trusting the BBC to reflect the majority scientific opinion, the ‘Eve’ hypothesis seems to be the one to go with, until someone can categorically prove to the contrary. It’s all a bit dry and academic and neither here nor there, not something to get exercised about unless you’re a science nut or a palaeontologist, but the theory you choose to accept might sometimes depend on your world view. Rabid racists would run a mile rather than accept the possibility of relatively recent African ancestry. I know which I’d rather take on board though: that we’re all really one people in spite of superficial physical differences, and not members of separately emerging, disparate racial groups each claiming, as some dangerous fools do, some sort of God-given superiority over the others.

So what has all this to do with books? Well nothing really, except that racism is a theme of my book Convergence, and the idea of female-line continuity provoked the idea for my upcoming second offering, Forebears, which is a family history spanning the last 105 years.

And speaking of forebears, here’s part three of Wishing for the Better, if you’re interested.

Wishing for the Better: 3


I emerge, blinking in the sudden bright daylight, from the back of the removal van. I’m carrying the family budgie in his cage. I bet he’s wondering what’s going on. Suddenly his world has changed: there’s a whole new environment (albeit a council estate) outside the confines of his cage. Mind you, it’ll soon be reduced again to the limits of a living room. Our entry into our new life is slightly reminiscent of the old music hall song My Old Man, except that I’m not Marie Lloyd, I didn’t follow the van and for ‘old cock linnet’ read ‘budgie’.

Dad appears too, clutching Tip, our rough-coated terrier. We’ve arrived, without ceremony, at the new house. Mum and Derek will follow later on the bus. Dad feels that we couldn’t all travel that way with the animals, and anyway we need an advance party. So for travel purposes we two have been temporarily relegated to the status of chattels.

We inspect the new domain. Dad’s fairly blasé about it, but I’m thrilled by the sheer modernity. Not only is there a proper flushing loo in a block of outbuildings joined to the house but also another loo in the upstairs bathroom. There’s hot water actually on tap produced by a coke boiler in the kitchen. And a proper lounge with a tiled fireplace and a separate (small) dining area. Such sophistication! We help the removal men bring in our worldly goods. I make first claim for bed space in the room that Derek and I will share. At midday I’m sent to get lunch at another marvel, a fish and chip shop actually on the estate. I can’t get over the fact that I’ll be living in a town that has shops where you can buy such indulgencies as clothes and records and books and paint. This is the life! Later I cycle down to the town centre to take possession, to walk about and take it all in. I realise there’s also going to be a cinema. Could I ever want more than this? I know all about the shops of course from rare earlier visits, but now I can regard them with a proprietorial air. What I don’t appreciate yet is the fine limestone Georgian architecture of this gem of a town. Such sensitivity will come later in life.

And so a new phase of life started, an urban-living one, for the rest of my childhood. From my point of view, the first thing to be considered was a change of school. Of course it was another secondary modern: St Michael’s Church of England, what would now be called a faith school. It was all right I suppose; on a par with Casterton if comparing one institution for basically educating the children of the working class with another one doing the same for boys only.

It was also a pivotal year for Derek. He had taken the 11plus and passed, winning a scholarship to Stamford School. My parents were delighted: it was quite an accolade, by transference, to have one of their offspring going to a Good School. Such a contrast with the embarrassment of Gerald, who had spent most of his school years at Approved Schools (schools for problem children) or borstal. Obviously there was less difference between Derek and me, but I have to admit that I was very resentful and, yes, plain jealous of his greater opportunity. It coloured my relationship with him for years in a subconscious way – the fact that we were educated quite unequally was very divisive. I felt distinctly inferior.

