Robert (Robin) Erskine Waddell
(b 11 Feb 1945)
My personal narrative (ie. a long list of excuses for not having achieved more so far in life) is not yet prepared, but meanwhile, to give some point to this link, you might like to view a preliminary handful of photographs from over the years.
And also a rather incomplete selection of nice wedding photos from
1945 Quorn, Chaveney Road
1949 Loughborough, 8 Benscliffe Drive
1950 Pinner, 3 Paines Lane
1955 London, 25 Cheyne Place
1959 London, 2 Basil Mansions
1960 Yugoslavia / Croatia, Pakoštane
1961 Fishbourne, Apuldram Lane
1962 Nottingham, Fresher
1964 Abu Dhabi, Mangrove swamp
1964 Sharjah, post-combat
1967 Belgravia, dummy run for 16 Dec
1985 Charvil, Fine Fellows
1986 Thames, festive narrowboat
1987 Iceland, Reykyavik Marathon
1990 Reading, Caversham Bridge
1996 Aegean, Cyclades Islands
1997 Reading, by Unitarian Church
1998 London, Victoria Coach Station
2004 London, Cromwell Hospital
2005 Reading, Shinfield Park
2007, 40 years forsaking all others
2011 Athens, Acropolis
2013 Victoria BC, Friends MH
2014 Ireland, Ilnacullin Island
2015 Mancunia, scruffy selfie
2016 Gozo, who ate all the pies?
2016 Mancunia, a surfeit of Robins
2017 Manchester, Diversely Unitarian
Like so many children unblessed by a rural upbringing and first-hand witness of what goes on in the farmyard, and without the benefit of modern TV and tabloids (especially The Times), I had virtually no idea about sex, whether for procreation or recreation. Our ignorance was absolutely staggering by the standards of today. We had very little curiosity about reproduction, and indeed our parents were generally loth to enlighten us in any way whatsoever.
But I do remember almost verbatim one very early skirmish on this topic (though I didn't recognise it as such at that time). It was a fine day, and my mother and I were walking down what is now called Old Road from Foxhill to Quarry Hill, where we lived on the Mottram Road out of Stalybridge. I was then about 6 or 7.
A precociously avid reader of my mother's childhood girls' story-books (of the Elsie J Oxenham genre), I'd noticed an obsessive emphasis on the irresponsibility and fecklessness of the Lower Orders – as witness their profusion of barefoot and ragged children - as opposed to the heroines' family backgrounds, often impecunious but always definitely PLU, with a dignified minimum of properly-clad children.
This coincidence had puzzled me, and on a sudden impulse I decided to ask her about it. She improvised the answer that richer people had to spend a lot more money on bringing up their children, and so they had fewer.
Even at that tender age I spotted the fallacy, in that if they were better-off they could obviously afford to provide an appropriate standard of living for numerous progeny.
So I protested, "But parents can't help how many children they have."
She gave me a sidelong glance (65 years later I can still see the scene), as though to assess "where I was coming from", and resorted to her standard close-down, "Little boys shouldn't ask questions."
And so a golden parental opportunity was lost.
At the age of about 12, I was given quite an accurate account of what was involved, by a class-mate called Fishman who was sitting next to me on the coach to games one afternoon. But I couldn't believe that my own parents, for example, could have cooperated in such an implausibly energetic procedure, so (for a while at least), I disbelieved him.
A couple of years or so later, in the small hours of the morning after my father had delivered one of his impromptu tutorials (on the subject of Gresham's Law and the perils of a bimetallic currency), he paused and looked at me quizzically. "That sort of thing's called The Facts of Life," he said. "Have you heard about them?"
"Yes," I replied, rather nonplussed.
"Well, no need to say anything more on the subject," he concluded. And that was it.
Looking back, I think the best summary of the whole business is still Lord Chesterfield's dictum that "The position is ludicrous, the pleasure momentary, and the expense damnable." Caveat amator, and quite possibly amatrix too.
It was always acutely embarrassing at the beginning of each autumn term at secondary school to have to stand up in class and give your form-master your full name so that he could put it into the register for recording daily attendances for the rest of the school year. I disliked my first name and loathed my middle name. I wasn't at all keen on my surname either, for reasons already mentioned.
In my mid-teens I did try to persuade the rest of the family to call me Robert rather than Robin (which I thought was toe-curlingly sissy), but only my kindly Aunt Helen supported me in this, and after a few months I abandoned the effort. And later in life, particularly since researching the middle name for this very website, I have actually become quite proud of Erskine.
There were two other occasions of similar embarrassment; the first when the maths master in the first year, Mr Sanger, went round the class asking us what our fathers or mothers did for a living. Other boys reported quite normal occupations like being a bus driver, or a postman, or a civil servant, and so on. But I had to say 'industrial adviser', at which he did an exaggerated double-take and got me to elaborate on this bizarre and unheard-of occupation, while the rest of the class sniggered. These days, one could have said management consultant, and Sir would have nodded and moved on immediately.
