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 my photoladder alongside, which runs chronologically from cradle towards grave, and also the following Albums.
Not many pictures of us together whilst growing-up as Simon was consigned to boarding-school 1954-1959.
Picture #1 is unique in being the only (surviving) image that includes both William and Katie. There may have been at least a wedding picture or two, but if so I've never seen one. Another interesting question is who were Simon's godparents? Never ever mentioned.
Please click here for lurid details.
This entire page might sooner or later be seen as an unauthorised autobiography, and eventually I shall probably have to disown it, amidst a welter of recriminations with myself.
Sturdy little fellow
Letter from my mother Katie (Kathleen) to her mother-in-law Hannah Waddell. The remark on p6 shows that Robert and Hannah had by then moved ashore from the Dutch barge to Well Cottage by Birdham Pool.
I've never known quite why my parents were based in rural Leicestershire at that time, but they had been married close by two years earlier so I can only assume that William's war work in the Alan Good engineering empire was the reason.
|p1:||Mother = mother-in-law, and Father = father-in-law, tribal etiquette for young married women at that time, though by no means universal.|
|p1:||Town = London|
|p1:||Pinner = the Blunt briar patch in outer NW London. Think Joan Hunter Dunn.|
|p2:||Syrup sandwiches? How very Paddingtonian of me.|
|p3:||Wardlaw = Walter = Bill = William|
|p3:||Marjorie Blunt = Katie's sister|
|p4:||Lucy Gueritz = William's cousin|
|p4:||Christopher Champion was the son of Ralph and Wynne Champion, Ralph being the New York correspondent of the Daily Mirror and Wynne being one of my godparents, allegedly.|
|p5:||(Uncle) Sandy had been helping to chase the Wehrmacht back to Berlin and was not yet demobilised at the time of writing.|
|p6:||This 'private language' was officially known as Oggly Goggly.|
|p6:||A dish of butter? Butter??? Probably the produce of Alan Good's dairy farm.|
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.
Click here 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.
The early autumn of 1963 was perhaps one of the nethermost points of my life before or since. I'd systematically messed-up absolutely everything, academic and personal, and there was no obvious way forward.
Then his wise friend and counsellor Daphne Kendall suggested to my father, who was having his own extended crisis at the time, that I could volunteer as chief cook and bottle-washer for a three-month geological survey that was to begin early the following year in Abu Dhabi, involving three postgraduate students from the Royal School of Mines (now the Department of Geology) at Imperial College London. The pay and prospects would be negligible, but it would be a change of scene for me and a great relief to him (especially after the change of government at the General Election on 15 Oct, which he always claimed was the death-knell of his business) as we were scarcely on speaking terms by then.
I was filling in the time by working as a builder's labourer at a renovation in Belgrave Square, and attending a Freudian psychiatrist, a Dr Viktor Frankl, at his consulting room in (I think) Hampstead High Street, once a week. The family doctor Ryland Lamberty had recommended him to my father. There were some fairly comical aspects to these sessions, and I might recount them one day. The principal benefit was being able to talk to a sensible adult without it degenerating into a blame game.
There were two drawbacks to this arrangement, one being the immense amount of travelling (as we lived in Kersfield Road at the top of Putney Hill), and the other being the cost of the appointments, all of which I was having to stump up for after the first few weeks. In retrospect it doesn't sound feasible on wages of £10 a week at most, but then much of what happened during the year that followed doesn't seem credible either, even to me. I think, however, that my father paid the airfare, and probably felt it was good value for money!
The postgraduate students with whom I was going to travel out were Chris Kendall and Paddy Skipwith (both of whom had previous form as regards Persian Gulf expeditions), and a third, Godfrey Butler, was to join us out in Abu Dhabi about ten days later. The first leg of our journey was to be to Rome by BEA, for which, in those days, one checked-in at the West London Air Terminal in Cromwell Road, and took the airport coach out to Heathrow. On that particular afternoon in late December, however, Heathrow was fogbound and we were shuttled back to stay overnight in a central London hotel, which to me seemed very luxurious – and wanting to share the Kingsize comfort, I phoned my on/off girlfriend to join me for some serious Ugandan discussions, the last such get-together for quite some time.
