An old bus evokes memories

SEEING A VINTAGE London bus today (20th of March 2022) brought back some memories from the early 1960s.  In those days, my best friend was the son of a medical doctor who worked for London Transport. Nick and I were about 10 years old when we became keen bus spotters. This involved loitering in the open-air bus station at Golders Green station with pencils and notebooks at the ready. As buses arrived in the forecourt, we noted down their serial numbers, which are visible on the sides of the bus or, in some older models, on their engine covers. These differed from the vehicles’ registration numbers. The serial numbers of different models of bus consisted of 1 to 3 letters and up to four numerals, e.g., RF 645 or RLH 24. Routemaster buses, which were replacing older models in the 1960s had serial numbers that began with ‘RM’ or in the case of the extended versions ‘RML’. The double-decker RMs were gradually replacing their predecessors, the RT models (which were in use in London from 1939 to 1979). Although we recorded every bus that passed us, certain examples, e.g., RT5 and RM1, were rare and exciting observations. The two of us and my friend’s younger brother formed the short-lived ‘OBC’, the Omnibus Club, of which we were the only members.

Now in 2022, long after the OBC disbanded, the Routemasters have largely disappeared from London, having been replaced by newer models. So, it was with some surprise that I spotted a RT bus in pristine condition parked in Notting Hill Gate today. For those bus spotters reading this, the vehicle bore the serial number RT1705. It was carrying the route number 28, with its destination board showing “Golders Green”. Today, route 28 still exists, but no longer runs from Chelsea to Golders Green (via Notting Hill Gate and West Hampstead) as it did in the ‘60s. In those days I had a friend who lived in Notting Hill Gate and used to visit him from Golders Green, using that bus route. Today, the same journey can be made using a bus on route 328.

The RT, which I saw today, was being used for private hire. As we were about to travel to West Hampstead, my wife asked the driver if he was going there later. He said he was, but he was not insured to take passengers who were not members of the party which had hired the bus. That was a pity, but as a former bus spotter, who gave up the hobby many decades ago, I was excited to see an RT still working on a London street,

The writing on the … lampposts

It is interesting what one can spot when walking leisurely along a street

CALLCOTT STREET IN Notting Hill Gate is only 76 yards long. It contains two lampposts that provide evidence of Kensington’s administrative history. Once, this street was in the Borough of Kensington, which was incorporated into the larger Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (‘RBKC’) in 1965.

Most streetlamps in RBKC, are marked with the letters R, B, K, and C, intertwined. However, one of the lampposts in Callcott Street is marked with ‘RBK’, without the ‘C’. The other lamppost in this short thoroughfare is marked with the letters ‘KV’. This stands for Kensington Vestry. In the 19th century and probably earlier, local affairs were governed by the local vestry. This was a meeting or council of parish ratepayers, which often met in the local parish church or its vestry. In the case of Kensington, there is a fine Victorian building, now a branch of the Iranian Bank Melli, which used to serve as the Kensington Vestry Hall. Before this was built (in 1852), the local vestry used to meet in a room attached to the nearby St Mary Abbots church.

In 1901, the Metropolitan Borough of Kensington was granted the status of ‘Royal Borough’ and was known as the Royal Borough of Kensington. So, the streetlamp marked with ‘RBK’ must date from between 1901 and 1965, and the one with ‘KV’ is even older.

Cows on the café

GUILAN IS A NEW cafe on the corner of Moscow Road and St Petersburgh Place in London’s Bayswater. I have walked past the building numerous times over the past more than 25 years, but until today I missed seeing something on the building.

Above the ground floor windows there are a number of sculpted heads of cattle. I had never noticed these before.

On looking at a map produced in the 1950s, I discovered that the building was then a dairy. An older map revealed that it was ‘The Aylesbury Dairy’. A search on the Internet informed me that this building was the head office of the company, which had another branch not far away. So,  the cattle heads are a souvenir of the building’s time as a dairy.

The new café in the former dairy is across the road from Aghia Sofia, a Greek Orthodox church. The cafe is elegant and serves good coffee and tasty pastries including a croissant flavoured with za’atar. I have no idea from which dairy the milk is supplied to Guilan, but you can be sure it is not the Aylesbury Dairy.

Smoking drums

A DENTIST NEEDS manual dexterity and good powers of observation (amongst many other skills). My PhD supervisor, Robert Harkness, used to teach physiology to the first year (pre-clinical) dental students at University College London. He not only encouraged them to learn the rudiments of the subject but also how to improve their dexterity and skill in observation.

