At Last, the REAL Story About the Origins of Cairn!
In these blogs I’ve tried to tell, in a piecemeal kind of way, the story of how Cairn came into being, and in particular how our beginnings have allowed us to stay so stable and independent in such an unstable world (Brexit is currently raging around our ears as I write this in September 2019!). In my last blog, which marked 30 years since I gave up trying to be somebody else’s employee, I felt that sufficient time had passed for me to name names (Shell!) without upsetting too many lawyers, so I was correspondingly more frank about those times. Now though, something else has happened, which has freed me to be correspondingly more frank about the personal side of things, and which has in practice been an even stronger driver for the success of Cairn. Hold on tight if you want to read this story, as we’re in for one HELL of a ride!
It all goes back to a time when I felt so differently about the world than I do now, that we have to start this story in the third person. The young Martin, then living with his parents and younger sister Shirley in Guildford, was of course delighted to have got into the local grammar school, but he soon came to hate the place. In addition to the usual sorts of problems from older and bigger boys, the headmaster in particular was a religious nutter, and the Physical Education teachers seemed to derive an unusual degree of pleasure from beating everyone on the backside under the slightest pretext. Also, the young Martin was very shortsighted (I still am, but with contact lenses I just forget), and since they wouldn’t let him wear his glasses for sports, he couldn’t really see what was going on, so he soon acquired the reputation of being the school duffer in that department! And on Friday afternoons everyone was expected to put on really uncomfortable clothes and march around in circles while learning how to kill people to whom they’d never even been introduced. Fortunately there was a getout if you joined the local scouts group instead, which he therefore duly did, and actually rather enjoyed.
So things weren’t entirely bad, but in many ways it felt like a prison term, for which the only possible remission was the existence of a faster stream where you took your A level exams a year early, so the young Martin just got his head down and went for it. Another annoying factor was that both his parents were teachers, and whenever this lad said anything that was in anyway critical about the school, they took the side of the authorities, in consequence of which he stopped telling them anything at all! This in turn made them ever more inquisitive, to the point of becoming, in his view, overly intrusive. In any case he found the home environment a very suffocating one, as his parents didn’t seem to understand the transition between being a child and a young adult, and being forever treated as the former made it feel as if he was in prison there too. These were very unhappy times for the poor boy!
But they were survivable, as he knew that at least a partial release could come once his A levels were out of the way, but unfortunately it turned out that he had made an enormous miscalculation. Never in his wildest dreams had he expected any more than rather average grades, but with the ones he did get, he was now expected to sit the entrance exams for Cambridge, which he duly did. This involved practicals and interviews there, and thanks to the usual effects of half an inch of snow on our infrastructure, he barely got there in time, and in a very much “don’t care” mood, as none of this was really his idea anyway. Accordingly, when one of the interviews seemed to be a touch on the aggressive side, he gave as good as he got. Once he was back home and subjected to the usual parental inquisition, they were absolutely horrified! “You mean you ARGUED with them???”, they screamed, as they further stretched the rack. All hope was lost!
I got in of course.
So here’s the point. In those days I may have looked like an introverted swot, but that wasn’t the real me at all! Nevertheless, I ended up being awarded an “exhibition” to read Natural Sciences, although I wasn’t sure if Cambridge was going to be the right place for someone like me. It turned out that yes indeed there were a few idiots who liked to dress up in silly clothes in order to get drunk, but there were also a fair number of “grammar school boys” like me, so in fact I fitted right in. Instead my main feeling was one of being a bit unsure about my place in the “pecking order”, and it wasn’t until my second year that I realised that logic-based problems, such as the interpretation of experimental data or genetic inheritances, that tended to turn up in the exams, were rather easier for me than for most others. This seemed a bit strange, because I’ve never been any sort of mathematical guru, but I guess they are slightly different disciplines.
“King’s College. Yes, I went to the one with the chapel, although to minimise its risk from celestial thunderbolts I rarely ventured inside”
So, although I wasn’t going to be one of the “chosen few” for whom far greater academic glories would await, I nevertheless did well enough to be able to stay on to do a PhD in insect neurobiology. The actual topic wasn’t one I would have chosen, but it did allow me to remain at Cambridge until I decided what to do next, and I made the very fullest use of my time there, as related in a previous blog. That blog also outlined what I did do next, which was a postdoctoral project in the USA (Boston) involving optical indicators, and which laid the technical and commercial foundations for Cairn
But sadly, things weren’t going so well for my sister by this time. In her younger teens she had been quite a tearaway, but then, to our parents’ delight but to my possible concern, she suddenly seemed to settle down and apply herself to her work. My concern was that my own unintended success was perhaps making her feel that she was expected to do well too, and I somehow didn’t feel that was going to be “right” for her. But she too got good enough A levels to go further, and she got herself a place at St. Anne’s College, Oxford. However, at the time of the Oxford entrance exams, she said she was suffering from a sprained wrist, which, from its possible effects on her writing, greatly worried our parents. This, by the way, was a tendency towards which they particularly excelled. However, I instead feared that she was perhaps trying to find some physical reason for why she might not do as well as she felt was being expected of her, and subsequently it’s become clear that this interpretation was very likely the correct one, as it has rather well fitted the facts of all that followed.
