Biography: Wimbledon

My grammar school was at Wimbledon. Its location did not alter my total lack of interest in tennis as well as other sports all of which bored me and I hated them.

St. Peter’s primary school was not academically ambitious in 1960. We did sit an exam that all (or most) children sat in those days called the “Eleven Plus”. This was a means to select the few most academically able who would be sent to a grammar school beween the ages of 11 and 18 inclusive. Each class at St. Peter’s had 40 children and of those I and one girl passed the “Eleven Plus”, if I recall. Thus I was the only boy of my age travelling from Leatherhead to the relevant Roman Catholic grammar school for Leatherhead, which was Wimbledon College, a Victorian redbrick gothic pile run by the Jesuits. This meant a journey taking an hour, half on the train and the other half walking at the two ends. I commuted on that route for seven years. I hated the waste of time that commuting represents and continued to do so all my working life. One of the Jesuits told us, 5 years later (so when I was 16) that Lthough Wimbledon College was a grammar school “ it paid lip service to the public school tradition”. In practice this meant that Latin and Greek were important subjects in its curriculum, at least for the top stream (of four in each year group in the school beginning in 1961 when I went there); and games — rugby football in the winter and cricket in the summer — were an important part of school life and the sport ethos was big with the way it worked culturally and socially. There were in each year a certain number who absolutely hated everything about the whole games and PE (Physical Education) regime. I spent whichever afternoon of the week it was for the next five or six years enduring games and trying not to be noticed or expected to actually do anything, and trying to escape from or get out of having to attend games somehow. Finally, in the “sixth form” (aged 16 and 17 at start of school year, 17 and 18 at the end) by some fluke I was told I could instead spend games afternoons in the physics laboratory prep rooms inventing and contructing unusual items of experimental equipment for which there was no budget to do advanced experiments which were way beyond the scope of the A level curriculum.

Something else I absolutely hated was the pugnaceous culture of fighting in break times among the 12 to 14 year old age groups. I remember a quarrelsome little boy, in my class but considerably shorter than me, trying to provoke me to fight him in a locker room at morning break time. We were both 12 going to 13. I was able to hold him off simply by putting the palm of one hand on his forehead and pushing, and I remember him swinging his arms trying to box with me but unable to reach. He was apparently very angry that I wouldn't get angry (which he tried for ages to provoke me to). As far as I recall, the other boys wanted to see a fight and couldn't grasp my (essentially) pacifism at that age. As far as I remember, after that I sailed through the remaining five and a half years without ever getting into a fight. Mostly I always stayed well out of trouble. Yet my overall memory of the entire experience, until the last couple of years brought me freedom from games afternoons, and lots of free lesson periods because I chose “double” mathematics and physics for A level, was of a horrible place, in horrible old buildings, with a lot of very strange men who were the Jesuit priest teachers — plus a few more normal people who were ordinary laymen, and generally younger and more normal people. Still, the religious ethos was very heavy; and though I didn’t get bothered much by that at the time when I went away to university, all the years of Jesuits teaching religion and theology coudln’t stop me abandoning all religious belief immediately. I have developed the details of my current position on beliefs gradually since those years and I probably benefited from them in that I am very confident that religion holds nothing that I don’t already know about, and is sterile and void.

One Jesuit teacher was a basically Good Thing. He was not a priest, but a “Mister S.J.’, a man in his thirties who had joined the order years before but not yet “taken holy orders’ (I have no idea why but that was part of the career path of Jesuits). He taught my class mathematics in my 3rd year (1963..4), during which stage we were introduced to cartesian analytical geometry, the parabola y = x² + a and all that. I remember asking him one sunny afternoon in the spring term, when we were busy working through examples, whether non-circular curves such as the parabola could be made up from small pieces of circular arcs. The truth is that a precise match to a parabola requires an infinite number of infinitesimal pieces of circular arc, because in a parabola the radius of curvature changes continuously from point to point. This “Mister S.J.’ first of all took me seriously and was very nice about my off-syllabus question (it’s a lot more advanced than where we were then) and explained that, yes, it could be done as an approximation to any necessary degree of accuracy to the original (parabolic) curve, lading to an infinite number (etc.) for a perfect fit.

Then this man did something very special, which most teachers I used to come across wouldn't generally do: he told me that the school library contained a copy of a book about this subject, and — because he knew that boys in my year were not allowed to borrow books from the school library — volunteered to borrow the book himself (to sign it out) and then lend it to me to take home to read! He did this. The book was A Book of Curves by E.H.Lockwood (C.U.P. 1963); it had only been published in recent months when he got hold of it for me. A litle over three years later, when I was almost 17, in the sixth form and doing the summer end of year exams for the year before A levels, I placed an order for a copy of this book with The Bookworm, a now vanished bookshop on Bull Hill, Leatherhead. It costy all of 25 shillings, or $4.95 US. I still have that book, it is by me now. It is what inspired me to do two mathematics A levels and (though I began at university with physics) to major in mathematics ultimately in my degree; and it is what inspired the geometrical patterns that have been the starting point for my new career as an abstract artist since 2004. I cannot remember that teacher’s surname. Though he was younger than some, he is probably dead now as all the others doubtless are.

The mathematics teacher who taught me until December 1967, when he died over the Christmas holidays (much to my distress when I heard in arly January, aggravated somewhat by the apparent delight with which the other boys in the class met the news), was a married lay teacher called Mr Joseph Ruddy. This man was origianlly a classicist, and he had taken a science degree during world war 2 while working for the meteorological service (his health not having been up to the armed forced, I think) and since the public schools produced a superfluity of classics teachers for the needs of the modern world had taught mathematics, aith a lucidity that I never met in any other school maths teacher, ever since, until his death. (He had a weak heart.) Mr Ruddy was able to keep teenage boys in order. Most of the older teachers at Wimbledon College could; but some of them and many younger ones could be quite inefffectual and would then sometimes resort to what I considered “cruel and unusual punishemnt’ — or at least very unjust punishemnt — such as keeping the whole class in or (especially) sentencing the whole class to “write lines’ for the misdemeanours of a few, like three or four out of 30, because of their own sheer ineffectuality and incompetence.

Mr Ruddy never needed to do anything like that. He was very matter-of-fact, and he kept order. He could tell an able student, too. He knew I was quite good and took me into the small group doing what was either “maths and higher maths” or “pure and applied maths” (what the examining board offered and called it changed over time and, nowadays, the old system is long since swept away anyway). I think I was the only one in the group really good at maths. SOmetimes he would pose a question which none of us could answer for a while; and then I would put my hand up after getting inspiration. “What’s the matter, Hudson?” he would say; “suddden rush of brains to the head?!” I liked old Mr Ruddy and missed him terribly the last months after he died especially as they were the time leading up to the A levels: these were our school leaving exams, university entrance, everything in our academic future depended on them and he was gone. We had a very young, not very confident, replacement who might as well not have been there as far as I was concerned. Still, I got my exams and ended up three years later with a maths degree — of sorts.

Bristol