Thursday, December 1, 2016

My Reminiscences Part Two. The Cambridge days

The Birds and Tony in the flat
I have already mentioned that my mum let out the shed in the garden as a flat. Later on she converted the end four rooms (plus a bathroom) in the bungalow into a self contained flat, with its own entrance at the far end of the house. There was a door in the corridor separating us from the flat, and I moved into a bedroom created next to the kitchen, though it was separated from it by a sort of mini corridor that had another door to the outside. We had several sets of tenants staying there, apart from the Birds. Once there were a couple of teachers. One was quite normal, but rather quiet and hence not very interesting to me. The other was a bit bonkers, called ‘Doc’. He was very proud of his record player (a Pye black box), quite upmarket for the time. He used to play Khachaturian’s ‘Sabre Dance’ at full volume in the room next to my bedroom, which I could hear very wall as our walls were basically two lots of asbestos sheeting. He was also a bit of a fitness fanatic, and ate things like slippery elm food.  I quite liked him because he was so different. He was Welsh I might add. So also was Tony, who I became very friendly with. He was a schoolteacher, built like a Welsh rugby player (but not as big as his younger brother), and loved singing and motorbikes. He was also very proud of his HiFi setup, made by Leek, he could not afford the best (Quad) he told me, but settled for the Leek, maybe because he was Welsh (just joking). When he later moved out to a house he had several motorbikes in his garage in various states of renovation, a Matchless, I recall among them. His wife was expecting, and had moved out of the flat to their folks in Merthyr Tydfil. One weekend he said ‘I’m going to Wales, want to come’. Naturally I said yes. It was winter, and he told me to put on several layers of clothes. Boy, I was frozen on the back of his Francis Barnet 250, but I enjoyed the stay with him, his folks were very welcoming. I also bought his previous bike, a Francis Barnet 125. This was a very low powered machine, 40 mph downhill, but OK for a beginner. I heard from Patrick and Christine that he later got divorced, and became a full time opera singer.

After the Fanny Barnet broke down in Italy, Tony found me a clapped out BSA 350 for £5, which we towed home (don’t try this). I found another couple of derelict ‘Beezers’ and spent many happy hours putting the best bits together. Had a few problems, like when I discovered the clutch from one didn’t fit the one I had just spent hours transferring it to. Eventually I had a working bike, but it didn’t go very well, then discovered it needed a re-bore. So with new cylinder head and piston it eventually performed OK. At the end of my third year at Cambridge I drove the bike to Oxford, to stay with Patrick & Christine for a while. It was foggy and cold, the bike’s headlights were dim, it took me 4 hours and I have never been so cold in my life. I sat on a radiator for about an hour when I got there, and my thumbs started hurting when the blood was flowing into them again.

Homemade Fireworks
When I was about 13 or 14 I started making fireworks. I had got an old book, probably from my brothers, which was called something like ‘every day things for lively youngsters’. It had all sorts of wondrous things to do, like making invisible ink, and it also had a section on fireworks, both indoor and outdoor. It explained how to use magnesium ribbon, iron filings, powdered aluminium, sodium nitrate, sulphur etc. to make sparks, bangs, whizzes and ‘showers’. It also told of strontium for red, sodium for yellow, cobalt for green/blue. I already had a chemistry set with some of the ingredients, but not the more exotic ones. So I went to the local chemist and ordered a bunch of stuff. What I didn’t realise is that they would come in industrial quantities, so I ended up with a reel of magnesium ribbon about six inches in diameter. I made quite a lot of different fireworks, putting mixtures in cardboard tubes, and using homemade touchpaper.

