Show Time and Variety
I’d arrived home from my second Hawai’i trip on Monday the 2nd of February 1981. At this point my body’s clock was running about 10 or 11 hours offset from the daytime in London. The Sun wasn’t going to change, so I had to persuade my body to conform. This took me a day or two. Despite that, I had a meeting with Keith Marries of QMC Instruments on the Tuesday to arrange some work Derek Martin wanted done for Alan Costly of JET (Joint European Torus). I also did some preliminary work for Armstrong Audio. This was because from Thursday the 5th until the following Sunday evening my time was already pre-booked to help set up and run Armstrong’s presentation at the London Audio Fair show, hosted in room 238 at the Holiday Inn, Swiss Cottage. To make life even more interesting I was also then due to fly to ESTEC (European Space Research and Technology Centre) for a meeting the day after the show!
Left to right: Barry Hope, me, Celia Hope, and Alex Grant at the Audio Show in 1981. You can see that I had no sense of fashion at all! That hasn't changed...
The Audio show was very successful. We were demonstrating prototypes of the planned “700 Range” amplifiers to the public for the first time. I noticed that many people came back for a second listen after going around the show. Some even came back and spent time listening on a subsequent day! Quite a few stayed to listen to more than one LP side. This was unusual for hotel-room shows with no set demonstration programme. Sadly, one person came up to me and said that although he’d always bought the latest Armstrong equipment he simply wouldn’t be able to afford the new amplifiers because they were much more expensive. We’d decided we had to move ‘up market’ to avoid the Japanese imports that were eating the budget and middle regions of the UK market. To achieve this the 700 amps offerred higher quality and performance, but required more expensive components, metalwork, etc, and hence a higher price!
We’d brought a number of LPs, of various types, to demonstrate the amplifiers. I particularly recall one LP by ‘Soft Cell’, another by ‘Police’, and a classical one of Shostakovich’s 7th Symphony which was one of the earliest examples of an LP recorded using digital methods. (For audio geeks, this was the Haitink / LPO recording on Decca Digital D213D2.) These all sounded great, although Barry tended to want to keep playing the ‘loud bits’ of the Shostakovich because this was the most impressive part for casual listeners. One visitor to the show brought along his own LPs and asked me if he could play “Mango Crazy” by Roger Chapman. Since I liked the group “Family” I agreed and we were enjoying this... until Alex Grant came over and said in a stage whisper, “Take it off! It’s emptying the room!” Sadly, most visitors didn’t seem to share my taste. But the visitor who’d brought in the LP seemed pretty pleased with the sound.
One by one, people we recognised from other makers like QUAD, Meridian, and Linn came in and seemed quite impressed with both the sound and the appearance of the amps. When I took a break from speaking to visitors and had a walk around the show I managed to have a chat with Peter Walker of QUAD who said we had a winner. In fact, we then discovered that Peter was sending visitors, dealers, and press around to look and listen to what we had on show. Barry had also done a deal with KEF that we’d use their loudspeakers and they’d use our amplifiers. However when he checked they’d ‘accidentally’ put the amps out of sight of visitors. So he politely re-arranged things so people could see whose amp they were using.
At one point Julian Vereker came in to find out what we were up to. Julian was the designer and founder of Naim who made well regarded amplifiers. Barry and Alex decided to keep away and leave him to talk with me. I decided that I’d not give any sign that I’d recognised him because I couldn’t resist seeing if I could ‘wind him up’ a bit. So when he was asking me how we thought our amps compared with Naim I outlined a number of reasons why we thought the 700 was far better, of course, being polite about Naim in the process. One curious result of this was that I later on read some of the things I’d said to him appear in hi-fi magazine articles by other people who didn’t mention where the information had come from. Which left me with the impression that more than one reviewer was being fed opinions by Julian without them saying that the ideas weren’t their own.
