Wednesday 18 November 2015

Education, form 4G

In my third year, the forms were alpha (the top), A, Y and Z. In my fourth year, in what I guess was an attempt at making the inferior forms feel less inferior, they were called G, H, D and S (Grocers, Hackney Downs School). But we in 4G knew that we were really 4 alpha.

I was 13 at the start of that year (1962-63), and being in the fourth form brought three huge benefits. First, our blazers were black instead of blue. A blue blazer marked you out as a young kid, and I was no longer a kid, I was nearly 14! And Barmitzvahed. It was wonderful being post-Barmitzvah, because I no longer had to learn how to be Barmitzvah. I could forget about Cheder at last, which meant giving up those wonderful bread and strawberry jam sandwiches, but also meant I didn't have to spend an hour being bored (three days per week), and three hours on Sunday being bored absolutely stiff and insensate. It was round about then that I decided that I was an agnostic, although in retrospect, I was actually an atheist but philosphically, you can't be 100% sure that there's no god, so I decided I was an agnostic.

The second huge benefit was that we no longer had to wear our school caps, which was a rather silly-looking light blue thing with a badge. The third, and biggest, benefit, was that we could now wear long trousers. I was a mensch!

My big subject was still maths, and maths had gotten a lot more wonderful. We did infinite seres, and how to sum them, and I really liked that, but then we did calculus, and I absolutely fell in love with calculus. It's beautiful and elegant, both differential and integral, and it makes it possible to solve problems that would otherwise be extremely difficult.

We did pure maths and applied maths (which is a bit like physics). And I also liked physics, because it was a bit like applied maths.

Martin Gardner's Mathematical Diversions grabbed my interest, and I made hexaflexagons, the flexatube, soma, eleusis and loads more. I'd recommend all his books to anyone interested in maths.

Chemistry was also great; we learned how to analyse unknown substances to determine what was in them. Which involves pipetting, filtration, weighing and all the other techniques. Back home, my own chemistry experiments involved nitrogen tri-iodide (add ammonia to iodine, filter out the precipitate, let it dry, and then it explodes when you touch it). And interesting stuff with sodium chlorate (which you could buy in big tins from Boots, as weed killer) and sugar; combine those and you get a nice explosive. I also tried to make a Molotov Cocktail, but I used paraffin instead of petrol, and it didn't work.

 I was also getting heavily into electronics. I would find dumped TVs, lug them home, and dismantle them; this gave me a good collection of wire and components. I build a crystal radio, and an analogue computer to play hex.

I didn't swim much, even though now I could, and I discovered that throwing the discus required the least effort of any "sport", and I could get a good distance because using calculus I had determined that the best angle of throw would be 45 degrees. I was by no means good at it, of course. But at least it didn't involve running. I also tried the javelin, but after I bashed myself on the back of the head because it swung around as I tried to throw it, I stuck to discus.

At the end of the year, we did four GCEs, and that was a year before we were due. I did maths, physics-with-chemistry and two others (english and french, I think?). You can see which subjects I thought were important! By taking these four a year early, we could take a relaxed attitude towards the exam; if I failed, I'd just take them in the fifth form as per everyone else.

But we still worked hard to pass, because passing would mean an easier fifth form. And anyway, why wouldn't you work hard to pass? I remember I worked my way through all the past maths papers set in the previous 10 years, because a good way to practise for an exam, is to take previous exams. And I passed, all four, with A grades for the important two.

I got a prize at the end of the year, I forget what for, probably maths. I chose the book I wanted, which was "Seven figure logarithms and other tables". I didn't know this at the time, but that turned out to be totally useless; I never needed to do calculations to that degree of accuracy.

I've left out the really big thing that happened that year. The fire.

On the morning of Tuesday, 19 March 1963, I arrived at school as usual, only to see what you might think that every schoolboy secretly longs for - the school had burned down overnight. Actually, our reaction was far from gleeful. I, for one, was about to take my GCEs in a couple of months. Our reaction was first disbelief, then dismay. What would happen now?

It was slightly worse for me. The previous evening, I had given a performance entitled "An hour of chemistry magic" in the lecture theater of the science block. It was well attended, because I had by then a bit of a reputation. I showed them various liquid colour changes, and the iodine clock reaction. You add one to the other, stir it a bit, and nothing happens. I walk across the room, clap my hands, and it changes to dark blue. This isn't the sound causing the reaction, it's just a delay. And for a finale, I did an ammonium dichromate volcano. Mine was a lot larger than the one in that video, and very spectacular. And when the staff heard that the school had burned down, their first thought was me. Of course.

But it wasn't me, it was a wiring fault in the school theater. The science block was unharmed, so I was immediately vindicated.

But still ... no school. We were told to go home that day. The lower school (years 1-3) were found space in Stamford Hill, which is where I lived. The upper school went to Wilton Way, and I remember that we regarded that as greatly inferior (as were all schools that weren't Grocers) and full of rough kids. But not long after, several prefabs were put up in front of the old school, so we could all return to something resembling normalcy.

As far as I was concerned, nothing much changed. My main subjects were maths, physics and chemistry, and the science block was unaffected by the fire. And for maths, all you need is a blackboard. The school theater was gutted, but I wasn't into drama anyway. The swimming pool/gym was OK.

In June of the same year, another fire destroyed the changing rooms at the sports field.  I was not too bothered. All we did there was football (in winter) and cricket (in summer), and I disliked both.

So at the end of the year, I had four O levels, and in the fifth form, I would take five more.


  1. sister of Doc Solly20 November 2015 at 16:20

    You did not give up your bread and strawberry jam sandwiches when you left Cheder.
    As soon as you came in from school you went to the kitchen and usually made a stack of three rounds of strawberry jam sandwiches.

  2. It's tough to go cold turkey!