A Checkered Career Across Three Continents

Migel Jayasinghe

© Copyright 2021 by Migel Jayasinghe

Map showing continents of the world.
I resigned my job as a Sub-Inspector of Police, after nearly five years of service in Ceylon, because I considered immigrating to the UK. My underlying motive was to return to my studies and improve my chances of achieving an affluent, enviable, life-style. I applied to the British High Commission in Colombo and was awarded a priority voucher to enter Britain. I was 26 years old. Accompanied by two former class-mates roughly my age, we sailed from Colombo to Marseilles on a French-owned cruise ship. We then took an all-night train to Calais, from where we boarded a steamer to sail across the English Channel to reach Folkestone. We arrived at London Victoria, by train around midday, on 30th March 1963.

Five years of menial work, washing dishes, factory assembly, night security work, ice-cream selling, postman, van driver and the like, was my lot while changing ‘digs’ almost with every move from job to job. Meanwhile through self-study, I succeeded in acquiring GCE A’ Levels in English Literature, British Constitution and Economics...I had to overcome another hurdle before I was allowed to enter London University to read psychology for a BA (Hons) degree. The requirement was for a GCE O Level in a modern European language. I attended evening classes at the West London College in Notting Hill for a year, before I got that qualification in French. Since I did not have science subjects at GCE A Level, my qualification would not be designated a B.Sc. although the curriculum and the final examinations were the same for both the BA (Hons.) and the B.Sc. However, I had to pass an internal mathematics paper before I was finally declared suitable to read psychology as a full-time student at the University of London, Goldsmiths College (1968-1971).

It took a while before I was finally awarded the annual £400 student grant paid by the state covering the three-year period of my degree studies. I was attracted to psychology mainly because of the narrative and literary charm of Freud and Jungs writings; although at the time I could not have articulated it as such. I discovered that reading popular journals in psychology, in some way, for me, was therapeutic. I was therefore disappointed by the dull experimental and statistical treatment of the subject that the course at Goldsmiths provided. It was the heyday of behaviorism and what went inside one’s head, the ‘black box’, was virtually ignored. The word mind was taboo and anything relating to consciousness was dismissed as being 'metaphysical', a term of opprobrium to almost all psychologists of the time.

With the miniscule student grant, I found that I was always short of cash after paying the weekly rent for my digs. I had to ration my food intake and visits to the launderette. Soon, I found a uniformed job as a part-time security guard where I could work the whole of the weekend at a factory-site eating home-made sandwiches and drinking coffee from a Thermos flask, earning a mere ‘fiver’ (£5) for my pains. Unfortunately, this restricted the time available for serious study at the College Library as well as the London University Senate House Library, that I left university with just a Lower Second-Class degree in Psychology. Such a qualification, I soon found to my dismay, was worthless in the job market at the time.
After a short period of work as a proof-reader at a publishing house, I returned to my preferred role as a van driver. I delivered anodized metal to householders in Edmonton and Tottenham in North London, who returned the finished (assembled) products through me back to the factory. While engaged in this job, I had the opportunity to read the London evening newspapers. In those days in London, there was an ‘Evening News’ in addition to the ‘Evening Standard’ still much in evidence today. The ‘Evening News’ carried items designed as IQ tests over a period of a few weeks and I discovered that I was quite adept at doing most of them correctly. So, I applied to Mensa for the supervised IQ test, and was recognized as falling within the top three percent of the population in terms of general intelligence. I soon found myself a member of British Mensa.

Mensa paved the way eventually for me to become a Chartered Psychologist. Once, I was invited to the Blackheath home of the then British Mensa President Victor Serebriakoff for lunch. Serebriakoff himself was a first-generation immigrant. Later, I was one of the participants in a BBC televised program on Mensa presided over by David Dimbleby in 1973. The Belbins (Eunice and Meredith) directors of the Industrial Training Research Unit in Cambridge to whom I had applied for a research assistant job, saw me on the program, called me up, tested me further, and offered me my first job in applied psychology. This was to be solely a one-year contract.

Much later, in the 1980s with a Masters degree in occupational psychology from Birkbeck College, I could proudly call myself an Occupational Psychologist with Chartered status. Much of my professional work since than has been administering psychological tests, assessing and rehabilitating those disabled and disadvantaged in the world of work, and helping them back into re-training and/or employment.

