A North London idyll

Highgate Wood in late February

Trees with bare branches will soon bear leaves.

The sun shines through the cool, clear morning air.

Shadows  of tree trunks fall across the gravelly path, along which a man walks his dog.

A mother wheels her baby in a pushchair. 

And a jogger lopes past me, panting wheezily. 

An occasional bus passes by a signboard on the barely used pavement. It invites customers to take refreshment in a sylvan café.

It is Monday morning, and most people are at work.

A suburban idyll.

 

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!

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.

 

Image source: www.quora.com

Music for Pleasure

 

My parents were not particularly musical. My late mother, a person who never gave up on anything she started, was forced to learn to play the piano when she was a child in South Africa. Through persistence rather than out of love of music, she passed many piano exams. When she became a mother, she decided that it was up to my sister and I to decide if we wanted to learn to play any musical instruments. My sister learnt to play several instruments, but, apart from one miserable  six week attempt at the piano, I did not.

At the school I attended between 1960 and ‘65 in London’s Swiss Cottage, we had music lessons once a week. They were conducted in the so-called ‘Billiards Room’ by Miss McDonald. We spent the lesson singing songs such as “The British Grenadier” while she accompanied us on the piano. Miss McDonald quickly worked out which of us in the class could sing well, and which could not. I was one of the vocally challenged group. Those who she considered to be poor singers had to sit on the floor. She referred to us as the ‘mice’. Potential choristers and others with tolerable singing voices sat high above us on upholstered chairs. Several times during each lesson, our teacher made the mice sing one verse of a song alone and unaccompanied. No doubt, we sounded feeble and unmelodious. The rest of the class, the future ‘Pavarottis and Bryn Terfels’, laughed at us.

When I arrived at my secondary school, Highate School (founded 1565), a boy’s school in 1965, all the new entrants had to take a voice test. The purpose of this was to determine which of us had a good enough voice for the school choir. Mr Chapman (nickname ‘Cherry’), the senior music teacher sat at a piano. The new boys lined up. One by one, each of us approached the piano. Cherry hit one key, and the boy had to sing the note. When I reached Cherry and his piano, I made a sound that must have resembled the ‘Aaaah’ that one makes when a doctor is examining your throat. With that short demonstration of my vocal skills, I was rejected from joining the choir. Once a week, there was a forty-five-minute period when the school choir met for rehearsals. The boys, who were not required for this, spent the period reading quietly.

In addition to music, Cherry also taught mathematics. Occasionally someone in the class, who had not heard what Cherry had just said, would shout: “pardon.” Cherry always replied; “granted” because he wanted to make the point that when someone could not hear him, he expected them to say something like: “Pardon me, sir, but what did you say?” To their faces, all teachers were addressed as ‘sir’.

The deputy music teacher was a Mr Wallace. During a year nearer the end of my five years at Highgate, we were given classes that were outside our chosen pre-university specialities. The idea was to broaden our general knowledge. One of these weekly classes was conducted by Mr Wallace. He used to set up a gramophone, and then play us classical music on LPs for forty-five minutes. He simply told us what we were about to hear and no more. Less of a disciplinarian than Cherry, he must have hoped and prayed that the class would not end up in mayhem, which it did often. Most of my fellow classmates were far more interested in The Rolling Stones than Rachmaninov.

One day, Mr Wallace played us one of the first two of the symphonies by the Finnish composer Sibelius. I was entranced by it. That weekend, I made my way to the branch of WH Smiths in Temple Fortune, our nearest shopping centre, and bought a recording of the symphony. It was issued by EMI on a low-cost series of recordings called ‘Music for Pleasure’. I played it often and bought other recordings of Sibelius’s music. I was hooked on classical music. Thanks to Mr Wallace, I began amassing a huge collection of classical music LPs, and then later CDs. Thanks to him, I enjoy attending classical concerts and meeting musicians.

I imagine that Mr Wallace must have passed away, and now enjoys music played by angels on their celestial harps. Sadly, I do not think that I ever told him how much I valued his musical appreciation classes.