Out of tune

Highg

 

I have never been praised for having a good singing voice for a good reason. That is because  I do not have one.

I entered north London’s Highgate School, my secondary school, in 1965 having passed the fairly tough Common Entrance examinations. On the second day there, I took part in a football trial, and was advised not to play football at school. Soon after this, all of the new entrants to the school had to take a voice test. This involved standing in a long queue. One by one we reached a grand piano at which the senior music teacher, a Mr ‘Cherry’ Chapman, sat. As each boy arrived at the piano, Mr Chapman pressed one of the piano’s keys, and the boy made a sound. Depending on this sound, Mr Chapman was able to determine who had a voice good enough to be used in a choir and who did not. When it was my turn, I must have made a sound resembling that which you make for the doctor when he asks you to stick out your tongue and say “aaaaah”. My sound disqualified me from joining the choir.

One day a week, those in the choir spent an hour before lunch at choir practice. The rest of us were confined to classrooms where we were expected to read a book of our choice for one hour. This was no hardship in my case.

The pupils at Highgate School were divided into ‘houses’. Each house contained pupils from throughout the school. I was in Heathgate House, a ‘house’ for day boys rather than boarders. There were numerous inter-house competitions for various sports activities. Once a year, there was an inter-house singing competition. Each house had to produce its own choir, choose a song, practice it, and then sing it on the day of the contest. The first time that this competition occurred after I entered the school, Heathgate chose to sing (in French) the aria L’amour est un oiseau rebelle from the opera Carmen by Bizet.

Apparently, my voice detracted from the quality of Heathgate’s choir, and I was asked to leave the other singers. This was possible because the rules of the competition did not insist on every member of a house being included in the choir. Without me, Heathgate managed to win the contest.

Whenever I hear the aria, which was sung in the competition, I remember that event back at Highgate School. Unlike Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar which I had to study for a state examination and grew to hate, I still enjoy listening to performances of Carmen.

 

Picture source: http://www.dailymail.co.uk

Running

 

On my first day at my secondary school, Highgate School in north London, I was asked to choose which sports I would like to participate in. As the only one on the list that I had heard of was football (soccer), I chose that. On the following day, I had to join the other new boys in a trial game. I was horrified by how rough everyone was during this match.

The day after the match, two senior boys came to speak to me. They regretfully announced that I was not considered good enough to play football at Highgate. That did not surprise me, but what did was how solemnly they announced the news to me. The two school officials told me that I could select another sporting activity. I chose ‘cross-country running’, a sport that I had never heard of. I was told that I had chosen well. And, so I had.

Cross-country running was almost completely unsupervised. We were trusted to get changed into running clothes and then to trot around a route through the grounds of nearby Kenwood House. Being unsupervised, I saw no reason to run or to get tired. 

My system on games’ days was to get changed, visit the school ‘tuck shop’, buy some snacks or confectionary, and then to take a leisurely stroll through the beautiful grounds of Kenwood.

Once a term, we were accompanied by our house-master on a run. He tended to lead us through rough ground and marshy areas. On one occasion, he stopped me and said:

“You don’t look muddy, Yamey”

I replied:

“Well, Mr Bowles, I thought that the object of the run was to get exercise rather than to collect mud.”

Much to Mr Bowles’ credit, he accepted my explanation, which was not the whole truth. Actually, I wanted to avoid getting dirty so that I would not need to waste time having a shower at the end of the afternoon,   which would have delayed my departure for home.

Saved by a coffin

Old people

Before I began studying at Highgate School (in North London) in 1965, joining the Combined Cadet Force (‘CCF’) was compulsory. The CCF was military training for teenagers, who were dressed in full military uniforms. The school was well-equipped for CCF training, having an assault course, a shooting range, a fully-equipped armory, and several members of staff who had been, or still were, high ranking military officials. 

Fortunately for me, joining the CCF became voluntary just after I joined the school. The CCF trained on Tuesday afternoons. Those, incuding me, who had opted out of the CCF, had to do something worthy instead of military training.

For a while I was enrolled in ‘Digweed’, a squad of pupils who helped with gardening in the school’s numerous properties. I was assigned to the garden of one of the boarding houses. I could not tell a wanted plant from a weed, and was therefore quite useless. We used to be given cups of tea halfway through the afternoon. It was tea with milk, which I detested in those days. So, my only useful contribution to Digweed was watering plants with the contents of my tea cup.

After a spell of Digweed, I was asked to visit a home for elderly people every Tuesday afternoon. My task was to chat with them. People who know me now will not believe how shy I was when I became a visitor to the home, but I was. The elderly folk living at the home used to sit in high backed chairs arranged around the walls of a large room. I was supposed to talk with them. I tried, but almost all of them were too far gone to respond. These Tuesday afternoon visits were dreary and depressing, as well as being pointless.

