|Table of Contents||Previous page||Next page|
America, the place where the Pilgrim Fathers had gone to avoid persecution because of their beliefs in 1620; America, the country which mindful of that persecution had one hundred and fifty odd years later ensured that free speech and the free expression of ideas would be the cornerstone of its new constitution, was now the place where even a chance attendance as a student at a meeting of communist sympathisers was enough for a person's patriotism to be questioned twenty years after the fact.
For a while it seemed that the total intimidation of American politicians and other influential figures by McCarthy might result in the sort of fatal paralysis of acquiescence that had been the hall mark of Hitler's rise to power in the 1920's. Finally sanity prevailed when the lunacy of discrediting distinguished scientists like Robert Oppenheimer, who had lead the Manhattan Project, became apparent and some credible opposition to McCarthy's crusade began to crystallise. Nevertheless had it not been for the relatively rapid decline in his health, the outcome might still have been very different. I still remember the rather tart observation in "The Times" of London the day following his death in 1953, which read in part: "...the Senator's death is understood to have been brought about by an excess of bile..." That about summed up the life of this ruthless and utterly despicable individual.
As always (or almost always), the death of a monarch is followed by the coronation of the next one, and a lot of titles have to be changed. One of these was "KC" (Kings counsel) going to "QC" (Queens Counsel), it seemed reminiscent of Victorian times to see "QC" after a name and indeed it transpired that there were still some lawyers left who had been called to the bar in the eighteen nineties and had actually been QC's. New stamps and coins appeared with the new Queens' likeness and a year after the death of her father, there was a coronation in Westminster Abbey and all the stops were pulled out for the event.
Pageantry is still something that the British do better than anyone else and this affair was no exception. It probably marked the first time that an event such as this was planned with an eye to the international television coverage that it would generate. By May 1953, when the coronation took place, a significant percentage of the population on the continent, in Britain, and in Britain's former colonies around the world; could be reached through television ("the miracull of tullavizhun", as the Americans frequently referred to it) and interest was high, not to say avid. The major American networks were especially anxious to make the most of the enormous audience that they knew would tune in.
The day got off to a dramatic start with a report on the BBC eight o'clock news. The rather austere and impersonal newsreader was unable to suppress just a trace of emotion as he read a communique from Katmandu in Nepal reporting that two members of the British Everest expedition, lead by Colonel John Hunt, had conquered Everest. The New Zealander Edmund Hilary and the Nepalese Sherpa, Tensing, became instant heroes as the first men to reach the summit of the World's highest and most daunting peak. Their timing could not have been better.
Cars and Motorcycles
Like most boys of my age I was car mad and motorcycle mad. My Father exerted heavy pressure to dissuade me from getting a motorcycle (which I really could not afford anyway) by offering me his "autocycle", This contraption was a 1940 model made by Excelsior and was half way between a bicycle and a conventional motorcycle and had a 98 cc two-stroke engine by Villiers. It still had pedals to assist up steep hills because it had no gears. I was not thrilled with it because it did not look even remotely like a proper motorbike, but it had one redeeming feature, I only had to fill it up about once every six months (well, perhaps a bit more often than that) but I calculated that I was getting about 180 miles to the gallon out of it, the most economical mode of transport I have ever had - apart from a bicycle.
I really lusted after something more like a Norton, Ariel, Matchless, BSA, Douglas, or the shaft-drive Sunbeam, the classic names of that time, most of which could be had in four-stroke 250, 350 or 500 cc versions. To replace his autocycle, my Father had bought himself a spiffy little BSA "Bantam" 125 cc two-stroke motorbike with three gears (gears made it a real motorbike in my book), to get himself to the railway station. Occasionally I was allowed to use it and it was on one such sortie that I realised that he was absolutely right about how dangerous they can be.
