“To have a great idea, have a lot of them.”
Thomas A. Edison

The Path Trod

Mine is not the rags-to-riches story so often told; nor is it that of great inherited wealth. It is a textbook story on a relatively straight path. That is, straight if I look back from this age, but looking forward from younger years, it was very foggy. One needs a few years to have passed to judge the path trod, and I certainly have that qualification. Although just how it has turned out is still a mystery, I must pinch myself to check not only the aging skin on the back of my hands but to confirm I am in the real world and not some high-tech simulation.

I have written a journal for many years—not a diary but some one hundred plus pages covering the years as they have gone by—but for this story, it feels better to start again. So, much will be omitted and dates will be wrong, but I hope to convey something of the excitement and disappointments that have punctuated the eighty-six years I’ve lived. And there is the place to start—I have lived ten years longer than my father, who died from lung cancer, having smoked cigarettes and cigars for much of his life. He also indulged a happy but less healthy appetite for food and drink, mostly wine.

Albert Leonard “Mick” Michael was born in 1912, just before WWI, into an English family. My father never met his father, who died from peritonitis before he was born. His young, widowed mother, Ethel, as well as three siblings, had to fend for themselves during the war years. Mick left school at fourteen, as the family needed income, and he, with his two brothers and a diabetic sister, made what they could. But it was only Mick, the youngest of the four, who made a financial success. He was the youngest and the smartest, so it was not long before he was the principal breadwinner, sometimes supporting the close and not-so-close family in need, Ethel in particular.

In 1936, at twenty-four, Mick was trim and attractive and married Enid May—a beauty who was born in 1914, the year WWI started—after seeing her as a chorus girl in a local repertory production of an Ivor Novello musical. He had joined the company as a stage manager to court her. I was born in 1938, the precursor to the commencement of WWII the next year.

Pete, with a model of a Lancaster bomber, and his sister, Dawn, in the garden during World War II.

Pete with his parents, Mick and Enid, at Grandma Michael’s house in Cornwall.

A dapper Mick, the youngest of four and principal breadwinner for the family, 1932

Mick and his beautiful bride, Enid, honeymooning in the Lake District, 1936.

Pete’s baby sister, Dawn, in a “walky” at home in Croydon.

“The following years in England were those of serious deprivation, with rationing of food, fuel, and materials, which continued until 1954”

The following years in England were those of serious deprivation, with rationing of food, fuel, and materials, which continued until 1954, although the war finished in 1945. Somehow, during that period, our parents managed to keep it from both me and my baby sister, Dawn, who was born in 1942, just as America joined the war, shortly after Pearl Harbor. Dawn grew up loving horses of any shape, size, or form and consequently has many screws and plates under her skin. But she survives well and has only recently reduced her stables to storage use but no horseflesh.

With no degree and a foreshortened school education, Mick was a natural businessman and, together with his two brothers-in-law, started Moyden, an engineering firm that manufactured car parts and, frankly, anything they could sell. After that, the war effort took over, and contracts from the War Office took the company into supplying armaments such as gun sights. Mick had been seriously interested in his hobby of collecting rare stamps, as did most boys. He frequented the now famous Stanley Gibbons (SG, founded 1856) stamp shop now located at 399 Strand, which was the centre of this little backwater of specialisation, with several other purveyors close by. The closest was bang next door at 392, where Mr. H. E. Wingfield, an elderly gentleman, was the proprietor, but it was financially somewhat dwarfed by SG. Somehow, the old man took a shine to Mick and invited him in as a junior partner, which eventually morphed into principal as he retired.

Pete’s earnest prayers­ at the dinner table.

An ever-inquisitive Pete in the garden shed, wondering how the plane works.

Pete at Woodbury Close, Addiscombe, Croydon, with his dog, Rex, who was purchased from Petticoat Lane Market.

The next-door directors of SG were less than dynamic and soon found that Mick’s business was eating their lunch, so they did the obvious thing and negotiated a merger. The result was Dad becoming managing director and later chairman with a significant shareholding, and a new era of SG was born. He then took it on to become an international business with subsidiaries in the UK and a NYC office on Fifth Avenue. In 1957, SG had grown, and it was time to engineer a very successful and well-over-subscribed stock market flotation.

So it was my father who imbued in me a sense of business from an early age. Mick and Enid entertained clients, friends, and competitors at home on weekends, and Enid often made the journey from home to London in the evening to accompany Mick for dinner. I was approaching thirty and had long ago decided that those little bits of paper studied by peering through a magnifier were not going to be the direction of my life. In fact, it was rather decided for me as, when assisting with the stamping and franking of first-day covers, I had disgraced myself by sticking them on askew. Mick was not pleased, and I was effectively fired, never again to cross the SG threshold.

Although it did not seem so at the time, I had received a good education at Whitgift, a public school in Croydon, now South London, where, at eleven years old, I had started somewhere near the top form of my year and steadily slid downhill. Both parents despaired, and I received regular earbashings about my poor performance. Then at fifteen, I awoke and started working. It was physics and the physics teacher that catalysed the change; I remember the day that I discovered I could do physics. Until then, nobody had told me that I was any good at anything, so I had stopped worrying about it and stopped working. But by the time of O-Level exams the following year, I managed some good passes.

Instructions for an assembly kit, which was Pete’s design for an VHF radio tuner and his first business, started when he was nineteen.

“I put that knowledge to work during the summer holiday to design what was probably the first VHF radio tuner capable of receiving the three new FM radio transmissions from Wrotham in Kent.”

I joined the lower sixth and studied for the Advanced Level, the key to university, and two years later had achieved the qualifications to apply and wait. My ambitions for living, even at that age, stretched my pocket money, so I found a job in a radio repair shop close by and started working on Morphy Richards toasters. In those days, we mended them rather than throwing them away. There, I met two people who were to figure in my life for years afterward. The first was a young actor, Anthony Valentine, who attracted beautiful girls. The second was Bob Graves, owner of the shop, who, many years later, was to become my first business partner.

Rather than waste time listening to the dull history and geography taught by dull schoolmasters, I spent time both in and out of class reading technical and engineering magazines such as Practical Wireless and Wireless World. In addition, I learned plenty about repairing radios and television sets. I put that knowledge to work during the summer holiday to design what was probably the first VHF radio tuner capable of receiving the three new FM radio transmissions from Wrotham in Kent. With the help of Bob Graves, who had a spare company to hand, I took a small ad in the back of both magazines and waited. Soon, orders for kits of parts began to arrive together with postal orders, and I had started the first of what became many businesses. I was nineteen.