So much for the preliminaries. The events of the next 90 days are chronicled in detail in the diary which I kept of this unprecedented adventure, which was to redirect my life and give me a new sense of purpose. Supreme credit for this should go to Chris Kendall himself, who became my Dutch uncle for the duration of our stay in Abu Dhabi, and later on when we shared a flat in Redcliffe Gardens.
The diary itself is written neatly, almost entirely in ink, and in very small manuscript. It also uses various abbreviations which make it a tough read for the uninitiated. For these reasons, Chris himself very generously arranged earlier this year (2017) for the scanned copy to be transcribed into MS Word, which of course has vastly improved the legibility.
As well as this, I thought an old-fashioned day-by-day table of contents would enable the casual reader to grasp the drift of events more readily – indeed more readily than those us actually involved at the time, for reasons which will unfold.
This online version is very much a work in progress, and will be fine-tuned in due course. At the moment there are just two options.
Plus a parallel narrative, written by Kendall himself in conjunction with the time-line provided by the Complete Diary, but with an eagle's-eye view (at least in retrospect) of what was going on, plus what was not supposed to be going on, together with the background knowledge and perspective provided by his previous expedition to Abu Dhabi in 1962.
I've removed the blocks of photographs that he'd included amidst the text, but these will be reintroduced on separately-linked webpages in due course, insha'Allah. Also, I've suppressed the urge to regularise his sometimes idiosyncratic approach to spelling and syntax!
As for his jovialities about rebellious pugnacity on my part, I'm happy to roll with them – though I'm generally mild-mannered to the point of self-effacement, my hackles do admittedly rise when confronted by what I perceive as high-handed authoritarianism ... on the other hand it is wisely said that he who strikes the first blow has already lost the argument!
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 1 (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 2 (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 1 (who became an officer in the Royal Brunei Navy)
- Dave Elliott 1 ("two l's two t's", tensor virtuoso, died of heart attack in his early 30's)
I particularly remember his catch-phrases
- Drop your c*cks and grab your socks, it's daylight in the swamps
- Drop your drawers, here's Santa Claus
- When in doubt, fly to (i, j, k)
- 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 1 2 (pp 1,2) (softly spoken, courteous, and always immaculately dressed)
1 across: What do I do in bed last thing every weekday night, but generally have to finish-off in the bath the following morning?
2 down: And what am I totally unable to manage on Saturday night but achieve triumphantly on the Sunday evening (or at the latest on Monday morning) with the admiring encouragement of my wife?
My what smutty minds you all have. The answers are of course the Times Quick Cryptic crosswords on Monday to Friday, and Times [Cryptic] crossword (competitive strength) on Saturday. Actually they do also publish a Times [Cryptic] crossword (regular strength) on Monday to Friday, but life's too short to tackle those as well.
They also publish General Knowledge ‘times2' crosswords Monday to Saturday, but these are uterly (sic) wet and weedy in comparison.
And on Bank Holidays they publish a Jumbo Crossword, with a 23x23 grid instead of the regular 15x15 size, and two different sets of clues – Cryptic and times2 – with different answers so you can't pick and mix. Ideal if you're confined to bed with flu or somesuch.
Innumerable articles and books have been published on the history and practice of cruciverbalism, and I have quite a few of them. However, like the centipede who over-analysed his ability to cope with a hundred legs in unison, and fell over in the ditch, I find that these books inhibit my subconscious nous and I lose the knack$. Other people with far more organised minds than mine have a conscious repertoire of techniques, procedures, algorithms even, and do the entire Saturday competition crossword in 7½ minutes (as I believe M R James, Provost of Eton College, author of the spookiest ghost stories in the language, regularly did). Where's the fun in that?
'The great Russian neuropsychologist Alexander Luria pointed out that identical functions can be achieved by different ensembles of brain areas working together on different occasions. For example, learning a new skill requires conscious, cortical thought. But control may subsequently pass down to sub-cortical centres once the skill is well learnt.
Indeed, consciously thinking about a well-learnt skill may actually disrupt it.'
[I myself have never been able to cope with somebody watching over my shoulder whilst I try to demonstrate - or explain - something I can do perfectly well if left to my own devices.]