I was scooting merrily along a busy road in bright sunshine and as I leaned over to take a bend at no more than 25 mph, the back wheel slid out from under me on a greasy patch of road. Fortunately my reflexes were good enough that I managed to stick a foot out just in time and keep the skid from going out of control and being mowed down by the car following me. There was not too much heel left on my shoe, but that was a trivial price to pay for my deliverance and the lesson it taught me.
Even more tricky than motorbikes were the Italian scooters of which the Lambretta was the leader at that time. The wheels were too small and could easily get jammed in the steel tram lines (which still ran down many suburban thoroughfares), or simply slide out from underneath you, in which case you could not simply put your foot out because of the too-wide metal "floor", designed primarily I am sure to accommodate female riders who preferred their feet modestly together when travelling. There were quite a number of nasty accidents involving scooters.
Cars were the thing to have if you could afford one, or more likely if you had parents who could afford to indulge you, (I did not). Of the one hundred or so boys in the school who were old enough to drive in those days, there were perhaps half a dozen who had cars of their own. I remember one who had a very old three-wheeler Morgan which everyone admired and he let me drive it once. The trouble was that the clutch and accelerator were reversed in position, so that the only way to avoid disaster was to drive with your legs crossed.
Our neighbour was a marine engineer who had a high position in the Shell oil Company and he frequently had to fly off to foreign parts to check out some oil tanker in trouble somewhere. He had a Sunbeam Alpine, the very sporty and expensive early fifties model which had been used by some drivers in the Monte Carlo Rally (including the redoubtable Sheila Van Damm) and he used to pay me a pound to drive him to London Airport and bring the car back, or to go and fetch him. I would have been more than happy to pay him the pound for the thrill of getting my hands on that car and I always sent up a little prayer that Shell tankers would be marooned as often as possible in foreign ports and that only he would know what they needed to get them ship-shape again.
The Fascination of Electronics
I left Whitgift in 1953 and started as a maths and physics student at University College London in the autumn of that year. During the four years there I further developed my interest in electronics, which at that time was limited to building radios, signal generators high fidelity audio amplifiers and rudimentary TV sets using war surplus components.
Long playing records made from flexible vinyl were just coming onto the market and the quality of the sound compared to the old 78 rpm very breakable wax records was absolutely unbelievable. I had a field day designing and building a ten watt "push-pull" high quality amplifier to make the most of the new miracle. The war surplus components were cheap and plentiful at that time and all were invariably made to the most stringent military standards.
I remember tuning capacitors (the ones with vanes that rotated) with jewelled bearings like precision watches and radar sub- assemblies with elaborate shock mounting for all the valves. The biggest clusters of war surplus shops were in Tottenham Court Road and Lisle street, just off Leicester Square.
Lisle street bordered the red light district and one was almost certain to be accosted at least once while roaming up and down looking for the missing item to complete some project or other, which of course added a bit of spice to the trip.
It was with considerable interest that I recently (1993) scanned some contributions from an electronics newsgroup on "Internet" and a question from someone in his mid-twenties was: "Why is fun with electronics no longer cool?". It touched off a flood of responses of which the most apposite for me was one pointing out that it was fun in the days when the individual components were the fundamental ones, resistors, capacitors, inductors and valves, and that with some basic theory and a little practical knowledge magic could be created.
That person was absolutely right, today it would come as absolutely no surprise to me to find a shrink wrapped package hanging from a hook in a Tandy/Radio Shack store with the header: "Use the three chips in this kit to make a Medical CAT-Scanner, and earn big money at your local hospital". We take the incomprehensible power locked up in an integrated circuit as a given and there is absolutely no sense of accomplishment, let alone fun, in simply connecting two or three of them together to produce a predictable variant of the magic.
After being bitten by the electronics bug at school in the late forties or thereabouts I read all I could understand (which was not always enough) from bibles like "The Principles of Radio" by M.G.Scroggie and "Television Receiver Circuits" by W.T.Cocking and studied every issue of "Practical Wireless", the hobbyists magazine edited by F.J.Camm.