General view of the 1981 Audio Show demonstration room
The notes I made in my diary at the end of the show include one comment that now seems almost like a prophecy. “My conclusion after the show is that – barring unforeseen events or a stupid review – we’re going to be at the top of the UK market.” Alas, such a “stupid review” containing some seriously misleading comments did, indeed, manifest in due time, as I’ve documented elsewhere.
The Audio Show finished on the Sunday afternoon. By 10 am on the Monday (9th Feb) I was on my way to an ESTEC meeting in Noordwijk. Between the end of the Audio show and flying out to Amsterdam airport I’d spoken to Derek Martin over the phone. He said he’d found another two months funding for me so I was still employed, on the JET-related work. But I was now working on the basis of various people and projects being willing to fund me for specific items of work. The academic science and engineering version of working in theatrical variety!
ESTEC had arranged for me to be picked up at the airport and taken to the meeting. I wasn’t charged for this, but it turned out that I had to book my own hotel and then claim back the cost from ESTEC later on. That had to be done via a suitable contract - which at that point we’d not even set up! At least this was charged at a special discounted room rate. The meeting was to review early progress on deciding what instrument designs would be developed for inclusion on the ISO (Infrared Space Observatory) satellite. At this point not even the exact size of the telescope to be flown, or how the detectors would be cooled had been finalised. I’d been invited to attend in case I and the others involved decided that I might join the project.
The area of work that interested me most was how to design and build a suitable interferometer that would cover the far-infrared region of the spectrum. The ISO work was very interesting, and once ‘on board’ it would be a long-term project. So this was very tempting. But, having come home after the meeting, I decided to concentrate on other projects. To a large extent this was because I was wary of projects that relied on using a balloon or satellite. From observing other examples I’d come to feel that they tended to involve many years of work which might then be wasted if the final system got damaged or destroyed when actually launched!
|The above shows the front and back of a QMC Instruments leaflet issued in 1981. The back page advertised some of the items I’d designed or could make and were for sale.|
By the following Thursday (12th) I was back at QMC, discussing things I could do for QMC Instruments with Keith Marries. In addition to work Derek had arranged there was also the possibility of making a system for John Beckman collaborating with Derek. I was also working on some more low-noise amplifier designs for QMC Instruments and Armstrong. Alan Costley and I had a phone discussion to arrange a meeting at the NPL on the following Monday (16th) to decide what was required by JET. This was a variety of things including low noise amplifiers, control systems, the interferometers used to perform spectral measurements, and the long runs of connecting wires so the entire setup could be operated remotely from a safe distance. So a real mix of optics and electronics.
If all this wasn’t enough, Prof Peter Morse of the Polytechnic of Central London (PCL) had asked me to give a lecture course to some of the PCL students, covering the kinds of engineering I was doing. Peter was at that time working with Derek Martin, Bill Duncan, and others on the Interferometer that was going to be used to make measurements on the Cosmic Background Radiation. In particular, his part of the project was to ensure the computer control and data-taking systems worked. This was actually the same system we had taken to the Canaries in 1978 – where it had in fact failed to work despite out best efforts! Peter was quite unusual for a Professor. I always tended to think of his as having a manner more like a used car salesman than a learned academic! More Arfur Daley than Albert Einstein!
At one point when we were talking about the Cosmic Background system, etc, he suddenly said, “Would you like to give a lecture course at PCL?” I said “Yes” because I thought it would be useful experience and look good on my CV. So he got a sheaf of papers out of his briefcase and explained what was involved. I then went along to PCL and gave a lecture, once a week, being paid for them on a per-lecture basis. This process did teach me something about giving lectures. In particular, I learned the same lesson that comedians in music-hall over the ages learned. Never turn your back on the audience! When I did I found that the back of my jacket tended to get wet because one of the ‘students’ at PCL had a water-pistol...
View of the circuits in the Armstrong 730 preamplifier. One of the most expensive components in this design was the volume control. This was a high precision unit made by ‘Alps’ which acted as an accurately calibrated stepped attenuator.