There was one old lady, who was very chatty and friendly. However, she was not present every time that I visited. She told me that whenever she could, she would run away from the home, but would always be found and brought back.

One Tuesday, I rang the doorbell of the home. One of the staff opened the front door, but prevented me from entering. Behind her, I saw a coffin resting on a trolley in the hallway. “Best you don’t come in today,” the staff member whispered to me. I know it sounds wrong, but I was really pleased that the coffin had spared me yet another afternoon of misery with those poor distressed gentlefolk.

Embarrassment

The 50 pence coin, a seven sided silver coloured object, had already been introduced into circulation in the UK when I was a pupil at Highgate School in North London (1965-70). In the mid to late 1960s, 50 pence had considerable purchasing power. For example, this amount of money would pay for two new paperback books.

At Highgate School, all 600 pupils ate lunch together in a large dining hall. The Headmaster, then Alfred Doulton, sat at a high table facing the long tables where his pupils and teaching staff ate.

At the end of lunch, Mr Doulton used to stand up and make brief announcements. If some money had been found lying about, he used to ask if any of us had lost it. Always, a pupil would walk up to the high table to claim the money. Before releasing it, Doulton would ask the claimant to prove that it was his.

I began worrying what I would say if I felt that I had lost the money that Doulton was asking about, especially if it were a valuable 50 pence coin.

So,whenever I had a 50 pence coin, I used a compass or dividers point to scratch my initials, “AY”, on my seven sided coin.

Luckily, I never mislaid any of my 50 pence coins. Had I done so and it had appeared in Doulton’s hand at the end of a lunch time, I would have been able to check whether the coin was mine. I still shudder to think that I would have become the laughing stock if the school had Doulton announced to the assembled pupils something like: “See how prudent Yamey has been. He has even marked his money just in case it gets lost.”

Now, remember if you are ever handed a 50 pence coin and it bears my initials, give it back to me. It’s mine!

The voice of the Roman

When I became a pupil at Highgate School in 1965, our first Latin teacher was an elderly fellow, the Reverend Gowing. Incidentally, there was another language teacher called Cummings.

Some of the boys in my Latin class, including me, had been taught that v in Latin was pronounced like v in ‘vine’. Other pupils and also Rev Gowing were of the opinion that v in Latin was pronounced like the w in ‘wine’. Believe it or not the question of how the ancient Romans pronounced v caused lively discussions in the Latin classes.

One day, Gowing brought a gramaphone record player into the Latin class. After placing a record on its turntable, he told us to listen carefully. The record was of a man reading a text in Latin. After a few minutes listening to this, Gowing switched off the recording and said triumphantly: “Did you hear that, boys? The reader pronounced v as w.”

I think that Gowing, who was probably almost 70 if not more in 1965, believed that the record contained the voice of an Ancient Roman, rather than someone speaking during the 20th century.

Some years later, I described this controversy about the Latin v to an Italian friend who had studied linguistics at university. She felt that although no one could be certain how the Ancient Romans pronounced Latin, it was likely that they would have pronounced v as v in vine. Her reasons were based on a study of the modern languages, which were descendants of Ancient Latin. This seemed sensible enough to me.

Both Gowing and Cummings, who taught me French and a little German, have passed away. Maybe the soul of the Reverend will have a chance to chat in heaven with the souls of the Ancient Romans. If it turns out that they pronounce v the way that he taught us, there might a a flash of lightning followed by a celestial voice booming out: “WENI WIDI WICI … I told you so, boys of Lower Fifth”. And, if the lightning has not struck me, I will shout back: “venue, video,victory.”

A writer’s confession

I studied for my O Level examinations at Highgate School in North London. These were important state exams taken at 16 years of age.

My English language teacher was more interested in discussing the poetry of Ted Hughes and Philip Larkin than in teaching us the basics of English Language as required for passing the O Level in that subject. I cannot blame him entirely for what happened when I sat the exam.

My poor ability in written English must have contributed to my failing the exam. The examiners must have been further annoyed by my essay on the subject “Is it fair that nurses get paid less than successful pop singers?”. I wrote that it is, because, I argued back in 1968, a pop singer gives pleasure at any one time to a greater number of people than a nurse.

Fortunately, I have forgotten the name of my of my English language teacher, but I still recall the teacher, Mr George Sellick, who helped me pass my O Level retake.

Sellick taught us advance level biology for the university entrance examinations. Every week we were required to write three essays. On Saturday mornings, we had a long lesson with Sellick. This session was dedicated to discussing the essays that the class had submitted. Our teacher used to read out to us the highlights and lowlights of the week’s essays. He pointed out what was good in essay writing and what was to be avoided. I found these sessions to be very useful.

