DIARY 22 January 1968 Scientific method

Scientific method

Chemical_research_at_Chelsea_Polytechnic_(1950_s)

Chelsea College in the early 1960s.

At Chelsea College I became a scientist, white coat and all. Doing experiments rather than watching them as we had done in school. As pharmacists we had to know a lot – botany, anatomy, chemistry, biochemistry, pharmacology, neuroscience. Even physics; the science behind making a medicinal tablet is astonishing. Just imagine; each tablet has to have an exact measured dose, bulked up with an inert substance, compressed so that it remains firm, and uncontaminated. All that for an aspirin.

It was odd therefore that one of our first practical sessions was to learn how to make pills in the nineteenth-century manner. A pointless exercise, even for historical reasons. The main requirement for success was sweaty palms. Thank goodness for tablet manufacture.

Dope under the scope 2

Dope under the ‘scope.

Botany meant studying plants under a microscope, not just to identify them but to assess their medicinal worth. Perhaps it was a sign of the times but the sample I had to investigate was marijuana. A very small sample it was; you don’t need much for a microscope slide.

Muscular system

Studying anatomy made me feel like a doctor although learning lists of bones, muscles and so on was never my forte. I did at least learn how all my internal organs fitted together. And I could dream of wierd voyages amongst the Islets of Langerhans, through the Sphincter of Pylorus to the lacunae of Morgagni, passing the Zonule of Zinn.

I found biochemistry fascinating. My pin-up poster was of the Krebs Cycle[1] with its circular process of chemical changes showing how all organisms release stored energy through oxidation of chemicals derived from carbohydrates, fats and proteins. And all done within each cell of the body.

Pharmacology, the study of how substances act on cells, organs or the whole organism, was central to my studies. Such experiments could not always be done in a test tube. Sometimes we had to use living creatures (go to the next paragraphs if you might find the details upsetting). To demonstrate how drugs can act on the body, we would be given live frogs prepared by a technician who had a special skill in scrambling their brains by inserting a needle in the back of their heads. The live but brain-dead creature would then be given shots of nicotine to stimulate its muscles; the poor thing could be made to jump at will.

Chemist

Titration in action.

As it turned out I had a special skill in quantitative analysis in chemistry. The equipment was relatively simple – burettes, pipettes, conical flasks, very accurate chemical balances. But it needed a steady hand and accurate observation and recording. I could work out the composition of a chemical solution using titration or distillation. Fifty years later I would have no idea what that means. My supervisor suggested that, even in my first year, I should consider doing research or even a PhD.

But I had other diversions.

 

[1] Krebs won a Nobel prize for it.

DIARY 12 October 1967 First days at university

manresa001_1316065607

The impressive frontage of Chelsea College along Manresa Road[1], London SW3.

An open book

I joined the other freshers for our introductory talk in the wood-panelled lecture theatre which dated back to the 1890s. The lecturer must have been in his thirties and, due to his low status in the academic hierarchy, he was given the job of introducing the college to us oiks. We would not be introduced to the senior lecturers for some time.

This lecturer was dressed in the academics’ relaxed garb of tweed jacket, knitted tie and slacks. No academic gown but the college had only just become a university[2]. He was as bemused as we were; he commented on the fact that two or three of us men were wearing pink shirts which should not have been surprising since we were just one hundred feet from the boutique-laden King’s Road, Chelsea.

No register, no class timetable, no uniform, no compulsory sports, time off to read. We could even smoke in lectures although no-one did. It wasn’t much like school after all. I reckoned I could deal with this. I had a good education, passed my exams to get there, there was enough money to get by, and I had somewhere to live.

I tried to make friends but it was not long before I discovered how different I was from my fellow students. They, mainly men but a few women, appeared to have all grown up in the suburbs of London or Surrey. The first person I tried to strike up a conversation with had grown up in Surbiton which already had a reputation as the archetypal suburbia with social pretensions[3]. Several were the children of pharmacists or doctors; I decided to keep quiet about my origins.

They all had middle class accents; no sign of Cockney, not even the odd ‘gie us a butchers’. I was looking forward to meeting my first real Londoners but it would not be at Chelsea College. There weren’t many regional accents either. My Birmingham lilt confused some who asked if I came from Liverpool and did I know the Beatles? I admit to trying to change my accent, not because I was ashamed of it but because I was fed up with explaining that that I was not Liverpudlian. I did notice a distinct drop in interest when I revealed from whence I hailed so I just said I was from Acton.

I didn’t make any friends at college. They all went back to Surbiton or Wimbledon at the end of the day whereas I was on a voyage of discovery. No-one was interested in poking around the pubs of Soho, or the bookshops of Charing Cross Road, or slumming it in Covent Garden (still, at that time, a fruit and veg market, not the tourist trap it is today). I wanted to explore not just places and events but culture and ideas.

