I was born on Friday 13th November (unlucky for some) 1964, Mill Road Maternity Hospital Liverpool. Sadly, the building no longer stands.
My very early childhood was spent in a big Victorian house in the Tuebrook area of Liverpool, which the government, in its lack of wisdom, decided to demolish as part of ‘slum clearance’ work in the mid sixties. So, I suppose I can honestly say that my family and I lived in a slum. In reality it was a lovely house, but fell foul of over zealous planners. The ground which was in such urgent need of re-assignment stood empty for years until the early eighties, when Barratt houses were built on the greening remains of Tweed Street. Oh well – I think the area should now be bulldozed afresh.
After titanic struggles with the city housing office, my mother finally got them to move us to a house by her mother in the West Derby area of the city. So most of my childhood and early adult years were based in a small terraced house in Allerford road - a socialist theme-park Council estate set in woodland. There was a wheat field around the corner, Lord Sefton’s country estate to the left of the house, and a smelly old pond in a field not far away which held such a fascination for me that I nearly drowned in it when I was four (the first of quite a few dates with Death which I have broken off).
The reason I did not drown was that my sister Alison (two years older than me) suddenly discovered how to swim on the very day and at the very moment that I was drowning in the pond. The hand of fate intervened! It never intervened for my second sister, Paula (four years older than me) who stood screaming by the side of the pond watching me drown.
I have started talking about my family – so let’s carry on. I have no living brothers, the only brother I may have had died during childbirth in 1972. Fortunately I got another sister by way of consolation, Claire, in 1973 who went on to follow me to take Linguistics at Lancaster. So here I am – three sisters and no brothers. This meant that I could do no housework, shopping or cooking by the time I went to University in 1983. For me, these were all spectator sports. While I am now an avid cook and can "shop ‘til I drop", I still have no passion for housework, and have an untidy office to prove it.
I went to Blackmoor Park (CofE) infants and junior schools and by and large had a great time. The only miserable times were caused by the headmaster of the junior school, who thought all of the children from the Council estate were simply dreadful, and verbally expressed his shock and dismay to me that I was brighter than the middle class boys and girls. A truly horrible old snob.
I went on from there to West Derby Comprehensive School for boys. This was, and remains I believe, a good school. I had a good time there, enjoyed what I was taught, liked the teachers and was a complete swotty creep. I left there with nine O levels and four A levels to read Law at Lancaster. I have not really left Lancaster since. Though I have had periods of extended absence, I have been around the University, in one form or other, since October 1983.
After one term of Law I hated it (except contract law which is, surprisingly, stuffed to the gills with hilarious cases), but loved Linguistics which I was doing at the same time. So with the help of a great new lecturer in the department, Jenny Thomas (who later became Dr. Thomas, and has now reached the Olympian heights of being Professor Thomas) I switched to Linguistics.
Then 1986 happened – the end of University it seemed. Off I went and became an accountant. Accountants appear rather grand, but they largely sit around redoing other people’s adding up all day and checking receipts against ledger entries. Very boring. I am ashamed to say I was actually rather good at it. Even so, I saw the light and resigned.
Following this, I moved on to IT. I now have to backtrack to explain this. I had been convinced by a friend, David Owen (not the ex Foreign Secretary but a wonderful debating partner nonetheless– I think he now works for ICL), over several beers one afternoon in the summer of 1985 that computers were little short of miraculous. My dad bought me one - a Sinclair QL, which was pretty hi-tech in 1985. So after resigning from accountancy in 1987, while I was languishing at home, spending wonderful summer days reading (that summer I read the Devils of Loudun and After Many a Summer by Huxley, Godel-Escher-Bach by Hofstadter, re-read the Bhagavad Gita and read much more besides) I started to think how great it would be to pair up linguistics and IT. So I wrote to Leicester saying this, and they agreed. The good old SERC gave me a grant and I spent a year learning to program and got an MSc for the hell of it.
After this I got a research post at Liverpool with Trevor Bench-Capon working on the Alvey DHSS Demonstrator project. Quite a wacky system. You had to get natural language queries, such as ‘Can my Bert have invalidity benefit’, work out who the hell Bert was, ask relevant questions and respond. The response was easy – Thatcher was still in power – so you simply had to reply ‘no’. However, we never told the funders this as they would have pulled the plug, so we carried on getting the system to say ‘How old is Bert?’, ‘Is he in receipt of a valid invailidity certificate’ and ‘Do not use obscene language’ for show.
While at Liverpool, I picked up an odd-looking book called The Computational Analysis of English. I liked the title and recognised the names of two of the authors – Geoffries Leech & Sampson, as being Lancaster folk. I had been very curious about what was happening with computers in the department at Lancaster in my final year so I thought this was a good opportunity to find out. I was very surprised by the contents of the book – (Statistics and language? Get a life!) – but grew more and more interested in it. I gave it to Michael Oakes who I was working with at the time and our interest grew. Our interest grew so much that one day the ‘phone went and Geoff Leech was on the other end offering me a job, after an impromptu interview conducted by ambush while I was visiting Jenny Thomas.
One thing led to another, I got a PhD, I was given a full time lectureship in Linguistics and became unshakeably convinced that while corpora are not the answer to all questions, they were definitely the answer to a range of questions well worth asking!