Your name is actually Brian Heather, so why Nick?

When my mother came back from hospital with me I had a lot of black hair and was very ugly, apparently, so my father said I looked like ‘Old Nick’. Nobody has ever called me anything else, including close family, but I still have Brian on my birth certificate and passport, which often causes problems.

What is your background?

I was born in 1938. My earliest memories are of blackout curtains, air-raid sirens and going down into our Anderson shelter during the blitz.

My father was manager of a busy off-licence in Wood Green, North London. My father managed to do his work very efficiently, but most nights would be drinking extremely heavily with his friends. I think he probably fitted Jellinek’s description of the ‘delta-type’ alcoholic. That is one who does not lose control, but drinks heavily every day. There was obviously a high occupational risk factor there.

I have often thought about whether this was why I developed an interest in alcohol problems. I simply do not know. But I was very deeply affected by his drinking at the time; I was ashamed of the fact that virtually every night he would be drunk. My mother was a housekeeper and a wonderfully kind and sensitive person.

You came into academic life quite late, what happened?

Going to university was simply something other, better-off people did. Also, I was a little wild and got into one or two scrapes, so my school didn’t exactly encourage me to stay on.

I found jobs in the City of London doing clerical work, which was very tedious, and I stuck them out until National Service.

National Service was compulsory at that time, wasn’t it?

Yes, I caught the end of it in 1957. I believe the last batch was in 1959. I did most of my time in Germany as a signals operator in the Royal Air Force.

What happened next? 

I returned to the same type of work for a while: trainee sales representative for a paper manufacturer, which meant that I just answered the phone. After a year of that, I thought there must be more to life than this and the year was then magically 1960.

I had read a little of Jack Kerouac (On the Road) and something was in the air, so I dropped out, as they say. I cashed in my small superannuation and went down to Eastbourne for the summer and worked at washing-up in hotels, labouring jobs and being a deck-chair attendant, where I met some university undergraduates.

One chap persuaded me that I might have the ability to go to university. So I went back home and studied ‘A’-levels by correspondence course. I was helped by knowing somebody who had a similar working-class background, had left school at 16 and had then decided to do the same thing as me.

Where did you study psychology?

University College London was supposed to be one of the best places to study psychology at the time and it probably still is. But I only really decided to go there because I was a Londoner. The course gave me a very good grounding in the experimental and scientific approach to psychology.

I enjoyed my undergraduate days enormously and it really changed my life. I did not work very hard— remember it was London in the 1960s and a great deal was going on outside the lecture room—but I managed to get a 2/1.

What happened after you graduated?

I started a PhD at UCL under Bob Audley on ‘random walk’ models of decision-making processes and in particular on perception as a decision-making process. I did two years of this and gave it up.

I sometimes regret having given it up but, again, as far as my later interests are concerned, it may have been a blessing in disguise.

Did you continue in higher education?

Yes, I obtained a job lecturing at West Ham College of Advanced Technology (now the University of East London) but I became fed up with that, too.

So I dropped out again and went to Morocco. It was when I came back from there that I decided to study clinical psychology. I thought that with clinical psychology I would be doing something more tangible, more about human life.

I applied to and was accepted at the MSc course in clinical psychology at the University of Leeds.

What was your first job in clinical psychology?

After gaining my MSc, my first job was at the University Hospital of South Manchester.


This is an excerpt from ‘A Conversation with Nick Heather‘ which appeared in Addiction and the Making of Professional Careers – edited by Griffith Edwards, Thomas F. Babor.

Read the full interview here.