Supply Chain Risk, Heatwave, Drought, Maths and Hedges

As the heatwave and drought continues in the UK, procurement and supply chain managers will be looking at their contingency plans if we get into water rationing, melting roads, civil disturbance (more likely when the weather is hot) and crop failures.

But for me, a real hot spell brings my memories of 1976 flooding back. I had taken my A levels, was waiting to see whether I had got the grades to get into Cambridge (becoming the third person ever from my state school, near Sunderland, to make Oxbridge), and got a summer job in the Sunderland Parks Department, working in Penshaw Park, to be precise.

Penshaw is an ex-mining village near Sunderland famous for its Monument, a Grecian-styled folly built in dedication in 1844 on Penshaw Hill, for John George Lambton (1792–1840), 1st Earl of Durham and the first Governor of the Province of Canada.

By the way, that is NOT the “Penshaw Hill” referred to in the famous “Lambton Worm” song – that is supposedly a smaller mound, Worm Hill, in Fatfield between Penshaw and Washington (where George Washington's family originated).

I went to school up to age 11 in Penshaw, but by 1976 lived about 5 miles away. So I got a lift to the park in a council works department wagon, that for reasons I can’t remember passed by near my home every morning at about 7.30.

On my first morning in the park, my boss pointed at a 200-yard-long hedge adjoining the road up to the centre of the park, gave me a pair of hand shears, demonstrated the approved clipping action, and said “cut that hedge”.

Around lunchtime I came in and said, “I’ve done it”. “You can’t have”, said the boss. “Let’s have a look”. I hadn’t worked to quite the appropriate level of precision, apparently, and he expected that task to take around 2 days, not 4 hours.  A cynic might of course wonder if that was based on concern for staffing levels in the park rather than the quality of the work ...

Over the summer, I graduated from cutting hedges to sweeping the very well-kept grit / clay tennis courts and a bit of weeding. But I was never allowed near the bowling green, the pride and joy of my boss, a decent bowler himself. It was beautifully kept, and was always well-used through summer season.

I was told that whenever it rained, we weren’t expected to work and could sit in our little hut, drink tea and read or talk. That’s good, I thought. Cambridge had sent me a reading list based on the assumption I made the grade, and I had bought or borrowed several of the Maths text books I would need to be familiar with.

But remember, we are talking 1976. I worked for 8 weeks, I believe. In that time, we spent the grand total of 30 minutes in the hut on rain breaks. The sun beat down, day after day, and my books went unread. And the hosepipe bans spelt tragedy for the bowling green. The grass turned from green, to beige, to brown and died. Even more seriously, huge cracks, eventually six inches wide in places, opened up, criss-crossing the green like shattered glass. From mid-August, there was no bowls.

On the fateful day, I got my results. I failed to get precisely what St. Johns College had required, so I had an anxious week’s wait – no email in those days. Then a typed letter arrived. Because I had got a “1” grade in my Special Maths paper, they would overlook my “B” for Physics (I really screwed up the practical) and offer me a place. I’ve always been very grateful to the admission folk who made that decision!

But through my first two years at Cambridge I struggled greatly in terms of the Maths course. Getting a top grade in the special paper proved to be a poor indicator of capability to do a Cambridge Maths degree, I discovered. I managed to find a much better, more enjoyable and (for me) easier Part 2 course in year three - Management Sciences, within the Engineering Department in those days, which led to me deciding I wanted to work in business management.

Now, if I had spent more time studying over that summer, would I have found Maths any easier and done better than my solid thirds in the first two years? Might I have become an academic, a teacher, a computer programmer?

I’ll never know. But personally, I blame the heatwave entirely for my failure.

Anyway, for those of you who didn’t go through 1976, don’t underestimate how much of an effect a real drought could have on all sorts of things, as well as potentially the course of some people’s lives, like mine. And seriously - do look at your supply chain risk issues!

On that subject - we wrote a useful paper on supply chain risk and natural disasters, which you can read here.


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