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John Hunt

Page history last edited by Ian Gillis 6 years, 6 months ago Saved with comment

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Introduction

This was submitted to MOGS by Alan Butt.

 

Dear All, the following is an account by a former colleague ~ John Hunt, mainly about his time spent on the Scatcc project in 'E' Block WRW.


There is also some input from me and some 'tweaking' of my input by JH.

MEMORIES OF MRSL, 1974-1976
John Hunt
In the days before student grants were replaced by student loans, I acquired a B.Sc. in maths (never used since and long forgotten) and a (rather more useful) M.Sc. in computing. After seeing an advertisement for MRSL, I was interviewed by Malcolm Feltwell to work on ScATCC, (the Scottish Air Traffic Control Centre), and thus became a Junior Programmer at Writtle Road.


On my first day, the train from Colchester stopped at all stations, then sped straight through Chelmsford to Liverpool Street. Telephoning from London to apologise that I would arrive late, I was told not to worry as I had been forgotten, so the delay would allow time to find me a desk.


The physically-cheerless environment in the windowless E-block (a former factory, gutted and divided into corridors and offices by partitions) varied only as sun or storm clouds passed over the "north-facing lights". However, my recollection is that, on the whole, the ScATCC team were a friendly bunch. Several other fresh graduates (including Geoff Wilson, John Duncan, Pete Holliday, and Mary – who later married Sam Bond) began work at roughly the same time, for what had been scheduled as a two-year project. One disclosed that he was being paid £50 a year more than me, as management reasoned that he had a B.Sc. in computing, whereas I had "only" an M.Sc.. One of us (I forget which) was earning a heady £1,850 a year.


Throughout my two years there I shared a small office with Alan Butt. We were tasked with producing self-test software and device drivers to run on the Locus 16 microprocessor: a machine designed to withstand the range of temperatures that might be encountered in military settings, (though ScATCC was a civil aviation project), with a whopping 32K address space, and floppy discs added only later. Having no background in hardware, I felt that this might not be the best use of my undoubted talents: but it allowed me outside the confines of the ScATCC team, for discussions with the boffins in an adjacent corridor: wise owl Graham Smith; enthusiastic and youthful Roger North; and Sid Morleigh, (who used to talk whimsically about the state of the ark, with a 'K').


Not long after starting I was asked by our energetic young team-leader, Dave Green, whether I could work overtime to complete a text editor, begun by a previous employee in Locus 16 assembly code, "DataCodeOne". As I was still completing my M.Sc. thesis, (before PC's, in the days of manual typewriters), it was agreed that MRSL typists would type my handwritten pages, freeing me to debug the editor. The final version was typed by Margaret Balchin. (It would then have been considered impudent to use her forename.) Friendly, helpful, and an experienced typist with in-built spell-checker, she sought unfamiliar words in her dictionary before asking whether I'd misspelt. However, draft chapters were typed by whoever was free in the typing pool. One chapter contained formulæ with mathematical symbols and Greek letters not available on a QWERTY keyboard: so I wrote those in another colour, so that they could be added manually after typing. The young typist allocated that chapter just typed them all as QWERTY characters! Clearly my handwriting was all Greek to her. Eventually I submitted the thesis. The text editor remained Greek to me, and was abandoned.


The first year we had no access to a Locus 16 machine. But we did have some hardware: a tool to hold a paper tape with a needle to punch single holes manually. Code was written on forms, taken by courier twice a day to the Baddow site for punching onto tape. Coral 66 routines could then be compiled and potentially run on Myriad computers at Baddow: but DataCodeOne could be assessed only by visual inspection.


During the second year, a test machine arrived. Coral code was successfully compiled; assembly code was assembled; it was all duly linked: and the courier delivered an enormous reel of punched tape. The machine had a high-tech tape reader. After loading the reel and threading the leader onto the take-up spool, fingers had to be kept well clear before flicking the switch that pulled the tape taut, to avoid being cut by the edge of the tape whizzing through.


Towards the end of the second year, I was seconded to the Locus 16 Coral Compiler Team, run and largely staffed by the software house CAP. Shortly before I had been invited to return to university as a Ph.D. student. As the compiler project had been a bone of contention between the two companies, I felt that joining the team just a few weeks before submitting my notice to MRSL would make the bone even bloodier: so I confided in the team leader, but asked him not to disclose my intentions to MRSL management prematurely. Almost immediately I was summoned to see Derek Watkins: "What's this I hear about you leaving? And why don't you want me to know?" Moral: if you don't want others to break a confidence, don't confide in them in the first place!


