City of towers,
Students, books, and scholars
Astride the river Cam
City of towers,
Students, books, and scholars
Astride the river Cam
Until I was 16 years old, I accompanied my parents on annual holidays in Florence (Italy). We always stayed at the Pensione Burchianti, which was run by two ageing sisters. Almost every evening, we ate dinner in a nearby restaurant (the Buca Mario). This excerpt from my book CHARLIE CHAPLIN WAVED TO ME describes how I began to acquire some limited skill in speaking Italia. Here is the excerpt:
” … After dinner we would walk back to the Burchianti. It might have been during one of these evening strolls that my father came up with a new version of the saying ‘a penny for your thoughts’, namely: ‘a penne for your sauce’. The traffic in the streets would have quietened down by the time that we had eaten, and all of the traffic signals, or ‘robots’ as my South African parents called them, had flashing amber lights instead of the usual sequence of three coloured lamps. The pedestrian signals, which alternated between the red ‘Alt’ and the green ‘Avanti’ during the day, simply flashed both messages at the same time at night.
When we arrived back at the Burchianti, the residents, who had been eating supper, were usually still lingering at their tables. Many of them almost lived in the Burchianti. There was an elderly commendatore, who took all his meals there but slept elsewhere. There were also a number of business people who spent the week working in Florence, but resided some distance away in the weekend. They lived in the pensione during the week. One of these was a lady pharmacist from Parma who spoke Italian with a curious accent, rolling her ‘r’s in an exaggerated way.
On entering the dining room, we would be greeted like old friends, which I suppose we were. We would be invited to sit at the sisters’ table, and then I had to perform. One of the sisters would ask me in Italian what I had eaten for dinner, and I had to reply in Italian. Everyone listened to my reply which usually went something like this:
“Primo piatto o mangiato spaghetti con pomodoro. Dopo o mangiato bistecca con patate fritte. E dopo, profiterole.”
It was not difficult to relate what I had eaten because every dinner I ordered the same thing or substituted lombatina di vitello (veal chop) for the bistecca. This nightly recitation gave me the confidence to try to speak in Italian, even if badly. When I did not know a word, I tried using a Latin word but pronounced it in a way that I believed made it sound Italian. Often, this worked! ...”
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The Anglican cleric Reverend Wilbert Awdry (1911-97) is best known for his series of children’s books based around the now well-known Thomas the Tank Engine. He published his series of books about railways, The Railway Series, in 42 volumes between 1945 and 2011 (two were published posthumously). Each volume was a small colourfully illustrated story about railway engines with faces and personalities. Being a lover of trains from an early age, I devoured and enjoyed these stories from the earliest day that I was able to read to myself.
One of my favourite of Awdry’s books was called Eight Famous Engines. I cannot remember why I liked it, but I do remember that I mis-read the word ‘famous’. For several years, I thought that ‘famous’ was pronounced ‘farm house’. It puzzled me that the book seemed to have little or nothing to do with agriculture, but that did not stop me from liking the book and re-reading it many times from cover to cover. It was only when I had outgrown these railway books that it dawned to me that the letters f.a.m.o.u.s spelled ‘famous’ and not ‘farm house’.
In addition to the Awdry railway books, I enjoyed leafing through a particular well-illustrated geography book, which I used to borrow often from the local public library. One of the many photographs in this book that caught my attention was captioned “A POLISH FIELD”. You can probably guess what I will write next. Yes, for years I thought that it was a picture of a field containing plants that when harvested became shoe polish. It was a long time before it dawned on me that it was a Polish field rather than a field of polish.
Now, many decades later, you might be pleased to know that I do not make mistakes like the above when I am reading.
While I was studying to become a dentist, I took advantage of an optional fortnight shadowing anaesthetists. It was not a hands-on experience, but it was totally fascinating watching anaesthetists keeping patients healthy whilst they were deeply anaesthetised.
One day during a morning coffee break, I was sitting having refreshments with a senior anaesthetist and his team. Suddenly, I heard a shrill prolonged sound coming from a nearby room. I asked a technician what it was. He told me not to worry about it.
A few moments later, the senior anaesthetist asked me:
“What is that high pitched noise?”
“Oh, it’s nothing to worry about, ” I answered confidently.
“Really?” I was asked.
“Oh, yes. there’s absolutely no need to be concerned,” I advised the senior anaesthetist.