Chelsea_College_Library_at_Manresa_Road,_1970s_  manresa-road-ref-copy

The public library, Manresa Road, outside and inside, where I discovered much.

I had not read much as a teenager; science exams and spending evenings at a youth club left little time for inspirational or enjoyable reading. At school the fiction I read off-curriculum was a couple of Hardy’s Wessex novels, a bit of Tolkien and I quite liked Dylan Thomas. Whilst growing up, however, we had a small library at home; an alcove bookshelf next to the fireplace and behind the television. These had been bought by Dad either in bulk round about the time I was born or through a book club. Most were published by a company called Odhams whose books you rarely saw in shops.

My father will never know how grateful I was for this library. There were encyclopedias, history books, photograph albums, novels, popular science texts, how to make and do things. I must have read them all, several times. Then I would go to the public library in Bournville to find more books. When I had read everything of interest in the children’s section, by the age of ten or eleven, I was in the adult section absorbing anything that appealed at the time including Scottish history, steam engines, electronics, radio comedy scripts, Punch magazine, philately. Not much imaginative writing however; no novels, just a little poetry.

Diary 671002 First day at university

I devoured these brilliant books. And more, including Turgenev, Camus, Kafka, Anouilh etc.

In Chelsea, the public library and the college next door were symbiotic; I could borrow books using my college library card. It became my haven where I discovered French and Russian novels; German, British and American poetry, existentialist literature, absurd theatre, modern English and American writers and so much more.

I was on the road to ruin; I would never be the same again. In the evening I would go back to Acton, to Mrs Haggar, Jeffrey and Rusty. With no television or even a radio I would carry on reading.

[1] The building was sold off to property developers and by 2015 Manresa Road was considered to be the third most expensive street in England with average property prices approaching £7.5 million. As I write, a seven-bedroom flat is for sale at £25.5 million. Just a few years ago it was the home for students, artists, writers. Now it is an expensive sterile desert. I also think this is a photoshopped picture – the building was never this long!

[2] The college was built in 1895 as a high level academic institution devoted to science and technology, as opposed to the humanitarian objectives of established universities. Other advanced institutes were established as ‘polytechnics’ at the time, taking their inspiration from the Ecole Polytechnic set up by Napoleon in Paris. The college awarded degrees endorsed by the University of London until it was given university status in 1966.

[3] A popular British sitcom of the 1970s, The Good Life, was set in Surbiton. It contrasted the lives of neighbours, one couple attempting to be self-sufficient by turning their suburban home into a small holding and their upwardly mobile, snobbish neighbours.

DIARY 2 October 1967 Going to London

 

Manresa Road   

Destination: Chelsea College of Science and Technology, Manresa Road, London SW3.

Going to London

Monday 2 October 1967 was an ordinary day in Birmingham. There were rain showers, interspersed with occasional clear skies, about usual for the season. But for me it was far from ordinary. I was leaving home to go to university in London. It meant saying goodbye to everyone I knew to go to a place where I knew no-one. I was not daunted; my anticipation was high.

I put my few clothes and other personal items into an ex-Navy duffel bag; my wardrobe was still suffering from an excess of school uniform and regulation grey trousers and white shirts which I gladly jettisoned. I said ‘goodbye’ to Mom in the living room. We were not an expressive family but I kissed her on the cheek and felt as if I was abandoning her.

My brother and sister were at school or work; Dad was in hospital. I had already said goodbye to my girlfriend, promising to come back for weekends. I slung my bag over my shoulder and left through the front door. No-one was there to wave goodbye and I didn’t look back. I walked down the road and caught the bus to town.

Getting off the bus, I walked round New Street railway station to Digbeth coach station where I paid just over a pound for my one-way ticket on the Midland Red motorway express. I had twelve pounds in my pocket, saved up from my summer job at Boots, about a week’s wages for some. I had refused financial help from my family. I had opened my first proper bank account at Barclays and I had a grant cheque for £128. It was more cash than I had ever owned at one time although it included my rent and had to last until Christmas.

CM6T

Considering my current business venture (as a manufacturer of model buses), I could not miss this opportunity to include a picture of a bus. This is the Midland Red Birmingham to London motorway express 1967.

Although the motorway began and ended short of both cities, I reached Victoria in less than three hours. Compared to the decrepit steam railway, these coaches reached up to 80 miles an hour on the new motorway and seemed to be the future. I relaxed, temporarily, in its fast-moving luxury. Then, suddenly, I was pitched into the apparent chaos of London, all alone, heaving a duffel bag that seemed to be getting heavier.

