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A life in optics part 3

Having finished my O levels I faced the dilemma of what subjects to choose for A level, the aforementioned punishments had left me with an anathema towards anything that involved a lot of writing which ruled out History (A subject I actually enjoyed) and English literature (again I enjoyed reading) English language was out as I’d barely scraped a bottom end pass.

Art was clearly out due to a lack of talent and the ‘ology’s’ hadn’t yet been invented which left the sciences. Biology was a non-starter due to all the long words and more writing so it was down to the old triumvirate of Maths, Physics and Chemistry.

About the only academic trait that Stella and I have in common is a total incomprehension of the arcane gobbledegook that is Chemistry, this is doubly surprising as we are both kin to borderline Chemistry geniuses (My Dad and Stella’s brother) what came effortlessly to Dad I found totally befuddling. This left Maths and Physics as my only options.

Maths held a certain appeal as it involved the least amount of writing and as Dad had majored in Physics before following a more Chemistry orientated career at least a bit had rubbed off on me.

The maths teacher we called Pussy Willow

There were two branches of Maths Pure and Applied

For anyone who hasn’t done it O level Pure maths looks like this:   a + b  = c

Whilst A level Pure maths looked more like this:       

Then we had Applied maths which used the above to figure out things like “If a bullet is travelling at X mph at an elevation of Y degree’s how far will it travel before it kills someone?”

The third option was PAM or “Pure & Applied maths” which was a kind of watered down version of the above, only offered to the thicko’s who couldn’t cope with the real thing.. (Spoiler alert: I ended up with a borderline pass in PAM)

Physics (according to Pussy) was Applied Maths for people who were too stupid to do Applied Maths and was never mentioned again.

Pussy was probably the best school teacher I ever had, I never acknowledged what an influence he had on me, his anecdotes were often interspersed with references to his no doubt long suffering wife, (Whom I’m sure would have got on with Stella like a house on fire)

When trying to explain the principles of Potential v’s kinetic energy he’d come up with things like I told my wife how tired I was from walking up and down those stairs all day long, fortunately she doesn’t know much about maths .. She’s a bit like you lot 

Another time he a extolling the virtues of studying Maths “If you can do maths you can do anything, Law, any of the sciences, anything” 

he was on a roll now “The basic premise of maths is that everything can be explained, .. everything .. .well .. that is ..apart from women….

50 years later watching Brian Cox on Youtube trying to explain to us plebs how we might all be living in a black hole I reckon Pussy got it pretty much spot on, the problem was that I’d zoned out at the “Law” bit of the above. How the hell maths had anything to do with Law was beyond my admittedly limited comprehension.

When it came to exams Pussy was quite unequivocal Just derive the equation was the mantra, do that and you’ll pass every time.

To explain this if you think of the equation I posted above it didn’t just pop out of the ether, all equations start life as a bunch of random symbols that some beardy will have arranged to meet a certain premise. The trick with exams was to spot which equation the exam setter had nefariously concealed in the question and by applying first principles use the supplied info to “define the equation” which in turn would give the answer. Once I’d figured that out I saw how such concepts could equally be applied to Law and the like and have relied on these nuggets for pretty much all problem solving ever since.

Our maths group started life as a select few the undoubted star was Micky who was one of the two best matho’s I’ve ever met. He could do pretty much any calculation in his head by dint of memorising log tables (look them up) and doing the sums,

Micky also organised a lunch time Bridge Club for the 6th formers and ran a Bookies at break time where a race meeting was chosen randomly each day and we were given a virtual £1 to place on one runner in each of the 6 races and Micky calculated a league table based on our results. On one memorable occasion I got all 6 winners but my limited mathematical prowess foundered when I got to the middle horse I’d napped (double winnings) and I never did calculate how much I would have won but it would have been several thousand, for someone who made do on two and sixpence pocket money (that’s twelve and a half pee to our younger readers) it would have amounted to a small fortune.

The problem was that unlike O levels where there was always someone breathing down my neck once we got to A level we were assumed to be mature enough to mark our own homework. I saved myself the bother by not doing any.

By halfway through the second year academically I was miles behind everyone else.

One day we were idling in the 6th form common room when Micky piped up “What are you lot doing when we leave school?” I’d given it zero thought up to that point, the idea of getting a job and actually having to work for a living was unappealing and to be avoided as long as possible

(something many will suggest I’ve succeeded in doing all my life)

but I hadn’t considered alternatives.

