Examining the past

ON 13th AUGUST 2020, MANY YOUNGSTERS in England received the results of the state’s university admission examinations. This year of plague and social distancing, 2020, the results have not been determined by the students themselves writing examination papers but by a clumsy, somewhat arbitrary, algorithm that takes various factors other than a student’s own ability into account. Things were quite different last year and back in 1970 when I sat the A-Level examinations required for admission to university.

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Back then, as now, universities offered places to potential students subject to achieving or exceeding certain grades at A-Level. The place that was my first choice amongst the six universities I chose was University College London (‘UCL’). In ‘my time’, UCL invited potential students for extensive interviewing. I was invited to spend a whole day at the Physiology Department. During that day, I was interviewed at least three times by different people and met both members of the academic staff as well as students already embarked on their courses of study.

Several days later, I received a letter from UCL offering me a place on the BSc course providing I achieved three E grades at A-Level. The top grade at A-Level was A, the lowest pass grade was E. At first, I was not sure whether to be pleased that all I needed was just to pass my three A-Level examinations. Was that the best that they thought I could manage? No, it was not. In those days, if UCL liked a candidate at interview, they took the strain off the candidate by not expecting high grades. Thee Es was normal for most subjects except medicine and dentistry when 3 Cs were required.  These days, candidates to places like UCL would be expected to get 3 A grades or something awfully close to this. Well, having been offered a place subject to my attaining at least 3 E grades and being neurotic by nature, I began to worry. What if I could not manage the three Es?

I became obsessed by examination papers to such an extent that I used to use my father’s typewriter to compose examination questions that I hoped would never appear in front of me in the examination hall. Whether or not composing these impossible questions was a kind of self-therapy or simply an opportunity to enjoy using the typewriter, I cannot tell, but it did me no harm. At the very least, It gave me short breaks in what for me was long hours trying to understand what I was studying.

My three A-Level subjects were Biology, Physical Science (a mixture of chemistry and physics), and mathematics. I found that all of them were most interesting and not too taxing. When I was at school, it was possible to opt to attempt supplementary papers in the subjects chosen for A-Level. These papers were known as ‘S-Levels’ and were designed to test a candidate’s deeper understanding of a subject. I chose to do S-Level papers in biology and mathematics. The biology S-Level paper was enjoyable. I was able to show off what I had learnt from reading around the subject. One of the questions was something to do with discussing the origins of life on earth. Well, in addition to various then current theories I decided to include what is described in the first chapter of the Old Testament. I passed that S-Level. The mathematics S-Level paper was a quite different ‘cup of tea’. Even though I had attended special classes to learn the mathematics that was required, I was stumped. For the first 30 minutes of the three-hour paper, I just stared at the questions. There was not one that I could even begin to tackle. So, after 20 minutes, I walked out of the examination room, leaving a blank script on my desk.

I can remember where I was when I received the A-Level results in August 1970. I was in Italy with my parents and sister on one of our annual visits to that country. We were in Venice, staying, as we always did, at the Pensione La Calcina, where many decades earlier the eminent John Ruskin(1819-1900) used to reside when visiting the island. The establishment’s façade is on the Fondamente Zattere across the water (of the Giudecca Canal) from the famous Santissimo Redentore church (completed 1592) designed by the architect Andrea Palladio.

We had just eaten lunch at the pensione and were taking the air on the waterfront prior to retiring indoors for a siesta when Signorina Steiner, the manageress, came rushing up to us with a telegram. My parents opened it to discover that my aunt in London had sent my A-Level results, which to my great relief were way in excess of the minimum required to gain admission to UCL.

If I had not managed to attain even 3 E grades, I would certainly not have expected to be admitted to any university. I would have had to accept the result and might well have decided to re-sit the examinations a few months later. As far as I am aware, in my day, there was no appealing to have papers re-marked as has become normal in the last twenty or thirty years. During recent times, it is not unusual for someone who is not satisfied with a grade to have his or her examination papers re-marked. Often, the revised grade is higher than the original, but things can go less favourably for the candidate.

This year, when young people have not been able to attend school since March and have not been awarded A-Level grades based on final papers written under strict examination  conditions, they have been awarded grades based largely on statistics (generated by what appears to be a poorly conceived algorithm) rather than individual ability. Many students have been awarded grades well below what they and their teachers expected. Thank heavens that there are appeal procedures in place.

