A fateful Friday

If you were alive then, what were YOU doing on Friday, the twenty-second of November in the year 1963 ???

My father was a visiting academic in the Economics Department at the University of Chicago during the last three months of 1963. Between September and December of that year, we lived in a flat in a two-storey house with a wooden fire escape near the university. Our address was 5608 South Blackstone Avenue. My sister and I (aged 11) attended the nearby University of Chicago Laboratory Schools (the ‘Lab School’).

I was excited to discover that our rented flat had a television, albeit one which was defective. The image it produced was double. One could see what was being broadcast but everything had a shadow, which made the image seem out of focus. Whichever way one fiddled with the indoor aerial, the image never improved. None of this mattered much to me because in London, where we lived usually, we had no television at all.

In addition to attending the Lab School, I had to keep up with the work that I was missing because I was not at school in London. Soon after returning from the USA, I had important examinations to sit. So, getting time to watch TV was difficult. I decided that the only way I could get a decent long session in front of the TV was to be sufficiently unwell for my parents to allow me to miss school.

I bought a copy of the weekly voluminous TV Guide for the Chicago area. It was the issue that covered Friday 22nd November 1963. I do not remember how I persuaded my parents that I was too unwell for school that day, but I did. My sister, aged 7, was deposited at the Lab School by my father on his way to the university. Much later that morning, my mother, a sculptress, set off for the studio where she worked during the day. I was left at home alone, ready to spend several hours watching the TV programmes I had selected from the TV Guide.

JFK

You can imagine my disappointment when the TV set had warmed up after I had switched it on. Instead of the TV programmes that I was looking forward to watching, there were non-stop news programmes on every channel. President John F Kennedy (‘JFK’) had just been shot in Dallas, Texas. Not only had one of America’s most charismatic presidents been assassinated, but also my day of uninterrupted TV viewing had been wrecked.

My sister returned from school in the mid-afternoon. She told us that her class had been led out of the classroom to the school’s assembly room. There, they saluted the US flag before being told of the tragedy in Dallas.

On the Saturday morning, while I was struggling with my Latin assignment from London, my sister and some guests who were staying with us, the art historian Leo Ettlinger and his wife, were watching our TV in another room. Suddenly, my sister came running into the room where I was trying to study, and my mother was doing something domestic. She announced that while she was watching TV, she saw Jack Ruby shooting dead the prime assassination suspect Lee Harvey Oswald. My mother and I rushed to the TV. We were just in time to see the footage of Oswald’s murder being replayed.

Although, as an 11-year-old, I had negligible interest in politics or news in general, JFK’s demise made me feel depressed. I am not sure why. Maybe, it was because his death had significantly dampened the mood of Americans in general.

Years later in the mid-1970s I visited some American friends, fellow graduate students, who lived in Pill, a suburb of Bristol in Somerset. One evening, we went to a theatre in the centre of the city. I do not recall the name of the play, but I can remember what it was about. The people on stage, actors, related what the characters, who they were portraying, recounted about what they were doing at the moment they learnt of JFK’s assassination.

Now, you, dear reader, know what I was doing on that fateful day.

[Image source: wikipedia]

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.

They have never had it so good…

ARY 36 HW 60s

To many readers the early 1960s must seem as remote today as the 1860s seemed to me when I was a young boy at school in the 1960s. Between 1960, when I was eight years old, and 1965 I attended a prestigious private preparatory (‘prep’) school near Hampstead in north-west London. For those who are unfamiliar with private schooling in Britain a prep school prepares children for examinations that allow them to gain admission to Public Schools (i.e. private secondary schools).

In British schools today, teachers get into big trouble if they so much as touch one of their pupils. Even an affectionate pat, let alone a punitive slap, can get a teacher into ‘hot water’ both with the parents and with the school authorities. This was not the case at my prep school in the first half of the 1960s. Let me tell you about three of my school teachers.

Mr Rotherham taught us Latin. He was a short, slightly plump man. His face was always bright red. It looked as if he was about to burst yet another blood vessel. He was not a man to mess with. If he thought that a pupil had done something wrong, even a small grammatical mistake, he would race up to the miscreant’s desk, and seize a bunch of the poor boy’s hair. Then tugging at the hair, Mr Rotherham would pull the boy off his chair and drag him around the class room, shouting abuse. This procedure was known as a ‘Rozzie haircut’.

Mr Bathurst, who I quite liked, taught us history. Every year, we would begin with the date that Julius Caesar first landed in England and would end at 1914. The aim of the history, which we were taught at prep school, was to drum into us a series of important dates. What actually happened on those dates and the significance of those occurrences was of no importance. It was important that we could arrange in chronological order a set of items such as for example: Archbishop Laud, Agincourt, The Corn Laws, Waterloo, Magna Carta, and The Armada. Their importance was unimportant. It is no wonder that it took me many years before I realised how exciting it is to study history. On the whole, Bathurst, or ‘Batty, as we referred to him out of his earshot, was a kindly fellow. However, if you annoyed him, there were two possible outcomes. He would have called you up to the front of the class and then gripped one of your ears before twisting it painfully. Alternatively, the victim of his wrath had to lay his palm on the desk in order that Batty could hit the ‘criminal’s’ fingers with the edge of a wooden ruler.

