Don's Diary

August 4, 1995

Wednesday. I spend most of the morning tidying up loose ends on a paper, checking references, adjusting graphs and tables and finally printing out copies for submission to the journal.

As my last three years have been funded by a Government agency I also have to print an extra copy to send to them for official clearance to publish. Judging from the lack of response to the draft final report we submitted three weeks ago it will be a long, slow process. I would not mind except that this agency - like so many other legacies of the Thatcher years - trumpets its "businesslike" attitudes and "efficiency" at every opportunity. Sir Humphrey in Arfur Daley's clothing perhaps?

The end of my contract looms. I pack my reprints and books into two crates, ready to transfer them home. Then there will be great upheavals as boxes are shifted between my study (aka "spare bedroom") and the loft. I have fought the chronic academic disease of kleptomania over the past few years but when I taught in Nigeria, the most unlikely textbooks suddenly became vital. So I "prioritise" and offer my redundant reprints "early retirement" in the loft.

And then, at 5 pm, a telephone call: my 11-month son has had another fit. Graham, our technician, rushes me home by car to find my wife and son with our GP who wants him admitted to hospital for observation. So we pack an overnig local hospital where the doctor and nurses in the children's ward welcome Edward like an old friend (he had another fit a month ago). The GP had mentioned the dread word "epilepsy" so we have an anxious few hours until the hospital doctors decide it is more likely to have been another febrile convulsion. Get in at 10 pm, shattered and unfed. Settle for chips, scotch and bed.

Thursday. Penultimate day of my contract. Actually, though it does not feel like it, my last day at work because tomorrow, for a swansong, I give a paper at a local conference. Except that I am not at work this morning, I am back at the hospital to collect Edward and Heather. I do not arrive in the laboratory until after lunch and spend the afternoon tidying up loose ends, although after so many years of short contracts it is hard to believe that this really is the end. It will not be, of course, as I will be in to check books and am still helping others in the group with statistical and computing queries. But attached to my payslip today was a P45.

At 5 pm, I suddenly find laboratory filling with my colleagues who present me with a card, a cassette and a book about wine. Now it all begins to seem real. Nonetheless, once we have chatted for a few minutes, we disperse and I leave my uncleared desk, same as usual, get on my bike and go home.

Friday. To Bradford for conference. The usual mix of good, bad and indifferent papers. My turn comes at 2.30 pm. As I walk to the podium I realise the significance of the cassette that I was given yesterday. It was the best of Just a Minute: either they are reminding me to speak without hesitation, repetition or deviation (sound advice) or they think that 60 seconds will be all that the audience can stomach. I distribute business cards to all and sundry.

Monday. There is no such thing as an unemployed academic nowadays: we are all "consultants". I do not know whether I can make a living from it but since Christmas there have only been two jobs in New Scientist worth the effort of an application. I also know that my research group was not winning some of the smaller contracts because by the time we had covered our laboratory overheads and the university had added its own overheads, we could not compete with smaller, more efficient, outfits. The alternative explanation is that I, at 33, am too expensive, but the word from the groups we work with is that most consultancies cut too many corners to be reliable. Their tendering rules do not allow them to differentiate between "cheap" and "value for money".

After lunch I start work on my first real job as a freelance. Okay, so the wife is not paying me to babysit while she goes to work, but it is the only real work I have at the moment. Otherwise I spend the day sorting out my study and start to think about writing a "business plan". Not only is the discipline of thinking through each step and implication of working alone useful, but a completed business plan also opens the door to "Enterprise Allowance". Pounds 40 a week for six months will pay the mortgage while I find my feet.

Tuesday. "You're retired now, aren't you Daddy?" Shush, I'm trying to work. "I want to play computer games." Not now, I'm trying to work. Or an exaggerated tip-toeing into the study and "I'm being very quiet aren't I?" So it goes on.

On the other hand, I am now my own boss and can play Lego with the children at coffee time and can go to the excellent bakers' shop on the corner for hot, crusty bread at lunchtime. Heather mentally adjusts up the quantities of coffee on her shopping list and tells me that, in the face of stiff competition, I have won the contract to look after the kids while she pops out to the sports centre for a workout. Business, in this quarter at least, is booming.

A slightly-worn ex-research fellow. No reasonable offers refused.

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