The first radio set I ever made was started literally from scratch by using the garden roller to roll out some corrugated iron (carefully preserved from the air raid shelter dismantled when we had returned from Devon during the war) to make the chassis. The coils were wound on pieces of broom stick, some of the valves (which glowed enough to read by) were salvaged from a 1920's Phillips radio set, along with tuning condensers and power supply filter capacitors.
In retrospect it was sacrilege to have taken that set apart, it was beautifully engineered for the time and today a museum of science and technology would kill to get something like it. I learnt a great deal about the practicalities of radio from that project and nobody was more astonished or delighted than me (except perhaps my Father) when after a bit of literal fine tuning, the BBC Home Service came in loud and clear, albeit along with some continental stations in assorted languages as background.
The selectivity afforded by two tuned circuits each with its own manually adjustable tuning condenser was stretched to the limit to reject unwanted stations in the densely populated AM band, even at that time.
The point was that the fascination of electronics as a hobby came from making something which could pluck music and voices from the air, or from the grooves of a gramophone record, with such mundane bits and pieces as coils wound on pieces of broom stick and carbon resistors consisting of little sticks with a piece of wire at each end and coloured bands painted around them to denote the values.
Rubbing shoulders with some Notables
I met some famous people at University College, some I didn't expect to meet, like James Robertson Justice, Dirk Bogarde, Kenneth More, Donald Sinjun and Muriel Pavlov, and some that I did, like Professor J.B.S. Haldane, the distinguished biologist. The film stars I met because in the summer of 1954 the film "Doctor in the House" was being made there.
I came in one day to discover a new sign over the Beadle's (gate keeper) kiosk reading "St. Swithuns Hospital". Shooting was in progress with the avuncular Robertson Justice doing a scene as Sir Lancelot Spratt the celebrated surgeon. They were paying students a pittance as "Extras" to make up the numbers in crowd scenes, so of course I joined in. I remember wondering why it was necessary to have huge and powerful electric arc lamps trained on the cast, even though it was broad daylight in mid summer.
At that time there was an annual Christmas lecture in the Physics Department, given by a celebrated scientist who would reminisce about how things were in his youth when the earth was green and God was a boy. The first one of these that I went to was given by Professor C. da Costa Andrade, who by then was in his late eighties and had been retired for many years. He was fairly well known for having organised and presented what was probably the first ever series of popular science lectures for television.
He related how as a boy he regularly attended similar lectures at the Royal Institution in London to watch the demonstrations which made them so popular. He said that on one occasion he hadn't understood something or other and had turned to an old man sitting next to him for an explanation. As he left, one of the assistants said to him "Young man, do you know who that was sitting next to you?" He said he had no idea and the assistant told him "that was Michael Faraday". His story had the anticipated impact as we looked at and listened to a man who had actually spoken to one of the greatest scientists since Isaac Newton.
At about that time there was a move afoot to introduce commercial television into Britain which as a family we all strongly opposed. Under the guidance of my father I wrote a letter to Lord Reith who was to speak against the proposition in a debate in the house of lords the next day. Enclosed was an article by a prominent figure asserting that "Radio Luxembourg", the English language commercial radio station which beamed its signal into Britain with impunity from the continent, was "a licence to print money".
I was to deliver it to the House of Lords the next day, but reading the morning paper in the train we discovered that Lord Reith was indisposed and that Viscount Hailsham would lead in his place. At London Bridge station we bought a bottle of "Milton's" bleach and expunged Lord Reith and replaced him on the letter with Viscount Hailsham. I went to the House of Lords and wandered through the place without seeing a soul, finally an astonished beadle spotted me and demanded to know how I had made it into the chamber without being apprehended. He took the letter and subsequently we actually got a reply thanking us for our information.
It didn't do much good, there was a vigourous lobbying group in the government for commercial TV and it was of course introduced. We were incensed that the BBC was forced to share its facilities and its audience research data with the new Independent Broadcasting Authority (against which it was required to compete for viewers), in order to ensure that the fledgling commercial enterprises would not fail.