Many years later he admitted, apparently without any embarrassment or shame, that he had stolen one of my essays for his English composition exam paper. It’s a good thing I didn’t know that at the time, or there would have been a very deep rift indeed. Nowadays, both of us old geezers and me having been as successful, in my way, in my life as him, our relationship is pretty good and the chip has fallen from my shoulder. I feel myself to be as articulate, intelligent and enlightened as Derek, in spite of his better start. However I try to avoid too much debate with him. He’s better at rational discussion than me. I’m passionate and idealistic and feel strongly about things, and our debates often lead to arguments, which are sometimes ill-tempered (although I try not to show it) on my part. I know some people enjoy a good argument, but I hate it. Perhaps I do still harbour a deep-seated inferiority complex as far as Derek is concerned.

But back to the story. I settled well into the new school, although I had to suffer the ignominy of a first term in the B stream until my academic level could be assessed. That didn’t help the resentful feelings about Derek’s success either. But then I was moved into the A stream and I found myself at or near the top of the class, except of course in maths. St Michael’s was a very different school from Casterton in some ways. Being a town-centre school, and an old Victorian building with no canteen facilities, it meant going home for lunch – not a problem in those days as most mums did not have outside jobs.

Also, there was no sports field (not that I was bothered about that). For football, almost the only sport available in this all-male school, we were marched to the town playing fields for (in my case) the usual desultory kick-about. One thing Stamford had that Casterton didn’t, though, was access to swimming baths, so we were occasionally despatched there too. Unfortunately for me, this only amounted to a few sessions in my entire school life, and it wasn’t enough to really get the hang of swimming. Just as I was almost confident enough to realise I could take my feet off the bottom without sinking and drowning, the school year ended, and so did my school days, and I never did learn to swim.

There were two great accolades in that final year. In spite of once being caned by the headmaster for fighting another boy (I can’t remember the circumstances, but I think he must have started it or said or done something gross to provoke me: normally I wouldn’t say boo to a goose) I was made a prefect. Theoretically this involved a degree of boy-management and some leadership skills. I was utterly lacking in both. I would never have made an NCO. I remember, one time, being charged to organise a rabble of unruly younger  boys  into an orderly  line. I was about as firm and effective  as  Sergeant  Wilson  in  Dad’s  Army  (‘Would you mind awfully getting into  line? Thank you so much’). The kids saw straight through me, and the more I tried to firmly order the more they ignored and defied me. The longer it went on, the more it degenerated into open defiance until finally, red-faced, I was rescued by a teacher.

The other triumph was more my cup of tea. I won an essay competition, the Mayor’s Prize for Civics. It was a dictionary. I can’t remember whether I chose the prize myself, but I probably would have anyway, book-wormish kid that I was. I loved it, and still have it to this day.

But, relatively academic as I had become, as age 15 (then school leaving age for the Common Man) approached, there was no suggestion by teachers of exam-taking with a view to further education. Just two of the boys were being groomed for something mysterious called GCE, but for the rest of us it just wasn’t an option. Perhaps I wasn’t actually as bright as I complacently liked to think I was. So something ‘blue collar’ was to be my lot.

I hadn’t the faintest idea of what sort of job I wanted. I remember being asked about it by parents at dinner table one evening. All I could think of saying, aping the paternal role-model, was, ‘I dunno, maybe a painter and decorator’.

Dad was horrified. ‘You want something better than that!’ he retorted. The subject was dropped. But then, a few weeks later, it came up again. Dad, bless him, had taken the matter in hand. As I’ve said before, he found human warmth difficult, but he did try to do right by his children. He told me that he’d been doing a painting job at Stamford School and had got talking to the art teacher there. I’ll say this for Dad: he certainly wasn’t deferential. Presumably because of Derek being a pupil, Dad had said that he had another son who was less academic, but was a bit artistic and was wondering what to do about a job.

The teacher had taken an interest and suggested I take along some of my work for him to see. So, not for the last time in my life, I blithely stepped out of my comfort zone, gathered together my masterpieces and went to see this Godlike figure. Actually he wasn’t intimidating at all. He was quite complimentary about my pictures and said he’d give my job problem some thought. And that meeting, following a chance conversation when my dad just happened to painting at that school, would set my life on a course of possibilities and opportunities and experiences I couldn’t at the time have dreamed of. Maybe, Derek having succeeded where I failed indirectly led to success of a different sort for me. If so Derek, thank you.

