Waterloo Sunset

…she remembered watching a summer sunset from this very spot. Not so long ago; just a lifetime.

Sharon Kay Penman

I’m fortunate to have seen many wondrous sunsets in beautiful locations around the world. There is one sunset, however, which always captures my heart more than the rest. And as far as I’m aware, the only one that has its own song.

I’ve shared in earlier Reflections that I started my working life as a Forensic Chemist. That’s not entirely true. My working life began at age thirteen working, after school, as a ‘shelf stacker’ in a local supermarket with some cleaning thrown in. The wage was the princely sum of half-a-crown a day with a weekly bonus of half-a-crown for the person with the cleanest aisle.

Anyway, getting back to chemistry, I’ve also shared that the Lab was a building, Cornwall House, on the south side of Waterloo Bridge. It’s on my days working there that I reflect this week.

In the evenings, the area around Waterloo had a vastly different feel than now. It was not a place to find street food markets, enjoy riverside dining, or a romantic stroll by the Thames. Instead, it was a far more edgy place to be.

One of the local celebrities was the Great Train robber, Buster Edwards. His flower stall on Waterloo Road was a stone’s throw from the Lab in which I worked. The film ‘Buster’ shows his stall in front of the Festival Hall. A more scenic location than its actual one under a railway bridge. A burger van now occupies that spot.

Opposite Buster’s stall was the cramped fish and chip restaurant where a couple of colleagues and I had lunch if funds allowed. I recall a TV high up in the corner of the place offered our entertainment. Lunchtimes coincided with the children’s TV show, ‘Rainbow’. So, over the years, we became remarkably familiar with the exploits of Zippy, George and Bungle. Interestingly the place is still a fish and chip shop, although the TV and Rainbow have long gone.

A little further along Waterloo Road is what is now the ‘Wellington Hotel’. It’s moved upmarket since those days when it was simply the ‘Wellington’ pub. I’ve spent many an hour and many a pound in its company.

As interesting as I found Analytical Chemistry when a position opened for a computer programmer in the newly established Computing section, I applied. Unfortunately, my then knowledge of Computing was my ability to spell the word. I know not how I got through the interview, but I did get through it and began a career that filled the next 43 years.

In those days, computers were fragile beasts. The one I began my career working with housed within a temperature and humidity-controlled environment. Kept safe from smoke, dirt, and any other contaminant that may bring it crashing to its knees. As computer programmers, we even donned white coats when we entered the computer room. This differentiated us from the computer operators who wore brown coats and computer maintenance engineers kitted out in blue overalls. We were all equal, yet some were more equal than others, to paraphrase Orwell.

The computer in question was a Xerox 530. Yes, Xerox made computers back then (everyone made computers back then). It had a massive 64 KB of RAM (Random Access Memory) and occupied the floor space of an average domestic dwelling. The first iPhone had 128 MB, and iPhone 13 has up to 6 GB.

As a programmer in those days, one wrote lines of code (either a high-level language such as Fortran, COBOL, ALGOL, or machine-level Assembler) onto a coding sheet. These sheets were then given to a punch card/paper tape operator who keyed in your code to produce the requisite block of punch cards or reel of paper tape. The programmer would then hand the cards or paper tape to a computer operator for reading (feeding as we called it) into the computer. Mishaps occurred. You might drop your cards, or the paper tape might snap. The former meant a painstaking task of reassembling the card deck into the correct order. For the latter, one became adept at paper tape splicing.

Debugging a programme was a time consuming and very ‘hands-on’ process. To find a ‘bug’, one sometimes resorted to halting the programme during execution and then stepping through it one instruction at a time to look at the binary contents of the computer’s registers. A 1000-line programme written in a high-level language would take two years to produce a ‘bug-free’ fully functioning result. In comparison, a modern game such as Minecraft has circa 600,000 lines of code. At 1976 coding rates, it would take 1,200 years to produce.

What has this got to do with the Wellington? I hear you now ask. Every Friday afternoon, the computer maintenance engineers could conduct preventative maintenance on the computer. This meant that come Monday, it could spark back to life and perform its role for another four and a half days of the week.

Having no computer on which to work, those of the computing lab (bar the duty programmer) decamped to the Wellington for an afternoon of alcohol and pool. The duty programmer of the day had two roles. First, to manage user queries that arose (primarily “when is my programme going to be ready”). Secondly, to safeguard all the backups if the IRA came calling. Large magnetic tapes held the backups. On receipt of a bomb threat with a legitimate code word, the DP put their arms through the middle of the tapes and left the Lab with arms reminiscent of the Dunlop tyre character. The evacuation point was the site on which the Imax cinema now stands. We called it the Bullring in our day, and it also functioned as our football pitch.

Other than Friday afternoons, we avoided socialising in the evening around Waterloo. Preferring the more ‘refined’ atmosphere of the pubs on the north bank. This meant after-work strolls either across Waterloo, Hungerford or Westminster bridges depending upon our ultimate drinking destination. Whichever we used, we often found ourselves looking towards the Houses of Parliament to see the sun sink slowly behind that gothic edifice. It was a sight of which I never tired. It was a Waterloo sunset.

You’ll have guessed the song by now ….