And of course I was still also going to Barry Hope’s home in East Grinstead most weekends to continue working on electronics for Armstrong. In particular on ‘moving coil’ (LP replay cartridge) pre-amps. This was in parallel with developing other amplifier designs for JET/NPL. Variety, indeed. Given all this it perhaps isn’t surprising that the notebook I was using as a diary at the time has some comments about not having gone out for a show, etc, with anyone in ages and that, “I must go to the RFH (Royal Festival Hall) with someone soon – not been out in ages!” Working on all these different topics went on quite intensely during the rest of February. All work and no play. Probably because I was anxious about only being on short term or item-specific employment and I wanted to make sure I didn’t find I was out of work.
Fortunately, after all this frantic work, things looked up in March. On Thursday the 5th Chris Robson came over to the Physics dept from Chemistry at 1pm and pointed out that – back at the Christmas party – we’d agreed to go out together for a meal or a show, but I hadn’t followed this up with her. This was quite embarassing because I’d thought she would be feeling stressed during 1981, and had wanted to see her again. I knew well enough how much work and worry was involved in doing a research degree because I’d failed to even write up a thesis at the end of my own postgraduate studentship. And, although I’d finally submitted one at the start of the year, I was still awaiting my viva. So I could empathise. In addition, Ian had left London but she’d had to remain to be able to finish her research degree in the Chemistry dept. So she’d be missing the daily support he would have provided. However, having been nudged, we had a drink in the Senior Common Room bar and then went for a meal at the ‘Hellenic’ restaurant in Thayer St.
The Hellenic was a great restaurant. Very friendly as well as good food. It was run by a family with the father as the maitre’d and his sons as the waiters. As you came in the door you were greeted like well-known friends of the family who they’d longed to see again for years, and we were treated like honoured guests. They made the best Moussaka I’ve ever tasted. And they also had retsina (wine with resin dissolved in it) that I enjoyed. However embarrassment struck again when I found they wouldn’t accept my credit card. Chris had to pay by cheque for our meal! I didn’t have enough cash, and as I write this I have the uncomfortable feeling that I still owe her £6·35 as a result. By now, taking continuous interest into account of the decades, I must owe her a lot!
We left and went home via underground. At one point Denise Gorse got into the same carriage but sat nearby without showing she had seen us. Denise was a research student in the QMC Physics dept at the time. I’d not spoken to her very much as she always seemed a bit reserved. Although at one QMC Christmas party she had come over, sat on my lap, and given me a passionate kiss! Naturally this had aroused my, erm, curiosity. So when she’d got up again, I followed and tried to talk to her, but she hadn’t been interested. I still wonder if Carey had put her up to doing it as a dare!
When Chris Robson got off the train to go back to her hall of residence I stayed on to travel further, to my home. I then decided to sit down and say ‘hello” to Denise because it would have seemed odd to ignore her. She was quite talkative and friendly, so maybe she was just shy.
The next Tuesday (10th March) I went to see the farce “Accidental Death of an Anarchist” with Chris Adams. This was very funny and cleverly done. One bit of stage ‘business’ I particularly recall was that when an actor wanted to look out of a window, a window-frame was whizzed on-stage using a rope across the front. They then looked at the audience though the frame to give their lines before shoving it off-stage again to get it out of the way. The following evening I went to see “Waiting for Godot” with Karen Worgan. I was surprised to find that we both liked it! Quite a contrast to the previous night, though. I’d originally reserved expensive seats but Karen didn’t want us to pay that much, so we got much cheaper ones in the slips.
Example of the general electronics I was designing for QMC Instruments or JET. This circuit used the HA12017 IC which had become a favourite of mine at the time. Although developed by Hitachi as an RIAA (LP preamp) device it also worked excellently for other purposes.
