When I was 10, my father’s cousin (more like an uncle to me, as they’d been brought up in the same house in Glasgow) became engaged to an English girl, a bold deed previously unheard of within our family. The wedding was to take place in Hemel Hempstead on 31 July 1965.
As it was quite a drive down from the Wirral my parents decided to build their summer holiday around it, taking the opportunity to see the sights of London and return via the fleshpots of Malvern. I kept a diary for that fortnight as I was obliged to write a “what I did in the holidays” composition for school.
A couple of years ago my mother found this diary. Each entry is a concatenation of statistics: exactly how far Dad had driven in the Vauxhall Victor, on which roads and how long it took (though calculating the average speed was as yet beyond me); the exact height of each of the Malvern Hills in feet; etc, etc… It is gripping stuff.
Consider, gentle reader, the opening page, whose lapidary and rhythmical prosody sets the tone for the feast to come. There is but one minor spelling mistake (the surname of the cousin). I quote verbatim.
Monday, 26th July
At half past eight we set off for Hemel Hempstead. Going down the M.1. our top speed was seventy-two miles per hour. When we arrived we had travelled exactly 203 miles. It was two forty-five when we found our hotel. We had tea with a cousin called Kenneth McLennon. I bought a toy car for five shillings and six pence. The number of my room in the hotel is seven.
It is Adrian Mole ante factum
Uncle Ken worked at the Shell Mex and BP Computer Centre. In those bygone days a computer filled a large room. They were not objects you generally saw. We were taken on a tour of the building, and I remember being told they had a Univac 1108. I dutifully documented the fact, accompanied by drawings of LEO machines with tapes whizzing round – perhaps subconsciously aware that this was my natural habitat – along with an inaccurate representation of a Corgi Ford Mustang Fastback 2+2.
I went on to describe the wedding itself in terms of the buffet; in particular, the number of Schweppes Bitter Lemons I had consumed (5, since you ask). To some extent that was an indication of how bored I must have been: an only child at a stranger’s party, wearing a kilt, and missing my friends. I do not mention my grandparents, whom I liked and rarely saw. But in any case I was rather a strange little boy. I read a huge amount, and had no interest at all in sport.
As for my first visit to the greatest city in Europe, there is nothing at all on how I felt about seeing Tower Bridge, Westminster Abbey or St Paul’s Cathedral. I included a charming if garish felt-tip sketch of each. I also took the trouble to note, with characteristic over-precision, that we “just managed to get the 6.38 train home”.
It is not that I was utterly devoid of emotion, but it seems not to have occurred to me to put my feelings into words. Perhaps my favourite passage is from Tuesday, 3rd August, Chapter 9, which includes a sentence with more than one subordinate clause. Clearly I was Oxbridge material.
Afterwards we went to the Worcester Royal Porcelain Works. Unfortunately the main part was closed down for the summer holiday, but we were allowed to see round the Museum and the Reject shop, where imperfect goods are sold at a reduction of 25%.
Sue Townsend would surely have been proud to have written that
I must have delivered this document, proud as Punch, to Mr Leeming, my teacher, but I cannot imagine what he made of it.
The mania for recording and collecting is not unusual in pre-pubescent boys, I suppose; but I brought it to a fine art. For example, I obsessed about the different versions of the Supermarine Spitfire or the Bf 109.
And once I’d started on the Biggles books I felt I had to read them all. (I moved on to Gimlet, who was exactly the same as Biggles – apart from being in the Army rather than the RFC/RAF. (Worrals of the WAAF was a step too far.) Although I enjoyed the stories, I took as much, if not more, pleasure in tracking down an illusive Armada paperback I hadn’t yet added to my bookshelf. How annoying that, when laid out on the carpet, they did not form a perfect rectangle! I suppose I could have made a step pyramid or ziggurat, but I didn’t know about those at that stage of my intellectual development.
I never became a computer scientist because, unlike my father, I wasn’t much good at maths. But if useless information is your forte, Latin is an excellent way to put your skills into practice. I survived more than six years of it, plus two of Greek.
Thinking back on it, and indeed reflecting on my current behaviour, I must surely be somewhere on the spectrum. My socks are invariably stacked on the right side of the drawer, one stuffed inside the other, “open ends” always facing in the same direction; whereas my Y-Fronts are always on the left, neatly piled one on top of the other. In my wardrobe, every shirt must hang in the same direction (buttons towards the left) on identical hangers. I am tidy in a way that most people would not notice, while being untidy in a way that most people do. It is hard to explain and even harder to justify.
However, my ability to ingest, classify and recall stuff did eventually come up trumps. In 1984 I was (still) at Queen’s, taking a long, long time over my thesis. One day I heard that the college was going to take part in University Challenge. Being an avid fan of the programme, I went along to the trials to see if I was good enough to make the team. And as a collector of useless information I wasn’t surprised when I was picked.
In February we went to Manchester to record the show. We were drawn against neighbours Magdalen College, who had already won two games. (In the opposition team was Mick Imlah, a handsome young poet who would die young.) At half-time we were leading, but in the end we were well beaten – 270 : 190, to be precise.
I answered five starters correctly, but to no avail
To my left was a young undergraduate, who didn’t seem to know a lot, and two other postgrads: one a Classicist (Clark, from Crook, Cumbria) and the other an acknowledged expert on the Meister Eckhart, who out-geeked me by a country mile. Bamber consoled us with “Well done. It was a good game”.
It would have been nice to have won something, just for a change. I would have to wait another 20 years…