Graham Tilson

Graham in 1958
Graham on the 1958 school photo

Graham was at Trinity from 1956 to 1961.  Since then he has lived and worked in many parts of the world and is currently working in the United Arab Emirates.  He describes the twists and turns his life has taken since leaving Trinity.  Graham and his wife Pat have both been married before, and as a result of their travelling life have family scattered all over the world.  Pat has 3 children and Graham 2.  Graham's son migrated back the other way in late 2004 and is living and working in London with his wife and two children.  The rest of the family is scattered across Australia and New Zealand.  Graham's daughter and her husband are in the North Island of NZ.  One of Pat's daughters with her husband and four children are in the South Island.

 Pat's other daughter with husband and five children are ensconced in a remote part of Western Australia in the town of Carnarvon, 1000 km north of Perth.  Finally, Pat's son, single with no kids, lives in Tasmania.  It's hard to get the family together....... 

Graham, whose initials are PGT, has often been known as PG Tips.  He describes here his experience since leaving Trinity.

I left school at the end of 1961 having spent a few weeks in the 6th form when a student apprenticeship as an engineer with the CEGB was confirmed for me. I worked for a few years at the old Northampton Power Station studying part time at the Northampton College of Technology and was then awarded a university scholarship to take a degree in electrical engineering.

PG Tips and Khalid Abdullah AhmedAfter university I worked at several power stations in the Midlands Region of the CEGB, got married (to wife no.1) and fathered a son and daughter. After a spell working at a hydro power station near Aberystwyth, I migrated with the family in the 1970’s to New Zealand to work in the power industry there. Initially I was employed in the power generation side but I moved to electricity distribution and was promoted, eventually becoming General Manager of the Bay of Plenty Electric Power Board. Privatisation of the industry occurred, (a thing that sounds so much easier when written in the passive voice); rationalisation of the private power companies followed, (a euphemism for mass redundancies) and a new job and divorce ensued.

Seeking fresh fields to conquer, (that also sounds much better than “desperately looking for gainful employment”) I moved to Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) at the end of 1994 with my second wife, Pat, to become manager of two power and desalination plants, one under construction and another that had been running for some years.  In retrospect the change from the UK to New Zealand had not been so great, particularly when comparing the totally different culture of working in the Middle East from that of westernized society. Getting things done requires a quite different mode of approaching issues and I soon learned and absorbed the Arabic/Islamic way of life.

Pakistan Driving Licence Photo 
Pakistan Driving Licence Photo 
After two years I was head hunted by a private company to become technical director for construction of an independent power project in Pakistan. I was based in Islamabad but the project was being built in the Upper Sind Region, some 1000 km away. As Chris Cork will confirm, travelling in Pakistan, particularly if you are a foreigner, is not good for your health. I found that I had to do a great deal of travelling and discovered the best and safest way was to become a “local” by wearing a shalwar khamis, Chitrali hat and chupples (the hand made sandals). With my white hair and beard and a few words of Urdu, people took me for a Pathan elder and I had no real difficulties after that. I was also fortunate in having a personal assistant who was fluent in Urdu, Punjabi, Sindi and Baluchi and we travelled everywhere together. Pat and I took him and his family on holiday with us to Peshawar and the Khyber Pass, before the Afghan War of course.

After two years, the contract that I had was coming to an end. We had built a large modern power station at an isolated location in Pakistan, despite all the logistical, political, technical and other problems. I then had a phone call from the UAE asking if I wanted to come back to Abu Dhabi. The way I put it is that after two years in Pakistan, I agonized for about 3 microseconds, and then said, “Yes, yes and yes!!!” Having confirmed that I was going, I then enquired about what the job would be. The reach of privatization had stretched to the Emirates and the government owned power and water industry was to be broken up into operating companies and then sold off. I was wanted to manage formation of a company from two power and water plants in the western region of Abu Dhabi. Once corporatised, it was expected that the company would be sold off, the whole process taking about two years or so.

Over eight years later, I am still here in Abu Dhabi, although I should have retired in 2004. Matters do take longer to complete here than elsewhere in the world and progress has been slower than originally thought. The job of forming a company from existing assets and introducing commercial realities whilst supplying power and water continuously to the western region, which is mainly desert, has been challenging (that’s a better sounding word than “worrisome”). We have around 230 staff comprising 22 different nationalities and I am the only person of European extraction. The working language is English but it continually surprises me to hear, say, an Egyptian conversing with a Bangladeshi in English and I can’t understand either of them! The Al Mirfa plant where my office is located is nearly 200 km west of Abu Dhabi city and I spend the working week at Al Mirfa and the weekend in Abu Dhabi.

Since being here at Al Mirfa, the desalination plant has been more than doubled in capacity with a large extension. This project has been an added interest to the job because of the construction contract and the problems of integrating the new plant with the older distillers. The distillers, or desalinators, use waste heat from the power generating gas turbine plant to distil seawater for drinking and other purposes. Most water in the emirates is produced from this distillation process, the oasis water being fully utilized many years ago. At Al Mirfa we can produce up to 38 million gallons of water each day.

I have enjoyed my time in the Emirates and have made some good friendships here. I introduced some Emirati friends to the joys of the New Zealand bush about four years ago and we had a great camping, hunting and tramping holiday there. It has caught on with their friends in turn and there is now a serious interest in New Zealand holidays by Abu Dhabi citizens.

Both Pat and I have New Zealand as well as British citizenship and we have kept a home in New Zealand. Pat also being Scottish wanted us to establish some roots in her Scottish homeland and we bought an old manse (Scottish minister’s house) on a small island in Scapa Flow in the Orkney Islands some years ago. The house had not been lived in for about thirty years and we have spent most of our holidays for the last several years working on the place to bring it up to modern standards. For a while Pat has spent more time in Orkney than Abu Dhabi as she wanted to spend more time in her own home. The lure of money going into the bank account each month has kept me still working here, although I do enjoy the job I am doing.

Abu Dhabi is the most modern city on earth. Buildings that were being erected when we first came here 12 years ago have been ripped down since as being “too old” and there are always major construction projects going on. There are around 2 million people in the Emirates of whom only 200,000 are Emiratis, the rest being expatriates. Abu Dhabi is the largest of the 7 Emirates and is also by far the largest oil producer. It has one of the highest per capita (i.e. native population) incomes in the world and the recent oil price hikes have been good for the local economy.

I have not made my mind up just when to retire from work here. Without Pat, life is a lone one, particularly during the week whilst I am at Al Mirfa. With the Internet and satellite TV it is certainly not as lonely as it once was out in the desert, but I am conscious that I now look back over more years than I look forward to. There are still some things that I want to do and they can’t be done in the isolation offered by the location of the job I am doing.

I have thought that the motto of Trinity – “Parate”- was a good one for an engineer. Prepare, or be ready, always seemed to me to be pragmatic advice for the profession and I have wondered if that was in the mind of the founders of the Technical High School. On the other hand the advice in New Zealand was that there is a huge advantage in not planning things; without a plan, nothing can go wrong……

P Graham Tilson also known as PG Tips


The Tower Revisited  - The website for former Pupils of the Technical High School, Trinity High School & Trinity Grammar School, Northampton