Newspapers and magazines other than The Times also regularly feature crosswords of similar calibre (notably Private Eye, whose very challenging fortnightly specimen used to be compiled by the notorious Tom Driberg). And The Times itself does publish, every Saturday, the so-called Listener Crossword, of almost legendary impenetrability, complexity, and difficulty, which originated in the BBC companion magazine The Listener; it's not for ordinary mortals such as (possibly) you and certainly I.
The Times also publishes, every Saturday, a crossword in Latin (though the clues themselves are mostly in English), for the benefit of those fortunate enough to have had some educational exposure to the classical languages – those indeed to whom the very word ‘cruciverbalism' has an immediate connection.
The Times cryptic crossword, together with the BBC TV quiz Only Connect, presented by the adorable Victoria Coren-Mitchell, are both evidence of the British genius for quirky general knowledge and lateral thinking. Unfortunately, a precondition for membership of our ruling elite, of either political complexion, is the complete absence of either quality.
But, paradoxically, in everyday life, we cruciverbalists feel distinctly isolated – like dissidents in a repressive despotism – as English society is hostile to any overt evidence of interests other than celebrity, sport and the weather. "Too clever by half" has been the damning indictment against many an emerging public figure. The other cultures of the British Isles – Welsh, Scottish, or Irish – are far more comfortable with such tendencies.
In my own case, on starting work in a new company, one didn't feel entirely comfortable until a sudden sighting of the familiar 15x15 grid on a neighbouring desk at lunchtime betrayed the presence of a fellow enthusiast, even it was only a Guardian ( thank you David Holloway, Mark Calway and David Jones ...)
So how does a lifelong commitment of this sort begin?
Towards the end of 1959, at the beginning of the sixth-form, I boarded the 52 bus home at Victoria Station, as usual, and headed upstairs, to find a class-mate, David Humphreys, already seated and hunched over the Daily Telegraph. "Wotcher doin' Dave?" I enquired in the patois of that era. "Cryptic crossword", he grunted.
Even years earlier, in the News of the World and the Evening Standard, I'd encountered the general knowledge variety, but this was something new. He showed me the clue he'd just solved, to which the answer was "Love me love my dog", and explained his thought-processes, and said that sort of answer, eg (4,2,4,2,3), was the one he liked best, as it gave away some evidence of its structure.
Verb sap, by some mystic means the whole ethos was revealed – it continues to illuminate my declining years, and, I trust, will keep the neurones fully engaged until the last moment. These days, in my eighth decade, I do appreciate the assistance of the Seiko-Oxford crossword solver to help me with a 12 letter anagram or a particularly tough multiple-word phrase, if all else fails.
So what benefits accrue? Very occasionally: in my case only thrice have I been one of the lucky weekly winners in the Times weekly cryptic, and twice in the Independent, so in sixty years I've scooped £100 in gift-tokens. And as you can see [Jan 2020], it's been a barren decade since the previous bonanza ...
It's not an ego-trip either; after cracking a particularly difficult clue, my admiration is always for the ingenuity of the setter (aka compiler) rather than any feeling of cleverness myself. I have the same attitude towards the Universe, which I see as a gigantic crossword set by some Great Compiler to beguile us.
And although the feats of the truly stellar crossworders who take part in the Times Crossword Championships every year are way beyond the reach of us honest plodders, at least we're all on the same track – but just that they're much quicker – rather like we're way back in the pack of the London Marathon while the Kipchoge's battle for top place.
In bygone days Roy Dean, and then John Sykes (a particularly astonishing individual), was the magister magistrorum, but now Mark Goodliffe (even more remarkable for the breadth of his capabilities) is the one to beat – even if he very occasionally goes off-piste.
The Centipede's Dilemma
Mrs Robin not infrequently quotes the following verse, heard in childhood from her father Ron Kaulback,
A centipede was happy – quite!
Until a toad in fun
Said, "Pray, which leg moves after which?"
This raised her doubts to such a pitch,
She fell exhausted in the ditch
Not knowing how to run.
The effect of over-analysis of a skill is apparently well-known in psychology as "The Centipede's Dilemma".