I retook the English Language exam 6 months after my first attempt and passed quite well, albeit not excellently.

During the last decade or more, I have been writing and publishing a great deal. I now call myself ‘an author’. Whenever I think of myself as an author, I remember my disastrous first attempt at the English O Level, and feel that maybe it is a bit of chutzpah* to take up the same profession as truly great author’s such as Balzac and Dickens.

Although my written English has been gradually improving, I often get my wife, a retired barrister, to read through what I have composed. She is a reader rather than a writer (although she used to write much for her professional work). Unlike me, she got top grades in English Language at school, reads a great deal, and has a superb command of written English. I am enormously grateful to her.

*chutzpah is a Yiddish word implying barefaced cheek

Back to BASIC

computer

During the last two years (1968-69) at my secondary school, Highgate School in north London, we were taught about computing. The teacher in charge was one of the pioneers of the computer programming language called BASIC (an acronym for Beginner’s All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code). The first version of BASIC, which was considerably simpler to use than FORTRAN or COBOL, was released in 1964. So, our teacher was advanced in introducing it to us. We learned about creating flow diagrams and then converting them into BASIC.

When I learnt BASIC back in the late sixties, the only computers available were huge main-frame machines that occupied large rooms. PCs and lap-tops were not yet available, or hardly even imagined. The school did not possess a main-frame computer. But, it did possess a keyboard attached to a telephone line. By dialling a number, the keyboard could be connected to a remote computer. It was not possible to type directly into the computer. First the programme that we concocted had to be typed on the keyboard, which converted the programme into a series of holes on a long ribbon of paper. When the programme had been transferred into the punched holes, the remoter computer was dialled, and then the long strip had to be fed into a slot on the keyboard console. Then, the author of the programme had to hold his breath. For, it would be some time before the computer sent back a message that was typed by the console onto its paper-feed. More often than not, the message would convey the sad news that the programme had an error. Then, it was back to the ‘drawing board’ to determine where we had gone wrong.

When the programme was correct, the results were exciting. Some people used the computer to do statistical work, or to generate answers to mathematical problems. I discovered how to make the computer write random poetry. I submitted some of what I produced to the school’s magazine, but it was turned down.

Several of my fellow pupils and I became obsessed with programming. We could not get enough of experimenting with programming. The console was kept locked in a wooden cabinet, which could only be opened by our teacher. Somehow or other one of us managed to get a copy of the key, and, more importantly noticed the number that our teacher dialled to access the computer. From then onwards, we had far greater access to the machine.

The IBM company lent the school a prototype of a table top computer. This could only be programmed using machine language, which is the coding that underlies languages such as BASIC, FORTRAN, and COBOL. Using machine language is real programming, and quite difficult. It was to difficult for me to master even at a very simple level.

When I went for my interview at the Physiology Department at University College London (‘UCL’), the other candidates and I were shown the room containing a large computer, which the Department possessed. The staff were very proud of these advance machines that were able to process experimental data in “real time”. Information from the measuring instruments employed in the experiments was converted into numerical data that could then be processed statistically by the computer, and then displayed to the experimenters while the experiment was proceeding.

A week or two after my interview at UCL, I went for another interview, this time at the Physiolgy Department of Chelsea College (now long since closed). After I had been several questions by the Prof and some of his colleagues, they allowed me to ask any questions I had. Having been impressed by what I had seen at UCL, I asked:

“Do you use computers in your department here at Chelsea?”

“Of course, we do, all the time” answered the Prof immediately.

After a short pause, one of his colleagues said:

“Well … actually… we don’t have any computers in this college.”

Then the Prof said something, which I found rather pathetic:

“I can understand that your first choice is UCL. However, we would be happy to offer you a place in our department providing you will promise to accept our offer if UCL does not give you one.”

Fortunately, UCL did offer me a place on their course.

I gained admission to UCL, my first choice amongst the six universities to which I applied. During our first year, we had to take a course in physics. Once a week, we spent an afternoon in the laboratory carrying out practical work. One day, we were asked to write computer programmes to solve a chosen problem. I was the only person (in our class of fifty students), who could complete the task. No one else had a clue as to how to do it. They had attended good secondary schools all over the country, but only mine had offered teaching in computer science.

After that class in the physics laboratory in 1970, I did not touch a computer until about 1997. We bought a PC, because my wife needed one for her studies. When she was not using it, I experimented with it. It operated with one of the Windows programmes. I was flummoxed. It seemed quite different to what I experienced in the late sixties. How was I going to programme it? After a short while, I realised that things had moved on a long way since I learnt BASIC.

 

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