With family dog Tip and my dog Yogi (after the bear)

With family dog Tip and my dog Yogi (after the bear)

A few days later the teacher wrote to Dad, saying that I ‘drew well’ and that he’d arranged an interview for me with a printer in Stamford for an apprenticeship as a compositor (typesetter). I hadn’t the remotest idea what that entailed, but knew that pictures were printed as well as words. So maybe there’d be drawing or painting involved.

At the interview (Dad went along too) I asked if this was so. The interviewer said no, not really. To explain why, I’ll now give a short lecture on printing technology. The earliest printing, invented by Gutenberg in Germany, used ‘moveable type’. That is, individual letters were carved, and stood proud, out of wood. Pictures were carved in just the same way. The first application of this new-fangled way of making images was to make books (mostly bibles), much more quickly than the old monks’ way of writing and illustrating them by hand. The types and pictures (called ‘blocks’) were assembled, or ‘composed’ (hence ‘compositor’ into lines, and the lines into pages and locked firmly in frames, or ‘chases’ on a printing press. The raised parts of the types and blocks were inked, paper was laid on top, pressure (hence ‘press’) was applied to force the paper onto the inked image and, hey presto, you got a printed image. Very much quicker than writing out by hand every time, I’m sure you’ll agree.

This first technology was called, unsurprisingly, ‘letterpress’. It remained basically unaltered, apart from types becoming cast in a lead alloy, when they could be mass produced and much smaller, until the twentieth century. Before photography, blocks for pictures were still produced by hand, so during those times some printers may have employed in-house illustrators, called engravers. Letterpress printing reached its zenith in the mid twentieth century, with printing machinery, mechanical typesetting and blocks produced photographically. Drawn or painted images (as opposed to photographs) were created by ‘commercial artists’ (nowadays they’re called graphic designers) working in advertising agencies, commercial art studios and some larger printers, but not your average small-town jobbing printer. After the 1950s letterpress printing was increasingly supplanted by an entirely different technology, lithography, but that’s another story. End of lecture.

Sorry about that digression into the technical, but I wanted to explain why there would have been no outlet for my artistic talents, such as they were, at Dolbys, Printers and Stationers, Stamford. The revelation that I wasn’t about to do what I thought I was best at for a living was a little disappointing, but I had no other ideas so I decided to go for it with printing. This meant being indentured as an apprentice. Most entries into industry were via that route then. It was essentially a six-year contract whereby your employer agreed to train you, on the job, and in return he got six years work from you for a boy’s wages.

So, in the summer of 1958, still little more than a boy, I began working life. Of course, being a boy, and a working-class one with no great expectations at that, the idea of more years of education didn’t appeal anyway. I couldn’t think long tem. Much better to be in the grown-up world of money-earning. It was the logical progression of urban living, all part of the growing sophistication. Not that the first year’s wages were great, but compared with pocket money they seemed a fortune. That first year, pay was all of two pounds and a few shillings per week. Putting it in context it wasn’t all that bad: the men earned less than twelve pounds. Out of my wages I was able to give Mum something for my keep (I felt very adult being able to do that) and still have a reasonable amount left for other grown-up things like clothes, the cinema and records.

