After school, I decided to earn some money working for a while in a cold storage warehouse. I managed this but also managed to damage my back for life…
1967-70: Southampton University (English). Awarded PhD scholarship to do postgraduate research in Anglo-Saxon, Old Norse and Old High German lang/lit but, being recently out of hospital after a long nervous breakdown, I was persuaded, reluctantly, to forego this.
1970-71: Nottingham University; PGCE.
I then spent over twenty years in teaching, mainly at Nottingham High School – English and helping out with cricket teams, Duke of Edinburgh Award Scheme and Adventurous training (basically = taking groups to mountains and surviving for a while).
Early in the 1980s, my first marriage failed. Thank God, I met Jane a year or two later and we were married in 1987 – nearly 30 years later, she still manages to cope with me and has provided me with two stepsons.
In the early nineties, I became very disillusioned with teaching; I was stale and tired and felt that my mind was slowly dying. Anxiety made me ill but Jane agreed that I should leave (1992) and retrain in computing while she became the main breadwinner.
Whilst retraining, I developed an interest in Desk Top Publishing and Databasing; two years later, in the autumn of 1994, a colleague of my wife offered me a job in a medical research team in Nottingham University – building and running a database for a nasty lung disease that was then known as Cryptogenic Fibrosing Alveolitis but has since been renamed – with comparable impenetrability – Idiopathic Pulmonary Fibrosis. ‘Cryptogenic’ and ‘Idiopathic’ mean that we don’t know what causes them but we do know that this disease kills most of the people who contract it.
The work went well and, for the next few years, Professor Richard Hubbard and others offered me employment managing their databases and, increasingly, teaching data-management to their PhD students, as and when they secured research grants. This was rather hit and miss because epidemiology is a hugely competitive area, and there are many groups chasing the same money.
In between data jobs, I taught privately and in various adult education institutions (English and computing). This culminated in an 18-month stint teaching lifers in HMP Nottingham: I had thought that this would be an opportunity for someone like myself – who had lived a privileged and sheltered life – to help struggling people but, to be honest, it almost destroyed me. Most of the men were affable enough but few had any real commitment to education (understandably, they wanted three hours out of their cells). Eventually, one of the inmates told me quietly that a couple of the other lifers would kill me as soon as look at me. It is difficult to verbalise the undercurrents at all coherently but it appears that just 2 or 3 of the men identified me as a posh boy, a middle-class do-gooder, a mealy-mouthed Christian who could walk out at the end of each stint – all were sources of hatred for a few of them. I was shocked, frightened, trapped – and, given that drug-abuse was rife in the prison, I knew that those who made the threat might become sufficiently deranged to carry it out. Since the staff often left me alone on the lifers’ landing, opportunities would be available.
Needing the work, I felt unable to leave and had to settle for being equipped with an emergency pager by the prison. I did not find this especially comforting. However, providentially, within a few days of this awful conversation, Richard Hubbard rang me and said that he had funding for three years and offered me the job of his data manager. So it was that, in Holy Week of 2000, I left prison and began full-time work in Nottingham University.
As time went on, more and more interest was shown in our field (‘large-numbers’ epidemiology) and, as more studies were mooted, more money became available and, miraculously, a three-year job became permanent. I became a Senior Research Fellow, running The Health Improvement Network (THIN) in Nottingham University – a research database containing some 4 billion rows of data, built and run in SQL Server. This necessitated teaching myself SQL programming since everyone else in the team was a medic or/and a statistician and didn’t have a clue about SQL. Thankfully, I managed to sort out the programming algebra, and THIN took off. Eventually, I worked with Richard until 2012, publishing 40 or 50 papers. If you are interested to see the kind of work we were doing, just use Google Scholar to query Hubbard R + Smith C + University of Nottingham and a representative cross-section of our work will show up.
I retired on 12th December 2012, switching off my computer at 12.12: it all ended at 12 12 12 12 12…leaving behind yet another PhD: I was offered the chance to transmute my work into a PhD but felt that it was too late in my life. Technically, it may still be available but I have other fish to fry now.
In our retirement, Jane and I have taken up French together and are very active in our church. Jane does our large garden at home and I have an allotment: this fills our freezer and keeps me out of trouble (sometimes). I also seem to have become the computer-support bloke for friends and family – possibly on the basis that I have made most of the mistakes that anyone will ever make and, therefore, can usually find a solution. I have also developed an abiding interest in photography: I first found this interest after ‘O’ Level, travelling round and photographing the Isle of Wight railways but, in the last 10 years or so, this interest has morphed into an absorption with landscape photography.
I thought that I would miss work but I don’t: I am happily retired and, although I do not enjoy the consequences of aging, I have settled quite peacefully for the life that is unfolding, and I think that I have probably become the old git I could never quite imagine when I left school!
With my best wishes to you all.
Chris Smith; April 2016