“Happy Chinese New Year,” greets John by way of a welcome on the day we visit him in the spacious ground-floor flat he has shared with his wife since they arrived at Morden College in April 2015. A quick glance around confirms this is a man well travelled, with discerning tastes and an appreciation for good design. A violin displayed on the sideboard suggests a musician. “Oh, no, I don’t play it, I just really like the shape, the curves, the proportions – they’re all spot on,” explains John. Which makes all the more sense when he reveals that he spent his working life designing bank notes. “I started with a company in New Malden when I was 22, and worked for them for 22 years, before moving to Switzerland for 10 years, designing notes for currencies all over the world and latterly teaching the process to students. Of course that was pre-Internet era when it was a lot slower to send designs from one place to another, so I would often go and work in the country involved to speed up the process. That also proved very useful to get to know their history and culture, an essential factor when designing the bank notes for many currencies. A wrong colour, or a wrong pattern, can actually be offensive in some parts of the world!
“The highlight of my career came when I was asked by Corazon ‘Cory’ Aquino to design a banknote to honour her assassinated husband Benigno in 1983. It was actually quite scary as her opponents got wind of it and I was nearly kidnapped and warned off! But I still did it. That was very special.”
Back in the UK after a torrid time in Switzerland, John and wife Margaret rented in Blackheath but work was hard to come by (he was no longer ‘allowed’ to work in the banknote design industry). Even harder times beckoned when their cottage was repossessed, but their community of neighbours with whom they got on very well suggested Morden College as a possible home.
“This place works so well on so many levels,” John explains. “We can still live independently, we even have a parking space for the car, and can join in with College life as much as we want. For a multi-religious man like myself, chapel life is central and very important, but only if you want it. There are services for both Catholic and Church of England, and attendance or otherwise is neither forced nor frowned up. The chaplain was probably once more of a figurehead than now, but I like it that we have one still.”