I also discovered that mixing sodium nitrate weedkiller with sugar produced a mixture that burned with gratifying ferocity, and could also cause loud explosions if ignited in a piece of iron tubing. DO NOT TRY THIS AT HOME. Actually that is difficult now, because the spoilsports at H&S have banned the sale of said weedkiller. But I shudder to think of what risks I took in those days. I also used potassium permanganate and glycerine, which spontaneously ignited on mixing. But again, when I bought a new bottle of glycerine, it didn’t work, obviously tampered with for safety reasons. Because I had a surplus of magnesium ribbon, I developed a side line of selling it at school for a penny an inch. Demand was so high that I later doubled the price. Sadly I never developed this entrepreneurial activity, because I was destined for University and a proper job.

Six five special
When I was about 14 I was a big Lonnie Donegan fan (along with Elvis, Buddy Holly, Everly bothers etc.). I actually joined the fan club a bit later. When he was going to appear on 'Six Five Special' (the Beebs pop program), I got some tickets through my Dad (he had contacts at the Beeb), and went with my friend Rodney and another school friend. I wore my school blazer as I had very few clothes that were even approximately smart. Anyway, we got to see the show, but I was a bit miffed to discover that there was no amplified sound - they couldn't cope with that then, so we heard the backing group, but not much of Lonnie.

Riverside studios and Little Richard
A bit later I got tickets for an ITV show (can't remember its name) at the Riverside studio. This was a more traditional show, with a stage and seated audience. At least it had speakers so we could hear the performers. Lonnie Donegan was one, and memorably, Little Richard was another. He thumped away on the piano to 'Good Golly, Miss Molly, and then jumped up on the piano stool and played standing up. Good fun.

Poll Winners Concert
Another memorable event was Dad getting tickets for the New Musical Express Poll Winners concert at the Albert Hall. I'm not sure if he used his BBC contacts, or the Iraq embassy (where he worked for a while). At one event we ended up getting two pairs of tickets because he tried both avenues. Anyway we were ensconced in a box at the hall, what luxury. Apart from the usual homage to Lonnie Donegan, I recall seeing Alma Cogan, resplendent in a very impressive dress.

Cycling round Scotland
When I was in the sixth form, one of the boys organised a cycling holiday round the youth hostels of Scotland. It must have been just after A level exams, when I was coming up for seventeen. I remember this because we were doing some cycling training when a somewhat dozy girl pushed her bike out in front of use from a driveway, and we cycled straight into her – I was in front with another boy, and I went straight over the handle bars into the road, breaking my collar bone in the process. When I went into school, the second head (the renowned Rigby Hardaker) almost had a fit when he saw my arm in a sling. Luckily it was my left arm, so I could still write OK for the exams. I must have recovered OK for the cycling trip, because I don’t recall it being a problem. We caught the train to Carlisle (about 10 or 12 of us) and started from there. We took three weeks cycling round, sometimes only 20-25 miles in a day, sometimes 50 or 60. We went up the west coast, then crossed to Inverness and came down the east, through Glasgow back to Carlisle. I remember Corgarff, where the hostel was very remote and had no running water. Also we went over the devil’s elbow (part of the A93). In Glasgow we went to the indoor swimming pool, and revelled in the hot showers, something we hadn’t had in the hostels.

Cycling round Loire Valley
One summer when I was about 18 I cycled round the Loire valley with my friend Walt Revans, staying in youth hostels which I had researched. We flew from Lydd to Le Touquet (the shortest distance between England and France) with our bikes in a very small propeller driven plane. We then took a train to Rennes, and started cycling from there.  I recall staying in Lorient, Brest, Nantes, Angers  and Tours, then we made our way to Paris. On the last day it was hot and sunny and we cycled 108 miles from Paris to Dieppe, where we met some sailors in a bar. I was miffed when they cadged some beers from us, as I was still at school and had very little money.
The youth hostels were quite an experience, many were nothing like the ones in England. At Lorient we had to pick up the key to a huge rambling chateau like building and let ourselves in. One other person turned up while we were there, but we mostly had the place to ourselves.  The one in Brest was busy and well organised, and one outside Tours was another huge building, with Moroccan lads helping to run it. A large meal was served, with wine, but afterwards in the middle of the night I woke up knowing I was about to be sick. The dorm was up a large staircase, and the showers and toilets were in a basement. I hurtled down the stairs, but didn’t make it in time. The lads running the place were very nice about it, and mopped up after me.