I remember how much of a nail-biting experience it was waiting for my A-Level results back in 1970. This year, it was far worse for candidates. Not only did they not know on what basis their grades would be estimated, but also many of them will have to remain anxious for even longer whilst their appeals are being considered.

History is bunk

“HISTORY IS BUNK”. So, said Henry Ford in 1916. Although he meant something different to what I understood by those words, I feel that they apply very well to the history lessons that I had to suffer at school until I was about 14 years old. It was not that I had no interest in history when I was a child but the way it was taught at the schools, which I attended, put me off studying the subject any longer than I needed.

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Gwyneth K

At the Hall School in Swiss Cottage, which I attended between the ages of 8 and 13, history was one of the subjects that had to be learnt in order to pass the Common Entrance examination that would admit me to a private secondary school. Each school year, we began British history with the arrival of the Romans in Britain and worked through the centuries until we reached the end of the 19th century. The emphasis was on chronology of events rather than what happened, and why it did, and, what were its consequences. We were being trained to answer idiotic examination questions such as:

“Put the following in chronological order: Archbishop Laud, the Corn Laws, Lady Jane Grey, Plassey”

To know their dates was important. To understand their roles in the history of Britain or elsewhere seemed irrelevant. You are probably beginning to get the idea of why history taught like this failed to capture my interest.

Something unpardonable about the teaching of history at the Hall was that although we had to learn the dates of important battles that the British fought overseas, we had no idea of their significance. It was like learning about a series of football or other sporting results. For example, it was long after leaving the school that I began to understand why our ‘team’ was sent abroad to fight Napoleon. It was not simply to notch up yet another British victory at, say, Waterloo, which is what I was led to believe at the Hall, but to combat a force that was invading most of Europe. The same is true of British victories in India and North America. It was vaguely satisfying to know that we had ‘scored’ well at Arcot, Plassey, and Quebec, but I was not aware that the reasons for these battles were ever explained to us.

Well, with the help of my mother, who spent many hours of my spare time cramming the historical facts into my head, I was successful at the Common Entrance examination and gained admission to Highgate School. As far as history was concerned, things did not improve at my new school. Our class was taught by the eminent historian AW Palmer, who eventually gave up teaching to devote his time to writing books on a variety of historical subjects, many of which I now find interesting. However, it was our fate to have to study the history of the USA. We had a textbook with an orange cover, whose title and author I have long forgotten. Neither this nor Mr Palmer managed to excite in me any interest in the undoubtedly exciting history of the USA. So, when we were given the choice of dropping either physics or history, I abandoned the latter. In my time at Highgate, history was alternative to physics, geography to chemistry, and Latin to woodwork. I chose chemistry and Latin in addition to physics.

When I was about 16, I used to walk from our family home to Finchley to visit my father’s colleague Kurt Klappholz and his wife Gwyneth. I was fond of them as well as their two children, one of whom was named after me. Gwyneth taught history at a local school and quickly realised that although I was not taking her subject at school, I was, in fact, quite interested in it. She recommended that I read a series of books written by the historian Alistair Horne. He wrote history in such a way that reading it was as enjoyable as reading a gripping novel. Everything he included in his narratives was reliably sourced. His books are both scholarly and engrossing. Through reading these books and discussions with Gwyneth, my interest in history grew and grew. I am eternally grateful to her for this.

If, God forbid, I should ever decide to study for another degree, I would head for a course in modern history. Far from being ‘bunk’, history is most important. As someone said to me recently:

“The future is a plant that grows in the soil of the past.”

And in the words of the philosopher George Santayana (1863-1952), who influenced Bertrand Russell among others:

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

 I hope that we can learn from the past (by studying history) and avoid repeating the mistakes, which were made then, in the future. But maybe, I am being a little bit over-optimistic.

 

 

Wake up call

RETIREMENT OFFERS MANY PLEASURES. One of these is waking up in the morning at whatever time one wishes. I do not want to sound slothful but waking up early rarely appeals to me.

black ring bell alarm clock

Photo by NEOSiAM 2020 on Pexels.com

While I was undertaking research for my PhD in physiology at University College London (‘UCL’), there were no daily time constraints. I could turn up at the laboratory whenever I felt like it and leave whenever I wanted. My timings were entirely up to me. I used to arrive at UCL at about 10 in the morning. At 11 o’clock, I went upstairs for coffee and biscuits in the Starling Room (a departmental meeting place for post-graduates and academic staff; named in honour of the physiologist Ernest Starling). By noon, I had returned to the lab. However, there was not much time to do anything because I liked to have lunch at just before 1 pm. And, after lunch, I often sat in the Ladies Common Room, chatting with Margaret, my supervisor’s wife who also worked in the lab. You can be sure that we never discussed scientific matters over our cups of sub-standard institutional coffee.

