About the Book
Sandy Ibrahim in conversation with Malcolm Telford
MT OK, Sandy. Ready when you are.
SI Let me start about you. How old are you?
MT That’s no secret — I wont see 80 again. I was born in 1934, in the Midlands of Britain.
SI Why did you write the book, I mean particularly, why now?
MT That’s difficult to explain, at least for me it is. All of my life I have been interested in biology. I studied biology at school and university. For forty years I was engaged in research and teaching. That shapes your thinking.
SI And that somehow brought you to this book?
MT Indirectly, yes. If you spend your entire life in a single pursuit it permeates your perspective of the world. My brother is an architect and he tends to see everything in terms of design. Mathematicians see numbers and numerical relationships everywhere. I see most things principally through the eyes of a biologist. Looking back at events in my life, the people I have known, the things I have read, all seem to fall into place with different, perhaps disjointed, pieces of biology. That’s what I want to share.
SI I don’t think I entirely follow. Can you give me an example?
MT OK. I think so. Try this. Somebody I met recently told me about his five year old grandson’s birthday. Afterwards I cast my mind back to 1939. Difficult times. In October it was my fifth birthday. Everybody was in a tizzy because we had just gone to war with Germany. My parents gave me a tricycle with blue metal splash guards over the wheels but nobody else seemed to care. Soon enough I became aware of the threat of invasion and Hitler, the monster across the sea. From there my mind drifted to a similar time when Napoleon was poised for invasion of Britain. He didn’t make it, either. After the Battle of Waterloo he surrendered to Britain and was incarcerated on the island of St. Helena. That was the home of several strange plants and animals, including the recently extinct Giant Earwig. So there you have it, a linear flow of thought: 1939 - war - Hitler - Bonaparte - St. Helena - Giant Earwigs. Fleshed out, that became “The Emperor and the Earwig.” I started writing down my thoughts, a bit like stream-of-consciousness, and friends soon started urging me on. I became a bit obsessed.
SI Then your essays are not strictly about your scientific research and teaching?
MT Not at all. My research features significantly only in one essay, “Flying Sand Dollars.” That one, of course, contributed to the book title, as did the one about Bonaparte and earwigs. None of the essays are didactic, by which I mean they are not like lectures and not meant to be instructional. Interesting and informative for sure, but they are intended to be primarily entertaining. Some are serious but others are amusing, but not, I hope, frivolous.
SI You grew up in Britain. What brought you to Canada and when was that?
MT I’ll accept that as a compliment — some people would say that I haven’t grown up yet! With that question you are prying into my irresponsible past. I have done a few stupid things in my time, and the worst was getting myself tossed out of university. Back in the 1950s it could be difficult to change programs once you had been admitted to university. I’m sure things are very different now. So, finding myself in the wrong program I simply goofed off until I received a formal letter asking me to take my unwelcome person to some other place. Canned. I spent the following year as a pharmaceutical salesman, a medical detail man. That was probably the worst year of my life.
SI When was that?
MT 1956. Early in 1957 I persuaded my girl friend, Sally, to marry me and try to make a new start in Canada. Instead of household items we received cash as wedding gifts. That paid our airfares to Montreal and we arrived in June with a small suitcase each and $100 between us.
SI But you had somewhere to go, and friends to meet you?
MT Nope! We didn’t know a soul in Canada, had no destination, no jobs, and didn’t even ask if there were any services for new immigrants. It was our choice to come and it didn’t occur to us that anybody was going to help us.
SI That must have been a bit challenging. What did you do?
MT `Luck smiled on us right from the beginning. At Dorval we shared the last taxi with a McGill professor and his wife. Surprised by our situation they found a rooming house for us on the edge of the student ghetto, beside the University. We started meeting other immigrants and McGill students as we settled in.
SI And work? Did you find work?
MT Sure. Nothing fancy. Sally typed menus for the CN dining cars and later found a real job as a secretary at McGill. I sold clothing in a department store and later moved to a small shoe store. Like so many other immigrants we scrimped and saved. One of our friends remarked that Sally was the only person who could produce a meal for four from a single mouse’s knuckle joint.
SI At some point you resumed your university education. Tell me about that.
MT Yes, well that came about a year later, in September 1958. I was accepted into the second year of the Zoology program at McGill. Our biggest problem was the fees. Back then $600 made a terrible hole in our savings. But we shared our apartment and I worked weekends in the shoe store. It was a bit tight but we scraped by.
SI I suppose that got you through the first year, but how about later years? Did things get any better?
MT Yes, they certainly did. Several things helped. I became hooked on the ideas of research in the Arctic and when I heard that the Fisheries Research Board was planning a survey of resources in the Barren Grounds of the Northwest Territories, I put in an application. I was taken on as a field assistant for the summer of 1959 and that covered my next lot of fees. It also put me in line for another field research job in Ungava — that’s northern Quebec, for the summer of 1960. I picked up odd jobs around the university and in my final year as an undergraduate I was employed as a teaching assistant in Zoology. So, as you see, in one way or another everything was cool
SI That’s a good story Malcolm, but it didn’t end there, did it? You went on to become a university professor.
MT True. We went to Halifax for a year. Sally got to be Assistant Registrar at King’s College while I became a graduate student in Zoology at Dalhousie. Sally had to return to England for family reasons and I took a position as Senior Demonstrator in Zoology at Sir George Williams University in Montreal. That eventually became Concordia, of course. I stayed there for three years, registering part time in a doctoral program at McGill.
SI Just part time?
MT For those three years, yes. Then I landed a scholarship from the National Research Council which enabled me to finish my PhD research in two more years.
SI Was that when you moved to Toronto?
MT It was. In 1967. It wasn’t really our centennial project, that was the birth of our daughter in May — we already had a son. I was taken on as an assistant professor in Zoology at the University of Toronto and stayed there, doing research and teaching until I retired in 1997.
SI Sounds to me as though you owed your wife a great deal, supporting you through those long years.
MT Absolutely right. But once we had both kids in school, it was Sally’s turn. She did history at York University and then entered a graduate program in Library and Information Science at the University of Toronto. Everything we have done has been a joint project and we have supported each other for some sixty years.
SI You’ve been retired for a long time but it was only last year that you started writing. Why do you think now that people should read your book?
MT Am I allowed to say “Because it’s good?”
That’s certainly one reason. But I think also that as a collection of science essays it is truly unique. Unique because it is very personal, merging my own life with intriguing accounts of animals and plants. And also because it draws heavily on the history of remarkably interesting people. Yes, I think that is what I would say: my book is about people, a great deal about people, as well as science and biology.
SI Thank you, Malcolm. Do you have any further writing plans?
MT Possibly. But I have to put this one to bed first. That said, the history of ocean exploration and marine biology really appeals to me. So, maybe.