If it had been fashionable at that time, I might have told him to ‘chill’, but in those days chilling was reserved for cold weather and refrigeration.
“Hmmmm,” he replied.
After a few moments, he said to me:
“Well, actually that signal is the warning sound made by an oxygen cyinder that is about to become empty. I would really worry about it, young man.”
At that moment, I felt like a complete idiot and hoped that the ground would open up and swallow me.
In the early 1960s, I attended a preparatory (‘prep’) school between Swiss Cottage and Belsize Park in north-west London. A prep school in the UK is a place that young children aged between 5 and 11 to 13 years study in order to pass examinations that will admit them to Public Schools, which, despite the name, are actually private schools.
At my prep school, The Hall School, we were made to sit in alphabetical order (by surname) in the classrooms. We were addressed by our surnames. I suppose arranging us alphabetically might have helped the teachers remember who was who.
My surname is Yamey, so I always sat in one corner of the classroom. There were often no other boys at my end of the alphabet, although occasionally I was in the same class as someone with the surname Yeoman or Zangwill.
Often, we had to learn poetry off by heart (by rote). We would then have to recite the poem in class. Invariably, the teachers began be asking the boy at the beginning of the alphabet to commence the recitations. Then, the other boys in the class took their turns, as the teacher worked his way down the surnames towards the end of the alphabet. Often the bell marking the end of our 45 minute lessons rang before the teacher reached my end of the alphabet and I was spared the embarrassment of having to try to recite a poem that I was never able to remember. I was hopeless at learning poetry, or anything else, by heart. I can only remember things if I can put them into some conceptual framework in my mind. Poetry did not seem to fit anywhere in my head!
What continues to surprise me is the lack of imagination of our teachers. Why did they always start asking us to recite by beginning with the pupil whose surname was at the beginning of the alphabet? Why did they not begin at Y or Z and work in the other direction?
Many years later, our 6 or 7 year old daughter attended a school in which students were asked to do things in alphabetical order of their surnames. Unlike me, she was always keen to take part in class activitues. So, one day she informed the school that she her surname had been changed to one begining with D. That way, she was always asked to participate in class activities that were being done in accordance with the alphabetical order of the children’s surnames.
All went well until we received the termly bill for the school fees. It was addressed not to Dr and Mrs Yamey, but to Dr and Mrs D…. I told our daughter that as the bill was not addressed to us, I would not be able to honour it. Our daughter quickly agreed to change her surname back to Yamey.
Experience is one thing you can’t get for nothing
Science, my lad, is made up of mistakes, but they are mistakes which it is useful to make, because they lead little by little to the truth.
The only real mistake is the one from which we learn nothing
In 1971, I spent about a fortnight driving around France with several friends including the now well-known journalist Matthew Parris. He was our driver, and we travelled in the car that he had driven through Africa and Europe from South Africa to England a year or two earlier. We camped ‘wild’ wherever possible, avoiding official campsites.
The first night was a disaster for me. We had a canvas tent with an inner room, which had its own built-in groundsheet. The outer room was without its own one. I helped lay out the groundsheet for the outer room and decided (for no good reason at all) to leave its edges protruding beyond the outer wall of that part of the tent. I was one of those assigned to sleep in the outer part of the tent.
I laid out my sleeping bag on the ground sheet, and then crawled into it. To my surprise and horror, I could feel every pebble and stone beneath me. When I had bought the sleeping bag, I had naively believed that it lived up to its name; that it would help me to sleep. Nobody had advised me to buy a Li-Lo, an inflatable mattress which would have cushioned me from the ground beneath me and the misfortune that was about to befall me.
During the night, there was a thunder storm. The rain came down heavily and before long, my sleeping bag was soaked; the water had crept into the tent via the groundsheet. Although I had a miserable sleepless night, I was not put off the idea of camping. Next day, we tied my soaking sleeping bag onto the roof rack above our car and it dried in the wind as we drove along. We also stopped in the aptly named town of Tonnerre (‘thunder’ in French) in France, where I purchased a Li-Lo. The rest of the holiday went swimmingly so to speak.
I was just nineteen when I took my first driving lesson. I was staying in Harlow (Essex) doing my first holiday job (at Beecham’s pharmaceutical research laboratories). I used to have the lessons after work during the early evenings when there was little or no traffic on the roads.