By the time she went to Oxford I was over in the USA, so I couldn’t directly observe what happened to her there, but clearly things went pretty disastrously wrong. She developed very severe anorexia, from which she never fully recovered, and she was also very homesick. She managed to finish her degree, but somehow she was never the same person that I’d known from before. From looking at the paperwork from around that time, which I am now able to do, it looks like she had had a pretty major breakdown.
After her degree she moved back to the family house in Guildford, which in retrospect I think was the worst thing she could have possibly done. However, from there she took a course at the Guildford School of Law, qualifying as a solicitor and then joining a local firm. Superficially things seemed ok, but I remained very concerned about her longterm state. As our parents got older (parents do tend to do that), I had originally thought we would be sharing the eventual task of doing whatever may have been needed for their care, but I increasingly had the feeling that in future I would actually have three people to keep an eye on by myself.
This is all very directly relevant to the origins of Cairn (which is why I’m writing about it of course), and in two ways. First, when I’d come back from my postdoc in Boston, I was looking for somewhere to settle down. For these family reasons I was therefore looking for somewhere close enough to Guildford for me to keep an eye on things and to be accessible in case of emergencies, but not so close as to be sucked back into the cloying day-to-day environment from which I had so gratefully escaped. That job in those old Shell labs just outside Sittingbourne was perfect in this respect, as it would let me get there in just an hour or two if need be, so it was an important factor in deciding to take it. Would I have taken the job otherwise? Probably not!
“The old Shell labs in its current guise of the Kent Science Park”
As it became increasingly clear that going there had been a big professional mistake, the same geographical considerations applied to whatever I would do next. I was nevertheless wondering about returning to the Boston lab on a part time basis, but as previously reported, that option was closed off when my old boss there suddenly died. That also deprived me of an important source of professional recommendations for finding another position, so I was increasingly realising that I was stuck somewhere that I no longer wanted to be, and which was unlikely to end well!
So that, of course, was one reason why I was so motivated to set up Cairn, but the situation with my sister provided another, deeper one. I could see that things weren’t going well for her either, albeit for rather different reasons. Initially subconsciously perhaps, but then more overtly as things got worse for her, my desire to DO things in life became progressively stronger. If she couldn’t do as much as a result of her problems, I somehow felt that I should try to do correspondingly more. I’m not sure how common such feelings are, but if you have had to deal with issues that are in any way similar, then perhaps you may understand this rather better? But in any case, it’s very common for one’s professional decisions to be influenced by family or similar considerations, so in a broader sense my situation was far from unusual.
Now, just about the only good feature about the Shell job (and it was a rather good one for me) was that my employment contract allowed me to undertake other activities in my own time, as long as there was no conflict with my professional responsibilities there. So if I didn’t breathe a word to them about any optical research possibilities, I could stay there for a while longer, while getting Cairn on the road on a spare time basis.
Therefore, history was repeating itself! Once again Martin was keeping his head down, working away in order to make a successful escape from what had become a second prison. Once again it was very frustrating, but it was well worth putting up with the place for a few more years, in order to secure my goal of establishing a successful company without any outside investors, as instead those early days were all funded by my salary. It has turned out to be a VERY good decision! But didn’t Shell notice what was going on? Well, my attempts to ensure that projects there should have solid theoretical foundations gave me the reputation of being an esoteric academic type, and hence hopelessly unsuitable for any commercial role within the company, so the fact that I had independent commercial aspirations just didn’t register. There was therefore no need for any secrecy or subterfuge about these “other activities”, which all goes to show that not being taken seriously can on occasion be to one’s advantage! Cairn was effectively hidden in plain sight, so when the day finally came in 1989 that I said “So long, and thanks for all the fish!” they were taken rather by surprise!
The whole site closed down just a few years later, which has allowed me to claim that they just couldn’t carry on without me, although I suspect it was nevertheless easier for them than carrying on with me, as I did increasingly feel a misfit during my time there. But once I went full time, Cairn took off like a rocket. My then academic elders and betters had tended to look rather askance whenever I offered my services to them, as they seemed to feel that my instrumentation capabilities meant that I wasn’t a “proper” scientist. “This man seems to spend nearly all his time building impossibly complicated pieces of equipment, but then the experiments he does could have been performed by anyone who had that equipment” was very much their attitude. Well, exactly, but of course I was the only person able to do those experiments! However, my peers were rather more impressed, and a useful number of them wanted to purchase some equipment like that for themselves, so Cairn had a very ready early market in which to establish itself, which of course it duly did.
