When I left West Dorset to go to university in 1959, I never expected to return to live here. I grew up in Forde Abbey, where I was born in December 1939, and my earliest memories are of the War, with the house full of displaced relatives, many knitting sweaters for seamen in the evenings, the lawns given over to grazing rabbits; and as D-Day approached, the lanes blocked by trucks full of gum-chewing American soldiers.
Although we lived in a large and ancient house, my father was at heart a peasant farmer, who grew trees, milked three cows, kept ducks and bees, and enjoyed fishing, ferreting and rough shooting; my brothers and sister were all involved, and our childhood left us with an embedded love of the natural world. My brother and his family still live there, so there are many threads of continuity; my grandmother, who inherited the house in 1903 and died there 40 years later, would be quite surprised — and pleased — to see it as it is today.
I hated school and, after university, wanted to travel; so spent a year teaching in West Africa; then joined Reuters News Agency, unable to believe my luck at being paid to do what I enjoyed so much. I reported on three military coups, in Algeria (1965), Argentina (1966) and Peru (1968); and had a ringside seat on history. As the Reuters correspondent in Lima, my territory also covered Bolivia, where Che Guevara launched his final revolutionary enterprise in 1966. Through a mixture of outrageously good luck and youthful opportunism, I was in Vallegrande, when his body was brought in strapped to the landing gear of a helicopter; it was 24 hours before rivals from AP and AFP caught up.
My career as a foreign correspondent was brought to an untimely end by the ill-health of my then wife. By 1970, however, I was part of a two-man band, publishing the Latin American Newsletter, a weekly publication that attempted to keep the world informed about the politics and economics of Latin America. Our readership was global, and we had influence out of all proportion to our size, and when asked how many people we had in our Research Department; I never dared give a truthful answer.
This was a turbulent decade in Latin America, with popular governments and brutal military dictatorships succeeding one another with bewildering speed. Our house in London was filled with refugees, and many of our correspondents lived in fear of censorship, exile, imprisonment or, in one terrible case, death, thrown out of a helicopter — as we later discovered — by the Argentine military. However, demand for our service grew and the two-man band ended the ‘80s with around 30 employees. I was exhausted and burnt out, however, and fled London in 1981.
I spent two depressed years in rural Leicestershire trying to write a book, and was wondering what to do next, as the book was going nowhere, when a cover story I wrote for New Scientist changed my life. The story was built around an interview with Seymour Papert, a charismatic computer scientist and educational theorist, who had invented Logo — a computer programming language for children. Teachers wrote to me, wanting to know why they couldn’t have Logo on the BBC Microcomputer that was just then finding its way into schools. Why not?
As with many of my initiatives, had I known what was involved, I wouldn’t have started. However, Logotron was born and it was the perfect antidote to 12 years of thinking, dreaming and worrying about events on the other side of the world. Within three years, Logotron was the UK’s leading supplier of software to primary schools. Peter Hunter, a primary school teacher in Yeovil, came up with our second bestseller, PenDown, a word processor for primary schools. It was a novel idea in 1985 when only a quarter of all primary schools had a printer.
But it fitted our goal of combatting the prevailing orthodoxy in Government, which held that computers in schools were essentially “teaching machines” that would reduce the need for specialized (i.e. expensive) maths and science teachers. Papert had said; “The big question is whether children are going to control computers; or are computers going to control children?” Our job, he said, was to provide the tools that enabled and empowered children to do useful and interesting things with computers. Fortunately, we and those who thought like us won the argument.
For a series of reasons, too boring to mention, we ended by selling Logotron to the Longman Publishing Group, and I was off on my next mini-career. With new more powerful computers coming onto the market in 1990, I believed the next big thing was to provide maps on microcomputers — commonplace today, but on the bleeding edge then. Geographical Information Systems were already available, but only to those with large computers and even larger budgets. Longmans backed my idea, but wouldn’t allow me to run the new business in tandem with Logotron; it didn’t fit the corporate organigram.
So, I stayed with the new business only long enough to get it on its feet, and my thoughts were already turning westwards. For more than ten years we had been borrowing Sundial House on Marine Parade in Lyme Regis for holidays, and when our friends wanted to move on in 1993, we didn’t hesitate and never regretted the move. The small matter of making a living and paying the mortgage loomed. My brother Mark warned me that no one gave jobs to people in their mid-fifties, and cautioned me to stay put at Longmans. I barely know how to spell ‘cautious’.
My wife, Janie Prince is a long-established acupuncturist, but we had a small son, and something had to be done quite quickly. Her optimism and good management generally carry us through the storms, while I plunge into unknown waters. For a time I commuted weekly back to Cambridge, but in March 1995, I and four associates started the Landmark information Group in Exeter, with £2 million of other people’s money, raised on the back of our business plan.
The idea was to build a database of information to enable environmental consultants and other professionals to determine whether a given plot of land was subject to historical contamination, or other environmental risks, like flooding or subsidence. Once again, if we had known what we were doing, we wouldn’t have started. The project involved licensing a large scale map of the whole of mainland Britain from Ordnance Survey; scanning every historical map in Ordnance Survey’s reference library (roughly a million sheets); and replicating all the Environment Agency’s statutory registers.
By 1997, we had spent twice as much money as we had raised initially and needed more; the venture capitalists were desperate to staunch the outflow by closing us down, but a corner had been turned and Landmark finally prospered. Any reader, who has bought a house in recent years, is likely to have had one of Landmark’s environmental reports. I retired as a full-time employee in 2002, but remain a director of the business. I now fill my time — not always profitably — trying to help people who are younger, more energetic and often smarter than me, to start and manage their own businesses. This keeps me young and, sometimes, awake at night.
Two years ago, Janie and I joined forces with James and Emma Verner to buy Tempest House, perched on the western slope of Lambert’s Castle, looking down a long wooded valley to Charmouth. Janie’s daughter Lucy and her family have bought our house in Lyme Regis. So the wheel has turned a full 360 degrees and, after a very eventful life, I am back where I started, seven miles from the house in which I was born, with a wonderful family, a vegetable garden, a few sheep and a few hens, trying to be a good peasant farmer. As I grow older, I take great comfort from living in a landscape that I have known all my life, with people I love around me. I am indeed a fortunate man.