While the students were under Robert’s care, he tried to instil in them something of his spirit of scientific curiosity. Each student had to carry out an investigative project as part of the physiology course. This had to make use of the students’ powers of observation. He felt, quite correctly, that a good physician must be very observant. He had students, with their pencils, watches, and notepads at the ready, measuring, for example, the blink rates of people travelling on the Underground, or how many times a minute peoples’ jaws moved whilst chewing gum, or how often and for how long people scratched their heads. Projects like these, simple though they sound, honed the students’ ability to observe carefully. These projects also helped to instil something else in some of the students: many of them went on to have academic dental careers.

Robert had great manual dexterity and knew that development of this in his students was of great importance to those aspiring to practise dentistry. When he or his wife Margaret was interviewing prospective students, they always enquired whether a candidate played a musical instrument or enjoyed making models or sewing/knitting/embroidery. If they did, then there was a good chance that the candidate’s manual dexterity would be sufficient to perform dental procedures. Robert encouraged this in the practical physiology classes that he arranged for his pre-clinical students. Typical of this was his insistence on the use of the archaic smoked drum kymograph.

Most students doing experiments in physiology would record results from their experimental set-ups, be it a contracting muscle or a stretch of live nerve, on an electrically operated pen and ink tracing that produced a graph on a piece of paper tape. All that was necessary was to plug the measurement transducer out-put lead into the electronic moving chart recorder and wait for the results.

Robert insisted on his dental students using a kymograph with smoked paper, a mechanical predecessor of the modern electronic equipment. A sheet of white paper had to be attached around the outside of a metal cylinder (drum). This had to be rotated carefully above a smoky flame until the entire surface of the paper had been uniformly blackened by a thin layer of charcoal particles. Without disturbing this fragile black layer with a stray finger or thumb, the smoked drum had to be carefully attached to the vertical spindle that emerged from a cylindrical motor. The experimental tissue – often the students measured the contraction rates and strengths of lengths of rodent gut – was attached via a thin cord to a delicate lever which had a sharp point (stylus) at one end of it. This point was then placed against the smoked paper and then the motor was activated, causing the drum to rotate at a known speed. As the gut contracted, it moved the lever up and down which in turn caused the sharp point to displace carbon particles beneath the stylus point to leave a white tracing on the slowly moving blackened paper covering the metal cylinder. When the tracing had been made, it had to be removed from the drum without smudging it, and then immersed in some liquid, a smelly lacquer, that fixed the image to the paper. This procedure, I can assure you, is no less demanding on one’s manual skills than, say, preparing a tooth for an inlay or a bridge abutment or placing an implant.

Many generations of Robert’s dental students remember him fondly. Recently, someone with whom I studied dentistry at University College reminded me about his curious laboratory coats. He did not wear the long white coats that most scientists and many medics normally use. Instead, he wore a long coat coloured brown or ochre. Why he wore a lab coat that looked more like the work wear of an old fashioned grocer I have no idea – I never thought to ask him – but Robert did many things in his own inimitable style. Often his approach to things seemed eccentric at first sight, but usually after reflection you would realise that there was a lot of sense in what he did and how he did it.

Roll out the barrel

barrel

 

It always amazes me how often one misses the obvious when wandering around London. A few days ago, my friend, the author Roy Moxham, took us to a delightful pub, The Angel, near to Tottenham Court Road Station in central London. 

Just before we entered the pub, Roy pointed at a stretch of pavement outside it. The usual paving stones had been replaced by granite slabs surrounded by granite cobble stones (see illustration above).

The reason for these harder stones is that they are less likely than paving stones to be damaged when heavy barrels are dropped on to them by the men delivering beer to the pub.

Since having been shown this localised special surface outside The Angel, I have checked outside other pubs and seen the same thing. For over 25 years (maybe over 7000 times) I have walked past the Churchill Arms in Kensington and NEVER noticed that it also has this arrangement, an area of tough stones close to the pavement entrance of its cellar. And, I consider myself to be more observant than average! It pays to keep your eyes open and to be curious – you never know what you might discover!

Every day I am a tourist

LONDON PIC

Recently, I was walking along the South Bank close to London’s National Theatre when I saw two friends approaching each other. One said to the other:

“Hello, tourist!”

The other replied:

“I am a tourist everyday.”

This got me thinking that I am also a tourist every day. Since I retired in September 2017, my time is more or less my own. However, I do not sit at home bemoaning the fact that I have no work to do. On the contrary, I love my freedom to do what I wish. 

Almost every day, when not travelling abroad or to some other part of the UK, I visit somewhere in London. It may be local or more distant, it does not matter where. Wherever I go, I discover something new, something that either did not exist before because it is newly built or opened or something that has been around for ages, which I have never noticed before.