When I was waiting to go to Cambridge, I had a long time with nothing to do, so I got a temporary job at Kenwoods, in Old Woking – about a mile or so from home. They made food mixers with various add on options. When P&C found out I could buy stuff at a discount, I got them a couple of gadgets like a potato peeler. I was a bit scornful of Christine for needing one until she pointed out that with 4 teenage boys (including Simon) she peeled huge quantities almost every day. I was paid the princely sum of £6 a week, which actually seemed quite a lot as my mum let me keep all of it, and of course I paid no tax. I sometimes spent the whole wage on one item, a transistor radio, or a shortie ‘car coat’ – don’t see them around any more. I used to cycle to work each day, which was ok unless it was raining. Once when it was wet I slipped over turning into the work entrance and took a large patch of skin off my hip.

Around this time I used to go into Woking on Saturday nights and meet up in the Railway pub with Walt and a bunch of school friends. We had some beer, ate meat pies and played bar billiards. Often we would find out if there was a party going on somewhere, and all decamp to the venue. Once we ended up driving down a track to a large barn in a dormobile. On the way the driver mistook a field gate for the track and turned the dormobile over on its side, but no one was hurt. We just got out and pushed it back upright.

The phone box
I have often told this episode to people, some of whom found it hard to believe. At the time we had a lodger in our flat at Send called (lets say, cos I can't remember) Dave Brown. I was walking from our house on a bright sunny morning full of the joys of youth and springtime, when I passed the red phone box nearing Mays Corner (a cross roads). Just as I passed it, the phone started ringing. There was no one in the phone box, so I went in and answered it. The guy asked if Dave Brown was there. I explained that this was  a phone box, and he must have the wrong number. Then I paused and said   ' did you say Dave Brown'. I also looked at the number in the phone box;  it was Ripley 2220X. Now our house phone number was 2220, so obviously something had gone wrong and connected him with the phone box instead of our house. I was just explaining this to the rather puzzled caller when I saw Dave Brown driving slowly past in his Jaguar (this is the bit people don't believe). So I jumped out of the box and flagged down Dave and said he was wanted on the phone. He was baffled, but went into the phone box and took the call. I left him talking to his friend and felt I had done my good deed for the day.

Motorbike to Italy
After I had got used to the Francis Barnet motorbike (all 125 cc of it), I decided somewhat unwisely to travel to Italy on it, along with Walt as a passenger. My dad was on a touring trip to Italy in a hired Austin Healy sports car (Italians called it 'Innocenti'), and I planned to meet up with him at a very posh hotel  in Santa Margarita, Liguri. On the way we stayed at Italian youth hostels. The hotel was great, with terraces accessed by a private bridge over the road, a swimming pool and its own private sea access. The food was good too. When we first arrived on the motorbike, with our bike gear on,  bearded, dirty, the hotel was very reluctant to let us in. They only relented when my dad turned up a bit later. But sadly on the way back the Fanny Barnet's rear suspension broke. We failed to get it fixed, but I had insurance so we arranged for the bike to be shipped home, and travelled back by train, crossing the French border at Briancon, and sleeping at the Gare du Nord in Paris - very uncomfortable.