By just after 2 pm, I began getting down to work, setting up an experiment. However, everything stopped at 4 pm, when one of us would put the kettle on to boil, the heat being supplied by a gas flame from a Bunsen burner. Tea and biscuits involved me spending another hour chatting, mainly with Margaret. The other PhD students and workers in our lab took tea but were not distracted from their work. At 5 pm Margaret and my PhD supervisor, Robert, set off homewards, followed soon after by the rest of the lab. Between 5 and about 8.30 pm (and on some weekend days) is when I managed to do some ‘solid’ work. Miraculously with this lackadaisical schedule, I managed to do sufficient experimental research to be awarded a doctorate. Then, my life changed dramatically.

Soon after becoming ‘Dr Yamey’, I enrolled in the Dental School of UCL to train to become a dental surgeon (‘dentist’). Compared to my BSc and the PhD studies, this course leading to a Batchelor of Dental Surgery degree was far more demanding of my time. Five days a week, my presence was required at the Dental School at 9 am sharp. The day, which included a lunch break and two brief coffee breaks (if you were lucky), ended at about 5 pm. This seemed to me as bad as being sent back to junior school.

At first, I found this rigorous routine difficult after the relatively laxer times I had enjoyed during my BSc and PhD courses. I remember waking up at 7.00 am on dark autumn mornings and looking out of my bedroom window to see if there were lights on in any of my neighbours’ windows. Often, there were none. To arrive at the hospital by nine in the morning, I had to board the Underground at the peak of the morning rush hour. The tube trains were always crowded, standing room only, at that time. However, in those days in the late 1970s each train had two carriages in which smoking was allowed. Because many people were going off smoking or did not smoke, these carriages always had plenty of empty seats when they pulled into my station, Golders Green. Ignorant of secondary smoking, as I was then, I always travelled comfortably in the smelly, smoke filled carriages. However, by the time I had travelled the thirty minutes to Warren Street, I was always in great need of a quick coffee in the Dental Hospital’s basement canteen before classes began. After qualifying, the early morning routine continued. It lasted for thirty-five years until, at last, I retired.

Waking early in the morning was not confined to dental studies and practice. It is a feature of life that I have got used to in India. Many people in India wake early to take advantage of the cooler early hours of the day. I learned this very soon after arriving in Bangalore during my first visit to India in 1994. For the first few weeks, my wife and I stayed in my in-law’s home. On the second or third morning of our stay, I woke up in darkness. I could hear people rushing about in the house. I woke up my wife and said that I thought that the house was being burgled or attacked. She reassured me that all was okay and told me that the family liked to rise early. It was not quite 5 am. Day after day, my father-in-law tried to encourage me to join him on his early morning walk, to see the sun rise. Eventually, I gave in and we walked around a nearby open space in semi-darkness. It was only when we had returned to the house that we noticed the sun was beginning to rise.

Since those early days in India, I have just about got used to getting up incredibly early if there is a good reason to do so. Driving out of a city as large as Bangalore is one of these reasons. Before 7 am, there is hardly any traffic on the roads, which are usually choc-a-bloc during working hours. Flights to London are another good reason. They often leave India at early hours of the morning so that they can land in Western Europe at an hour that will not disturb those asleep in the UK, where late night/early morning passenger flights are forbidden. Although I can see the benefits of doing things early in the morning in India, I still miss being permitted to sleep until my built-in biological clock gives me its wake-up call. And for those of you who are by now thinking that sleep is all important to me, let me tell you that of late, despite not having any work or travel obligations, that clock of mine is waking me up much earlier than it used to years ago.