New students were normally expected to live in a hall of residence but Chelsea College of Science and Technology had only just received university status and did not have enough rooms for all its freshers. I was placed in ‘digs’ in Acton. Although I had been on the tube (once) before it was perplexing to find my way to Turnham Green. Once there, I began to use my new A to Z to find my way to Hatfield Road, London W3.

Hatfield Road

Our room was the upstairs front bedroom.

I was introduced to Jeffrey, a third-year student of pharmacology with whom I would be sharing a room. We had little in common except our field of study. He came from Mountain Ash in south Wales and, I believe, returned there after his studies. I was surprised about how two years in London had changed him not at all.

Our landlady, Mrs Haggar, lived downstairs. She was becoming elderly and was not overtly friendly; she would spend her days in a small living room with her dog, a Labrador cross called Rusty. He, on the other hand, was wildly enthusiastic; we were two young men away from home and far from those who might show us affection. We were grateful for Rusty’s attention and I would take him for walks in the local park where we both enjoyed a feeling of freedom.    

Mrs Haggar provided us with breakfast every morning but we hardly ever saw her. She cooked eggs early in the morning and left them for us. By the time we partook of this feast they would have congealed into something unrecognisable as food. Rusty would snap them up but I worried for his health. Feeding them to the dog might have been a mistake because it looked as if we had actually enjoyed them and so they kept coming nearly every morning.

The next day Jeffrey helped me to find my way to the college. Back to Turnham Green station, we took the Piccadilly Line and got off at South Kensington. Finding our way through one of those typical London squares I noted that the houses were very palatial but still in a terraced row like Dawlish Road back home (but completely unlike in all other respects).

After a couple of confusing turns, we were in Manresa Road. To the left was Chelsea College of Art and to the right Chelsea College of Science and Technology. They might have appeared to be a matching pair but I later learned that there was virtually no contact, academically, socially or culturally between the two colleges.

College Manresa Road Door

Chelsea College entrance, Manresa Road.

I presented myself at the college door with the other new students, adjusted my red chiffon scarf, buttoned up my maroon cord jacket and registered.

 

Copyright © Derek Perry according to current law. Not to be reproduced in any medium without permission. Applicable to all pages published here.

 

 

DIARY 18 September 1967 Whither university?

Whither university for this boy?

BRISTOL RD, SELLY OAK 22-8-52  Dawlish Road 1964 JPG

Left: Birmingham University tower and the Great Hall. The clock tower is 99 metres tall and is the largest freestanding clock tower in the world. It dominated the skyline over Bristol Road, the main street through Selly Oak. Dawlish Road joins it to the right, opposite the white building. Right. Dawlish Road in the 1960s. Fifty years later many of these houses are let to students.

No-one in my family had ever been to any university. My father grew up in Dawlish Road, Selly Oak with the tower of Birmingham University looming over the terraced streets barely a mile away.  Despite its proximity it was a world away; I did not venture into the grounds until I was sixteen.  

I knew no-one who had ever been to a university among my extended family, friends or neighbours.  My parents had left school at fourteen with no prospect of further education. In the 1960s, you only had to stay in school until you were fifteen. With plenty of jobs and a pointless education, most young people were glad to leave. Your future was decided at age 11 when everyone took a school examination called the ‘Eleven-plus’. Those who passed would be offered a place in a grammar school or similar. The rest, including everyone at Raddlebarn School except me, went to a secondary modern school.

In a secondary modern school the pupils were not expected to take ‘O’ levels[1]; boys and girls were kept busy learning useful basic skills while they waited to be fifteen and left for a job in a factory or a shop. I passed the eleven-plus and took another exam to get into King Edward VI Camp Hill School for Boys[2]. This was an offshoot of King Edward VI School in Edgbaston, founded by the eponymous Edward in 1552. The Camp Hill school dated from 1883 and had moved into fine new buildings with extensive grounds and sports facilities at Kings Heath in 1956.

We were advised by a family friend who was a headmistress that this was a very good school and I deserved to go because I was so clever. She tutored me through the 11-plus. There was some reluctance from my parents because of the cost. My place was free but the school uniform would cost a fortune. Apart from the jacket and tie, they required a rugby shirt in school colours and even gym shorts in a specific shade of maroon only available from one shop. My Dad explained the problem but, as always, said that such choices were mine. If I thought it was a good idea then he would help as much as possible. Although I had only just turned twelve I got a job as a butcher’s boy to help pay for it.

While my old school friends went off to be factory fodder, I was to read Shakespeare, learn Latin and French, study nature and even a bit of philosophy. No use whatsoever at Cadbury’s or ‘the Austin’. No-one, including myself, understood what I was meant to do with all this apparently useless knowledge; I thought it was a reward for being clever. It seems that the middle and upper classes did not have enough intelligent people to manage their affairs so they selected a few of us brighter working class children to be trained up as managers and administrators.

