So this was my new life. QA manager for the group (two quarries, a brickworks and an asphalt plant), health and safety manager for the same departments, editor of our company newspaper “The Sand Martin” (a real writing job!), social club organiser, and now – globe trotting technician / engineer. How far I had come from that tiny, dirty lab in the foundry, and not a coal mine to be seen…
In fact, bearing in mind my lack of real qualifications, I thought I was doing exceptionally well!
I’m doing the tardis thing again, hopping back and forward through the time line as I remember things, and another aspect that I had completely forgotten about was another potential string to my bow when my boss decided I should train up to be in quarry management.
One of the great aspects of our company at the time was that we tended to train people in house, starting them at the bottom and letting them work through various positions until they had sufficient grasp of the job to become part of the management.
And so, amongst everything else, in 1984 I found myself being enrolled on the Doncaster Applied Private Study course No 14 – affectionally known in the trade as DAPS 14, a course specifically designed by Doncaster Metropolitan Institute of Higher Education (or ‘College’ as we affectionately called it), with a bunch of like minded guys (and one gal) from various positions in the quarrying and asphalt industries. DMIHE (or ‘College’) were experts in providing quarrying and mining training and I spent the next four years working through a ton of new subjects I’d never even dreamt of.
DMIHE (on the right) – Later knocked down to build a new college
Every three months I had to spend a whole weekend at the DMIHE – the only student not boarding there as I lived within travelling distance, where we packed in a lot of practical stuff like geology, surveying, electrical engineering. The rest of the time I would receive a huge pack of “modules” to complete each week, reading through the subject matter then doing the exercises at the back, before parcelling up the answer sheets and sending them back to the college for marking.
It was time consuming. I would sit up until the early hours working on various projects, but I found it interesting. Having always enjoyed the geology part of geography at school, I found myself learning geology in depth, as well as surveying; applied mathematics was hard, but I worked through it and started to get a better grasp of the subject. I thought I was number blind, but I realised that actually I was just not cut out for pure maths. But put it into context and I didn’t have any problem with it. Mechanical and electrical engineering came next, which was partially physics theory (remember I hated that at school?) but suddenly, acceleration due to gravity was so much easier to understand when the question was “A 10t truck is freewheeling down a 1 mile road because its handbrake has failed – you are stood in the road at the bottom of the hill, 1 mile away. How much time do you have to get out of the way of the truck before it knocks you over?”
Very soon I was calculating power factor lags in star/delta motor configurations, fulcrum points on wall mounted cranes, and even predicting where limestone formations lay in the ground based on “strike lines” and outcrops.
It took four years but I finished the course with a distinction and had qualified to join the Insitute of Quarrying at member grade- I was a fully fledged Quarry Manager, with letters behind my name.
Robert Minchin, MiQ.
It didn’t mean much to a lot of people as many are members of various institutes, but this was special – I had to earn that title, and it had been a hard slog.
Unfortunately at that point the company’s long term strategy of promoting from existing staff seemed to stop, and I was never offered a position in the quarry. But actually, the MD had other ideas for me.
While I was busy getting the machine ready in Denmark, our MD was already setting up his next licensee, this time in Luxembourg. The only thing I knew about little Luxembourg was from listening to “Radio 208 Luxembourg” with my earphone in my little transistor radio under my blankets at night when I was a teenager, and I knew it was referred to as “The Grand Duchy of Luxembourg” although I didn’t know what this meant at the time.
Mixing machine number 2 arrived in the quarry, an identical copy of the Danish plant, and once again I assisted with the commissioning and packing, and then it was off to Luxembourg to help our new partners with the new machine and mixing the product.
The journey started with a trip to Heathrow – in those days, flights from Heathrow also included a shuttle flight from a local airport, so I was flying from East Midlands airport down to Heathrow then on to Luxembourg via Luxair. It was my first proper scheduled flight and it was proper luxury compared to the tiny planes I had used to get to Denmark, or the cramped 737 that we would eventually fly to Majorca on.
I was only going for a couple of days, and it was a busy couple of days – the first day I helped assemble the plant with their staff. It was an unusual situation. The company made asphalt and their main guy was their asphalt lab technician, which was interesting as that had been my first job with the company so we had common ground.
He spoke no English but spoke good French and German. My French at the time was poor, my German slightly better. I remember him saying “in French, in German, it doesn’t matter”. So we managed to converse in a mixture of the two. The rest of the team consisted of the transport manager, who was Spanish, and the plant manager who spoke German and Spanish. I suppose this was inevitable considering that Luxembourg is so central and has so many borders.
I was a bit perturbed to find that a) they had built the machine high on a cliff face and b) that their idea of connecting cables was just twisting the bare copper cores together and letting them dangle under the machine. Now, we aren’t talking low voltage stuff here – this was 390 volts, lethal stuff. I was slightly horrified.
For lunch, we went to a local restaurant and I was treated to Sauerkraut. And Oh My God was the cabbage sour. It was absolutely awful. The sausages were not much better. Being polite, I managed to eat a little of the cabbage and a couple of the large sausages, something like bratwurst I suppose. They thought I was enjoying it so scooped another huge portion of the cabbage onto my plate and two more sausage. I couldn’t eat it, and felt really guilty.