After the M.Sc. thesis was submitted and the text editor was abandoned, I began dipping my toes in the water to see what life there was for a young gay man who had been only 15 when sex between consenting males over the age of 21 was partially decriminalised. Not a lot was happening in Chelmsford. For those with transport, Thaxted had a pub and Southend a disco. As a student in London's East End, I missed the cornfields and pheasants seen while commuting to Chelmsford. Indeed, until Victoria Park (in Tower Hamlets) was developed, barely a blade of grass was to be seen. However, one compensation was a weekly gay disco just a mile from my student hostel. Once, at a gay club in central London, I ran into a former MRSL acquaintance. I was tickled to realise that his indignant removal of girlie calendars from MRSL offices before the arrival of a group of Chinese visitors had been motivated partly by his preference for the male physique.


Alan later informed me that ScATCC had taken four years instead of the two originally scheduled. Squeezing all the code into just 28 K, (yes, an air traffic control system in KILObytes, not megabytes), had meant jettisoning excess baggage: starting with the self-test suite that Alan and I had lovingly crafted with blood, sweat, and tears: every module individually specified, coded, reviewed, documented, and tested in accordance with the procedures in Derek Watkins's mighty manual. Sic[k] transit, (as Kenneth Williams memorably said in Carry on Cleo).

AGB's Addendum to JH's Memories of MRSL, 1974 – 1976
When John Hunt joined the company and shared my `E' Block office in Writtle Road he would have been aged approx 23 coming straight from university after his MSc. During the first few weeks/months that we shared the office I gradually built-up my suspicions regarding his sexual inclinations ~ possibly by what he said and the way he said it. Eventually, I plucked up my courage and asked him outright if he was a homosexual. He said he was and thereafter we would discuss the topic from time to time; occasionally, he would give me copies of Gay News plus other bits and pieces to read. I remember one day near Christmas he brought several books of Raffle/Xmas Drawer tickets on behalf of the CHE (Campaign for Homosexual Equality) to sell to work colleagues. John asked my opinion on whether it was a good idea to sell the tickets around `E' block. I counselled him to the effect that I did not think it would be a good idea as I thought that most people would not be that broadminded regarding CHE etc. In the event, John ignored my advice and went off around the offices to sell his tickets ~ to my surprise he was back within the hour having sold the lot.


After John left, a couple of years or so later to resume his studies, I lost touch with him until about 18 months ago when I happened to be watching a news-related programme on the TV. The programme mentioned and featured a `John Hunt' who had become "de-baptized" in May 2008 and was seeking a dialogue with the Bishop of Croydon (part of the Diocese of Southwark) in March 2009 concerning "de-baptism" but apparently to no avail. I wondered if, by chance, this could be the same John Hunt I worked with at MRSL many years ago. Put briefly, I tracked John down via the Secular Society of which he is an active member.

JGH's tweaking of AGB's Addendum to JH's Memories of MRSL,
1974 – 1976
When John Hunt joined the company and shared my `E' Block office in Writtle Road he would have been aged approx. 23 was 22, coming straight from university after his M.Sc. During the first few weeks/months that we shared the office I gradually built-up my suspicions regarding his sexual inclinations ~ possibly by what he said and the way he said it. Eventually, I plucked up my courage and asked him outright if he was a homosexual. He said he was and thereafter we would discuss the topic from time to time; occasionally, he would give me copies of Gay News plus other bits and pieces to read. I remember one day near Christmas he brought several books of Raffle/Xmas Drawer tickets on behalf of the CHE (Campaign for Homosexual Equality) to sell to work colleagues. John asked my opinion on whether it was a good idea to sell the tickets around `E' block. I counselled him to the effect that I did not think it would be a good idea as I thought that most people would not be that broadminded regarding CHE etc. In the event, John ignored my advice and went off around the offices to sell his tickets ~ to my surprise he was back within the hour having sold the lot.


After John left a couple of years or so two years later to resume his studies I lost touch with him until about 18 months ago March 2009 when I happened to be watching a news-related programme on the TV. The programme mentioned and featured a `John Hunt' who had become "de-baptized" in May 2008 and was seeking a dialogue with the Bishop of Croydon (part of the Diocese of Southwark) in March 2009 concerning "de-baptism" but apparently to no avail. I wondered if, by chance, this could be the same John Hunt I worked with at MRSL many years ago. Put briefly, I tracked John down via the National Secular Society of which he is an active member.

I can't comment on your unvoiced suspicions. However, as I stated previously, one morning you mentioned that you'd watched a programme about homosexuality. I was tickled by your remark: "Do you know, they even have their own newspapers?". At that point, whatever suspicions you may or may not have had, we hadn't discussed my sexuality. The following morning I lent you a copy of Gay News. The next day you returned it, having sat up in the kitchen after Celia had gone to bed, to read it undisturbed. You were rather disappointed that, instead of being racy, you'd found it rather like … did you say the Catholic Times or the Catholic Herald? In that particular issue there were several reports about religious homophobia.

 

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Ian Gillis said

at 5:37 pm on Feb 11, 2016

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