We were even more incensed when Mr. Norman Collins a successful publisher, agonized publicly over the moral dilemma which he perceived in leaving the BBC in a monopoly situation, all the while professing no interest in the outcome, and then before the ink was dry on the bill he leapt in to the commercial TV business with both feet to cash in on the new "licence to print money" (which indeed it did become).
The net result was as we knew it would be, an astronomical increase in the remuneration for familiar TV personalities, as broadcasters vied with each other to lure the best ones into their fold, salaries which the BBC were of course unable to match with a strictly limited source of funding controlled by the government of the day.
In spite of this the BBC continued to hold its own in drama productions, one of the highlights being the Sunday evening play. These were always live (no video tape in those days) and were performed by a growing cadre of young actresses and actors who had adapted to the special requirements of television, a cross between films, where scenes are shot one by one, and the live theatre, where everything must be seamless in every performance. We settled down one evening in 1954 to watch a play called "1984" by a writer called George Orwell. I had not heard of him or his play and I do not remember that many people had at that time. The lead parts were played by Peter Cushing and Yvonne Mitchell.
At the end of it we sat petrified and horrified by what had been portrayed, a malevolent political system that Orwell postulated could control us by the year 1984 and in which the systematic and cold blooded brain washing of two young lovers, until they were stripped of any feelings toward each other or anyone else, would be one of the routine procedures.
It was all too evil and too disturbing to pass over lightly and the brilliant BBC production of the play propelled it into the limelight and made terms like "Big Brother" and "Proles" (the witless workers in Orwell's system) household words across the nation. At the University College debating society a debate was held with the motion that "1984 is more than thirty years off", and the Goon Show did a wickedly comical spoof which cast the BBC as the "Big Brother Corporation" and their guileless "Bluebottle" character as an eminently credible "prole".
Other BBC television fare was less dramatic, there was the weekly magazine program "Panorama" with the unctuous and affable Richard Dimbleby. It was a bit bland but on one occasion the program date fell on April the first and they took us hook, line and sinker with what purported to be the annual spaghetti harvest somewhere in sunny Italy, with all the locals busy with baskets picking spaghetti from trees bowed down with the stuff.
We watched and listened with passing interest as Dimbleby droned on about the history of this annual rite and then someone said "spaghetti...on trees...??.....oh come on, pull the other one". It was of course an elaborate hoax but done with such a convincing story line and staged so realistically that everyone was completely taken in - at least for a while, and some did not realise that they had been, until they read about it in the newspapers next day.
Live news broadcasts were by their very immediacy bound to be successful and I remember one particular event where the visual dimension added an unexpected impact and that was the visit of the new masters in the Kremlin to Britain, following the death of Malenkov, (Stalin's successor). They arrived by train and were met at Victoria station by Sir Anthony Eden, the Foreign Secretary in the Churchill government. Eden was aristocratic, suave, tall and elegant and the contrast was striking between him and the two rather rumpled little men who emerged, seemingly rather bewildered, from the train. They were Mikhail Bulganin and Nikita Kruschev.
One coup for television in the early fifties was the live coverage of sports events. Until then the only way that the unwashed masses ever saw the action in sports (short of going to a match) was on cinema newsreel clips, dominated by "Gaumont British News". That was alright, but by then obviously the result was already history and there was no immediacy or sense of "being there". Television changed all that and for our family it meant the equivalent of Royal box seats at the annual Wimbledon tennis championship. In those days it was of course an amateur tournament and few people actually saw the place, except on the aforementioned cinema newsreels.
The BBC coverage was spectacular, with cameras at each end of the centre court and on both sides, giving a panoply and variety of viewing angles which no spectator could possibly see from one seat, no matter where it was. Tennis is one of the most gripping "single combat" sports in the genre, with the combination of physical ability and psychological warfare apparent in every impossible return and every double fault. As such it is absolutely made for television, which is why it is now the one of the biggest money spinners in the business, and why Wimbledon had no choice but to open its legendary tournament, the Mecca of tennis, to professionals.
