I went out for a meal with our BT account manager the other day. There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch of course, and our part of the bargain at these dos is to gently release titbits of information that they can pounce on in order to try and sell us stuff. By my rules, though, they are also fair game for a good ribbing. He did ask me why I had such a downer on BT and the answer is that I don’t; I loathe all Telcos with a passion based on their inability to do anything outside of the box. (Indeed, they frequently cock things up inside the box as well). However, I have some very fond memories of people and places within BT from various times up to thirty years ago, as BT has been a major peripheral player in my career.
British Telecom is the quasi-monopoly UK telephone provider and they were originally a Division of the Post Office, a nationalised industry.
If you said “Stone” to the proverbial man in the Pub, he’d probably talk about geology, Stones Bitter, or possibly that moment in Basic Instinct when Sharon Stone flashed her front bottom. If he is a wizened old telephone engineer, however, he may well tell you about the Post Office Telecommunications Training school at Yarnfield, near Stone, in Staffordshire.
These days, it is known as Yarnfield Park Training and Conference centre but back in the early 1980s, it was an enormous complex for training technical officers well in how to do their jobs. Even today, if you look on Google maps, it is a large site to the north of the village.
When young apprentices joined British Telecom as was, they spent several years in training, both formally and on the job. It was known affectionately as “up poles and down holes”, much of their work being on outside plant rather than indoors in the Telephone Exchanges. It was based very much on Civil Service practices, so the technicians were known as “Technical Officers” and everything was thoroughly documented and procedurised.
I underwent similar training, but for a Manufacturer, GEC Telecommunications. GEC mostly supplied to BT, as did two other suppliers, namely Plessey and STC. GEC also had an export market, but mostly Nigeria. Systems were engineered with BT on a “cost plus” basis but when I took a look at “System X” and what work was available back in 1979, it mostly seemed to be paper chasing or specialisation in too small an area of expertise. Instead, I went into the Private Systems Division that was getting a Canadian system accepted into the marketplace, the Northern telecom SL1
In order to sell phone systems back then, you had to get type-approval from BT, under the auspices of THQ (Telecoms Headquarters). They permitted you to install a small number of systems and they then crawled all over it accepting it on an interim basis after extensive testing. It then had to have a certain level of trouble free system hours within constraints of a maximum number of systems (about a dozen). As our system was evolving and had a number of variants, we had to repeat the process to some extent a couple of times and then retrofit many of the design changes to the existing systems.
Towards the end of 1980, we were on the home stretch of getting full type approval. We had one outstanding obligation; we needed to provide a fully working system free of charge to one of the BT training schools, specially modified so that their trainers could introduce various faults during a training course. (This was an interesting exercise in itself and we ended up fitting coverable switches on the faceplate of many of the cards). GEC being tight as a gnats chuff, the system that went out of the door could have been called Heinz, as it had all sorts of old, dodgy vintage cards found knocking about the stores, a real 57 varieties. (As it didn’t carry real phone conversations and we had to give them it free, we didn’t feel too guilty about it!)
At the end of November, I was offered the job in Norway and went to hand in my resignation. The first reaction of my boss (a Steve Freear) was to seek reassurance that I would still be OK to do the training school installation, which I agreed to. (I didn’t have enough holiday to not do it, anyway). The reaction of the Technical manager, Nick Dowty, was much more amusing. “YOU ABSOLUTE FART!” he exclaimed, with a twinkle in his eye. Everyone had seen the job advert in the Coventry Evening telegraph a few weeks earlier and rumours were rife. The Head of Function, a mercurial character called Jeff Minion, even went so far as to lambast Northern telecom for stealing one of his best engineers, but of course it was nothing to do with them.
Anyway, I went to Stone feeling de-mob happy. The Stone complex was on two sites either side of a road. The older site was a Brick & Asbestos roof Hut arrangement branching at right angles off a semi-circular corridor looping round the site, a layout fairly common in Government buildings. (I have seen similar ones at Long Benton in Newcastle for DSS and also Cheltenham, for GCHQ). The newer site had some more modern concrete buildings and this was where the accommodation was. I seem to remember that it may well have been an Army Base at some stage and it didn’t have a reputation for comfort, having dormitories and communual washing facilities. Anyway, our first week was spent commuting to a not particularly nearby village where we were staying in a Pub that did rooms. It seems that the BT staff were given a fairly decent living allowance if they stayed offsite so accommodation was in reasonably short supply. Indeed, even some of the instructors were long term paying guests.
Somehow or other, we managed to persuade the college management to let us stay on site (although our contacts assured us it was unthinkable) and we were allocated rooms in the Staff accommodation which was to a higher standard (en-suite, private rooms, for a start!). We were allowed to eat in the staff restaurant, which whilst nothing special was at least on a human scale. (The student canteen put out breakfast cereal in a box the size of a tea chest). Another benefit of staying on-site was the facilities- cheap bar, sports hall: and a proper (garrison) theatre which doubled as a Cinema. We went there twice, once to see a Pro Christmas Variety show and the second time to see “The China Syndrome”. This is a movie about dodgy goings on in an American nuclear Power Station and most of the action takes place in the Control room. There was one scene where Engineers were scurrying round with wiring diagrams snipping control cables in order to override some of the controls and this got a big laugh from the three hundred or so telephone engineers in the audience when one wag shouted out something about 81s. (81s were standard issue bottle nosed pliers with a cutting edge).
Back in 1998, I persuaded my employers to send me on an application training course and I was delighted to find that it was being held at Stone. The site had changed considerably but some things were still recognisable. The old site across the road had gone and was now a housing development. Some decent accommodation was in the late process of being built (it was being dried out with huge gas heaters and big pipes through the windows) and there was a sample room built in the lobby you could have a look in. You could still make phone calls for free (you could do that in 1980, but you had to queue up to use telephone boxes and I failed miserably to tell my then Girlfriend I was about to go abroad with “Dear John” consequences a couple of months later).
One thing I most remember from 1980 though, was the new BT logo of the time which you can see at the top. The Stone staff told me that it typified the business to a (B)T;-
Whichever way up look look at it- it’s a cock-up or a balls-up…