Books of choice

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I HAVE LOVED READING ever since I was first able to master this skill. During my childhood, we used to drive to Hampstead (in north London) every Saturday morning. We always used to visit the now long-since closed High Hill Bookshop on Rosslyn Hill. Our parents allowed my sister and me to choose one book each Saturday and bought them for us. Week by week, my collection of the adventures of Tintin by Hergé grew until I had all the episodes that had been published in English. There was little, if any, censorship of our choices. However, I had the distinct impression that my parents preferred that we avoided books by Enid Blyton. So, I have not yet had the pleasure of reading any of her extensive literary oeuvre.

I discovered and fell in love with “Mad” magazine, which was not available at High Hill Bookshop. I bought copies of it at a local shop, using my pocket money. My parents appeared not to approve of the magazine, but my father (not my mother) was always happy to read my copies of it when I had finished with them. “Readers Digest”, like Enid Blyton, did not fulfil my parents’ criteria of ‘good’ literature. I enjoyed leafing through this periodical and particularly remember reading and re-reading an article written by someone who was conscious during his brain surgery. I did not need to buy “Readers Digest” at full price as it was possible to buy boxes crammed full of old issues, sold as a job lots for a few pence at local jumble sales.  

There was only one book that was deemed strictly forbidden during my childhood. It was “Struwwelpeter” by Heinrich Hoffman, published in 1845 and reprinted many times since then. It is a series of moral tales about children who misbehave. For example, when Konrad disobeys his mother’s instruction not to suck his thumbs, an itinerant tailor appears and cuts off Konrad’s thumbs. Each tale is illustrated by frighteningly graphic illustrations. On afternoon, my sister and I, who had discovered this book by accident, were interrupted by my mother. She seized the book and tore it into pieces, which she stuffed into the wastepaper basket. Apart from this violent reaction to a book and the hints that Enid Blyton was to be avoided, I could read pretty much anything I wanted.

At school, books were recommended as being worth reading, especially those by famous 19th century British authors. I never read any of these. For some unknown reason, probably contrariness, if someone told me that I ought to read a particular book, this put me off even opening it. I wanted to read what I had chosen myself, not what had been chosen for me because it might be “good for you”. Similarly, if someone tells me that this or that food item is “good for you”, I do not rate that as a positive recommendation.

At Christmas 1963, we were in New York City. A friend of my parents, ‘E’, met us in the book department of FAO Schwarz, a toy store on Fifth Avenue. She wanted her son and me each to choose a book as a gift from her. E showed me a thick encyclopaedia of anthropology, which she had decided either that I would enjoy it or that it would be good for me. Well, I took one look at it and decided to check out the other books on display. I homed in on an illustrated history of the FBI. It was filled with intriguing black and white photographs, some quite gory. I took the book to E, who looked at it disapprovingly and then asked whether I was sure that I did not want the fine book on anthropology. I was sure, and a few minutes later I became the proud owner of the book about the FBI. E’s son, who was clearly more easily influenced by his mother than me, chose to buy the anthropology book. Years later, he qualified as a psychiatrist and I as a dentist. I am not sure what can be concluded from that.

My parents’ suggestion that there was something not quite right about Enid Blyton left a lingering doubt about the author in my mind. In the mid-1990s, I began visiting India regularly. There, I discovered wonderful bookshops, some of which were (and still are) much better stocked than those in London. What surprised me in those shops were the huge numbers of books by Enid Blyton on sale. Clearly, Enid was well-read and her books much purchased in India.  So, when I heard that there was going to be a lecture about Enid Blyton and India at the Nehru Centre in London, I felt that this was not to be missed. The speaker was none other than Enid Blyton’s very articulate daughter. She told us that British educators often frowned upon her mother’s works (just as my parents had done). The reason they were not keen was that it was considered that Enid’s vocabulary was not rich or varied enough. She revealed that when the texts of her mother’s books were analysed numerically, the vocabulary used I them was, in fact, no less rich or varied than that employed by other authors writing for the same age groups.  

In recent years, I have changed. Maybe, I have become a little less stubborn about book recommendations. If someone suggests a book to me, I no longer instantly reject the idea of reading it. There is a good chance that I will look it up to see what others think of it. If it is about a subject that might chime with any of my interests, there is a good chance that I will buy a copy and add it to the ever increasing pile of unopened books waiting to be read by me.  However, you will still not be able to find Dickens, the Brontes, Thomas Hardy, or titles that would “be good for me” on their spines.

