Fragments of the Author's Life

IN WHICH I DISCOVERED MY INSIGNIFICANCE

[Source: http://www.oldbike.eu/museum/19302/1939-2/1939-harding-safety-tricycle]“In September 1939 I was just a few days shy of my fifth birthday. Oh, Yes! There was that other thing: Germany invaded Poland and Britain declared war on Germany. Everybody was in a tizzy about that, not about my birthday. My parents bought me a tricycle with blue metal splash fenders over the wheels. But birthday or no birthday, tricycle or no tricycle, I would grow up in a country at war. That gave us a whole host of people to vilify and mythologize. Maybe at five or six years old I didn’t understand everything, but I sure as hell knew who the bad guys were and that they were planning to invade us. In 1940 Germany walked into Denmark and then launched an amphibious invasion of Norway. That was something the British were planning and the Nazis beat us to it. It showed that their invasion plan, Operation Sea Lion, was feasible and that their gathering forces across the channel were no idle threat.”

Our family was lucky. We endured only the shortages and restraints shared by everybody and were spared any severe trauma. Through those dreadful years I learned the birds of Britain, collected insects and pond-guddled my way into adolescence.

The photograph on the right shows what my tricycle looked like — except that mine was new, blue and shiny. Now, more than 75 years later, I feel a bit like this tricycle looks!


 

 

IN WHICH MY INCORRIGIBLE NATURE IS REVEALED

As a youth the child psychologist and influential educator, Cyril Burt, was deeply influenced by Francis Galton and later became the Galton Professor of Eugenics at London University. His 1925 book, The Young Delinquent, was rife with the language of eugenics. Subjects were described as sexual delinquents, mental defectives, prone to pauperism, drunkards and incorrigible. I know where I stand in that panoply — how about you?

“Truth OR consequences? Fraud in science, as elsewhere, can lead to serious consequences but not necessarily for the fraudster. Truth AND consequences can also pose a challenge. We all tell lies at one time or another, even if it is only to our children about Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny. So, although truthfulness should be an inherent part of our character we tend to make it a matter of policy whether to abstain or commit to it. Children are often acutely aware of this dilemma.

“The trouble with adults is that they can get their knickers in a twist over the silliest, most trivial things. And if you are really unlucky they will discover that an important matter of principle is involved. In that case the sky’s the limit. Well, that has been my experience. Aged thirteen I was at a boys’ boarding school on the sea coast. Fossicking about on the beach I found a crab and immediately thought it would be very funny to put it in Gartner’s bed. I didn’t dislike Gartner and didn’t particularly like him either. He just seemed to be the right candidate to receive my largesse. So that’s what I did, I tucked it into the PJs under his pillow and awaited developments. He yelled and screamed fit to bust while eleven other boys in the dormitory stifled their laughter. In no time the duty master was thundering out demands to know who was the dastardly perpetrator of this heinous crime. Silence. Nobody snitched. The figure of offended authority stalked from the room and returned minutes later with the Senior Master. I started getting a bit uneasy because now added to my crime was failure to own up when that was demanded. Every boy in the dormitory was interviewed pri­vately and all told the same story: “Not me, Sir; no, I don’t know, Sir.” The following morning the Headmaster was summoned to the scene of the crime. If it wasn’t somebody from my dormitory, then it had to be some other boy. Every boy in the school was paraded before a tribunal of Headmaster, Senior Master and House Master. Still the mystery was unresolved but now the crime had escalated further: at least one boy had told a lie, had been untruthful in his answers. Determined to get to the bottom of it the Headmaster announced at lunch time that every­body would be in detention the following afternoon, traditionally our half-holiday. Unless, of course, the scoundrel owned up and faced his punishment like a man. No way. I was already the most caned boy in the school: my sit-upon had more stripes than the butt end of a zebra. I was not about to drop my pants for more. Wednesday afternoon saw us all doing extra math or writing a thousand lines “I must always tell the truth and respect my betters.” Remarkably, nobody ratted me out. Every sub-adult knew the situation had been blown out of all reason­able proportion. And telling the truth? Guess I must have been one of Cyril Burt’s incorrigibles. If you think I was in some way an abused child, forget it. I had spent three years at A. S. Neill’s Summerhill School and followed my own drummer. I knew the rules and obtained most of my “stripes” for insubordination, impertinence, answering back and missing chapel. True, there were also some dreadfully serious crimes such as smoking behind the squash court, visiting the prohib­ited cinema, dating village girls and on one outrageous occasion ques­tioning the Reverend Mr. Faulkner about Darwin and the biblical story of creation. As I said — incorrigible.” 