For my first term at Cambridge I cycled up from Send to my digs. The Churchill college buildings were behind schedule, and so I had to stay in a bed sitter for the first year. Cycling was a bit hard going, not only because it was about 90 miles – that wasn’t too bad – but around London I had to use the north circular, and then the A1 towards Cambridge, alongside heavy lorries. Of course the traffic was not as bad as these days. I only had a few clothes that I could fit into my cycle bag, the rest were sent on in a large trunk that my dad had bought in a second hand shop. It was a splendid affair, with a domed lid, and old pictures of Paris pasted inside.
Shortly after arriving we had to pose for a college photo, but I didn’t have a jacket with me as my trunk had not arrived yet, so I borrowed one from my school friend ‘Gus’ Copplestone. It was a bit too large for me (those were the days), as can be seen in the photo.
Sadly, Gus committed suicide in the second year. It was a great shame as he was a good friend and a very bright guy, he won a scholarship to Trinity, and I always competed with him at school for the top of the class position, until the sixth form when I went into the science 6th, and he went into the arts. I used to visit him quite often in his rooms at Trinity, which were quite posh as he had the superior scholar’s rooms. There was one other boy, John Nicholas, who had been at school with me, in Cambridge, at Pembroke College. The three of us spent quite a bit of time together in the first year, as I had not made many friends at Churchill, being out in digs.

In the second year I moved into a room in college, which was much better. Paul Barton and Pete Came were on the same staircase as I was (11C), and Brian Merrony was in the one next to us. We had a great time together, there was often a party on Saturday night – we gave one or two ourselves. Being a new college, the staff were feeling their way a bit, and we got away with quite a lot of things that probably would not be allowed in the older colleges. We were in the height of luxury for a Cambridge college, posh rooms with polished wooden floors, Scandinavian furniture, and best of all, central heating. This was so warm to start with that the rooms used to reach about 80 F. The college had to rapidly install mini fridges in the kitchens as milk went off in the rooms.

I got myself elected captain of the second football team, and treasurer of the football club (as said, not much competition). Getting a team together was quite hard sometimes as there were only about 70 in our year, and a similar number in the next. Once I was two players short, and had to run round and ask just about anyone, rugby players, hockey players. We were a bit out of town, but our playing fields were on site. Other colleges had theirs scattered around town, so we had to cycle to wherever the ground was. Once we had a guy called Alan Lorenz playing for us; he was normally a first team player, but for some reason he was with us that week (actually a very good goal scorer, but not very popular with the team). He was one of the posh lot, ex public school, and turned up to the ground in a taxi, we all thought that hilarious. On one occasion, we played a team from Queens College (their 6th team I think). We were absolutely thrashed 11-1; they were big, strong, fit and ran round like maniacs. It turned out that this was 11 players from their first rugby squad having a bit of fun; one of them was a guy called Frankcom, who played for England.

Marianne Faithful
One of the lads in our year at Churchill was John Dunbar. His father was a film director (or something). I remember Geraldine telling him he was an awful name dropper when he told us that the last person to cut his hair was Jane Asher. I was in the college bar with a few friends when John turned up with a rather attractive blond female. Apparently she had just made a record, and there were some reviews in the tabloids. I started reading aloud from one of them in a rather sarcastic manner (stuff about her being educated by nuns I think), at which she was highly embarrassed, and begged me to stop. This was Marianne Faithful in her innocent days. Later on I was employed at the May Ball running the raffle (a good deal, as I got the food and champers later on, and I couldn't afford the ticket). One of the three groups was the 'Temperance Seven', quite famous at the time. John turned up with Marianne, and she asked me to look after her handbag at my raffle stand.

The Rolling Stones
When I was in the sixth form (aged 15-16), I extended my music tastes to Blues and Jazz (trad and modern). All my friends were into similar stuff, especially Robin Gosden who went on to run 'Flyright' records. We liked Snooks Eaglin, John Lee Hooker, Big Bill Broonzy, Muddy Waters, Bo Diddly, Howling Wolf, Jimmy Reed, Chris Barber, Louis Armstrong, Bix Beiderbecke, Dave Brubeck, MJQ, Charlie Parker, Gerry Mulligan and many others.