The men's singles final of 1954 was memorable because the finalists were a young Australian, Ken Rosewall, who with his countryman Lew Hoad had swept Wimbledon off its collective feet the year before, and a veteran favourite Jaraslav Drobney. Drobney was a native of Czeckoslovakia and an Egyptian citizen who had been coming to Wimbledon since before the war, making it to the final several times but never winning the coveted title. He had a particularly effective drop shot from the base line which Dan Maskell (the BBC commentator), christened the "Drob shot"
The Wimbledon centre court crowd is almost always partisan, one thing that they do not like is poor sportsmanship or boorish behaviour on the court. That apart they naturally tend to support their countrymen and if none reach the finals (as has almost always been the case since the end of the war), then they will vigorously support say an Australian over an American because of former empire loyalty.
In this instance however the crowd was rooting for Drobney, he was generally regarded as a gentleman player, never questioning line calls and always gracious in defeat (he had suffered his share). Everybody realised that for this immensely popular player who was something of an institution at Wimbledon and now in his late thirties, it was probably his last chance at the title and there was a deep well of support from the crowd. It was an epic struggle as Drobney used every trick in the book to keep the acrobatic Rosewall, twenty years his junior, away from the net.
It ran for the full five sets with agonizing and long drawn out deuce points all the way. As the match wore on Drobney was clearly tiring, which everyone knew was bound to happen given the age difference. He had several things going for him however; his famous "Drob" shot, a wealth of experience and the uncharacteristically emotional support of the Wimbledon crowd. Under any other circumstance it would have been the Australian who would have been the beneficiary, but because at nineteen years old he obviously had unlimited opportunity ahead of him and would be back to fight another day, he was not the favourite for this match.
Rosewall was understandably nervous at having the prize within his reach after only one previous appearance at Wimbledon and it began to show as the marathon dragged on. He knew that he had to move in to the net and exploit the advantages of speed and agility which his youth gave him, or lose the championship. Drobney by contrast had been through more than one Wimbledon final and could afford to concentrate on tactics to keep the younger man at bay. Time and again Rosewall unleashed a deadly accurate cannon ball service down the centre line, kicking up the chalk dust, and then moved in to the net to smash the return, only to see it arc slowly over his head and fall (kicking up some more chalk dust) right on the base line, the Drob shot in action.
It went down to the wire until in the final set Drobney managed to sustain a two game lead to see his dream come true and win the title that had eluded him for so long. A radiant Princess Marina, Duchess of Kent, came onto the court to present him with the trophy, obviously delighted at his success and as his fingers closed around it, thousands of flash bulbs created a veritable lightning bolt, capturing the image of triumph over adversity. The crowd cheered him with a standing ovation for what seemed an eternity.
Exactly twenty years later I was in England on a flying visit to see my parents and I saw another Wimbledon final. It was even more emotional for the crowd than the one twenty years earlier had been and with good reason. This time the overwhelming favourite was another good natured and immensely popular veteran of Wimbledon, who like Drobney, had seen the title slip through his fingers more than once and like Drobney, had given the game some spectacular moments on the centre court.
Ken Rosewall, now thirty nine, was facing off against a brash (and boorish) young American, Jim Connors, twenty years his junior, for his last chance at the title. Sadly Rosewall lost, to the chagrin of the crowd who were not pleased to see the title go to an aggressive and egotistical young American who made a point of flouting rules like dress code and etiquette at every turn, and who obviously regarded Wimbledon traditions (and by implication British institutions and values) with disdain and thinly disguised contempt.
Eventually Connors mellowed and I remember seeing him some time in the early nineteen eighties meeting his Waterloo against yet another brash and arrogant young American, John MacEnroe. This individual made Connors seem like a saint by comparison and as he ranted and raved and swore at line judges and umpires alike almost every time he lost a point, Connor's face was a study in incredulity and amazement. He said nothing, but he must have seen the ghost of his own past behaviour come back to haunt him and now that the boot was on the other foot it clearly gave him food for thought.
