Sixty-eight years ago

September 25, 2007

During her stay in Canada my mother reminisced about her experience of the outbreak of war in September ’39, when she was a twenty year old Londoner. Her recollections brought it to life for me, so I’ll share them here.

A couple of days before the beginning of the 2nd World War, when Poland was being invaded and everyone knew that war was inevitable, my mother, who had a “half-season” ticket to the Proms — costing her 9 (old) pence rather than a shilling per concert — went to a performance at the Queen’s Hall which turned out to be the last ever, because these concerts ceased for the duration of the war and the old Hall was bombed. Being Friday, it was a Beethoven night, with Henry Wood conducting. Few people came to the concert, so she had a good view of the orchestra, but it was a “poor performance,” she said. It was difficult to come down the steps afterwards, as the blackout had now been imposed. Busses drove by with hooded headlights, and no lights on inside. The destination sign was likewise blacked out so a prospective passenger would have to shout to the bus driver from her bus stop, “Where are you going?” Nor could she see the coins in her purse when the conductor came round to collect the fares, so perhaps she only gave him a farthing, instead of threepence.

On normal occasions, she would often walk the three miles home to save her threepence.

The first my mother heard of the declaration of war was in a Methodist Church in Holborn where the famous pacifist, Donald Soper, happened to be preaching that morning. He interrupted the service to make the solemn announcement which was immediately followed by the sound of an air-raid siren. Everyone got up and left the premises, making for the safety of the nearest underground station. As it was a Sunday, none of the escalators was working and officially the station was closed, with no one to sell her a ticket, but Mum went down below all the same, carrying her gas mask in its “clumsy box”. A tube train came by, stopped, and she got on, for the first time in her life taking a free ride. She came up again at her home stop, Holland Park, expecting to see devastation, but “everything was the same as usual.”

Trenches were dug along Holland Park Avenue; there were sandbags and barrage balloons and “a funny atmosphere” during the phoney war. Everyone anticipated drastic events, but for a while “nothing happened”. Mum worked for the Civil Service in those days at an office in Hammersmith, Olympia, which before long was evacuated elsewhere, some of the employees being transferred to a place called ZA which everyone knew to be Harrogate. Mum, knowing this was about to occur, wrote to the authorities, saying: If the town concerned is less than fifty miles from Darlington where my aging parents live, I would like to be included in the evacuation. (In fact her parents were only in their early sixties; even so, my grandfather was to die of a stroke in the spring of the following year.) Her real motivation was to “get back to the countryside” because she was homesick for the moors. Her ploy worked; she was transferred to Harrogate and every three weeks was able to go back to her “old life” in Darlington at the weekend, playing the flute in her father’s chapel orchestra, though psychologically she no longer felt that she really belonged there. It was an unsettling, she said, living two lives.


Family circle

September 24, 2007

On her visit, my mother showed me something my cousin had made: a record of our ancestors. It wasn’t drawn as a family tree but as concentric rings, my mother’s name—Dorothy Middleton Tullett—prominent in the innermost circle. A ring round that divided into two contained her father’s name and her mother’s maiden name, the next ring showing the names of her four grandparents (i.e. my grandson’s great-great-great grandparents), and so on to the outermost ring, eight generations back, which had room for 128 different names, very few of them filled in because my cousin must have had trouble finding a record of all those people born in the 17th century.

It struck me how many different surnames were shown, most of them unfamiliar although all directly linked to me, unless one of my antecedents was the offspring of an illicit affair … and who could ever tell, now? There were Mewars and Matthews, the Younger, Watson, Pattison, Vitty, Close, Gilpatrick, Hilton, Trotter, Dunn, Sweeting, Gill, Harrison, Hutton, Jackson, Wetherweld, Sprowson, Fawcett, Ostlins, Wilford, Green, Rawlinson, Parke, Gillard, Burgess, James, Smith, Hormer and Graham families. We had ancestors called Addy and others called Eddy; some were Brackens and some were Breckons. I see a Wilde or two who might even connect me with my son-in-law’s mother’s family. In fact we must all be far more related than we think.

A huge variety of occupations was listed. We were

  • cartwrights
  • joiners
  • a parish clerk
  • an innkeeper on the Great North Road
  • a cornmiller
  • a mail-coach driver
  • cordwainers
  • saddlers
  • yeomen
  • and a tin plate worker from Grantham
  • I don’t suppose my son has a clue what a cordwainer is and I’m sure the cordwainer William Woodford (1668-1719) would never have dreamt of having an astrophysicist for a great great (…) great grandson, but they appear to be firmly linked by a long genetic chain none the less and perhaps share more than a few qualities.

    Apart from their occupations, I have only snippets of information about my ancestors. My grandfather Benjamin was the son of another Benjamin, himself the son of 19th century William, “a reprobate with 16 children” (I quote my mother) who founded an ironworks in Somerset where you can still see BISHOP BROTHERS written on manhole covers. Those Bishop brothers were devout Baptists who eventually converted William to the extent that he “cried over the Bible”, or so my mother’s great aunt used to say. The local Somerset lads used to make fun of the preaching Bishop family, one of whom once stood on a barrel to proclaim that

    the Righteous shall stand and the Wicked shall fall!

    at which some joker knocked his barrel over.