I found it very difficult to coordinate hands and feet, so that gear changing presented me with quite a challenge. I drove slowly, especially when approaching traffic signals when they were turning red. I could not face the palaver of foot brake, handbrake, clutch, and gear synchronisation that was needed when stopping at a red signal. Occasionally I drove so slowly that the car almost stopped moving. After about six lessons, the instructor said to me:
“You are my first pupil whom I have had to ask to drive faster.”
A couple of lessons later, he told me sadly:
“You are going to take much longer to learn to drive than most other young people.”
I knew he was right, and we agreed not to have any more lessons.
Twelve years after my summer job in Harlow, I began practising dentistry in the Medway Towns (in north Kent). I took up the job there in April 1982. I was still unable to drive. I rented ‘digs’ near the practice. In the evenings after work, there was little in the way of public transport in the area apart from the railway that connects the three main centres of the Medway Towns. I decided that life in this part of the world would be very dull if I did not learn to drive.
One of the dental nurses in the practice recommended a driving instructor, Mr B. I decided to take an intensive course of driving lessons, paying for three or four hours a week. Mr B’s method of instruction suited me well. I learnt in a car with dual controls. My instructor, who sat in the passenger seat beside me, had a clutch and brake pedal that he could operate if necessary. Occasionally, he would operate them, and I would say to him:
“I was just about to brake when you operated your controls.”
Mr B would reply:
“If I need to use the dual controls, then I feel that you did not make the right decision in time.”
After about six weeks, Mr B considered that I was ready to take the Driving Test, which I booked. The test was scheduled for ten o’clock one weekday morning. The Test involved driving the examiner along local roads. During the drive, the candidate is asked to perform several prescribed procedures, such as: reversing around a corner; a hill start; an emergency stop; and parking the car. At the time of day when I took the Test in Gillingham, one of the Medway Towns, there was almost no other traffic on the roads. This made things easier for me. Also, I was able to anticipate when the examiner was going to ask me to perform this or that prescribed manoeuvre. I passed the Test, the last important exam I have ever taken. I attribute my success to two factors. One of them was Mr B’s superb tuition. The other was dentistry. Let me explain.
During the five years prior to my Driving Test, I studied dentistry. Many of the clinical procedures I learnt involved using the dental handpiece (drill). The speed at which the bur (drill bit) rotates is controlled by a foot pedal. Where and how the drill cuts is controlled by hand movements. I had learnt to drive a dental drill. Driving a car, with the feet/hand coordination it involves, became simple for me after my dental training.
Soon after getting my Driving Licence, I bought a second-hand car. On the first day, a Thursday, I drove it to and from the Savacentre, the local supermarket, three miles from my flat. On the Friday evening, I drove through the countryside to Faversham, which was twenty miles from where I lived. On the Saturday, after finishing my morning clinic, I set off for north London, sixty miles away. It was the first time I had driven on a motorway. That was not too bad but driving across the metropolis of London felt like a bad dream. I had never driven in heavy traffic before. By the time I had crossed south London and the River Thames, I had developed a severe headache. When I reached a major, congested traffic intersection in Camden Town, I felt like getting out of the car and abandoning it. Things reached rock bottom, when the driver of a car near to mine leant out of his window and yelled at me:
“Bloody Sunday driver.”
Late on the Sunday night, I set off to drive back to Kent. Being late, there was less traffic than there had been in London on the Saturday afternoon. I had planned to cross the river using the Blackwall Tunnel. However, I missed the turning for it and found myself on a dual-carriageway that led inexorably eastwards away from London. Every now and then the road crossed intersections on steeply humped fly-over bridges. I knew that eventually I would reach the Dartford Tunnel that passes beneath the Thames, but I was getting cold and lonely as I drove through a darkened industrial landscape and then through countryside that seemed featureless late at night.
I drove through the long tunnel beneath the Thames. When I reached the toll-booth on the Kent shore, I paid the toll to a man sitting in a lighted booth and thanked him. It was a relief to be able to talk to someone, even for a few seconds, after the lonely journey I had just made.
The next few journeys I made to London always resulted in me getting a headache, but eventually I began to enjoy driving. I enjoyed it so much that later on I drove several times from England to Hungary and farther afield to the former Yugoslavia, often on my own and enjoyed every minute of the journeys.