 


 

IN WHICH I AM BEWITCHED BY FOSSILS

My Dad was an account but given his druthers he would have been a geologist --or a landed gentleman would have been OK. He taught me something about geology and got me hooked on fossils, especially Trilobites and other arthropods. Family holidays often involved fossil hunts, that or fly-fishing.

“... we took the family holiday at a farm in Herefordshire. That and Shropshire were probably my favorite English counties. It is an interesting area because the Silurian limestone of Wales extends well into the border counties, including the famous Wenlock formation rich in marine fossils. One wet afternoon we visited a small museum, pos­sibly in Ludlow — I’m not sure. 

“Along one wall with two windows deeply inset, dusty and covered with cobwebs, were three glass cases like tables on tapered legs. The one on the left had a collection of local insects, some ragged butter­flies, a few dragonflies, and maybe fifty or sixty beetles, some without antennae. The right hand case had something peculiarly Victorian. It held a number of small baskets, bowls and teacups, each filled with little cones, hazel nuts or rugged walnuts. All of them had been placed for months or even years under dripping water in a local limestone cave. Stalagmites are built up from salts in dripping water. Here we had baskets of nuts finely coated with a beige colored veneer like cement or the scale in a tea kettle. But it was the central case that drew my atten­tion. Or, rather, the wall above it between the two dusty windows. The case itself held an assortment of fossilized marine animals. For one spectacular slab I can do no better than give a description from Robert Chambers, 1844, Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation:

“The Wenlock limestone is the most remarkable, amongst all the rocks of the Silurian System, for organic remains. Many slabs of it are wholly com­posed of corals, shells and trilobites held together by shale...(as well as)...many genera of crinoidea (sea lilies).”

And that is exactly what I saw, a dense mass of diverse fossils packed together.

“However, it wasn’t that entombed marine community that was the game changer for me. Above this richly diverse display, the wall hanging was a heart stopper. In a shallow box something more than four feet long, was a piece of flat, sand colored limestone with a deep, blazing chocolate brown Eurypterid, known colloquially as a sea scor­pion. It was a monster beyond simple imagination with a broad body, long, narrow flexible tail, huge grasping legs up front with vicious entangling spines, other legs like heavy duty oars, and massive eyes. It was a fossilized nightmare... Eurypterids, like dinosaurs, were supremely well adapted to the environments of their time. I was four­teen years old when I saw the monster and it started a life-long fascina­tion with bizarre arthropods.” 


 

IN WHICH I GET MYSELF TOSSED OUT OF UNIVERSITY

"I have done a few stupid things in my life. Perhaps the most egregious was getting myself tossed out of university on my first attempt at higher education. Stupidity is stupidity, and not necessarily lack of intelligence, I hasten to add. I found myself in the wrong, uncongenial program and, disregarding consequences, passed my time drinking beer and playing billiards until the ax fell. Sometimes, though, through blind luck or improved and more responsible behavior we can recover from our worst follies. Such was my fortune. Redemption is not guaranteed so I am not advocating a life of stupidity, that is too risky a course of action. Two profoundly important decisions led to my eventual recovery. In 1957, with no prospects and little to recommend me, I persuaded Sally to marry me and six weeks later we were on a flight to Montreal. We never looked back and now, almost sixty years later, Sally still puts up with me and, I admit, my occasional follies.

