On A Life History - Part 1

Another month has been and gone and the weather is now distinctly autumnal here in Plymouth - the sea is choppy, the weather cold and gloves and hats and scarves have all come out to play. Life is rolling on and so are my various research projects. I've finally had time to pick up MAsC where Liz left of when she left - there's only a little bit of money left for the postdoc on the project and I can't realistically expect anyone to take a job so short-term so I'm going to do the bulk of the lab bits myself and pay an existing postdoc to do the analytical work, which is the opposite way around to the plan, but then nothing in research ever does  go according to plan! Nor does anything in life and I've been thinking about that recently.

I was thinking yesterday about life and plans - prompted by wandering about a book shop and seeing one of Patricia Cornwell's Kay Scarpetta series on display - it was one of her books, Postmortem (1990), that first made me think seriously about a career in science, but not as a bacteriologist or as a University lecturer, but as a forensic pathologist. To do that, you need to read Medicine and then do an awful lot of postgraduate study and have a certain amount of experience under your belt and, looking back, that was never for me. I was never Medical School material and I think I knew that when applying. I didn't want  to read Medicine, I wanted to be a forensic pathologist - Medical School and working as a medic were just stepping stones to me and of course that meant I took no real interest in getting into Medicine but the truth was, forensics at that time was the only thing I wanted to do and I had not considered anything else. I've had a lot of conversations lately with students who want to know how I got where I am and some of whom were surprised by my route and background, so here's the first instalment. Why am I telling this story? Not for my own benefit really but to hopefully give some hope/inspiration to my students who think their background might hold them back. My own background certainly hasn't held me back.

 Houses close to where I grew up. These were identical to the one we lived in.  Copyright © 2009  Richard Law . CC-BY-SA 2.0. 

Houses close to where I grew up. These were identical to the one we lived in.

Copyright © 2009 Richard Law. CC-BY-SA 2.0. 

I grew up in the West Midlands on a sink-estate built in the 1960s to take "overspill" as they called it locally from Birmingham, Manchester, Newcastle and Glasgow slum-clearance and inner-city demolition projects that were in vogue  in the 1960s - replacing tenements with tower blocks and ripping hearts out of communities. The plans were to relocate people to "a new life" on a modern estate that was better than what they'd come from - then for some to stay there and those who didn't settle to move back to the modern tower blocks that replaced the "slums" they came from. By the early 1980s when my parents bought our house, the estate was starting to become a slum - drugs were a huge problem, as was unemployment and crime. Our house was vandalised a number of times and we had a few attempted break-ins and we could never afford to repair the damage - we could not even afford house insurance. My Father was a former miner who lost his trade due to Mrs Thatcher's dissolution of the local mining industry which put thousands of people out of work in a small town that was built entirely on the backs of the coal and ironstone industries. Through the 1980s, he went from job to job, usually working for about 6 weeks before another factory went bankrupt and then we spent long periods with him on the dole and my Mother, a trained seamstress, doing piecework from home sewing everything from cycling clothing to drysuits, earning a few pounds for several hours of work - but it was the only work that there was. I was on free school dinners for much of the time though the stigma attached meant my mother would rather scrimp on other areas and send me with a packed lunch. My parents weren't the "idle poor" that Mr Cameron talks about so often - they were back then, like so many families in 2013 still are, happy to work - desperate to work - but unskilled, untrained (well, my Mother was  trained but in corset manufacture - an industry that had since died out due to lack of demand) and with no ability to get  any training, there were no open doors. We lived on very little money in the 1980s and 1990s and life wasn't easy for any of us. I didn't know it at the time but we were well below the poverty line. Of course, all of my friends' families were too and so it didn't feel like we were any different from anyone else for much of the time but then a window was opened to me into another world.