In August 1974, discouraged by what I felt to be an uncharted future, I left my job and digs at Cambridge, sold my little old Austin Mini for £100, packed everything else I possessed in a suitcase, and left with two Cambridge girls in a Vauxhall Estate owned by one of them on an overland trip to India. (I have written and published a detailed account of this trip elsewhere).

Before leaving Cambridge, I had appeared before an interview panel which selected psychologists for the Educational and Occupational Assessment Service, a government department in the Ministry of Labour and Social Services in Lusaka, Zambia. They were keen to have me, but I politely asked to be allowed to make the decision after I had completed the overland trip.

After many adventures, the unlikely trio finally arrived in Bombay in mid-September, where we split up. I continued my journey by train, ferry, and taxi to Ceylon to reach my younger brother's house.

There, as arranged by my parents, I met a beautiful and demure young lady, nine years my junior, speaking very good English, who was willing to share my life abroad. We had a colorful, well-attended, traditional wedding at the bride’s home, not far from the capital.

Colombo, on 3rd January 1975.

Even if I had desired it, there as no job I could take up in recession-hit Ceylon.
I quickly telephoned the authorities in Zambia, and accepted their job offer, on condition that they recognized my changed civil status and issue me with two airplane tickets to Lusaka. They readily agreed. We flew to Lusaka in mid-January 1975, and I took up work as an occupational psychologist with the Educational and Occupational Assessment Service. A Ph D qualified British psychologist was the Director of the EOAS. The only other psychologist at the EOAS was a young lady of Polish origin who was disappointed that the newcomer was not a singleton as she had been informed.

In Lusaka we were put up at a pleasant enough hotel and spent several months there in what felt like an extended honeymoon. While I spent most of my day at work, my newly acquired wife, Sue (shortened, anglicized name) remained in the hotel room. This irked her somewhat, but was soon able to secure a job as the personal secretary to an American heading the World Health Organization branch office in Lusaka. This guy and his wife, black Americans, soon became our friends, and when we finally secured a house to rent, were able to invite them for dinner. They, of course, would invite us in turn. There was a vibrant expatriate community of varied nationalities in Lusaka, and quite a few of them became our personal friends.

Then the inevitable happened, and Sue had to leave her job after eight months, to have our first baby. He arrived, a few days later than anticipated, on 21st December 1975. Not long after his first birthday, Sue was pregnant again, but the climate in Lusaka, with Ian Smith of Rhodesia bombing us whenever he felt like it, was not all that salubrious. So, reluctantly, I had to agree to let her go back to Ceylon, by then re-named Sri Lanka, all by herself, with our son T, only a few months after his first birthday, so that she could have the second baby safe in a maternity home in Colombo.

By the time I completed my 3-year contract in early 1978, our second son D, on whom I had not set my eyes, was four months old. I was in a hurry to get back, but the Zambian authorities were practically begging me to sign another contract. I had by then been promoted to one of the two Assistant Director positions of the EOAS, and for the last six months or so, was acting as Director. They wanted to confirm me as Director. I had to ignore all their pleas and return home.

However, in April 1978 when I moved to the UK by myself, I was only able to find work as a clerk with a firm of West End solicitors. I found temporary accommodation of a one-bedroom flat belonging to my alma mater, Goldsmiths College during the summer vacation. I was therefore able to get down my family to Britain by July 1978. But our situation was far from satisfactory. When the students started arriving towards the end of September, we were forced to leave our flat. For the first time ever, we were facing the prospect of homelessness.

The Royal Borough of Greenwich council put us up in temporary accommodation, a ‘dump’ where we were pelted with rotten eggs and our second- hand car vandalized by yobos. We stuck it out for about three months, feeding our two toddlers on take-away Chinese, until we were able to put down a small deposit on a terraced house in neighboring Plumstead, in southeast London. Even with my three-year stint as an occupational psychologist in Zambia, apprenticed, as it were, to well qualified, experienced British psychologists, I was told that without a postgraduate qualification, I could not expect to work as a psychologist in Britain. My chances of returning to a professional work role began to look very slim indeed. When at last I was able to get my savings across to the UK from Zambia, I foolishly believed that, with a young family, leasing a corner shop selling sweets and tobacco would secure my financial future. This venture proved to be very ill-advised. It was based in New Cross not far from Goldsmiths College. The shop was broken into several times and we faced violence from putative customers who refused to pay for items they grabbed from our shelves. Even school-boys in gangs began to plague us.