London is so rich in experiences and sights that even a person like me, who has lived there for over 60 years, can always find novelty when stepping out of the house. Every time I leave home, I enjoy and appreciate London. Every day, I become a tourist in my own city.

Learning by teaching

DOC 1

‘Doc’ mending a toaster in a friend’s home near Paris in 1978

Although my PhD supervisor was a full university professor of physiology, most people called him ‘Doc’. He was the pre-clinical tutor of the dental students, who undertook courses in academic rather than clinical departments of University College London (‘UCL’) during their first year of study. Doc’s PhD students were asked to volunteer to help teaching the basics of mammalian physiology to the dental students. I did this willingly. Once a week, I conducted tutorials for a group of six to eight dental students. Although I learnt a lot – teaching is the best was to learn, it was a case of the blind leading the blind. It was while doing this teaching that I met two of the people, who were to become owners of practices where I worked. They remembered me, but I did not remember them.

Once a week, the dental students carried out experiments in the physiology teaching lab. I assisted in the supervision of these classes. One of the experiments that the students undertook was pedalling on a bicycle rigged up to an electrical generator, which in turn was wired to a domestic lamp. The youngsters had to pedal furiously to get the lamp to glow, and while they did this their pulse rate and blood pressure was monitored.

Another experiment was connected with taste. The students had to prepare different dilutions of a chemical and used this to determine taste thresholds. The chemical used was phenylthiourea.  Some of the students could not taste this at any dilution. These people were lacking a certain dominant gene that allows people to taste this substance. The point of the experiment was to teach the students both about taste and, also, about genetic variation. Doc was keen for the future practitioners to learn that we are not all ‘built’ the same way.

Another experiment was examining the effects of various chemicals on the strength and frequency of contractions of short lengths of rodent gut in oxygenated tissue media. When we did this experiment and ones like it during our BSc physiology course, we attached the contracting gut too electronic force transducers which sent electric signals to an electronic graph drawing machine.

DOC 2

A kymograph attached to a pressure-measuring tube

Doc did not use this simple method when his dental students performed the experiment. The contractile tissue was tied to a long delicate metal lever which had a sharp point at the end of it furthest away from the fulcrum to which it was attached. Movements of the tissue caused the lever to move up and down. These movements were recorded on the smoked paper tightly attached to the cylinder (or drum) of an old-fashioned kymograph. As the lever moved in response to the contractions, the fine point at its end moved up and down and displaced the charcoal attached to the smoked paper producing a white tracing where the carbon had been removed.

Handling the kymograph drum was a tricky business. First the special plain white paper had to be tightly attached to the metal drum. Next, the drum was rotated above burning paraffin so that it became completely coated with the black particles in the smoke coming from the paraffin. When blackened, the drum and paper had to be removed from the smoking area and placed carefully on the spindle of the kymograph without touching the blackened paper so as to avoid removing the carbon coating. Attaching the gut to the kymograph lever was also tricky.

After the experiment, the paper covered with tracings had to be removed from the drum, again taking great care not to smudge the delicate layer of carbon and thereby obliterate parts of the tracings. Finally, the tracings had to be immersed briefly in a liquid lacquer that later evaporated and fixed the tracings (i.e made them immune to smudging). Only then could the students begin to make measurements of the amplitudes and frequencies of the contractions of the experimental material.

Doc had an ulterior motive in making his dental students use this highly obsolete measuring device. It was, he decided, an excellent way for future dentists to develop their manual dexterity.

As part of the pre-clinical course, Doc required that each of his students carry out a practical research project. He preferred simple projects such as measuring the blink rates of people sitting on Underground trains or assessing the rates at which peoples’ jaws moved whilst they were chewing gum. One group of students tested the theory (which has been proven) that people’s height was shorter at the end of the day than at the beginning. The main thing that concerned Doc was that his students were learning how to observe scientifically and systematically. It is most important, he felt strongly, for a clinician to be observant. He hoped that these projects would help to make these future dentists into skilled observers and therefore better clinicians.

Another reason for this project was for the students’ more immediate benefit. In the end of year physiology examination paper that he set for the dental students, he always inserted a question, which asked the student to write an essay about any aspect of physiology that interested him or her. Thus, simply by writing about the project undertaken, the student was guaranteed up to 25% of the marks.

Doc and his wife were perfect guides and became great friends during the time I was working on my PhD. I saw them socially often  for many years afterwards until their deaths. It was meeting and getting to know the dental student whom I attempted to teach that was one of the reasons that I strayed into dentistry.