The day after that I went to a concert at the Royal Festival Hall with Elaine Mills. I’d met her via having a dinner with her at Barry Hope’s home, and had gone out with her a few times as a result. She gave me a lift home after the concert which I felt a bit awkward about because it was so far out of her way.
On the evenings when I wasn’t going out to shows, concerts, and restaurants, I usually cycled over to Chris Adam’s home to spend time with her. It may see a bit odd to anyone reading my accounts now, and who wasn’t there at the time, that on the one hand I was clearly in love with Chris Adams, and was hoping to marry her. Yet I was also happily enjoying going out with various other charming women! But the reality at the time was that – although Chris Adams and I had formed a very close and intimate friendship – she remained dead set against the idea of ever actually sharing her life or marrying again. So, despite spending a lot of time with her, she was actually encouraging me to go out with other women.
Later on in life I have tended to explain this as her being eager to find some other woman who would treat me well enough that she could cheerfully palm me off on them, and I’d then be happy without wanting to marry her! A sort of ‘decoy diversion’ tactic. At the same time I had the growing feeling that the women I knew at QMC had seen me going out with others there and concluded that I was ‘safe’ and good company. As a result I seemed to drift into simply being a good and trusted friend to them. In some ways the situation was, perhaps best summed up by the old phrase, “No sex, please, we’re British”, but thoroughly enjoyable for me, and I hope for them. Overall, I felt quite honoured to be trusted and well-regarded by them – even if it was on a basis akin to the description of Planet Earth in the Hitch-Hiker’s Guide also being applied to me : “Mostly harmless”. Although in my case “Mostly Daft” may have been more accurate, and they all saw me as an entertaining “variety act”!
On Saturday 21st March I met Chris Adams’ parents for the second time at her home in Leytonstone. They told me that they were still letting Chris know that they thought she should accept my proposal. That was very pleasing to hear although I did note in my diary at the time, “Getting the parents on your side might be a hindrance rather than a help!” Particularly given how determined Chris Adams could be when so minded! The next day Chris and I went to listen to an afternoon concert of piano music by Debussy, Mozart, Chopin, etc. I enjoyed the Debussy and Mozart while she preferred the Chopin.
During this period I also visited Richard Wylde’s home and factory in Sussex. Richard had become associated with Derek Martin’s research group on a ‘fair exchange’ basis. He had an interest in the mm-wave area and was also looking for potential new, specialist, ‘products’ he and his factory could design, manufacture, and sell on a commercial basis. So he was willing to make prototypes and ‘one off’ experimental designs for Derek’s group without charge if they were also of interest to him. For example, he had a superb spark-erosion system that used a fine wire to cut delicate shapes into metalwork. This was ideal for making what are called Scalar Feed Horns. These are a very efficient devices for transforming electromagnetic waves between standard waveguide and free space Gaussian beams. It made them a key part of many of the systems I was designing and the group used. But were very difficult to make with the required precision.
Mandrel for manufacturing a 95GHz Scalar Feed Horn.
The process begins by being able to cut a precise series of grooves into an aluminium ‘mandrel’. This is then deep-electroplated with copper and then the aluminium is etched away using a caustic solution. The result is a feed horn (antenna) with a conical shape that has a series of grooves inside the cone. The size, shape, and locations of these grooves needs to be just right to allow the device to work correctly.
During April I also visited the National Physical Laboratory to discuss items for JET with Alan Costley. This included a preamp system that QMC Instruments completed for them and the mm-wave optics I was analysing/designing. One of the key engineering constraints on this was the need for the JET researchers to decide on a value for the lowest mm-wave frequencies they wished to observe and measure. Put simply, the lower the frequency, the larger the optical systems and devices would need to be. I was also working on further materials measurements in conjunction with Jim Birch of the NPL. This included measurements on cooled Indium Antimonide (InSb) as I had some ideas about how it might be possible to make better InSb detectors/mixers. I also went to another ISO meeting in mid-May to push along discussions about the possible designs of instruments.