One day Robin said that he had found a local group that were quite good, so I went along with him to the Wooden Bridge pub near Guildford. There was a big crowd outside waiting for the pub to open, then we all packed into a room with about 200 other youngsters. The group was called the Rolling Stones, and they had just made their first record "Come on". I went again a bit later with Brian Merrony, and we had to fight our way in. After that they became too popular to fit into the pub, but I saw them again at an old abandoned hotel on Eel Pie Island (I believe it burnt down soon after). And I never paid a penny to watch them.

Brian at Cambridge,  Arthur Alexander,  Soho, Send..
I was very friendly with Brian Merrony even after Cambridge. He was working in London at Ove Arup before he went into HE at Kingston (then polytech). Apart from the Stones we went to see Arthur Alexander and Long John Baldry, at the Marquee (I think). We used to meet up sometimes in Soho where we had lunch at a little Greek kebab place in Queen Charlotte Street, and another time at an Indian restaurant Brian had found. I also once drove Brian and Geraldine right across London from Barnet to a pub in the east end called the Iron Bridge. This was a famous, large pub frequented by the locals, and on a Saturday night they all came dressed up in smart suits and ties. Probably the Krays were there (who knows). Brian also called on me in the long vac at Send before I started work, where I had a few parties while I was living on my own.

Geoff:  Paul Oliver, Little Walter
I was also friends with Geoff Kilby, brother to my first wife Helen. Geoff was a very bright guy, full of life and interests, but also sadly bipolar, and he ended up killing himself. He was one of the three others who shared a house with me (St. Barnabas Rd) in my fourth year at Cambridge, along with Paul Barton and Brian Merrony. Geoff was always organising things, and once he persuaded a well known blues writer and collector (Paul Oliver) to visit the college and give a talk. Afterwards we put him up at our house; I gave up my bed for him and slept on the couch in the lounge.
When I was working at Elliotts in Borehamwood, Geoff persuaded me to drive him miles away to some little pub at the edge of north London to hear 'Little Walter', a fairly famous American blues singer. I recall that he was not too impressed by his local backing group, and spent some time showing them how to play the guitar.

My little blue van
In my last year at Cambridge, my parents both died within weeks of each other. My mother’s house had been sold, and my father had been living with Elise Henden, so I had no home, and no money. My father had left me the contents of his bank account, which was about £200 – quite a bit in those days. I decided (on Patrick’s advice) to buy myself a vehicle so I at least had somewhere to transport my few possessions; in the 4th year at Cambridge you were allowed to have a car. The cash had not come through yet, so Michael lent me the money (actually he kindly refused to take it when I tried to pay him back later). I bought about the cheapest vehicle that wasn’t a wreck – a blue A35 van.

This was primitive to say the least. The heater was a very feeble little electric fan under the dashboard that barely raised the temperature above freezing in the winter. Indicators were the old flip up yellow arrow type; they kept freezing up in cold weather and groaned slowly upwards. I installed a screen washer and rear screen heater myself as they were obviously not included. Later on I had rear windows fitted (non opening) so you could at least see out of the back. But I absolutely loved it; it was a huge luxury being able to drive around after a motorbike, especially in cold or wet weather. At the end of my last year, I planned to travel around Europe for 6 weeks with Helen, later my first wife. I needed to work for a few weeks so I could actually afford to go; my budget for the 6 weeks was about £60. Patrick and Christine came to my rescue and put me up in Oxford where they had a college house. Poor Julian had to move out of his bedroom to make way for me, and Christine bravely put up with me as well as four teenage boys and various pets. I had been told by a garage that the van had a cracked exhaust valve. I couldn’t afford to pay them to do it, so I fixed it myself. This involved taking off the cylinder head, a new head gasket, new valve springs, and grinding in a new valve. Christine seemed somewhat miffed when I spread out the components on her kitchen table. I explained that it was OK because I had put down newspaper first. Well, I was young. Patrick was dubious that the engine would ever run again, but I was pleased that it started first time after reassembly.