Would you believe it, a third world scenario in metropolitan London!

My wife then took up secretarial work with a Bank in the City, and I closed the shop down to concentrate on gaining the Occupational Psychology M.Sc. degree from London University Birkbeck College. I could just about claim four years work experience in applied psychology to qualify for admission for the 2-year part time course. Just before I qualified in 1982, I was able to get a temporary job as an occupational psychologist at the Waddon Employment Rehabilitation Centre, near Croydon, in Surrey. Although we could sell our house in Plumstead and move closer to my place of work in Croydon, we had great difficulty getting rid of the lease of the now empty shop premises. Finally, I managed to transfer it back to the previous owner for a pittance.

After a period of nearly a year, I was confirmed in my job as a basic grade occupational psychologist with the Manpower Services Commission. I was to continue working at the Waddon Employment Rehabilitation Centre for over seven years at the same basic grade while even those new entrants to the profession whom I had helped to train were being promoted to senior positions. My manager at the ERC championed my cause since he saw me as one of the more competent psychologists, he had come across during his period of service with the Manpower Services Commission. The MSC by then had undergone many changes and was renamed the Training Education and Employment Directorate. I was impelled to take my grievance of not being promoted to an Employment Tribunal. At the height of the Thatcher era this proved to be ill-advised, and I lost my case. The concept of ‘institutional racism’ had not been recognized at the time. I was then transferred to the Manpower Services Commission Head Office in Sheffield and served one year commuting between Croydon and Sheffield spending only weekends at home. In 1989 I found myself designated a Higher Psychologist, a new designation concocted as a compromise between the Basic Grade and the Senior Grade. I was then transferred to work at a residential Employment Rehabilitation Centre in Egham, Surrey. This involved a daily drive of over 30 miles on the M20 motorway to my place of work.

I sensed a degree of harassment in the workplace in the form of occasional missives I received from the Head Office, that I was impelled to resign in 1990. After a short period in the wilderness trying to sell insurance and the like, I took up private consultancy work as expert witness in personal injury litigation, redundancy counseling, and (ironically enough) running job search workshops. As the work was intermittent, I wasn't making a living, and although my wife was now working for the Home Office, we failed to keep up the mortgage payments regularly. We were taken to court and nearly lost our home and all that we had worked for.

By then, I had also acquired a teaching qualification from the University of Greenwich, which again proved worthless in securing employment. I was in my late fifties and no prospective employer, I surmised, would take a second look at me. I had been applying for literally hundreds of jobs, even simple clerical jobs, with all my efforts proving negative. However, just in the nick of time, early in 1996, my sixtieth year, I was invited to an interview by the Royal British Legion Industries at the Royal British Legion Village, in Aylesford, Kent, another 30-mile drive away from my home. The position advertised was for an occupational psychologist, specifically for someone to start from scratch, a vocational assessment and development centre on the same lines as the state-run Employment Rehabilitation Centres. By this time the ERCs were being phased out.

I was interviewed by the Health Services Manager, a lady who herself was nearing retirement age. She appeared to be impressed enough to consign a large sheaf of applications for the position lying on her table to the dustbin, and to hire me on the spot. I established from scratch the Royal British Legion Industries vocational assessment and development facility catering to the employment rehabilitation needs of ex-service men and women from all over the UK. At last, my work began to be widely appreciated and I began to contribute articles in applied psychology to professional journals. I worked at the RBLI until I reached the state retirement age of 65 in June 2001.  
The culmination of my career achievement was the publication of my book ‘Counselling in Careers Guidance ‘(2001) Open University Press, a few months before retirement. It was translated into Japanese in 2004.

With our two sons grown up and leading independent lives, we (self and wife) felt able to sell our home and move to Costa Blanca, Spain, in 2005. I have since taken up seriously, what had since my school days been a hobby, creative writing. I believe it still remains a hobby in my old age, although I keep receiving ‘Honorable Mentions’ for poems Iregularly submit to competitions. I have also self-published two volumes of poetry while Xlibris published ‘A Literary. Smorgasbord, memoir, fiction and poetry’ (2019).

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