Meanwhile, my social life continued to be very pleasant. For example, during May, going with Chris Adams to a concert at the RFH where we heard the Concertgebouw Orchestra play Shostakovich’s 5th symphony - which I liked but she didn’t. A few days later (Monday, 18th May) I went to another JET meeting at the NPL. I’d promised to give a talk on Gaussian Beam analysis of the two-beam interferometer and ended up giving an all day-seminar because it was a topic that interested them a great deal. On the following Monday Chris Adams and I went to a Jazz concert at the RFH. This was the Dave Brubeck quartet which Chris particularly liked – and still does! The Jazz was excellent. But the event showed an interesting difference between Jazz and ‘classical’ music concerts.
The music itself tended to be items that gave each player a chance to do a solo, let them express themselves and show their virtuosity. However at the end of each solo the audience would applaud whilst the music continued. This tended at times to disrupt being able to hear the progression of the music. There was also a lot of continual talking in the audience while music was being played. This contrasts with what is usual at a classical concert where people are generally expected to stay quiet. It was enjoyable nevertheless, but left me wondering if the musicians actually wanted to have the applause, talking, etc, and found it helped them. Or if they might have actually preferred the attentively silent audience of a classical performance.
On Tuesday 2nd June I went to the Purcell Room with Chris Robson for a concert of pianola music. This was quite a remarkable and fascinating event which we chose because it was so unusual and intriguing. In addition to the music, the performer gave a talk and showed some slides. At the end of the concert we were invited up on stage to examine the pianola. Which for this concert was actually based on a Grand Piano with an added mechanism. The next day I got a letter from the journal, ‘Infrared Physics’, telling me they were accepting a paper I’d written on Gaussian optics and it would be published. On Tuesday the 10th Chris Adams had a small fit during the second act of a play we’d gone into London to watch. The day after that Chris Robson and I went to the RFH to a concert of music by Sibelius, Dvorak, and the Rachmaninov 2nd Piano Concerto. It was pouring with rain when we came out, so we shared an umbrella as we walked happily back over the Hungerford bridge to the station.
Photo of the Armstrong 700 amplifiers showing the input and output connections.
The following day I took a break from QMC and went to a well-known north London Hi-Fi dealer’s shop with Barry Hope and Alex Grant of Armstrong. This was to demonstrate our 700 range amplifiers. Initially, the people in the shop asked us to use the amplifiers with Linn Isobarik speakers which they regarded as the ‘best’ they sold. So we did. The ‘golden eared’ staff then proceeded to listen and started giving their purely subjective impressions. Their overall feeling was that it sounded OK, but not excellent. However as I listened I got more and more puzzled by what I heard. I’d not spent much time previously listening to Isobariks but I had the distinct impression something was, indeed, not quite right - and perhaps this wasn’t due to the amplifier as they obviously presumed.
I have to admit I never liked the Isobariks. But in addition I had a very clear impression that the speakers weren’t producing anything recognisable as a stereo image. Indeed, to me, the two speakers sounded quite different to one another. So I pointed this out. The shop staff tried to dismiss what I said, but I persisted in saying that something was wrong – which I seemed to be able to hear but they were missing. Barry and Alex weren’t happy about this because they were worried that I was going to antagonise the shop staff. However I felt that if they’d already decided the amp wasn’t very good there was no reason not to stick to my guns!
Eventually, the staff reluctantly dragged out a sound level meter and we did some checks. The measured results showed that the two speakers did actually have very different behaviour. Further investigation showed that one speaker unit was actually badly damaged, and this was why their output differed so much. The staff now looked a bit irritated and embarrassed because – despite their self-belief in their ‘golden eared’ ability – they’d not realised that one speaker had a serious fault that was degrading its sound quality. At this point they grudgingly brought in a pair of the – then very new – QUAD ESL63 speakers. They said they didn’t like them much, but we could give them a try to listen to the amplifier.
