I have a memory of reading J.D.Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye in my teens. In fact, one quote stayed with me for decades afterwards: the hero, Holden Caulfield, is recounting how he went back to see the headmaster of his old school, who asked him why he had left school so young instead of staying on to take higher qualifications. His reply had been “I like to ride on trains too much”.

Actually, that memory may well be false. When I google the phrase, I find it in a quote from another Salinger work, Franny and Zooey, which I also read at that time. Now, Wikipedia is not always right, so I’ll reserve judgement on that, but at least it could explain why, on several occasions over the years, I have been unable to find it when thumbing through The Catcher. 

Why would I want to remember it though, and even try to find it again? Well, for many years, when I was working on the railways, I occasionally amused myself by planning my leaving speech. And I wanted to incorporate in it an explanation of why I had stuck so long with a job that had never meant to be a career, only a secure job in a socially useful industry that would keep the bills paid until the children grew up. And the quote, had I ever used it, would have been a pretty good response to that question, and only semi-frivolous.

Ah, but I never got to use it! In the early days, leaving speeches were quite a big thing – for instance, I remember when one section leader in my office left, he gave presents to each member of his section, and each one had a funny story attached to it – such as a couple of courgettes for the Geordie who had been trying to book tickets on a French train and had mispronounced “couchettes”. But by the time I left, we were a few years into privatisation, we had a different boss every few months, and the atmosphere of camaraderie, co-operation and “railway culture” that had constituted our public sector ethos had well and truly evaporated. I did have a big leaving do in a Croydon pub, but I had to organise it myself of course; and there were no speeches.

Even before that, I had noticed the change in management attitudes when my long service award failed to materialise. These were automatically doled out to employees on completing 25 years’ service; but my 26th year arrived with no sign of an award, and it was well on the wane before I managed to get across to the street-corner spivs who had bought our bit of BR that the long service award was a TUPE right that should have survived the change of ownership. So finally a catalogue came and I could choose what I wanted (the days of “anything you like as long as it’s a French carriage clock or a porcelain figurine” having finally passed). I chose a mountain bike, which I thought was an approprite item to symbolise the fact that at 49 I was definitely not retiring.

Would the bike be handed over to me by my boss at a small ceremony? Naaah, of course not. That was clearly far too “old railway” for them. In fact I got a card through my door at home, advising that there was an item to be collected at the local parcel depot, and I had to go and pick it up myself! I still have it.

I think about that job, and all it meant, and still means, today on the 40th anniversary of my first day on the railways, 2nd October 1974. I also think about it frequently when making use of the very generous staff travel facilities that I am still entitled to, and yes, I still like riding on trains a lot, and indulge that liking whenever I can. But today’s date has an even greater significance than that monumental anniversary, for today I received an e-mail that effectively knocked my second career (as a physicist) on the head, and in an even more ignominious fashion than the ending of the first.

Five years ago I started working on a particle physics project which involved a fair amount of lab work. I loved it – I loved being able to use my knowledge to contribute to some real research, and I loved simply being in an environment dedicated to the pursuit of further knowledge. I was actually working for nothing – it was an honorary post – but that didn’t bother me too much; after all, I had my railway pension to pay the bills. After two years of doing this pretty nearly full time, I started a course of part-time study, which clearly took up some of my time, leaving less for the job; nevertheless, I did continue to work on it, having switched to another topic within the research project, one that I felt I could contribute to even more, as it was in a field in which I had worked for my PhD. However that work ran into difficulties that were beyond my control, and eventually just fizzled out; and then I was left out in the cold. Although I enquired frequently from then on as to whether I could return to the previous lab work (which certainly still needed doing), the team had taken on someone else to do that (and paid them for it, please note!) and there seemed to be nothing else on offer.

This situation went on for a further two years; I did briefly get involved in another project, but abandoned it when it became clear that the work I had been asked to do was not really needed, and I had only been asked to do it to keep me quiet. I had, ironically, started to receive a very small salary just at the point when the previous project work had stopped, so that I had by now been being paid, but not working, for three years, after having spent the previous two years working but not being paid. (I was still in credit though – the pay I got amounted only to about 4 months at full pay, whilst I had previously worked for damn near two years for nothing).

So then I reverted to an honorary post, and kept myself busy by getting involved in various voluntary projects within the research group. But this all came to a rather sudden end when, a few weeks ago, I was asked to give up my desk! Apparently a new PhD student needed it. Fair enough, PhD students need to be somewhere (and I am not going to go into a rant about the average time a PhD student actually spends working in research before running off to banking or IT, compared with the amount of money the state spends on them, nor am I going to compare that in any way with my own aforementiond “balance sheet”). No, honestly, I wouldn’t have minded it as long as it had been done sensitively and with the appropriate lashings of “really no alternative … really sorry to have to do this … so grateful for what you have done …” together with maybe some gesture towards slotting me into a desk somewhere else, even on a timeshare basis. What made it worse, if anything, was the fact that the guy who ended up asking me to leave my desk was actually one of the nicest people I’d met there (out of, admittedly, a pretty weird bunch). I felt like Caesar being stabbed in the back by Brutus!

As the deadline approached and I started to ferry books and files to a non-existent storage place in my hallway, I thought I would have one more go at clinging on; in any case I had to find out what to do with my film badge, which I’d had all the time but not used since the end of the lab work. I wrote to my previous boss asking if I should keep it, maybe with a view to getting back into the lab work at some future point? But no – the reply was pretty disappointing, not only for the fact that it was in the negative, but also because it was entirely devoid of any apologies or thanks – though admittedly he did say he was “sorry to hear it was not done in a more civilised way” (I had mentioned that the new occupant of the desk had arrived some 48 hours before the deadline for my departure, necessitating a rather undignified scramble to empty my drawers and shelves while he was sitting there). By coincidence (I assume), today I also received a very short reply to an email I had sent to the head of department two weeks earlier, which I’d hoped might elicit some sort of reversal, or at least something along the lines of “we’re really sorry but we simply don’t have a spare square foot of space …” – but of course no such response was forthcoming from him either.

This already over-long blog post could well, at this point, become a rant on the lack of interpersonal skills among academics, particularly those of a scientific bent. But I will try to resist the temptation to get into that. All I will say is something that should not really need to be said: that kindness and consideration really don’t cost too much, especially in the case of someone who has not really asked for much in return, and has been prepared to work for nothing.

All is not lost, though. In academia, there are all sorts of little niches one can burrow one’s way into. In my case it is the teaching lab, where my efforts do seem to be appreciated, and in fact they even pay me for them! But there is clearly no way back to the research work – not that I currently feel all that keen to return in any case. Still, it is a shame that apparently people have so little regard for these little rituals and ceremonies. I know that the term “golden handshake” refers to a sum of money given to people when they leave a job, and I certainly wouldn’t have wanted that; but this seems to be the opposite extreme – I originally thought it was more of a “plastic handshake”, but that still sounds a bit too long-lasting. Cardboard is more like it – something so flimsy it will disintegrate at the first sign of rain.