Mr P also taught Latin. His first name was Denzil. This was also our nickname for him. Denzil’s fingers were crooked, distorted perhaps by a joint disorder. His voice was very nasal. In the early 1960s, teachers were not forbidden from smoking in class. Denzil used to hold his chalk in a crooked finger of his right hand, and a lighted cigarette in a curved finger of his other hand. His handwriting on the blackboard was illegible.  Occasionally, he would show off, claiming that he was ambidextrous. He used to let go of the cigarette and replace it with a second piece of chalk, and then write on the blackboard with both hands at the same time. The result was terrible, even more illegible than when he wrote with only one hand. If someone annoyed Denzil, he would come up to the person, and sharp clip an ear with the knuckle of one of his twisted fingers. We called this short, sharp, painful blow the ‘Denzil blip’.

Well, none of this would be tolerated in today’s Britain, and quite rightly so. In the words of the former Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, let me tell today’s school kids that they: “… have never had it so good…”

The slow table

Food can be scarce

but when it’s abundant

let folk have plenty of choice

ADAM small

 

I attended Golders Hill School, a primary school in in Golders Green, between 1956 and 1960. It was a high-achieving school for boys and girls with an all female teaching staff. Founded in 1908, just after the Underground was extended from Hampstead to Golders Green, it still works today but in a greatly enlarged ‘campus’.

 

We used to spend all day at school. Lunch was served at 1 pm. We sat at various long tables. The children sitting on the table which ate its food fastest were  rewarded with a piece of confectionary from a box of ‘Dolly Mixture’.

 

I was a fussy eater. Having had a difficult few first months of life, my mother was happy to see me eating anything at all. I was not forced to eat anything I did not fancy. Actually, there were few foods that I was prepared to put in mouth. A particular dislike of mine, which remains with me to this day, is green peas. Their taste, or even just thinking about them, makes me feel nauseous. I can recall that my mother was keen that I should get to like these nauseous little green spheres. She would put a few on my plate. To avoid eating them, I employed the following delaying tactict: I would first slowly peel a pe, and then carefully cut into four pieces. My parents soon tired of watching, and eventually attempts to make me consume them were abandoned.

 

Almost nothing that was served at Golders Hill appealed to me apart from steamed pudding and the oddly named ‘spotted dick’. Main courses often came served with cubed carrot, chopped green beans, and green peas. I would not touch them. No table that I sat on would ever be rewarded with pieces of Dolly Mixture.

spotted

Spotted Dick with custard – source: https://www.justapinch.com

I was shifted to the slow table, where the four slowest eaters in the school sat trying to finish their food during the play time that followed lunch. I remember nothing about the three other members of the slow thable except that they were all girls and one of them was called Rhoda.

 

Even if I had been kept at the slow table for the rest of the day, there was no way that I would be able to finish what was in front of me. I devised a solution. I put whatever I could not eat into the pockets of my short trousers (‘shorts’), visited the toilet, and then emptied the unwanted food into the toilet pan, and flushed it away. This worked for most foods including slices of canned fruit.

 

My biggest challenge, and I can only remember it happening once, was gooseberries in hot custard. I felt that putting this in my pockets was not at all a good idea. In desperation, I carried my filled bowl to the closed door of the staff room. I knocked on the door, hoping that whomever answered would take pity on me. A forlorn hope because many of the teachers were quite formidable. I hoped that it would not be the large Miss Fitzgerald, who frightened me greatly. If it was Miss Dredge, I would have felt happier.

 

I cannot say who it was that opened the door. But, as soon as it opened I dropped the plate with all of its contents ont the feet of the teacher at the door. It still puzzles me why I was neither punished nor told off for my act of carelessness, or was it defiance.

 

PS: I still dislike peas, but now I love gooseberries.

Matterhorn

It is hard to say which is my earliest memory. I believe it was going to St Albans church hall in Golders Green (in north-west London) to collect orange juice with my parents. I was born in 1952. In the early 1950s, the government supplied young children orange juice free of charge. The juice, which was free of the ‘bits’ that are found in many of today’s orange juices, was supplied in glass medicine bottles with cork stoppers.

 

MATTER 1

St Albans church hall in 2017

Another early memory dates back to 1955. We had just disembarked from an ocean liner in Cape Town. There were tram-like tracks embedded into the concrete of the quay. Adventurously, I put my foot into the groove of one of the rails, and then could not remove it. This caused quite a commotion as my mother carefully detached me from the rail along which large cranes travelled. This might be an actual memory, or someone may have told me about it later.

I do remember my first morning at primary school, which I entered aged 4 years. My parents took me to Golders Hill School on the first day along with my little friend Anthony. We stood next to each other in the front row of the assembled school. Suddenly, another boy, a complete stranger, pushed himself between Anthony and me. He said: “I want to be your friend.” He was Nick, and we remained friends for almost twenty years. I have only seen Anthony once since that day at school.

Every day at Golders Hill began with assembly. We were lined up in rows while our names were called out. We were required to answer in Latin: “Adsum”. As I did not start learning Latin until after I had left the school, I had no idea why we were required to say this peculiar word, which I later discovered means ‘I am present’.

Following the roll-call, we had to recite something, which to my young mind began with something that sounded like “Our father widgeartahev’n”. This recitation included many other words that were new to me. No one ever explained why we were saying this, or what it was. It was years later that I realised that we had been saying the Lords Prayer at high speed.

 

MAT 2

Golders Hill School in 2017

During the morning assembly, we stood facing the teachers and the then Head Mistress, Miss Davis. The latter used to cycle to school with her three corgi dogs stuffed into the basket at the front of her bicycle. The dogs spent the day resting in her office. On the wall behind the teachers and facing us pupils there was a black and photograph of a snow-topped mountain. Why it was there, I never found out, but unlike the other mysteries of roll-call, we learned that the mountain in the picture was the Matterhorn.