The printers was a rather old-fashioned establishment run as an adjunct of the stationery/bookshop. Most of the staff intake of Dolbys was via apprenticeships, particularly in the comp (composing) room. The men were graded neatly above me by age. Above me, two years my senior, was Martin; above him, recently back from national service was Albert; above him Arthur, who considered himself something of a sophisticate. He’d also done national service, but with the Brylcreme Boys of the RAF as a medical orderly, posted to Germany. Then there was a large age gap to Charlie, the foreman, who had lost most of his stomach to surgery, so had to eat frequently, and had a fine tenor voice. He was always entertaining us with musical renditions of a classical nature. Finally there was Fred, who had to be addressed respectfully as Mr Ladds by us youngest Devils (the old fashioned term for printer’s apprentice) on account of his great age. Perhaps he only seemed so to me, but he appeared to be well into his seventies. A tiny, irascible man who hated being rushed, he was a fervent socialist and if you got him started on politics he’d stop work, gaze into the middle distance and hold forth at great length about social injustice and Utopia. For all his crotchetiness, I quite liked him. He was the first ‘character’ I knew.

Below us, in the ground floor machine room, was a similar number of ‘machine minders’ who ran the letterpress machines (the new-fangled lithography hadn’t reached Dolbys). A third room was the binding department, run along entirely sexist lines. A man was the foreman there, but all the rest were (lower paid) women. They did the various finishing jobs – folding, stitching (stapling), assembly of books and so on.

Most of us ‘comps’ did the typesetting by hand, standing at wooden trays, called ‘cases’, to assemble the type letter by letter into a ‘stick’ (probably originally wooden) that looked like a strip of angle-iron with a fixed stop on one end and a moveable one on the other making it adjustable to any desired length, just as compositors would have done centuries before us. Only two, Arthur and the venerable Fred, operated a mechanical setting system called Monotype. They typed copy into a contraption like an enormous floor-standing typewriter, which produced a cunning code on a perforated paper spool. These went downstairs to the other part of the Monotype equipment, which was operated by Ray, a rather earnest religious soul who was always embarrassed by the ribaldry of the machine room floor. This machine, a triumph of precision engineering, noisily selected tiny brass moulds as instructed by the spool and cast individual types, sometimes as small as 6pt, from molten metal before assembling them on trays (‘galleys’) ready for final composition and printing.

Being the most junior member, I got all the menial tasks, like touring the works to collect timesheets, sweeping up and, only slightly less boring, ‘dis’. This was distribution; that is, putting the type back into the cases after printing, a job that needed doing with care, as all letters had to go back in their correct compartments. If I did this carelessly life wouldn’t be worth living; there’d be loud complaints if letters were found in the wrong places. The men would know who to blame. Fortunately it was easy to deal with the monotype setting: it was simply thrown back into the melting pot of the casting machine.  Only after the tedious tasks were done could I pick up a ‘stick’ and do some creative work: some typesetting.

By the way, many of the terms used nowadays in Microsoft Word have their origin in printing. In the larger type sizes, there would have been one case for capital letters and another for ‘small’ letters, hence ‘upper case’ and ‘lower case’. For smaller sizes one case would be used for both: small letters on the left and capitals on the right but the terms ‘upper case’ and ‘lower case’ still applied. The ‘point’ size system was not invented in America either. In type there are 72 points to the old English inch. So a 72pt italic f was an inch high; a 12pt one was a sixth of an inch. ‘Font’ is from English fount, as in ‘source’ or ‘collection’. A fount (but pronounced font, as in American) was a complete alphabet, numbers, punctuation marks, everything, in any particular type style. A ‘wrong fount’, therefore, was a rogue letter of the wrong typeface appearing in setting because someone, usually me, had ‘dissed’ it back to the wrong place.

Anyway, back to the story. This, then, was my introduction to the world of work – and, importantly, work that involved an element of craft, of creating. I would have been less happy, I think, if I’d found myself working down in the machine room. Although the printing process itself was skilled, it wasn’t creative in the same way as the originating part was.

As far as social life went, I was still my mother’s son in the first year or so after leaving school. I still dutifully went with her, as I had done since moving to Stamford, to St Michael’s Church of a Sunday. But with a little spending power now, I was spreading wings.