London University - the degree factory
The individual colleges of London University were spread over the centre of London and the vast majority of students stayed in digs because there were no student residences. The result was that it was very much a degree factory with no sense of cohesion. The facilities at University College were undergoing renovation and rebuilding after the damage and neglect caused by the war. A new library and some laboratories were nearly completed when I arrived in 1953, but physics lectures were still held in a turn of the century run down building with access by an outside staircase. There was also a "temporary" Nissen hut (semi- cylindrical corrugated iron tube with windows and interior partitioning) which must have been installed during the war and which was still there when I left four years later.
The Queen Mother was the Chancellor of the University at that time and she came to University College to open the new laboratory wing. I was one of two very junior undergraduates detailed to hold the swing doors to one of the labs open as she came in. We stood there for about half an hour before the entourage arrived and suddenly there she was, in her hallmark blue "powder-puff" ensemble, just as all the magazine pictures showed her. As she passed through the door she turned with a charming smile and said to me: "Will you enjoy working in these new laboratories?". I was totally unprepared for any conversation, however minimal, and really surprised by the personal warmth that she radiated. I mumbled something strongly affirmative and she swept on.
Part of the factory aspect had to do with the fact that there was little or no interaction between the students and academic staff. Students were left to sought out problems with the lecture material which they could not understand among themselves. Some of the lecturers were brilliant academics with little or no aptitude or even enthusiasm for teaching, which made trying to follow the mathematical reasoning contained in board after board of their hieroglyphics difficult even for the most gifted students and quite impossible for the rest of us.
There was one particular mathematics lecturer in this category who although only 34 years old had a D.Sc and was clearly destined for better things than teaching first year courses in orbital mechanics and the theory of vectors. He would arrive and mumble good morning facing us and then spend the rest of the hour with his back to us copying his voluminous and incomprehensible "notes" onto the two blackboards in microscopic and illegible hand at a prodigious speed. He would pause after reaching the bottom of the current board just long enough to erase the previous one and continue on.
After about a week of this a deputation was formed to approach him and negotiate some changes. He was most affable and appeared to be completely unaware that there was any problem. After that things improved somewhat but unfortunately the dawn of legibility in his handwriting revealed his complete inability to spell. This however we could live with, after all having anagrams thrown in to the mix helped to keep us awake.
London in the fifties
I lived at home for the four years that I was there which meant a one and a half hour commute each way. This consisted of the same two mile bike ride to the railway station that had been part of my school journey since 1945, a forty minute train journey to London Bridge Station, followed by another train to Charing Cross, and then a tube train to Leicester square on the Central line and yet another one on the Northern line to Warren Street from where I walked to the college in Gower Street, which runs parallel to Tottenham Court Rd.
In the spring and early summer I would leave at about six in the morning to avoid the rush and what a difference, plenty of room on the train up to London Bridge and no wall of humanity to deal with in going from one platform to the next. I would get out at Waterloo Station and walk across the site of the 1951 festival of Britain exhibition on the south bank of the Thames, and thence across Hungerford bridge, up through Trafalgar square, Covent Garden market, bustling with activity by now with vegetable crates all over the place, across Oxford Street and then maybe up through Bloomsbury Square and on past the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) and in to University College. At that hour there was virtually no traffic and London was a very pleasant place to walk through, with wide open spaces and stately plane trees.
There were some drawbacks in those days and one was the high level of air pollution in the London area. Nobody thought much about it at the time. Our house was heated like every other one, with coke for the boiler in the kitchen which provided hot water as well as heat, and coal for the open fireplaces of which there were four, two upstairs and two downstairs. We rarely lit the upstairs ones and normally only the living room fire would be kept going. The net result of several million homes, thousands of factories, and hundreds of power stations and railway steam engines, was a permanent pall over the London area which enhanced sunsets but did an enormous amount of damage to buildings and peoples health.