Going to Camp Hill school was not an end in itself. After leaving school, you would be expected to go on and qualify as something else or go into your father’s business. For me, I had no idea what a useful qualification might look like; and there was no family business to aspire to.[3] When I passed my ‘A’ levels I had no idea what I would do. Going to university allowed me to put off the decision of how to obtain an income. I assumed I would go to Birmingham University so that I could live cheaply at home. In those days, there were no fees and I would get a grant[4].

My family was somewhat perplexed by my decision. I do not remember being congratulated on getting a university place because to them my future was now completely uncertain. It was put to me that with my ‘A’ levels I could get a damn good job with Cadbury’s or ‘the Austin’. However, my mental landscape was widening and the prospect of being stuck in a factory disconcerted me.

In any case, I was clearly a bright boy and deserved better. I had already excelled at church, at Boy Scouts, at the local youth club, as a paper boy. I was ahead of everyone at primary school.  At King Edward VI Camp Hill School I was up against boys who had also excelled by passing the 11-plus. Winning first place became less frequent but I still won prizes and plaudits for biology and nature studies. Despite my lack of interest in sport, I was even selected to play rugby for the school (2nd XV) and cross-country team[5]. I was quite popular amongst my classmates.

It seemed natural that I would continue to aspire. I had achieved everything that could be achieved by a boy from Raddlebarn. Unfortunately, I had no idea what else I could do or how I would be received. Before I left school I found out that it would not be so easy. I was good at zoology and had a genuine interest in nature. Becoming a doctor (GP) seemed a good idea, and I had heard that Cambridge had a well-respected medical school. I was informed by the school careers master that this was out of my league; what he meant was that working class boys did not become doctors.

At the time I accepted this situation and opted to study pharmacy.  Becoming a chemist with a shop seemed more feasible; I could not imagine becoming like the only doctor I knew, our middle-aged grey-suited GP, Dr Donovan.

So off I went, to London, because that was where I had been offered a place to study pharmacy. I had been warned that university was not like school but I decided I could handle the different teaching methods. What I was not prepared for were the social differences.

[1] Education authorities later invented the General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) for these schools which was a sort of second grade ‘O’ level; you could get a GCSE in typing or technical drawing.

[2] King Edward VI Camp Hill School would never call itself a ‘grammar school’. There was a grammar school nearby in Kings Norton which dated back as far as King Edward VI High School and even had the original half-timbered building to prove it. However, it was always considered somewhat inferior despite being a perfectly good school.

[3] In my family, working life would always mean having a job working for someone else. The idea that any of us might run our own business or employ our own workers was beyond our comprehension. When I was eleven years old, a regular school exercise was a spelling test in which I invariably scored 100%. Except once when a girl named Gloria came top because I could not spell the word ‘business’. The concept was so alien that I could not even spell the word correctly.

[4] The grant was £385 per year for living expenses during term time only; during vacations I would have to get a job (the Post Office at Christmas was useful for this). This gave me over £10 a week during term time, not much less than the wage an eighteen-year old might expect starting work in 1967.

[5] The main result of all this physical activity was that I developed muscular thighs which ruined the fit of slim jeans and slacks.

DIARY FIRST ENTRY 1 July 1967

 

Fifty years ago I was 18 years old. I had just left school and expecting to go to university. I was on the threshold of becoming an adult, which was exciting and bewildering enough for this working class youth from Birmingham. But little did I know that Britain was in the process of unprecedented social and cultural change which would sweep me along with it.

This summer, 2017, there are many anniversaries being celebrated. It is fifty years since the Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Fifty years since homosexuality was de-criminalised, Half a century since new laws were introduced promoting equal pay and making racial discrimination unlawful. At about this time, censorship was relaxed, abortion made legal and the contraceptive pill became easily available.

In 1967 we saw massive demonstrations against the war being waged in Vietnam by the USA. In a few months time, in May 1968 there would be a near revolution in Paris with other uprisings across the world including Czechoslovakia. The British Empire continued the decline it had suffered since the 1940s.

This blog will be my real time diary from fifty years ago. I will attempt to re-imagine what I was doing, thinking, feeling, reading, watching, experiencing at that time. I did not keep a diary at the time so I cannot be certain about dates or names in some cases. It will be how I remember it, with some hindsight, but I will try not to make things up. This is a true story. I will only use real names with permission.

This blog will be updated at least once a month. I aim to continue adding entries for about five years, covering the period up to summer 1972. If my memory holds, I may continue it further.