I began to go around with a group of lads one of whom, Dennis, was the natural ‘leader’ and something of a role model. He was the oldest, had a guitar, was good looking and – most importantly – had the use of his dad’s car sometimes. So we had wheels! Most weekday evenings were spent wandering the streets of Stamford (but not in a vandalising way) punctuated with visits to the local coffee bar for cool-image reinfocing espresso coffee. Weekends were spent also wandering the streets punctuated with visits to the coffee bar, but on Saturday evenings things really took off. These days teenagers would go clubbing I suppose, but our weekly excitement then was a car ride to nearby Peterborough. This was definitely a step up the scale of sophistication, visiting a proper (albeit small) city. We didn’t do anything very wild, just went to the pictures usually, but it beat Saturday night in Stamford.

Dennis was in the church choir and also pursued his singing interests, usually as the male lead, in a musical society that put on pantomimes. So, anxious to conform and be accepted, the rest of us went along to rehearsals too. But when I was pressed to join, if only to be in the chorus, I steadfastly refused. Apart from the fact that I had no singing voice at all, the very prospect of standing on stage, even in a group, being looked at, was dreadful. The suggestion of it taught me something about myself: I was absolutely no exhibitionist. In terms of perceiving personal attractiveness I had very low self-esteem indeed (and still have, not that it matters this late in life). Then the lady running the show persuaded me to get involved behind the scenes and be a call boy, that is stand in the wings with a script and prompt any performer who forgot their lines.

So I agreed to this and continued to go to rehearsals. But as winter and panto-time got ever closer I became increasingly nervous. Could I even handle that responsibility? People would be relying on me. I couldn’t let them down. In the end I just had to say, pathetically, that I couldn’t be call-boy after all. And so I let the society down anyway. Of course after that I could hardly go to rehearsals any more, and my friendship with Dennis faded.

Thinking myself terribly grown-up and sophisticated on a trip to London

Thinking myself terribly grown-up and sophisticated on a trip to London

Then I found a new group of friends ‘led’ (again, mainly because he was a car owner) by a lad called Tony. Like me, Tony was not well educated, but he was aspirational. An articulate but very ‘square’ young man, he worked as a car mechanic by day but studied by night towards his dream of becoming an RAF pilot. In some ways he and I had quite similar characters. Social life took on a new emphasis: Saturday nights now meant a trip in Tony’s ancient Morris 8 to a nearby village to the Saturday Night Dance. These were the traditional pre-night club rave affairs, with suited men, frocked and petticoated girls, foxtrots, quicksteps and waltzes, with a bit of jiving as a nod to the new rock n’ roll  thrown in.

It wasn’t that we’d suddenly discovered an interest in ballroom dancing of course. The motivation was entirely hormonal, in an innocent, not ‘going all the way’, saving-oneself-for-marriage sort of modest aspiration. The height of our ambitions would have been a pick-up for the evening, a taking-the-girl-home and a goodnight kiss. If only. So we’d arrive, sharp-suited, after-shaved and fantasy-fuelled, to line the walls of the village hall, casting furtive glances at any girls dancing together and therefore obviously unattached. But none of us ever dared approach available females between dances to formally ask for the next one, always saying to each other airily, ‘There’s not much to chose from tonight’. When the interval came we’d escape across the road to the pub to regain a measure of male dignity. We were not big drinkers though: there was no drunken behaviour.

Then it was back into the dance and back to our positions by the wall, psyching ourselves up for a last minute face-saving: the Last Waltz. Sometimes one of us would garner enough courage to secure a last dance, sweeping past the rest of us with a girl in his arms and smirking triumphantly as we looked enviously on. It even happened to me once or twice; I found that some gorgeous painted, perfumed creature had consented to my red-faced request and I was actually on the dance floor, stumbling around – with no innate sense of rhythm I couldn’t dance for toffee – and trying to make irresistible conversation. But it never, ever, happened that any of us got lucky and won the kiss goodnight, much less the start of a beautiful friendship.