Where there is smoke, there is fire

I WAS EATING CHEDDAR cheese at tea time at my best friend’s house when his mother announced:

“We don’t like Jews, but you’re different, Adam”

I was less than ten years old at the time, but I can still picture the room in which this was said. I do not remember that I  told my parents about what my best friend’s mum had told me, but I remember it almost sixty years later.  Knowing how she felt about Jewish people did not spoil my friendship with, ‘R’, her son.

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When I  was thirteen, I  entered Highgate School,  which I  had chosen because ‘R’ was going to be there. At that time, I still regarded ‘R’ as one of my best friends. However, he did something that made me move away from him. One day he was with a group of other boys when in front of them he directed an anti-Semitic remark at me. Although that did not make me hate him, it marked the end of our long friendship.

I had other friends during my schooldays, who were half Jewish. One of their parents was Jewish. They preferred to forget that fifty percent of their heritage. Such amnesia would not have saved them had the rules formulated at the  Wannsee Conference been applied to them.

During the 1970s, I worked on my PhD topic in a laboratory at UCL. During the second year of this, a new PhD student, ‘J’, commenced working on her PhD project. ‘J’, like the others, in the lab seemed very pleasant until one day when she asked me to lend her a pencil.

At this point, you need to know that there was a shortage of pencils in our lab. I have no idea why this was the case. So, when I handed my pencil to ‘J’, I said:

“Please return it.”

To which ‘J’ snapped:

“Don’t be so Jewish, Adam”

I knew that J was most probably unaware that I am of that faith, but what she said upset me. My PhD supervisor’s wife heard what ‘J’ had said, and quickly told her:

“That was not a nice thing to say.”

I was pleased because I  was somewhat lost for words.

A few months later, everyone in the lab was invited by my supervisor to attend the large formal Annual Dinner of the Physiological Society. I sat next to my supervisor’s wife and across the table from ‘J’.

When the main course arrived, there were green peas on the plates. I detest this vegetable. ‘J’ noticed me separating the peas from the rest of my food and said:

“When we invite you round for dinner, I must remember not to serve you pork or peas.”

Remembering the pencil incident, I told her immediately:

“If you ever invite me to dinner, I shall refuse without hesitation.”

My supervisor’s wife turned to me and murmured:

“Well said.”

J’s face turned deep red, tears began running down her cheeks, she stood up, and left the room.

‘J’ abandoned her PhD a few weeks later.

Although I am regarded as being religiously unobservant by most Jewish people who know me, casual prejudice against Jews, or anyone else for that matter, does make me anxious. Prejudice, even if expressed casually, is potentially dangerous. Always remember: where there is smoke, there is usually fire.

Voices from Ancient Rome

DOES IT REALLY MATTER how an ancient Roman, may his or her soul ‘requiescat in pace’ (RIP), pronounced the letter ‘V’? It did to the Reverend Gowing, one of my teachers of Latin at Highgate School back in the mid 1960s. Did they pronounce V as in ‘verb’ or as ‘w’ in ‘word’? To vee or not to vee? That was the question in my mind. At the school I attended before Highgate,  we pronounced the Latin v in the same way as the English v. Oddly, I felt disturbed that  Gowing believed that the toga clad Romans pronounced it as a w, as in ‘wobbly’.

LATIN ancient wikipedia commons BLOG

We questioned Gowing about this problem. Our venerable teacher decided to prove to us that he was right, that the Romans pronounced ‘veni, vidi, vici’ as ‘wayny, weedy, weeky’. His method of proof involved use of technology that was unavailable to Julius Caesar and his contemporaries.

One morning, Gowing brought a gramophone (a name derived from two Ancient Greek words) record player into our Latin classroom. He placed a record on its turntable and told us to listen very carefully. We heard someone speaking in Latin, and … enunciating words beginning with v as if they began with w. QED (three Latin words that do not contain the letter v), our Latin teacher believed.

The Reverend Gowing was old enough to believe that the gramophone record was a technical miracle that could capture the voices of those who died long ago, even around the time when BC became AD. It still amazes me to think that Gowing might have believed that. However, his ‘proof’ of the pronunciation of the Latin v did not convince me.

Some years later, I mentioned the V/W controversy (not ‘controWersy’) to someone who had a degree in linguistics.  Her view was that the ancient Romans were more likely to have pronounced v as v, and not as w. Her reasoning was based on the evolution of languages derived from Latin. For example, we neither watch a ‘wideo’ nor do we say say: ‘in wino weritas’.

