I can’t spell. I really can’t. I’m terrible at it, always have been. Yet I read voraciously (it just took me three attempts to spell that one right), and I love to write. I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was seven years old, but my poor spelling was always something of a handicap, because I’m so old that when I was at school there was no such thing as spell checkers. Sure, there were dictionaries but the problem with a dictionary is that you have to at least have some basic idea of how a word is spelt to be able to get find it in the first place.
I also liked machines, cars, motorcycles, planes. I enjoyed taking them apart and finding out how they worked (OK I didn’t take planes apart, but I studied aerodynamics so I knew how they stayed up there). Early in my teens, sitting in the careers advisor’s office at school with the oil from the latest engine tear-down fresh under my finger nails, I had a discussion that went something like this:
Careers Advisor: “So what would be your ideal profession?”
Me: “Something that combined Engineering and Writing.”
Careers Advisor: “That’s not a career. There’s no such job.”
He then looked at the file on his desk, and then at my oily hands. “Your report says you have a good grasp of most subjects and can learn quickly, but you are a terrible speller.” Another look at the hands, “But clearly you like machines. Go be an engineer.”
And that was his final word, and that’s the path the school put me on.
Fast forward several years and I have a degree in Marine Engineering in my pocket and I’m working as a Junior Engineer in the British merchant marine on container ships. It wasn’t the life for me, except for one aspect.
During long boring watch rota shifts in the mainly automated engine room I would while away the time reading the tech manuals. You know the things that I’d been told didn’t exist. And my reaction was (1) That idiot careers advisor had been wrong as someone must produce these, and (2) I could do them so much better.
Despite being paid to travel the world (well the Mediterranean and North Atlantic) while staring at a deck full of containers, after a year I decided to head back to land and to University to pursue a second degree in Industrial Technology. As part of the degree course we had to spend two separate six-month periods working in industry. My first industrial-placement was at a computer company, and the second?
At some point I’d been chatting to my girlfriend (now my wife) about potential placements and she suggested I talk to her brother-in-laws, both of whom worked at British Aerospace. Over a pint in the pub later that evening someone casually mentioned that there was a department called Technical Publications at the aerospace facility nearby, and he happened to know the guy who ran it. One introduction later and the following summer I found myself at a desk writing my first piece of technical documentation – a Component Maintenance Manual for an upgrade to the engine intakes on Concorde!
As for that job that didn’t exist, by my reckoning I am now in my 32nd year of working in the profession in one capacity or other.