One of the other lads in the group was a cut above the rest of us. He was middle class. The son of a dentist, James had been to Stamford School and he raised the intellectual tone of the group. Sometimes, if his parents were out, we would spend Sunday evenings at his house watching the excitingly subversive That Was The Week That Was on TV. Sitting there laughing at this new, biting satire we felt very adult and liberal-minded indeed. I think it was the beginning of political awareness for me. I wasn’t going to be a Tory. Wasn’t going to accept the prevailing social status quo. James was one of those people who occupied only a short period of my life, but was to influence it significantly. He gave me some advice that I’ve never forgotten.

Talking to him one day, I confessed my feelings of inferiority and resentment about my poor education. ‘Don’t worry about it John’, he said, ‘it’s not too late; the thing to do is read and read and read’. And how right he was. I know reading isn’t the only way of getting knowledge, but it is the way to acquire and improve language, to learn to love words, to make you think and make you question superficial opinions, and to become articulate in speech and thought.

I was already a fairly bookish kid, and this advice served to reinforce it. From then on I was constantly in bookshops, always with a book on the go. I can’t claim that it was all highly literary stuff. I enjoyed science fiction, because I was interested in science and also was impressed by the clever imaginativeness of it. But there were other genres too, works like Great Expectations, Brave New World, Animal Farm and 1984.

That selection of books I’ve just recalled perhaps suggests I was still quite moralistically inclined. I think I was. I’d been finding the C of E a bit stuffy for some time and visits to Evensong had dropped away. But although social life was developing there were still spiritual forces at work, all mixed up with adolescence. It was a time of conflicting pressures: morality and testosterone. I got to know that the Methodist chapel attracted a much younger, nay a teenage, element in its congregation. This was due mainly to the efforts of a young, charismatic assistant minister, the Reverend Sutcliffe, who was happy to go by the name Sooty. Unlike the other men of God in my experience, he made a big effort to relate to younger people, causing some consternation amongst the older members of the flock by daringly giving the kids advice on relationships, including sex. Also, he ran a youth club, with dancing, exciting rock n’ roll and, most importantly, girls.

Not that I was solely attracted by the girls. Honestly. The chapel services were much more appealing with their passion and emotionalism than the dry-as-dust Anglicans’. The chapel also did after-service ‘meetings’ which were essentially hymn singing, and us youngsters went to them too. It doesn’t sound a lot of fun I know but sitting there singing all the favourite hymns, all the heart-wrenchingly emotional ones with beautiful and profound words like

 Oh love that wilt not let me go – oh,

I rest my weary soul in thee – ee;

I give thee back the life I owe – oh,

That in thine ocean depths its flow

May richer, FULL – er be.



When I – I  survey the won – drous cross,

On which the Prince of Glor – ory di – ied,

My richest gains I cou – ount but loss

And pour contempt on or – or – all  my pride.

lustily led by Sooty, was quite uplifting and enjoyable. As far as religious spirituality goes, this was when mine peaked. (If you know the tunes to these hymns, you’ll see why I’ve tried to suggest their rhythms).

In 1960 another life-changing person entered the scene. He would alter my life even more profoundly than Derek’s art teacher or James. Business was going from strength to strength at Dolbys, and although yet another comp apprentice had been taken on, a further man was needed too. Enter Mike. I don’t know what had brought him to this quiet corner of Lincolnshire: he hailed from the south-east coast of England and brought with him all the street-wisdom of southerners. He had the sharp wit of a stand up comedian and spoke with the assurance of one who seemed to have been around. The other men distrusted him a bit, I think.

He seemed a cut above the others, an exciting radical from a world outside dull Stamford. One day he mentioned in passing that he’d been to printing college one day a week when an apprentice. I was all ears and interest. ‘Why don’t you ask the boss if you can go?’ he said to me. It was the first really bold move of my life that I’d considered on my own initiative. It certainly sounded appealing. I  took  the  thought  home  and  toyed with it that evening, took it to bed with me, woke up with it still in my head the next day. But I knew that if I wanted it to happen, it was up to me to try and make it do so. So, at work, I psyched myself, like the Last Waltz scenario, to go and speak to the works manager. That was less daunting than directly approaching the boss, a very aloof figure whom the men didn’t quite tug forelocks to, but did fall into a deferential and hushed silence when he came from his inner sanctum into the comp room to discuss a job in hand with a respectful Charlie. It was almost like a visit by Royalty.