    My grandfather’s mother, who lived till 1929, was the musical daughter of another William (Willis) who engineered a steam-powered waterworks and played the cello; during the singing of family hymns he was able to hold the tenor line while playing the bass line simultaneously. He was the son of an overman at the Jarrow pits who died in 1826. William Willis married Ann Thursby, who also came of a mining family.

    Mum’s grandmother married a William (!) Foggin who, “a bit of a washout”, died at the young age of 43, having tried his hand at a series of jobs without much success, his widow having to send her daughter (my grandmother) to live with her better-off grandmother who made her sit up straight and sew long seams on sheets at the age of seven. This formidable person was the wife of a bank manager in Thirsk.

    Then there were the Morton-Middletons, the Morton family being the connection of whom the family was particularly proud. Three generations of the Middleton family’s oldest sons were christened Lancelot, one of whom was Director of Education in Rhodesia and stood for parliament there in 1939. My mother’s great uncle, Robert Robert Morton Middleton, was a Kew Gardens botanist—and from 1904-1907 a missionary in Chile—who sent plant samples to Darwin and in 1890 presented some 3000 American and other specimens to the herbarium at McGill University.


    September 22, 2007

    Now that the last of my summer visitors has gone I’ll be able to resume my blog. My mum is presently ZOOM-ing towards “her other life” in Cardiff, northeast across Labrador at 541 knots ground-speed, at 35000 feet above sea level, in a Boeing 763. I saw her off this evening in Toronto before coming back home by air myself.

    Strange to think that she was walking round our park with me less than twelve hours ago, happy not to have missed the maple leaves before she left.redleaves.jpg

    Curious to think how people often see September as the starting point of a new life. Maryam or George, for example, not just the swarming students.

    Good luck to them all!

    “University is for the dissemination of knowledge,” said the Dean of Science at McGill on Tuesday evening. “We don’t keep it in a box.” Therefore members of the general public were invited to a lecture on Tuesday evening by Jocelyn Bell Burnell, former president of the Royal Astronomical Society and a Dame of the British Empire since last June. I was there because our son George is one of the pulsar researchers at this week’s conference and because I was interested in the topic in any case.

    What is a pulsar? It’s a distant, dying, neutron star, the size of Montreal Island, but a thousand million million million million tonnes massive, spinning (for example) at eleven revolutions per second, and if you pick up that frequency on a radio telescope it sounds like an old tractor. However, a signal from the fastest pulsar yet discovered has just been observed by someone in the audience (a student at McGill), and that one emits a more definite note: a top E.

    Forty years ago this month, Miss Bell was mapping the sky for quasars, while studying at Cambridge University under the direction of Antony Hewish (who incidentally was also in the audience; she referred to him as “Tony”). The students had spent two years constructing their own radio telescope from posts, wires and cables strung out over a field the size of 57 tennis courts. They only had one computer that was used for their interferometer and they had 30 metres of paper print-out to analyse every day. On August 6th, 1967, she noticed a peculiarity along the line drawn which was first assumed to be caused by local interference from a pirate radio station or a faulty piece of equipment. Only after eliminating these possibilities did the scientists dare to conclude that this signal was coming from outer space. Because “it makes one feel better to give something a name”, they jokingly called this source the LGM, Little Green Men, but the lack of a Doppler effect in the signal (which Dame Jocelyn dramatically demonstrated in the lecture hall by swinging a beeping kitchen timer round her head on a long piece of string) led the team to conclude that the pulsations detected must come from a rotating object with a very small diameter and a very big mass, some 200 light years away.

    “The physics of these objects is extreme,” she told us. Pulsars are formed from the ultra compression of a massive star with an iron core, like the stars in the Pleiades cluster, which has exploded in a supernova (the Crab Nebula is the after effect of such an explosion) leaving a spinning remnant so dense that it is the equivalent of the six billion people on earth all crammed into a space the size of a thimble. This object has an iron crust and “God knows what in the centre!” as Dame Jocelyn put it. The work required to climb 1cm on such a body is approximately equivalent to the work required to climb Everest, on Earth. The atmosphere on a neutron star is only 2cm thick and its gravity bends light to an angle of 30° over its horizon. A clock (if you could make one!) would be forced to tick twice as slowly here as on Earth, and if you were so foolhardy as to approach the star-remnant you would suffer “spaghettification” of your body which wouldn’t do you any good at all.

    How do they know such things? I wonder. They are still speculating about the shape of a pulsar’s magnetic field. It is assumed by some that this would be the same as for Earth, but “there was a big argument about this in our meeting today,” said George.

    The weakness of the signal received on earth from a pulsar (about 1800 of which have been discovered so far) was demonstrated by the distribution of thin strips of paper to each member of the audience, on which was written the message:

    In picking up this piece of paper, you have used a million times more energy than a radio telescope receives from all known pulsars per year.

