PC 143 Failure is simply a different perspective

Thomas Edison famously replied, when asked what it was like to fail for the 1000th time in his quest to develop an electric filament bulb, that he had simply found lots of ways that didn’t work (Interestingly the figure of 1,000 sometimes is quoted as 10,000; inflation? Then common sense kicks in – 10,000 times would be testing something three times a day for ten years!!!). For us mere mortals success and failure are part of life, the latter instrumental in bringing about change, I hope!

Rummaging in my three-drawer filing cabinet for some document, I saw a hanging file labelled “Certificates & Reports”. I don’t know about you but I am quite organised in filing important papers and such. This particular collection of papers spans decades of my life and some hadn’t seen the light of day for years; many deserve to be shredded!


For some reason I have kept my ‘National Registration Identity Card’ dated 31 August 1950 (I was 4!). It allowed me to have a Ration Card so I could buy some sweets (those black jacks, a farthing each, were favourites).

In an academic sense I am very average. I didn’t particularly take to school work but was made aware how important it was to one’s success or failure in life. In amongst the pieces of paper there were those little slips recording my examination results. There seemed to be quite a lot as I made several attempts to pass enough …… but the one that bugged me the most seemed to be Chemistry. For some reason I needed this at ‘O’ Level to add to my science ‘A’ Levels for entry to university. I failed it at school, sat it twice at the officer training academy and finally got my pass.


The Chemistry lecturer, whose name escapes me, had a passion for betting money on horses. If we hadn’t spent so much time discussing the tips, runners, form and betting odds for the 3:15pm at Cheltenham, for instance, I might have passed first time! He seemed to think the names of all the winners could be deduced from the racing pages of the Daily Telegraph and instructed us accordingly, when we should have been discussing whether common salt was Na Cl or why CH4 + 2O2 equates to CO2 + 2H2O; I never knew!! I judged his success at gambling on the horses by his fifteen year old car and the rather moth-eaten cardigan he wore.

I scribbled a little about university in PC 139 and can only assume that I was given my Civil Engineering degree for my reasonable attendance record. You will know the mnemonic POET’s Day relating to Friday – ‘Piss Off Early Tomorrow’s Saturday’. At Shrivenham some students left early, missing some pithy lecture on concrete for example. On a number of occasions the lecturer, who we had for the first period on a Monday, would declare that the Monday class would be ‘private study’. Those who weren’t there to hear this turned up as scheduled on Monday; ah!

Classical music and its part in my life was the topic for PC 109; how I had given up learning to play the piano and took up the trumpet. According to The Royal School of Music, on 7th December 1962 I took my ‘Wind Instruments Grade V (Higher)’. Although I scraped a pass, I didn’t impress the examiner during the Aural Test – “seemed to have no idea of pitch and timing” and my ‘Scales & Arpeggios’ had “only fair fluency”!! As I am almost tone deaf, I was surprised to be successful but thank my lucky stars I persevered as, although no Alison Balsom (see note) it gave me a life-long love of classical music, and particularly the music of Sibelius.


Entry into Sandhurst was via the Regular Commissions Board at Westbury in Wiltshire where, aged 17, I spent three days undergoing assessments. I passed; the rather faded report says my ‘reserved personality may have something to do with the fact he comes from a broken home (!!)’ with a forecast ‘the boy might develop into a useful officer’. Ah! Such confidence! The term ‘broken home’ is rarely used these days, such is the acceptance that marriages don’t always survive. Of course the good thing is if you start somewhere at the bottom, the only way is up and I left Sandhurst and my officer training with a couple of prizes! Hey!

Officers were graded once a year in a ‘Confidential Report’ (CR). The ‘pen picture’ was always a challenge, either reading your own or writing one for one of your subordinates. I never met anyone who knew to whom they referred, but two anecdotal comments of officers always amuse: “I would not breed from this officer” and “His men follow him not out of duty but out of curiosity.” These CRs were delivered by your immediate boss, in the formal atmosphere of his office; your subsequent career depended on a good mark!! I have reread some of mine, copied unofficially by a friendly Chief Clerk and 18 years of my life goes by in a flash. Suffice to say my entry into Staff College confounded those early predictions of being average.

Life is such a lovely journey and we make choices all the way; if you don’t think you have a choice, think again. Being fairly casual of heart, I have faith and trust in others to do what they are meant to do. Sometimes I fall flat on my face! One such occasion was in Germany in 1974 when my unit had some super important inspection of our tactical expertise. The Artillery Firing Tables had not been amended (not my job!), a Command Post caught fire and we failed as spectacularly as possible! I had been selected to be a possible aide-de-camp to the most senior British military officer in Germany and I left the exercise early to travel 100 miles to have lunch with him and his wife (General Sir Harry & Lady Tuzo). My failures followed me, others had serious second thoughts and before I had even picked up a knife or fork I was recalled. What if I had succeeded? Different path, different journey; just the way it was, success or failure? Nah! Just life! We were retested, passed with flying colours and nothing more was said.

My military service is so long ago now that it’s overshadowed by my twenty five years of efforts to improve other’s lives and this period is littered, I judge, with much success. But all these events and experiences are in the past; I understand them for what they are and how my current behaviour is inevitably coloured by them.

Richard 25th January 2019

Note: Alison Balsom OBE is an English Trumpet soloist, arranger and ‘spokesperson for the importance of music education’.

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