Guess I’ll have to look for a job?” was my reply

Your mad, why not go to university and live off the state for another three years? 

replied Micky who then went on to describe in lurid detail the student lifestyle although I missed most of what he said after the bit where he’d mentioned “Girls”

Mum, Dad I want to go to university I said that evening, for once my request was met with a modicum of enthusiasm. At a subsequent parent-teachers meeting Dad was talking to the assembled group and dropped into the conversation When Paul goes to university…” at which point the whole room collapsed into hysterics, well that was everyone apart from Dad.

I was forced to admit that things weren’t exactly looking too peachy.

Unperturbed my first task was to choose a course to apply for. The main priority was not to get chucked out during the first year after which Micky explained it was generally expected to be plain sailing.

Jimmy applied to do Architecture, this seemed like a good starting point as we’d always done the same subjects particularly Technical drawing for O level (Think woodwork with less bandages) plus Physics & Maths which seemed a good start, well at least until I saw the university entry requirements which rather put the mockers on the whole enterprise,

Micky suggested I look at a Poly. For those of you who weren’t around in those days Polytechnics were a kind of half way house jobcentre for the workshy and university drop out’s. Generally they weren’t picky over who they accepted so next thing I was on a train to Plymouth polytechnic and an interview for the Architecture course.

I arrived to find a room full of eager young hopefuls a markedly high number of whom seemed to be female all clutching what looked like large flat cardboard folders.

I was one of the first called through, a pretty wee lass mouthed “Good luck” as I got up, no doubt well meaning but any chance of blagging my way through the next 10 minutes went straight out the window. 

After several minutes of me doing Ronnie Barker doing Arkwright when nurse Gladys appears the examiner lost patience and asked to see my portfolio…  ah, those carboard folders..

Realising he was on a hiding to nothing and no doubt thinking of all the pretty girls he had yet to interview (I sure as hell was) he sat me in a side room and asked my to draw a rather ornate pencil box sitting on a desk. Normally I could have done this with ease but those pretty dark eyes kept swimming into view and I ended up drawing the inside and the outside of the box at the same time like some drug fueled optical illusion.

He didn’t mince his words and I was soon on the train home considering a less demanding career path.

The irony here is that our daughter is an award winning Architect, this is easily explained when you consider that a few years ago Stella got bored and took herself off to University where she got an honours degree in interior design just for fun.

With the one subject I might have had a chance with scuppered it was back to the drawing board. This meant choosing a subject that I had the best chance of being accepted, on the train home I began perusing the UCCA (University entry requirement) handbook looking for courses with the lowest possible entry requirements.

Lowest on the list was Electrical Engineering at Aberystwyth, I’d never really got my head around ohm’s and amp’s and the like so I kept looking, second lowest requirement was Ophthalmic Optics, at the City University in London (Never heard of it but it did have the word “University” in the title)

Now this was more like it, I didn’t have a clue what “Ophthalmic” meant and didn’t really care, Optics was easy, refraction, diffraction was bread and butter stuff to anyone who had studied physics, I assumed I’d end up doing something like stage lighting but I didn’t really care as long as I made it to uni wherein all those pretty girls and a life of debauchery resided (They didn’t, the pretty ones were all in Plymouth Poly) so that’s what I put down on my application form, It was only when I actually got to the first lecture that sight testing even got a mention.

4 of the 5 uni’s offering the course rejected me outright but for some reason City offered me a place if I got a C and a D

The day the offer of an interview arrived coincided with the mock A level results which were spectacularly ungood. I bumped into Shaw (think Walter the Softy) in the corridor

“Oy Quackers, Batman wants to see you and he isn’t happy”

Batman was the headmaster, picture Mr Burns from the Simpsons in degree gowns, a sort of skeletal harbinger of death and destruction.. I approached my doom.

What followed I’ve largely shut out, the diatribe ended when he paused to catch his breath

“Well actually Sir I needed to see you as I wanted permission to attend an interview at City University tomorrow” “Absolutely not, you’re a disgrace to the school, you are not to go anywhere near that place”“So what do you suggest I do?” “Leave”   

At this point you’d have all been spared having to read this if he’d just stopped there, grown up word was still law and I just stood and watched my future crumble. Unfortunately he couldn’t resist having one last pop, he went on just a bit too long.Something snapped inside.

I let him finish then quietly walked out and didn’t return until the final exams.

I went to the interview even though forbidden (and those were the days when the words of a grown up were law) then spent the next month which fortunately was blessed with glorious weather lying in the garden “Deriving the equation” the exams came and I scraped a C and an E

Mum immediately got me to write a begging letter.

The admissions guy must have been half awake as the next thing I knew I was in.

Still didn’t stop mum having the last word “I wish you’d listened to us and done Dentistry”



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