Personally, it only took me a minute or two to decide the ESL63s were the best speakers I’d ever heard! The sound was superb when driven with our amplifier. (Later on, I bought a pair of ESL63s for myself.) The staff, again with great reluctance, agreed that the sound was now very good. Although I did wonder if they said this for fear that I might ‘catch them out’ again in some way. I also suspect that Barry and Alex were correct and that this episode then meant the shop staff wouldn’t be keen after we’d gone on stocking or recommending our amp simply out of irritation. However I can only guess about that! Crazy as their behaviour seems, it was perhaps quite understandable in some ways.
Firstly, people do tend to become acclimatised to a given sound quality when they’ve been exposed to it over a long enough period. Its an effect similar to what happens when you sometimes go into a room for the first time. At first you may notice the effect of the room’s acoustic on speech or music. But as you spend a lot of time over some days in that room, your brain ‘adapts’ and you tend to stop consciously noticing it. Having become used to enjoying music there, the effect of the room (or equipment used) becomes a part of the ‘sound’ you like and you brain expects to hear when you play a familiar recording again.
Secondly, at the time there was a belief held by some audio enthusiasts that there was no such thing as a ‘stereo image’ anyway. Now, in practice, you actually need a good, and carefully set-up audio system and a decent listening room acoustic to hear a convincing stereo image from a conventional Hi-Fi system with two speakers. Hence many people have never had a chance to hear this in their home. As a result they may not realise what they were missing or assume it is a myth. The shop staff seemed to fall into this category. As a result the experience was disappointing, and I’m afraid my expectations of the staff in Hi-Fi shops went down in the process.
Circuit diagram of the power amplifier used in the Armstrong 700.
Over the weekend of 20th / 21st June, Chris Adams and I went to stay with a friend of hers called Heather who lived in Taff’s Well, a small village near Cardiff. The weather was really good. Sunny, clear, and warm. We climbed a local hill, about 300m high, called The Garth and had a picnic. I can remember looking down to see the swifts flying around in the valley below us. As we walked on to reach another village we started to get lost in the trees, but then walked downhill until we reached a clearing and found our way from there. I slept on the floor where we stayed. I can also recall there was a singing conductor on the local train out of Cardiff – very Welsh! Heather also had epilepsy, and had a fit while we were there. But it was nothing like the fits Chris would have at the time. The main symptom was that she became very confused and upset - frightened and weeping – for a while, but couldn’t really communicate or say why.
On Tuesday 23rd June I went to see the film ‘Tess’ with Chris Robson. We then had a pizza and she drove me home. The next day I went to the Queen Elizabeth Hall with Karen, but when we got there the tickets were all sold out. So we decided to see Measure for Measure at the National Theatre instead. This was a production with Black actors, set on a Caribbean island and was very enjoyable surprise evening. After I’d got off the Central line (tube) train at Stratford on my way home I heard someone calling to me. This was Jacqui Cook and her fiancee, Jeff. They’d been in the same carriage but I’d not seen them. Jacqui was a technician at QMC and Jeff was a research student at the time. The sliding doors of my British Rail train closed before we could do more than say hallo, but she was so friendly and cheerful, waving and smiling at me through the window that I found her happiness infectious and couldn’t help smiling as I went home.
Two days later I must have got up exceptionally early to catch a train leaving Euston at about 8:45am. This was because I’d arranged to go and meet Bill Duncan and see the Electron Synchrotron source at Daresbury. I recall seeing this and an Ion accelerator in a tower. After seeing the scientific facilities we went for a walk and I saw a transporter bridge over a canal. Fascinating because I’d never seen anything like that before, either! I had a nice evening with Bill and Trish at their home in Northwitch. The next day I took a train to Preston to spend time with Chris and Ian Robson. If I recall correctly, Ian was occupied with PATT (Panel for the Allocation of Telescope Time) applications for some of the time. On the following Monday (29th June) Chris and I came back to London on the same train. Then on the Tuesday evening we went to see the play of “Amadeus”. Very funny and gloriously rude. I did wonder if Carey had seen it she’d have thought it might make a good QMC Panto! Overall, the last seven days made a great ending for the month.