Driving to Bulgaria
When I was 20 (1964) I drove to Bulgaria with my girl friend Jody Jordanoff. She came from Perth, WA, but her parents were Bulgarian, and she had relatives there in Varna on the black sea. We drove, along with Sue Benet her cousin, in an old Morris Minor convertible. Looking back on it, this was probably not a good plan, but we were young. We had a few problems along the way (the exhaust broke in Munich), but we got there and back. This of course was in the communist days of the Iron Curtain, very different from now. First day we drove 700 miles to Prague via Brussels and Munich, sleeping a while in a field somewhere on route. We met some young guys in Prague who spent most of the time trying to buy our jeans. If I'd known I could have made a killing on a case full. The hotel in Prague was a typical communist bloc monstrosity, with corridor lights so dim you could hardly see. It smelt vaguely of insecticide. Then we travelled through Brno, Austria (Vienna), Hungary (Budapest), Rumania  (Ploesti, Bucharest), spent some time in Constanca on the black sea, then ending up in Varna where we had a couple of weeks with Jody's folks.

 Driving through towns in the evening proved very difficult, as the streets became full of pedestrians slowly strolling along.  At one town there was a grandly signposted by pass, which was great for the first half, then they obviously had run out of money because it became a dark, pot holed dirt road. We had dinner at a place on the road in Hungary where they spoke no English, and we couldn't understand a single word on the menu. We chose dishes at random, and they turned out very nice. The tourist hotel in Constanca was modern, but not well built, and we had to eat next door in a kind of communal canteen. The weather was hot and sunny in Varna, and we spent a lot of time on the beach eating green peppers stuffed with cheese, and watermelons we could buy on the beach for a pittance. Jody had a male cousin a bit older than me, who spoke excellent English, complained bitterly about communism, thought the US was paradise, and tried to persuade me to like Ornette Coleman (a modern jazz player ). Of course they could not travel outside of the country. On the way back we retraced our steps, with Sue being replaced by her brother Christo, who worked as a broker in the city.

Elliotts interview with Iann Barron
When I left Cambridge, I applied for jobs with IBM, ICL, Elliotts and English Electric. I got offers from Elliotts, ICL and EE, but not IBM (their loss). At Elliotts (computing research lab) I was interviewed by Iann Barron ( who later founded Computer Technology, and then Inmos. He was a bit under the weather with a cold, and was somewhat sluggish. He asked me a question about pulses down a track which I didn't really know the answer to. Luckily there was then a phone call he had to take. While he was on the phone, I picked up from the desk and read a short paper on the problem he had been asking me about. When he finished the phone call, I was able to answer fluently. Then I told him I had read the paper. I heard someone in the office (Sue Arrow I think) sniggering, and he said something about it showed initiative. Anyway, I got offered a job and took it.

New Rochelle

In the early days at Elliotts I went to Manchester University for a conference, along with Neil Gammage, one of my colleagues. We started chatting to some people in the lift and ended up going to a party for a group of post grads and visitors. We were talking to a guy from the States, and being keen on accents (and showing off a bit), I said I would try and guess where he came from in the US. I said ‘east coast, but not New York’, then ‘a bit further down the coast, somewhere like New Rochelle’. Now I have never been to New Rochelle, and the only reason I chose it was because it featured in the ‘Mary Tyler Moore’ show, with Dick Van Dyke. The guy went quiet and said ‘why did you chose that’, I muttered something, and then he said ‘that’s where I live’. Neil and I laughed and I said it was a good guess, and we wandered off to talk to others. Later on in the evening he came over to me and said’ OK, who are you’. I was a bit puzzled, and he said ’are you watching me’. He was really worried that I was from one of the secret services, and had him tagged. I should point out that there were some folk from GCHQ and CIA there, so perhaps he wasn’t being as paranoid as it seems, but it was kind of funny. I also showed off my accent from the US deep south to some other Americans, and was chuffed when one of them said I sounded just like their uncle.

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