    Apparently pulsars have planets and are extraordinarily symmetrical, “round to 1mm in 69000 km … and an even rounder one has just been discovered.”

    If my notes make no sense you should download the webcast of the lecture, click on the slide show, and listen to what the lecturer really said. She was an excellent speaker who finished her presentation by quoting the poem Planetarium by the feminist American poet, Adrienne Rich.

    Dame Jocelyn Bell-Burnell is a Quaker from Northern Ireland who was educated at the Mount School in York and is now the president of its old scholars’ association. In our basement we happen to have a copy of the Swarthmore Lecture she gave at Aberdeen University in 1989: Broken for Life, which is an exploration of the “role of the person who is not whole,” and an attempt to answer the question, “can the wounded person offer something to the rest of us? Can brokenness be life-giving?” Her conclusion has nothing to do with astrophysics:

    …the more we have faced pain the more whole we are, and the more capable we are of suffering and of loving … Through our vulnerability we become channels of comfort and consolation. By our faithfulness in risking ourselves we open barriers and enable God’s grace to flow in the world.

    Another event that took place yesterday, but this one after dark, was the Lumière Festival in the local Park. The children of the neighbourhood were out in force last night, the little (and not so little) girls in fairy costumes with gauzy wings, and nearly all of them carrying lanterns or glow sticks. From the opposite bank of the river the candle-holding lamps that lined the paths through the park could be seen reflected in the water ; interspersed with these, monsters and fantastic edifices were glowing as well as a goblin’s face or two, lit from below and grinning spookily from the bushes. One of the illuminated dragons was emerging from the river like a Loch Ness Monster. Fire-jugglers and oriental dancers performed on the grass to a circle of admirers, uninhibited little children joining in with the dancing, and a crowd also applauded a shadow-puppet show. Our visitors, George (who took the above photograph) and Daniel, walked into the labyrinth of paper bag candle holders laid out on the baseball pitch, but cheated by stepping over the bags when they’d had enough, without having followed the designated paths right the way through. The lady at the entrance told us that this maze was a metaphor for Life. “And people do cheat!” she said.

    It was volunteer appreciation day at our Flying Club, yesterday, which gave the excuse for plenty of fun.

    The target will be a circle 25 metres in diameter located on the airfield. Each aircraft will be supplied with ONE bomb containing ½kg of flour. Each aircraft shall have one pilot and one bombadier. The aircraft shall approach the field from a normal circuit and pass over the field at 500 feet INDICATED (500 ASL) for the bombing run. The pilot is responsible for maintaining a safe regime of flight while the bombadier is responsible for ensuring that the bomb is dropped in such a way as to remain within the confines of Rockcliffe Airport and does not hit aircraft or buildings or people. The bomb that is judged to be closest to the centre of the target will be declared the winner of the competition.

    C-FPTN’s door came off quite easily,dooroff.jpg giving our crew an advantage over other competitors, although in the event our aircraft came third. A spot-landing was the next challenge:spotlanding.jpg Good try, but Joe Scoles flying his tail-dragger was the actual winner.

    For the third year running, the afternoon was rounded off with free helpings from Tony’s barbeque and a piece of cake served to the club volunteers and their friends and families, which in our case included our son George and a fellow astro physicist from Australia, Daniel. These two naturally livened up our annual “cricket” match, organised, scored and umpired by Chris, who had to remind Canadian club members of the rules before we began to play.cricketrules.jpg

    We did not follow the rules to their full extent and may have been a few cricketers short of a team (team loyalty was a rather vague concept in any case), the wicket so uneven that the (tennis) ball bounced around in an unpredictable manner, but it was a proper game all the same, complete with men and women caught out, stumped and bowled, bails flying into the air, players flying into the air too, though in some cases they landed rather heavily causing at least two injuries, but unlike last year there was no need for anyone to go to hospital this time and no aircraft were hit or damaged. A groundhog popped out of its hole to sit on its haunches and spectate, but perhaps finding the action rather ponderous, didn’t stop to watch the second innings. After a determined battle, the Mugwumpers beat the Dambusters by 23 runs to 18, even though they were the smaller team. Highest scorers were Bill, new to the game, with 12 runs, and George, scoring 9 runs. According to the score sheet I gather I was one of the Dambusters when not taking the photographs; to my shame, I never managed to hit the ball once and was out for a “duck.”cricketgame.jpg

    CPT2 to CYRO

    August 8, 2007

    The flight home from Killarney airport last Sunday at 6500ft is worth a blog entry to itself. Here are the four pilots planning their route,
    part of which took us along the shore of Georgian Bay and its myriad of rocky islands.georgianislands2.jpg
    After this, we headed across the Algonquin Park, preserved as a wilderness. From the air we could see large tracts of land with no sign of human interference.algonquinpark.jpg muskeg.jpg
    The water in the muskeg gleamed with light. No wonder Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven painted scenes from this part of Canada with such enthusiasm.