A teacher from my secondary school (the local comp - no uniform as no one could afford to buy one), Mrs B (who becomes more important later on!) mentioned the book Postmortem  not very long after it was published in the UK and I remember her reading a section from it. I asked my Mother if I could buy it and a few weeks later, she gave me a copy. Books were my main hobby as a child and still are - they kept me sane many times and the local Library was my home from home. Every Saturday morning I would go to the shops to help my Mother with the heavy shopping (no car, buses were expensive, we walked two miles each way, as did everyone else) and whilst she was doing the shopping, I was allowed up to the Library which was on top of the indoor market to take my books back and get some more. I was allowed 6 books at a time and they often involved the "choose your own adventure" series by Steve Jackson and Ian Livingston - being an only child who loved high fantasy, they were a game I could play without the need for siblings or similarly interested friends! I devoured books - I had read the entire Lord of the Rings  series by the age of 10 and I can remember my Mother buying me surplus books from the library including a set of Maud Jepson's Biological Drawings With Notes  which I treasured for years until I was broke as a student and had to sell them. She gave me second hand books when she could afford them and was very keen on the Enid Blyton books of her own childhood - I still have her 1940s editions of the Faraway Tree  series - good old original copies full of absolutely revolting levels of racism and characters called "Dick" and "Fanny". They've all been censored now - gollyw*gs are now goblins and "Rick" plays with "Franny" - this is a bad thing in my book - the abject racism is an important lesson the children - "this was acceptable in the 1930s-1950s when the books were written but it's very wrong and this is why". I don't believe in re-writing the past to pretend casual racism wasn't commonplace.  

When she gave me Postmortem , I was thrilled by the book, the science - everything. I was soon on to books about Jack the Ripper, true crime, forensics and so on and I remember when I was about 13 I wrote to Professor Bernard Knight, who was the Forensic Pathologist for Wales at the time, to ask him how to get into forensics. He replied - I've still got his handwritten letter that, now knowing how busy academics are, was very nice of him to write - and is why I always reply to schoolkids who email me to ask about careers in science. I wanted to do forensics but how - I now knew from Prof Knight that I had to go to to medical school and so I went to the local careers service to find out more. All we got in careers education at school was a go on a careers questionnaire thing on a 286 PC that told you that you were suited to being a dog walker or a fireman or nothing else really. The careers service was in a suite of offices above the former Job Centre, which I think was empty at the time after they moved into a new build around the corner. They had lots of information sheets on BTECs and GNVQs and a few  on A-levels but nothing about medicine or university either - the highest you were expected to aspire to was a BTEC in the local area. Most kids left school with no GCSEs and went straight into a factory, if they were lucky. I was stuck for how to get to the next stage - I didn't even know what A-levels were needed for Medical School let alone what an A-level really was (no secondary school in the area went beyond age 16) or where to do them. I knew there were two 16-18 colleges in the area and one was more technical than the other but that was about it.

I didn't really get very far with finding out but when I was about 15, a new pupil joined our school (H, one of my first crushes!) and was deemed by the teachers to be somehow worth pairing up with me as we were the only pupils likely to do the "Special" GCSE papers that allowed you to get grades above a "C". We were never destined to be good friends - different class, different background, different aspirations - plus he was very sporty and I was very not. He was only in our school because a far, far better one had expelled him and his parents had divorced so his mother had moved to a nearby estate to conserve funds temporarily. One day, Mrs B caught me after a lesson and asked me to meet her at lunchtime. She explained to me that H had won a Government Assisted Place to do A levels at a private school nearby. I knew the place existed but wasn't sure where it was or anything about it, just that it existed and of course wasn't  full of people like me! She said the school felt if H could get in then so could I and it would do me a lot of good to at least go and visit it and think about it. She gave me a small blue leaflet about their 6th form which I took home and read. An Assisted Place was a way for the then Tory government to pay for the School Fees so that "bright" children from state schools could go to a private school from all or part of 11-18 to give them a step-up in life. I now think the money would've been better spent improving state schools but when you consider the cost of the 5 pupils the school took in this route amounted to about £75,000 per year for quite a large catchment area that contained dozens of state schools, it wouldn't've gone very far! I took the leaflet home and my parents laughed at first - people like us  didn't go to places like that ! They knew I was "bright" (I hate that term - I was and am just hard-working and think a bit differently from some, maybe, but I'm nothing special) but this was going too far - or was it? They started to seriously discuss it with me and it was decided I should visit. In order not to put off the Headmaster with my parents who "might be uncomfortable there", Mrs B felt that she should take me as she would know what to say and do and could make sure I didn't put a foot out of line or say the wrong thing. Looking back at the visit, I now cringe, but whatever she said, it clearly worked...

(to be continued...)