It was about 5 am one day in mid-June when the BOAC flight touched down at Dorval. We had one small suitcase each and $100 between us; we knew nobody in Canada; we had nowhere to go and no job arranged ahead of time. We were the last people to clear Customs and Immigration and watched as a couple placed their bags in the trunk of the last taxi. Now what? As the driver was getting into the cab his male passenger got out and asked if we would like to share the taxi. With immense relief we accepted the offer. Asked “Where are you going?” we responded “Montreal” in chorus. “But where in Montreal?” That was more difficult. “Anywhere, if it is near the city center” (“downtown” wasn’t part of our vocabulary in those days). Our benefactor turned out to be Professor Theo Hills of McGill University. Theo and his wife were astounded to find that we had no destination, no accommodation planned, no jobs to go to, nothing. They took us to the McGill Department of Geography which was then located in a stately house on Pine Avenue. Significantly it was next door to the Arctic Unit of the Fisheries Research Board, but I didn’t register that fact at the time. Once inside they made coffee and raided the community cookie tin for breakfast. Later in the morning they walked us down University Avenue to a tourist house called “The Bide-A-Wee.” That is perfectly true, I am not making it up. There really was a tourist house in Montreal with that chintzy English name. Talk about luck and landing on one’s feet!"


 

 

IN WHICH I AM SCARED SILLY BY A LOON

Having been thrown out of university in Britain I dedicated myself to serious study in Montreal. It was glorious. In 1959, my second year in Canada I was lucky enough to become a field research student during a Fisheries Research Board survey of resources in the Northwest Territories. It was an amazing opportunity for a recent immigrant.

"McGill University was no less inspiring [than the City of Montreal] when I was accepted into the second year of the Zoology program. It offered an experience totally unlike anything I had found at Birmingham University, a place that the English writer Kingsley Amis once dubbed a “white tile” university -- unfairly, no doubt. At McGill, although few undergraduate students took advantage of it, we were welcome to attend seminars in the Botany and Zoology departments almost every week. Being older than my cohort of undergraduates I mixed more with graduate students working on their doctoral programs. McGill was a center of Arctic research and I attended seminars about imprinting behavior in ducks, landlocked populations of salmon, feeding behavior of walruses, lichens and tundra ecology. Fascinated by the lure of the North, I joined the Franklin Society where we met established scientists from the Arctic Unit of the Fisheries Research Board. Every month there was a talk, with photographic slides or movie footage, about the sociology of Inuit families, the Geology of Ungava, the sex lives of polar bears, or hermaphroditism in sticklebacks of the Belcher Islands. And it was there, at a Franklin Society evening, that I met Gerry Hunter and first heard about the planned Barren Grounds Survey for the summer of 1959. I was determined to join that expedition and may even have been the first to put in an application.

"Lady Luck smiled and I was taken on as a field assistant for the summer...

"Alex Peden, Bev Scott and I flew out of Yellowknife in mid-June loaded with equipment and a canoe lashed to the right side pontoon. We were the second team to fly out but there had been a major snafu with the food supplies: the first team took ours as well as their own. Stuff happens. We chased them to Lac La Martre, the third largest lake in the Northwest Territories, and reclaimed our nosh. Then we continued northward to Hottah, our intended destination. It was frozen over. Finally, pilot Bob turned south again and put us down on Beaverlodge Lake. That is where I, a city boy from the Midlands of England and a recent immigrant to Canada, got my first sight of wilderness in the vast unpopulated regions of the Northwest Territories. Routine followed, I took the first day’s cooking duty while we had fresh supplies. The cans of Klik (allegedly meat), Klim (dried milk backwards), dried onions, powdered potatoes and pilot biscuits were for later. We checked the nets from the shore and could see that the next day would be busy. While the sky was still luminous, we hit the sack around midnight and the three of us were soon asleep. But not for long. I wakened to the most hideous, terrifying maniacal laughter. Were my companions lunatics? But no, they were peacefully slumbering beside me. I didn’t dare leave the tent, instead I hid in my sleeping bag. Since then the call of the loon has never bothered me, and like other Canadians I have come to love it. But to a boy not long out of Brummagem it was heart-lurchingly scary!"


 

IN WHICH I MAKE A HAGGIS

In various cultures around the world, people will eat and enjoy an astonishing array of foods that are, to most people, utterly inedible. I have tried some and even ventured into making a few for myself.