Unwittingly, Reverend Gowing did something important for our class with this discussion about v. He made us question the academic authority of teachers and that is important if knowledge is to advance.

True to the spirit of what I have just written, I have just challenged what I have long believed.  I decided to  look at various sources (on the Internet) to see what they say about the current understanding of the pronunciation of V in Latin. First, the English V and U are both represented by ‘V’ in Ancient Latin. Thus, on an Ancient Roman statue of Julius Caesar, one would read ‘JVLIVS’ rather than ‘JULIUS’. Also, it appears the pronunciation of the written Latin V varies. It seems, although I do not know on what evidence this is based, that the Ancient Romans probably  pronounced v as the English say ‘w’ or even ‘oo’ (JVLIVS is a good example of this). Whether it was pronounced as ‘w’ ou ‘oo’ depended on the letters close to it in a word. For example, the name ‘FLAVIVS’ would have been pronounced ‘Flawioos’. So, our Reverend Gowing was at least half correct, and us doubters in his class were all in the wrong as far as usage of Latin by the Ancient Romans is concerned.  However, as time passed and the Roman Empire declined and fell, languages related to, or descended from, Latin adopted the V pronunciation, as did ecclesiastical users of Latin.

Finally, I have looked at the Latin textbook, which we used at school, “The Revised Latin Primer” by Benjamin Hall Kennedy. Had I not been so averse to opening this much-hated book, I would have discovered that its author, once a Fellow of St Johns College, Cambridge, wrote that ‘v’ is a “Labial Spirant (sounded as w”). If only I had taken more interest in this book instead of avoiding it whenever possible, I might have been more convinced about my teacher’s opinion about the Latin V. It seems as if I really do owe Reverend Gowing a belated apology.

 

[This is a somewhat new version of something I wrote earlier]

 

Picture from Wikimedia Commons

Dig weed

GATE 3e Old Highgate School changing rooms BLOG

HIGHGATE SCHOOL IN north London, like many other public (i.e. private) schools in the UK and far fewer state schools, operated (and might still do so) a Combined Cadet Force (CCF). The CCF was designed to provide military training to teenage schoolboys. It provided military experience that would allow its members, if they joined the forces, to advance up the ranks faster than young people who were recruited without this training. It helped give public school boys an earlier chance of commanding their fellow soldiers than those who had not been privileged to attend expensive private schools.

Highgate School had a well equipped CCF. There was an armoury, a drill hall, an assault course, and at least one member of staff dedicated to running the CCF. During the period I attended the school,1965 to 1970, many of our teachers had served in the armed forces during WW2. Some of them were involved with the school’s CCF.

Fortunately for me, participation in the CCF became voluntary instead of compulsory when I reached the age for joining it. I would have hated the discipline, the polishing of belts and boots, the physical activities, and wearing the uniforms made of scratchy materials.

The CCF training took place on Tuesday afternoons. When it ceased to be compulsory, the school decided that those who did not volunteer should spend Tuesday afternoons doing some kind of useful social work

I was first assigned to gardening duty, known as ‘digweed’. Along with another boy, we spent Tuesday afternoons in the garden of one of the boarding houses. Our mission was to clear the weeds from flower beds. Neither my companion nor I could distinguish a weed from a flower. The sight of the house master’s wife bringing us cups of milky tea and biscuits always marked the end of a pointless afternoon, which left the garden in a worse condition that when we arrived.

After a while, I was transferred to visiting the inmates of a local old age home, what is now called a ‘care home’. My task was to chat and cheer up the inmates sitting in high backed padded chairs around the walls of the large sitting room.

In my teens, I was not the chattiest of people. And, all o the elderly inmates except one, were either incapable or uninterested in responding to my attempts to engage them in conversation. The exception was a feisty lady, who was very talkative. The only problem was that she was not there every week. She told me that whenever she was able, she escaped from the home and enjoyed herself until the police brought her back.

One afternoon, I rang the doorbell of the home. When the doors were opened, but only a little, I caught a glimpse of a coffin standing on a trolley in the dimly lit hallway. The matron told me that it would be best that I came back the following week. I had a free afternoon that day.

At some point the school decided that those who did not join the CCF should become members of the newly formed Basic Unit. Instead of wearing miltary uniforms we wore track suits. We spent time ‘square bashing’ or military style drill. I was hopeless at this, turning left when I was supposed to be turning the other way, and not moving in time with the other members of the unit.