On the second such occasion, Mr Sanger went round the class asking what we wanted to do for a living ourselves after we left school. Some boys said same as their dads, or various other routine answers. Some said they didn't know, which I should have done. Instead, however I went public on my ambition to be an 'atom scientist'. At this, some of the more easily amused members of the class fell off their chairs with laughter, while the others just chortled derisively.
But it was a sincere answer, and there was more to it than they supposed.
During my years at Kingsmoor School, in Glossop, I became – like quite a few of the other boys – obsessed with space exploration. There were a number of contributory influences, the first of which was the wonderful comic Eagle, its front cover invariably featuring Dan Dare, Pilot of The Future, brilliantly drawn by Frank Hampson.
A year or two later the BBC Light Programme broadcast a weekly space saga called Journey into Space, written by Charles Chilton. This was really powerful stuff, featuring ace British space pilot Jet Morgan, and millions of people tuned in every week for the latest episode. Set in a futuristic 1965, it was totally convincing, and parts of it were seriously frightening (particularly as I was listening to it alone).
At around the same time, the BBC Home Service started broadcasting weekly episodes of The Lost Planet, serialised from the childrens' book written by Angus MacVicar – I'm pretty sure it occupied a slot in Childrens' Hour. It featured a brilliant Scottish spaceship designer cum space pilot, Dr Lachlan McKinnon, and the mysterious frozen world of Hesikos.
It was followed in due course by a series of weekly episodes of Return To The Lost Planet, the second of the six books MacVicar produced on this theme, though I'm not sure whether the others were also adapted for radio.
At that time, the British aerospace industry was still perfectly credible, producing a variety of advanced fighters, long-range V-bombers, and guided missiles, as I well knew from my monthly Meccano Magazine and the weekly centrespreads in Eagle by Frank Hampson. So the idea of British spaceships was not so stupid.
And anyway, one just knew that space-travel capability was merely a matter of time, as it was so brilliantly explained in this classic book, which was my absolute bible. I read and absorbed every single word, and revelled in the diagrams. It was not actually written by Willy Ley, who only provided the foreword, but it still reflected his optimism and clarity of expression.
But then the family removed south, as my father had been working down there for quite some time anyway, and I started at a new school, The Boys' Central, a Church of England primary school in Chichester. Where absolutely nobody was interested in space-travel, and so my earlier ambition to become a space-ship designer withered and died.
At about this time I was given (by whom I can't remember) a book called The Boys' Book of Science and Invention – almost certainly the 1953 edition, rather than the 1959 edition I recently bought via Amazon. However, the all-important chapter titled Secrets of The Atom seems to have changed very little if at all. It gave a really good, straightforward account of the simplest subatomic particles (electrons and nuclei) and the simplest subnuclear particles (protons and neutrons), and introduced the concept of electron shells. It also provided a table of the first 102 chemical elements in order of atomic number (though not with any suggestion as to how this could be organised according to the electron shells of each element).
Its description of positrons, neutrinos and mesons was off-target, but it did say they weren't too important from the chemical or engineering point of view. Positrons and (anti)neutrinos are in fact respectively emitted in β+ and β (both ±) radioactivity, but radioactivity was only touched upon, in the section on atomic power.
to read Secrets of the Atom
But it was enough to fire a lasting ambition (to be an "atom-scientist") that was eventually realised in postgraduate study and postdoctoral research over the period 1967–76. Though, I must hasten to add, in the rather less demanding area of molecular physics, atomic physics tending to imply the really highbrow subnuclear stuff.
Along the way, I had the good fortune to find second-hand copies of really excellent little books on the electronic interpretation of the periodic table, valency (now a rather out-dated concept, I believe), and the application of the simple (G N Lewis) ideas of electronic valency to the structure of organic and inorganic molecules. These were revelations, as nothing of this sort was taught in my London secondary school chemistry lessons! But there was a downside, in that I began to despise the curriculum work, with very adverse effects at A-level and first-year University level.
Particularly good were
- A Simple Guide to Modern Valency Theory; G I Brown, Longman Green, London–New York, 1953. 174 pp
- Electronic Theory and Chemical Reactions: An Elementary Treatment; R W Stott, Longman Green et al London, 1943
and several others that are still in packing-cases.
And there was to be ultimate disillusionment, that the spectacular explicative power of the simple G N Lewis diagrams and the simple certitudes of quantised action provided by the "Old" quantum theory, did not transfer across to the supposed real-deal of "New" quantum theory, better (though misleadingly) known as wave mechanics.
For one thing, the quantum theory taught at undergraduate level was a voodoo hybrid of a variety of competing formalisms, and there was absolutely no attempt at rigour – you just had to learn it in order to parrot it in examinations. It was simply smoke and mirrors.