“At one time considered suitable only for the lowly, chittlings have long featured on southern menus. In the big beef-eating countries of South America, chunchullo is prepared from the small intestine of cattle. Usually slow roasted or grilled till crunchy, it comes as the first course at an “asado” or BBQ party, before the vast slabs of red meat. Tripe is the stomach of cattle and very popular in many places. Larousse gives no fewer than thirty-nine different ways to prepare it. Funny thing, though, none of them sound palatable to me. The same anatomical scraps of sheep go into the much reviled haggis. Just why this is so much mocked and ridiculed I don’t know, but it is certainly up near the top of despised foods. My guess is that most people have never even seen a haggis let alone tasted one. They just don’t like the thought of it. The year that I started teaching at the University I was assigned to an introductory vertebrate biology course for nursing students. One of the lab exercises was to rummage through the intricacies of the viscera of sheep. As the lowest ranked, newest and most junior member of the team, it fell to my lot to go to the abattoir to collect the gory mess called a “sheep’s pluck.” Well, I thought, what better time to make my own haggis, so I asked for an extra “pluck,” I really didn’t fancy the lab specimens after a hundred reluctant, squeamish students had fossicked through them.

“Making a haggis is really not very easy. First you must wash it all, separate the stomach for later use, and boil everything — heart, lungs, liver, and tubular bits. That is when you finally realize how BIG all this stuff is. Next run it through a food chopper, another challenge because all we had was a hand-cranked meat grinder. Now chop the onions and mix them into the mess with whatever herbs and spices you fancy. Mix in some coarse grained oatmeal — don’t use porridge oats, that isn’t any good. Now start spooning the stuff into the carefully washed stomach. There was so much that I tied off the stomach when half full, then continued and finished with two haggises — or would they be hagges? Boil the whole shebang for at least two hours, as one chef has put it “...long enough for the ingredients to get know each other.” Simple, eh? Well no, the stench was so awful that my wife left home for two days, I started to wonder if I would ever see her again. Did I mention that she is more or less a haggi-phobe? Contrary to popular belief no Scotch whiskey goes into the making, that comes later. Haggis, Great Chieftain O’ The Pudding Race, is served hot, wrapped in a white napkin, accompanied by potatoes and bashed neaps (mashed turnips). Scotch whiskey is the traditional hooch, probably because that was what was available, and certainly not for its anaesthetic effect. Do I like haggis? Yes I do, but I will never again threaten my domestic felicity by making another.”


 

IN WHICH I MEET THE FRIENDS OF ECHINODERMS

Echinoderm biologists, those who work with starfish, sea cucumbers, sand dollars and other organisms, do not have a formal Society, but form a loose group that originated as “Friends of Echinoderms.” The name is seldom or never used today, but that is what they are.

"Scientists often showcase their work at conferences. There are very good reasons for this. Most branches of biology have societies dedi­cated to their pursuit, such as the American Society of Mammalogists, the Entomological Society of Canada, the British Society for Developmental Biology, and at least fifty different bird societies. Researchers pay dues to these societies, each of which is governed by a board of officers and each produces a journal of research papers. In keeping with their esoteric interests, echinoderm biologists are not like that. At a meeting in the 1960s of the American Geological Society a party-loving group of young biologists, drinking beer in a hotel room, formed the Friends of Echinoderms. They established a succession of meetings under that name, until university administrators objected: it was too difficult to grant travel funds for a meeting of friends. With reluctance, the meetings were morphed into the International Echinoderm Conference, the European Colloquium on Echinoderms, the American Echinoderm Meetings, and so on. My first encounter with them was at the fourth IEC, held in Tampa Bay, Florida, in 1981. The conferences are held every three years, moving from continent to continent, country to country. Before the end of the conference, which lasts five days, one or more scientists will offer to organize and host the next meeting. Following open discussion the proposal is voted on and the decision is made. The conferences are paid for by attendance fees and whatever institutional support the host is able to round up.