The evening meal was slightly better. We all went to a local pub, long wooden benches and saw dust on the floor, and we sat and ate roast chicken from large platters, drunk beer from huge glasses and told jokes. Yes, jokes! I could only think of one joke that i could translate, (I dont recall it now) and I told it to my new friend in french. He then told the joke to the plant manager in German, who then told the same joke to the Spanish transport manager in Spanish. I had not noticed this happening until the transport manager suddenly started to fall about laughing. I asked what he was laughing at, and they said “Your joke!”. I didn’t know what the French was for “Well tell him it wasn’t THAT funny!”.
Later on there was a bit of a commotion upstairs. A woman was crying, wailing and screaming. I asked what was going on. Apparently it was the pub owner, Belinda. She had just broken up with her younger boyfriend and was now suffering from a broken heart. They had called a doctor. I did not believe this until a few minutes later an ambulance arrived and took her away…
Eventually they took me back to the hotel – I was stopping at the hotel Ibis just across the road from the airport terminal, and the view of the planes flying in and out was spectacular, as was the blue and green glow of the taxiway lights against the blue night sky.
The next day (my last day) we toured around some potential horse arena sites and discussed installation methods, and then they returned me back to the hotel at about 5.30 p.m. and told me to be ready for 6 p.m. as we were going out for a meal. I quickly showered and changed and ran back to lobby just as they pulled up outside.
Once again, we went to another good restaurant, had lots to drink, lots to eat, and had lots of laughs. At about ten o’clock, I asked if they could take me back to the hotel – I hadn’t packed, and I had to be back at the airport for 4.30 a.m. for my 6 a.m. flight.
Plus I was getting a little tired.
But no, the technician had other plans. We walked around the streets of the capital, stopping at the occasional pub for another glass of beer, and at midnight I begged him to take me back to the hotel. “Just one more club” he said. I guessed that maybe he didn’t get out much, and I was his excuse to get out. Or maybe it was just we had made such a good partnership he wanted to show me a good time. Or maybe it is just the Luxembourg way.
The last place didn’t look like a pub. We approached a building which had a set of steps leading down to a basement, and a bouncer at the top of the steps.
We walked into the room. It was pitch black I couldn’t see anything at all.
He found a table and we sat at it. An old waitress brought two beers. I couldn’t really drink anything else so I just sipped mine. My eyes tried to adjust but there was barely enough light to see. Very strange. It was however very smokey which wasn’t going down well with me, a non smoker.
After a while, I became aware of something moving behind me, and the room had become slightly brighter. I could now see the bar – maybe my eyes were improving with time.
I glanced over my shoulder and nearly fell from my chair. Behind me, a black curtain had opened quietly, to reveal a small stage. Kneeling on the stage, on all fours, was a naked woman. Kneeling behind her, a naked man. Oh my god I thought.
Making no noise at all, they went through the motions, and then when the act was completed, the guy stood up and walked off, followed by the woman. The crowd in the room, sat at the other tables and now illuminated by the stage “lighting”, didn’t even seem to notice they had been there.
My guide for the night eventually looked at his watch and said “time to go”.
I felt physically sick. I was tired, drunk and just wanted to sleep. Then I checked my watch and saw it was nearly 4 a.m., and it was a good walk back to his car.
“Quickly” he said “go and fetch your bag, and I will take you to the airport”. He pulled up outside the hotel, I ran upstairs, grabbed my bag and threw all my belongings into it, and ran back outside, throwing the key to the receptionist. Fortunately the technician had checked me out and paid the bill.
I made it through the airport just in time – straight onto the plane and into my window seat.
It wasn’t a long flight but I fell asleep instantly and didn’t wake again until breakfast was served. In those days, even the shortest flights had a meal service. I had a nice continental breakfast which included kiwi and strawberries – I had never tasted kiwis and loved them – they became a firm favourite at home for many years to come.
I also noticed something quite extraordinary on the way home – I properly experienced centrifugal force for the first time. I had a glass of champagne on my tray as we approached Heathrow, a beautiful sunrise illuminating the clouds. And then suddenly the plane banked over steeply to the right, and all I could see was clouds, the sky being right up at the top of the window if I peered directly upwards. But the glass – it didn’t move, and the champagne in the glass didn’t spill out, it stayed perfectly horizontal. It is sad that something so simple can bring so much fascination to a person!
On my return I was prompted to write a report about the time in Luxembourg, and I mentioned the very dodgy cabling, as I thought this was a bit of a hazard and it ought to be fixed.
A few weeks later I was sent back to help due to a belt weigher fault – in the end my mate Daren from the belt weigher company had to go out and fit a new one, something I eventually learned to do myself.
When I arrived, I notice the friendly camaraderie had gone, replaced with a very curt, silent indifference. There was no lunch, there was no dinner. I ate in the hotel alone.
Just before my return, the owner of the company pulled out a fax, on that glossy thermo-sensitive paper that fax machines used to use back then. It was a copy of my report, which my boss had just faxed to them. Had I known he was going to do that, I would not have been quite as abrupt in my language in the report. The owner was obviously annoyed that I had criticised their workmanship to my boss, and clearly my good relationship with them had come to an abrupt end.
Fortunately I never had to go back to Luxembourg, and our relationship with them was short lived. But I learned the first two important lessons in my international business life:
Firstly, when writing a report, always assume the person you are writing about will get a copy!
Secondly, nothing you tell your boss is EVER in confidence. Even if they promise you it is. In fact, if they have promised to keep something strictly to themelves, the more likely it will be common knowledge by the next day…
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