How lucky I am to have joined U3A Port Phillip. Among all the other benefits, it has brought me many new friends. A few years ago, a friend in the petanque group heard me talking about cryptic crosswords and said that she had always wanted to understand these puzzling beasts. So for nearly three years, I’ve been running cryptic crossword courses.
Recently, a friend in one of those classes said to me: “You were an engineer. How do you come to have such a love of words?” I refrained from expressing my dismay at her implied view of engineers, but it did get me thinking. Why? Not only why do I enjoy playing with words but why do I see them as so important? It made me think back over my life, both personal and professional, from just that point of view.
The story starts with my mother – a highly intelligent woman whose family situation prevented her from having a tertiary education. She read a great deal (and did a cryptic crossword every day in the later years of her life). In my early boyhood in Adelaide, she encouraged me to read and took me to the local library every week. I have fond memories of hunting for the latest adventures of Biggles, Gimlet or Worrals. (As I often say in my cryptic classes – if you don’t know about these people, look them up). I’ve enjoyed reading ever since that time. I must note also that later, when I enrolled in engineering, Mum took great delight in learning with me how to do calculations on a slide rule.
At secondary school, I had several science teachers who were men of broad intellect and insisted on precise expression in every report. And my Latin teacher made a great impact on me – his love of the written word was infectious. At university, again I was lucky to have lecturers with wide interests who gave credit for clear accurate written work as well as accurate calculations.
And so to my major influence. At university, I met Bev Hill, an Arts student who took several languages and majored in Old and Middle English. She’s been my companion in words ever since. Together we have always delighted in exploring the origins of words and expressions, laughed at quirky use of words, weird spellings and odd punctuations that one sees every day, and supported each other in making the best use of words in whatever we write. And somewhere along the way, we started doing cryptic crosswords. Neither of us can remember just when, but for many years we have each had a book of puzzles at our bedside and, when we are away from home, in our travel bags.
David Astle’s super hard Cryptics are no match for word-wise Colin & Bev
Immediately after we married, Bev and I spent nearly three years in the north-east of England. My first professional work there was in chemical plant design, with great emphasis on calculations and little on words. But soon I moved to an operations role, where getting the words exactly right in daily instructions was of paramount importance, not least for safety reasons. That emphasis continued when we returned to Australia, where I worked for a year in Sydney on the start-up of a new petrochemical plant.
Our next move was to Melbourne, when I took a lecturing position at Monash. In parallel with teaching, I completed a doctorate thesis. There were many many words in that, and I knew that they had to impress the examiners. In classes at Monash, I tried to pass on to students my respect for the written word, urging them to present clear reports with precise grammar and correct spelling. I remember well one design class that brought struggles and laughs as I dealt with students’ attempts to spell “phthalic anhydride”!
With three school-age children in tow, Bev and I enjoyed six months in Connecticut and six weeks in Texas. I was lecturing at universities there and assisting a colleague to complete a text book. Once again, words had to be well-chosen and well-presented.
My mid-life crisis took the form of recognition that I was in danger of becoming a life-long academic, so I left Monash to do some real engineering with a major design and construction company. Clearly written procedures for our staff and well-argued proposals to clients were critical for business success. During my last six working years, I was responsible for teams in up to seventeen locations around Australia and New Zealand. Memories of those years are of travel, travel, travel – almost every week. Books and crossword puzzles were my constant companions, providing great respite from business pressures, especially on the flights home.
At retirement, some eighteen years ago, I decided that forty years of engineering was enough – there are too many other interesting areas to pursue. Bev and I have been lucky to travel overseas quite often, sharing the challenge and enjoyment of foreign languages. I’ve spent a lot of time on boards and committees of several mental health charities and our local residents’ association. The filing cabinets and cupboards at home are testament to the volume of words that have been produced over that time.
This ex-engineer has had a life full of words. Just as well I love them!