To my great surprise, the manager didn’t turn down my mumbled, stuttered request out of hand. He said he’d speak to Mr Dolby. A few days later I was summoned to an audience in the inner sanctum. The boss said that he had agreed I could go. I gave him blushing thanks. He had gone to some trouble to research the matter: the nearest institution to go to was the printing department of Leicester College of Art. They did three-year day-release (one day a week) courses in compositors’ work, and as it happened the autumn start of the academic year was due soon.

So, a few weeks later, I found myself in the strange new world of technical education. The college day fell into three parts: practical work in the morning, design – that was basic principles of printing design, something I hadn’t encountered back at work – in the afternoon and theory in the evening. After a long day there was then a train back to Stamford at twenty-to-ten and a final bike ride home. I loved it, particularly the design segment. This didn’t involve any drawing or painting, just good arrangement of type. I discovered a new concept, a new skill: typography. I began to be able to look at things like books and judge them not just for content but also as aesthetic objects. So my growing love of books now had an extra dimension – lost on most of the general public, to be honest – beauty.

I must confess this discovery of typography made me feel a little superior, inwardly, to my mostly older workmates (apart from Mike, to whom I owed a big debt of course). Having resented the inferiority of my general education compared with Derek’s, here I  now was in the superior position. Such arrogance and hypocrisy in a seventeen-year-old!

Not that I had any such self-confidence with girls. The Saturday dances had produced zero results and I fared hardly any better at the Methodist youth club. There had been a very brief two-day affair with a girl from the church days that won me my first ever kiss. But it turned out that the young lady was only using me as an entrée to big brother Gerald, five years older, better looking than me and holding down a job as a motor mechanic after his absent, dysfunctional childhood. He learned of her devious scheme and, very protectively of me, took her out, led her along a bit and then told her where to get off. The only other ‘conquest’ was an unbelievably pretty girl (and she probably knew it) from the youth club who got bored with me after three dates, unsurprisingly really as I couldn’t dance. Serious-minded, introverted and not a bundle of fun, I wasn’t much of a catch.



About wordsfromjohn

Once a printer, graphic designer, house renovator and landscape gardener, I'm now retired and a writer of books with a passion.
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4 Responses to Was African Eve our forebear?

  1. Mij Woodward says:

    Well darn. I just received a call from my daughter-in-law, and in about 20 minutes my grandson will arrive on our boat for a few hours of fun. So, will read your third installment tomorrow.

  2. Gwen Kallie says:

    I throughly enjoyed Installment #3 of Wishing for the Better!. I started working at the age of 16 in 1968. Like you, I really felt so grownup making money. My first check was around $70.00 dollars and I gave my Mother some. Then I bought an outfit with the rest of it. Loved you pictures too. Totally sixties in your suit and tie and you did look sophisticated for the time period. The intellect and intelligence shown in your face even back then.

    As for African Eve being our forebear, I’ve heard that story. I’ve also heard that Africa is the cradle of civilization. I saw a special documentary on the mitochondrial DNA as well. Very, very interesting stuff.

  3. John Needham says:

    Thanks for the kind comment Gwen! Pics of ourselves in the fashions of yesteryear do embarrass us, don’t they! I’ve worked the African Eve thing into Forebears a little bit, hence the blog about it. Was an interesting docu though.

  4. Thanks for the marvelous posting! I seriously enjoyed reading it, you will be a great author.
    I will be sure to bookmark your blog and will come back later on.
    I want to encourage one to continue your great writing,
    have a nice holiday weekend!

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