"We are still, to this day, Friends of Echinoderms, an informal sci­entific congregation, with no membership dues, no officers and no journal. Dave Pawson of the US National Museum of Natural History started a newsletter which circulated for several years to keep the Friends up to date with each other. That was the only printed material apart from conference proceedings. It is the original built-in informality that makes the meetings so successful. They provide a forum to present current research, for sure, but also a chance to try out new ideas that are not yet ready for publication. Perhaps the most important benefit is the opportunity to introduce talented students in an atmosphere of welcoming collegiality."

I was fortunate enough to attend six International Echinoderm Conferences in Florida, Ireland, British Columbia, Burgundy, California and New Zealand.


 

 

IN WHICH I ENQUIRE INTO THE NATURE OF ANIMAL DOO-DOO

My wife, Sally, and I are enthusiastic gardeners. In our allotment patch we grow vigorous weeds, rhubarb, tomatoes and (I must tell the truth) some truly delicious vegetables including amazing kale that we got from Fiona in Victoria, BC.

“When we moved out of the big city we rented an allotment in the community garden maintained by the Sisters of St. Joseph. That was when I found myself among a gang of hyper-critical, fiercely competi­tive old men. I think their wives opened the door every morning and booted them out. They seemed to spend all of their time at the garden, mostly gabbing and boasting about their heritage tomatoes and Vidalia onions. They built elaborate boxes and spent the rest of their time fon­dling and coddling their soil. Some of them competed in the Fall Fair: Strangest Potato, Biggest Cabbage, and Hugh, who came from Wales, always won Three Best Leeks. He had a deep bathtub set in the garden where he grew huge perfectly symmetrical leeks, three inches thick at the base — I’ll swear. Rumor had it that he kept a guard dog to protect them as show time approached, but I never saw that.

“They looked on my efforts with pity if not contempt. The local soil is a glacial deposit of poorly sorted sand and pebbles, like a badly made road bed. I picked out barrow loads of stones, trundled them to the lip of the cliff and tipped them down to Lake Ontario. Futile effort, the pebble bed is probably hundreds of feet thick. My fellow gardeners shook their heads patronizingly, telling me I needed good, fertile black loam and top soil, rich in humus. Obediently I bought bags of loam from the garden center, only to see it all washed away in the next rain. You need good deep boxes, Joe told me. So I cut up sheets of plywood and built 4-foot by 8-foot boxes six inches deep. Nick came by, took a look, spat out a sunflower seed and told me they wouldn’t last a couple of years. Five years later, I still have those same boxes. Ha!

“Looking at my pebbly soil partly topped by black earth, George told me I needed to fertilize it. But Sister Linda insists on organic garden­ing, no artificial fertilizers. Nobody, but nobody would want to cross her on that count. No, No, No George said, manure, get yourself some manure. The other guys gathered round and, naively, I asked what sort? Sheep, has to be sheep, said Rob, it has the best K-P-N ratio. Bull-roar, came Nick’s response, horse is best, has lots of organics left. Well in my humble opinion said George, chicken beats them all and has the most nutrients. Since when, I wondered, did any of my new friends hold a humble opinion.

“I mixed a bit of this, a bit of that: some steer and some sheep manure from the garden center, some grass clippings from the bowling green and some compost from the municipal dump. Didn’t seem to help much, my garden still dries out a few hours after rain. But the weeds are thriving like you wouldn’t believe. I have become a triage gardener only tending to the worst problems each day. Walk through the community garden between the pristine, manicured boxes with their neat rows of fat red lettuces, perfectly aligned carrots, three foot high potatoes and tall spiky onions, and you will eventually come to mine. You cannot miss it, it’s easy to recognize with tall verdant weeds, lush tomato plants with little fruit, some scrawny lettuces but, surprise, surprise, the best rhubarb in the entire garden.

“When I went to the garden center I thought I was buying, well, you know, poop, animal doo-doo. How wrong can you be! The stuff didn’t smell like shit, didn’t stick to your boots. It was soft, slightly lumpy, with an easy, comfortable feel and a pleasant earthy smell. It was cer­tainly nothing like the ammoniacal muck outside the horse barn when I was a child. Nothing like the fresh olive green plops left by cows in a field, nor like the dry, rounded pellets expelled from the south end of the sheep. So what was it?”