We were all used to the idea that you changed your collar every day, my father and I had plastic collars which could be rinsed under a tap each night which we thought was a really neat solution. We all new that the air pollution had a lot to do with the famous "pea soup" fogs that descended from time to time. These really were very dense, I remember the particularly bad one in 1952 that was said to have been responsible for about 4000 deaths, I literally could not see across the platform on South Croydon station on that occasion and when I got home my clothes were grimed with particulate soot.
I will never forget taking the familiar train journey up to London many years on in the late sixties; we passed the point where there was a view directly across Tower Bridge and I was astonished to see the towers and superstructure and the buildings beyond crisp and clear under a blue sky, none of the heavy haze dissolving into a brown horizon that I remembered so well. I had not realised how bad it had been for so long.
London at that time was still one of the two largest cities in the world and even then two million people moved in and out daily using the very comprehensive and efficient public transport, principally the commuter trains and the tube. Just how critical this was became apparent in the great transport strike of 1955. Firms hired coaches to bring their people into London from the suburbs and the result was complete and utter chaos, with five-mile traffic jams on major roads from every direction into central London.
I had some important examinations to take during that time and I prevailed on my Father to let me take his BSA Bantam motorcycle because I reckoned that I would be able to thread my way through the stalled traffic without too much trouble, and so it proved. I actually made better time than if traffic had been normal, because nothing was moving. The strike was settled pretty quickly once the reality of the economic paralysis became apparent and it was a lesson that was taken very seriously indeed by the government of the day.
A few days on the Thames
During one of those summers my Brother Noel and I packed some things and spent an interesting week taking a punt up the Thames. A punt is a flat-bottomed boat in the form of a rectangular wooden box, about fifteen feet long by four feet wide by about two feet high. The two ends are sloped at angles of about thirty degrees to the waterline rather than being simply vertical like the two sides. It is designed to be a sort of poor man's mini-houseboat for people who want a lazy weekend on the river, and usually comes with metal hoops for a canvas cover-cum- awning, which makes it an all-weather self contained craft.
The shallow flat bottom design of a punt makes it extremely stable and it would require an almost unimaginable degree of incompetence to capsize one. That having been said, it requires an almost equally unimaginable degree of expertise to steer the wretched thing in a straight line, because of the blunt ends which masquerade as bow and stern. There are two modes of propulsion, one is the use of conventional paddles and the other involves a long pole.
The Thames for the most part is only a few feet deep and the person using the pole drops it until it reaches the Thames mud, thereby providing a temporary anchor. At this point the intrepid pilot of the punt (let us call him Puntius Pilot), is standing at the bow facing the stern. He then hangs on to the pole and propels the punt by walking toward the stern as if on a treadmill with the punt passing beneath his feet. He does not move relative to the scenery but the punt does.
At some point before the stern passes beneath his feet, he must lift the pole back out of the water, about face, and walk back to the bow again before once again plunging the pole down to the bottom. During this portion of his perambulation the scenery is moving much faster for him than for the other occupants of the punt for obvious reasons. He therefore makes the entire journey in a series of digital stop-go sequences, like the film of a cine-camera which moves frame by frame. I sometimes think that Einstein's relativity theory might have turned out quite differently if he had had the revelations which are supposed to have led to it, while poling a punt up the Thames rather than riding around those street cars in Zurich.
The principle of pole-power is simple enough, the devil is in the details. Thames mud can be notoriously sticky stuff and it frequently happens that the pole once firmly embedded, will not respond to the efforts of the pilot to withdraw it. If this happens there are three possible outcomes depending on the experience of the pilot. If he is a seasoned polester, then he will decide that discretion is the better part of valour and will leave the pole sticking up in the middle of the river while the rest of the crew paddle back to retrieve it.
The second outcome is that the luckless fellow will stretch every sinew of his body in a futile attempt to hang on to the pole while still keeping his feet on the stern, which is moving inexorably away from him. The result is that he eventually fails and falls face-first into the water.