And indeed, as a postgraduate and postdoctoral student, my disillusion deepened, as it began to appear that quantum theory, even when properly presented, had no explicative power anyway. It had predictive power, of course, in that huge computer programs could accurately calculate the properties (such as energy, and electric and magnetic properties) of atoms and molecules – invaluable to pharmaceutical companies, for example – but it didn't press my humble button as to why atoms combined to form molecules of particular shapes in the first place. When and whither had the concept of valency disappeared? François Villon put it even more poignantly.
34 Redcliffe Gardens
- Click here for a StreetMap of the vicinity
- Note IC = Imperial College London, TCD = Trinity College Dublin
In about Feb 1965, I moved out from temporary accommodation in my mother's basement flat in Holland Park Gardens (to both of our great reliefs) to a tiny box-room in the top-floor flat at 34 Redcliffe Gardens SW10 (proprietor a pleasant Australian chap called Russell-Cowan; Bill, a large but dull-witted Pimlican, was his janitorial factotum).
The existing tenants at that time were (as far as I can recall) Chris Kendall 1 (IC postgraduate geologist, ex TCD) in the biggest room (reputedly haunted), Geoff Lemon (ex TCD middleweight fistic phenomenon) in the next biggest (at the back), and Jonah Barrington (ex TCD law undergraduate – but not actually graduate – yet to make his mark in the world of ultra-competitive squash) in the one just smaller than that. The rule was that as each room was vacated the ones with smaller rooms upgraded.
When Chris moved out later in 1965 after getting his IC doctorate and winning a Harkness Fellowship to the USA, and Geoff Lemon moved out for some other reason, Dave Elliott (IC postdoctoral geologist, ex Johns Hopkins) moved into the biggest room, and Wally Johnson (IC geology postgraduate; Jonah always addressed him by his full name, Robert Wallace Johnson, in a bogus American accent) moved in to the back room.
When Wally moved out in 1966, also as a result of getting his IC doctorate and winning a Harkness Fellowship to the USA, Nigel Faulks (a recent law graduate) moved in to the back room.
There had been a sort of interregnum, during which Terry and Gwyneth, a couple of ex art students, moved into the back room for a while. He was tall, bearded and thin, and she was smooth and plump. They lived on social security, and every Friday (benefits day) she would return from the little local supermarket laden with goodies, and start baking biscuits, loaves, and cakes etc, whilst the rest of us stood round sniffing like Bisto Kids at the tantalising aromas. Then they would disappear into the back room for a feast, followed by a noisy coital celebration.
But the day came when their benefits were stopped for some reason, but we allowed them to sleep on the couch on the landing at the top of the stairs, so that the back room could be occupied by somebody more solvent. This gesture was supposedly purely temporary, but weeks passed and Terry and Gwyneth showed no sign of moving out. Worse still, the landing became a no-go area at night for the rest of us – Terry and Gwyneth were making the Beast with Two Backs more or less non-stop through the hours of darkness. No wonder they needed all that carbohydrate.
Jonah solved the problem with typical ingenuity – he solemnly misinformed them one evening that we'd decided (for some unspecified reason) that Bill would shortly be arriving to dispose of the couch, but of course they were welcome to use the floor. They moved out the following day!
Chris and Jonah had between them accumulated a host of friends at TCD, and a good many of them also then in that part of London seemed to regard the top flat at 34 Redcliffe Gardens as a focal point for dropping by, or a gathering point for an evening out (especially with the well-thronged Finch's Wine Bar just a short stroll up the Fulham Road – hard to tell now if it's still there or has been poshed-up beyond all recognition).
Listed below are the ones I remember – not all movers and shakers, one or two not even particularly admirable. They were all in a different age-zone from me anyway, though I became amiably tolerated as an enfant terrible by some of them, or as just terrible by the rest. Possibly interlinked by some strange karma, Chris Kendall and I have remained intermittently, but persistently, in touch ever since – indeed it was briefly in the runes that we would become step-brothers: according to his mother Daphne who rang me after my father died, "he was such a kind, kind man and I would have married him had it not been for his enormous tummy". And they say that love conquers all. Perhaps just as well that it didn't.
- Larry O'Shaughnessy 1 (a life fraught with psychological difficulties)
- Paddy Skipwith 1 (a scion of many lineages, and numerous marriages)
- Nick Tolstoy 1 (his sister Natasha had, some seven years previously, attended the Catherine Judson Secretarial School at the same time as my future wife Sonia and sister-in-law Susie, and they had been great friends)
But of these, unfortunately, I know nothing further:
- David Cant (who became an officer in the Royal Brunei Navy in 1965)
- Dave Elliott ("two l's two t's", tensor virtuoso, died of heart attack in his early 30's)
- Bryan Hamilton (aspiring wheeler-dealer whose cousin Lois married Dave Elliott)
- Coleman King 1 (genial estate agent) and utterly delightful girlfriend Felicity
- Geoff Lemon (prickly, qualified doctor and Irish Universities boxing champion)
- Jo Xuereb (softly spoken, courteous, and always immaculately dressed)