SOLVING AN INCREASING PROBLEM
Meanwhile, things were getting still worse for my sister. Increasing symptoms of back pain were making it progressively harder, and then impossible, for her to keep down her job, and our father also died around this time, leaving just her and our mother in the old family house. This brought our mother’s “nursing” tendencies increasingly to the fore, but all too clearly it only made things worse rather than better. Shirley then became convinced that she was developing ME, more generally known nowadays as chronic fatigue syndrome, and she became progressively more bedridden. Our mother then became her fulltime carer, insisting that only she could make her better, but that begged the question of what would happen if her own health were to suddenly fail. In those days I felt like I was sitting on an unexploded bomb, so to have Cairn to take my mind off all this was particularly welcome. It also perhaps demonstrated that it was better all round for me to continue to develop a successful Company, rather than to give it all up in order to look after them both, for which I was temperamentally completely unsuited anyway. Two prison terms in life were quite enough for me, and I could never have survived a third!
But the problem could be solved in other ways. When our mother’s health did fail, it occurred slowly enough for a carer to be arranged to look after them both, so when she died in 2002 we had the basis for a continuing arrangement, in which Shirley remained in the house by herself, with carers visiting every day. That may sound a very lonely existence, but she had become increasingly sensitive to light and sound, and the house was in a very quiet road, so it was actually just what she wanted. Even my own visits were a bit of a disruption, so they were steadily reduced over the years, while I looked after the admin side of things remotely.
By the time 2019 arrived, this had been going on for so long that I had expected it to continue for years more, but suddenly in late May I had a phone call to the effect that she had been admitted to hospital as an emergency patient, and that her prospects were not good. She had developed both respiratory and digestive problems, and she died just a few weeks later. Compared with how I last saw her in the house, she must have gone downhill very quickly, so this was all rather a shock, but greatly tempered by the obvious fact that she was never going to get any better.
Please forgive me for sharing all this personal stuff with you, but I now come to the most important personal issue of all. I already said that I suspected her “sprained wrist” at the time of those Oxford entrance exams had a psychological origin, in respect of giving some physical reason why she might not do as well as she felt she was expected to, so I also came to suspect that her other ailments may have had a similar origin, and that’s certainly the case for anorexia of course. Now that I have access to her papers, they do rather support that interpretation. Nobody could find anything physically wrong with her back, and nor did the doctors think she was really suffering from ME, so I think people were just trying to treat the symptoms rather than attacking the underlying problem – although that could have been rather difficult.
“From Frank Herbert’s “Dune” iconic scifi novel. A great book, but with far too many sequels. I gave up on them in the end!”
I mentioned earlier that Shirley’s problems had motivated me to do more in life than I might have been content with otherwise, but having managed to acquire a farm over the years as well as establishing Cairn, I do feel that that particular dragon has been rather thoroughly slain. But I think they have also had a significant effect on my own mental state! If truth be told, the young schoolboy Martin was a rather anxious as well as an unhappy child. Growing up is potentially a very stressful process, and it’s good to see that this is much more appreciated nowadays than it was back then, although not nearly enough is being done about it of course. In my case I just muddled my way through it all, and somehow acquired a sense of perspective that has been very calming. In that respect the example she set has been very influential, in respect of showing what can happen if you go the other way.
One can only do so much, and some issues are just too big to deal with. For example, our Milky Way galaxy is going to collide with the Andromeda galaxy in just a few billion years, and I’m completely powerless to stop it. Very many other things are beyond me too, so I’m afraid I don’t even try (although my Cairnland spoofs about Brexit might count as an exception, as you can’t always stand idly by)! So, the secret for me has been to limit myself to the tasks where I feel I CAN make a difference, and just get on with them. The question then has been whether I could see them through, and here my sister’s problems have given me a self-confidence that might not have been there otherwise. Her sad example has given me a warning of what can happen if you think that it’s all too much for you, as such feelings are likely to be self-fulfilling, so it’s very much helped me avoid going down that road myself.
In any case, one shouldn’t be afraid of failing, as it’s not necessarily a terminal condition. For example, my time at Shell was pretty much a failure, but from that I grabbed the opportunity to start Cairn instead. So, it’s not so much that I have been confident of success with Cairn (although I always have), but more that I’ve been unafraid of its failure. This has been a truly liberating feeling, allowing me to enjoy myself along pretty much every step of the way, rather than being at all weighed down by my responsibilities – even though I take them no less seriously for all that. I just do my best!
FREEDOM TO STAY THE SAME
So what now? I feel that I’ve finally discharged all my familial obligations, so in principle I can now do whatever I want, and go wherever I want. And even more so because the experiences of my own upbringing have rather deterred me from getting into any familial relationships of my own, so I have stayed happily unattached. Also, of course, the days of Cairn being a one-man-band are long over, to the extent that I’m no longer really needed at all. The world is now potentially mine to explore!
There is, however, just one problem. I love Cairn, I love the farm, and I love our town of Faversham, so there is nothing else I’d rather do, and nowhere else I’d rather be. So I guess I’ll just carry on as before, and I’m afraid this will include these dreadful blogs….