The third outcome is that he has just enough experience to realise that he must choose between staying with the punt or the pole, but not enough to realise that the pole is not the right choice. The result in that case is that he is left clinging to the pole all by himself in the middle of the river. In both the last two cases the remaining occupants will roll around helpless with mirth in the bottom of the punt, and it may be some time before they have regained sufficient composure to mount a rescue.
Our trip began at Maidenhead and we ended up getting under way rather later in the day than we had planned. The first hurdle we encountered was Boulter's lock. The lock keeper for some reason considered himself off-duty after five o'clock and when I asked how we were going to get through he waved towards the lock gates and said "just help yourselves".
Since we were travelling upstream, we had to get our punt into the lock between the two sets of gates and then fill it by opening the sluices in the gates on the upstream side. There are large wheels on top of the gates which are turned by hand to raise (open) and lower (close) the trap-door style sluices which are below the water line. The lock was empty and I first opened the down stream set of gates to let Noel navigate our little craft into the lock. I then closed those gates and went to the other end to open the sluices.
I did not realise that they were meant to be opened little by little and cheerfully spun all the wheels to the full-open position. All of a sudden the placid segment of water in the lock became a boiling torrent like the bottom of Niagara Falls, with the punt spinning like a top and Noel frantically paddling to prevent it from being dashed to smithereens against the walls of the lock as the water level rocketed up. The lock keeper came tearing out of his hidey-hole waving his arms and bellowing at the top of his lungs: "You bloody young lunatic, what are you trying to do, start a tidal wave".
It took us about a week to make it up to Wargrave and back and it reinforced our joint belief that there is nothing quite like messing about in boats. We tied up each night just wherever we felt like it and retired under the canvas awning. We would wake up to the sound of ducks quacking and honking for food as they swam around the punt. They knew that stationary boats with people in them were usually a good bet for something edible.
We saw swans landing and taking off which is quite something to behold. It reminded me a bit of seeing the ponderous piston- engine air liners taking off from London airport. The big birds needed about a quarter of a mile of clear river to get airborne, with the tips of their huge wings dipping deep into the water with every powerful stroke for the first three hundred yards or so. Finally just an occasional splash as they flew a foot or two above the surface and then very slowly gained altitude, with the sound of their beating wings still audible for three quarters of a mile or more.
We stopped at picturesque villages like Marlowe, to go in search of provisions and got pretty good at using the dreaded pole to propel ourselves along the shallow stretches of the river. It was probably moderately polluted, but I don't remember that we thought much about that when we went in for our morning dip and we have both lived to tell the tale. It rained a couple of times but we had the awning so it was bearable. Once it rained as we were preparing to cook our lunch on our little Primus stove, so we pulled the awning all the way over and carried on. After a bit we heard a lot of commotion with raised voices and what sounded like a ship's hooter being sounded. We poked our heads round the awning out of curiosity to see what was causing all the ruckus - and discovered it was us.
We had made both bow and stern fast to conveniently adjacent overhanging tree branches before embarking on our culinary activities, but somehow the upstream tether let go (either my sheet-bend wasn't bent enough or my reef knot turned out to be a grief knot, I can't remember now), and the other one was unravelling at an alarming rate. The net result was that we were slowly moving broadside-on into the main channel and right across the path of a commercial pleasure boat, loaded to the gunwales with passengers. Fortunately we did not have too many unscheduled interruptions of that sort and made it back to Maidenhead without any major catastrophe. (Predictably the lock keeper at Boulter's lock saw us coming on the return voyage and ordered us both to stay in the punt on pain of death, while he did the honours with the sluices). That whole interlude happened in the England of forty years ago. I very much doubt that it would be possible today even to find a reach of the Thames that was not constantly churned up with motor driven craft, let alone a place to tie up for the night without let or hindrance.
|Table of Contents||Previous page||Next page|