One day during Basic Unit, we had to attempt the school’s military assault course. At one place on this, we had to scramble up two metal pipes to reach the flat roof of a seven foot high concrete block house and then to jump off it. I reached the roof, but refused to jump down. I remained up there until the other hundred or so boys had completed the course and were in position for some more drill before the afternoon ended. In desperation, the supervising teachers pleaded with me to jump down otherwise nobody else would be allowed to go home. I told them that did not bother me nor would I jump down. In the end, I was helped down so that the session could be brought to an end.

The best and most enjoyable Tuesday afternoon activity I did was during my last two years at Highgate. I worked as an assistant at the now long since closed New End Hospital in Hampstead. But, more about that another time!

Picture shows the concrete area where the Basic Unit trained

I wonder if you know…

I do not know how many millions of people live in Calcutta, but I know it is well in excess of 14 million.

One day, a friend, M, met us in London. He told us that a mutual friend, D, was married to a woman born in Calcutta. As my wife went to school in that city, M said to her: ” You might know D’s wife.”

My wife replied: “Do you realise how many people live in Calcutta, M?”

Then after a moment, she asked; “What is her name?”

M mentioned a name. Hearing this, my wife answered: “She was a year junior to me at school.”

I thought it was amazing how small the world can seem even when a city as huge as Calcutta is being discussed.

Sergeant B

gymnast near assorted country flags

 

I have always been hopeless at all physical activities such as sports and gymnastics. I enjoy walking and have in the past played tennis half-heartedly.

At school, we had to attend gymnastics classes (‘gym’ for short). In the school I attended between the ages of 8 and 13, gym classes were held at the gymnasium at the public baths in London’s Swiss Cottage. The gym teachers there took a delight in making a misery of the lives of those, like me, who were no good at gym. 

When I moved to Highgate School, my senior (or high) school, things changed for the better. Gym classes were held in the school’s own rather antiquated gymnasium beside the unheated open-air swimming pool. The classes were conducted by a retired military man, Sergeant B.  He was not in the least bit interested in those, like me, without any skills in gymnastics. All that he wanted was that the useless members of the class kept well out of the way of those who had some aptitude for gym. This suited me fine. I used to spend the gym classes seated at one edge of the room, doing nothing.

In summer, we had to swim in the open-air pool. This was quite comfortable if it was raining, but it felt icy cold on a warm sunny day. As with gym, swimming was not one of my strengths. Once again, Sergeant B was not interested in people like me. The poor or non-swimmers were told to stand in the shallow end of the pool and to keep out of the way of the rest of the class.

No doubt it would have been better if Sergeant B had encouraged the ‘useless’ members of the class to gain some enthusiasm for gym and swimming, but I cannot say that I regretted his neglect.

Sergeant B retired many years ago. Nowadays, pupils at Highgate School cannot expect such a casual approach when it comes to physical exercises.

 

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Catching up with the past: Chicago

chicago theatre

 

During the last three months of 1963, while my father was a visiting professor at the University of Chicago, I attended the university’s high school, the Lab School. While we were in Chicago, President John F Kennedy was assassinated.

I was put in the PreFreshman class with pupils who were one or two years older than me. Everyone was very kind and friendly towards me, and a bit curious about having a boy from England amongst them.

I remember being asked about some green plant that the British loved to eat. I had no idea what the questioner was talking about until I realised that he was referring to watercress. Another of my fellow students was surprised that the word ‘bloody’ was a swear word in British English.

I left the Lab School in December 1963 and, sadly, lost all contact with my lovely new school friends. In 1963, there was no Internet and international telephone calls were quite expensive. Hence, keeping up with people living far away was much more difficult than it is today.

Fifty six years later, in 2019, I made contact (via social media) with Steve, who remembered me from my brief stay at the Lab School. He remembered that I had introduced him to the hobby of train spotting. I do not recall that, but many years have passed since then.

A few days ago, Steve came to have dinner with us. I am not certain that either of us recognised each other after over half a century of separation, but that did not matter as Steve turned out to be a very congenial guest and we engaged in interesting conversations. We reminisced briefly about Chicago, but spent most of the evening discussing other topics.

Although, as already mentioned, I did not recognise Steve and barely recollected him, I felt a wave of pleasure catching up with the ever so distant past.

 

 

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