During the following couple of weeks I continued to meet Chris and others, mostly going out to shows or concerts. However Chris Robson became more concerned over – and tired out by – her research work. So we tended to simply go and have dinner at a local restaurant. That way we could avoid the time and effort required for a trip into London, she could relax, and we could chat. This was convenient for me as well, because on Thursday the 9th of July my mother became unwell without any warning. She suddenly was in excruciating pain and could only lay in bed. Even the the slightest movement used to cause her to cry out in pain. Despite her being a very quiet and undemonstrative person who would normally not show any distress. For her, the situation was made worse because my father was by that stage in his life an invalid. As a result I was having to do much more at home, including most of the cooking for myself and my parents.
This photo was taken in our Forest Gate Council flat at Christmas, 1980. From left to right it shows: My mother, Yvette, father, and Janice. Yvette and Janice are the daughters of one of my step-brothers, Alan. I’m also actually in the picture (hint: I had blonde hair when I was a toddler!), and you can see one of my dad’s old Army photos on the wall.
I was used to doing some shopping. And I did know how to iron clothing. This was because my mother had been accepting homeworking. A tailoring company in Whitechapel paid her to iron shirts as an outworker and mount them onto boards, in transparent bags, for presentation in retail shops. If you’ve been into a high-street shop that sells shirts you’ll have seen shirts in display bags with the shirt being clearly visible, neatly ironed, and attached to a board in some cases to look good at the point of sale. My father and I tended to help her to do this. I’d become used to ironing the front and one arm of a shirt, folding it, pinning the result to a board, then putting it into the bag. The rest of the shirt tended to go un-ironed because it wasn’t visible once folded and in the bag! My father used some cardboard shapes he’d made which he pushed into the matching ties and made them quicker and easier to iron. While she was ill we stopped doing the shirts, but at least I could do the ironing!
Cooking was more ‘interesting’ because until then I’d only cooked or prepared any food to the low standard that might be required when living out of the back of a van at the top of a mountain! Alas, my father – despite years in the army – was even more clueless about cooking than myself, and couldn’t stand up for long enough, either. The best he could manage was that during this period he did once make me some cheese on toast. I remember this clearly because he made it by slicing up some Edam cheese without removing the wax coating. As a result, the cheese had pretty streaks of red patterned into it when melted. We decided it probably wouldn’t poison me, so I ate it. It tasted OK and it didn’t seem to kill me, so passed the most basic test we had to apply at the time.
On Wednesday 15th the Physics dept had its annual Cricket match versus the Geology dept at Ditchleys in Essex. The previous year I’d been umpire, but was cheerfully awful. Karen wanted to be the umpire, so she was given that job and I was reluctantly trusted to keep the scores. Physics won 92 runs to 67, and I insist to this day that I kept the score honestly.
On the 20th of July I was told that Jacqui Cook had suddenly died. This was a total shock. Utterly unexpected. Jacqui was very young, and someone whose cheerful personality really did seem to light up the room and make people smile. It felt impossible that she could have died because you couldn’t have imagined anyone who was more animated and really alive! To make the news even more horribly hard to accept, she’d been a bridesmaid at the wedding of two friends who were also QMC technicians, and had collapsed and died whilst dancing at their reception.
Just a few days before I’d seen her on Stratford station, so full of life and friendliness that it was impossible to grasp what had happened. Indeed, when I read my old diaries to help me write this account now, I nearly wept when I read my notes again for the first time in years about that accidental meeting where we just waved and smiled at each other though the glass of the train doors. She hadn’t had a care in the world, and I couldn’t have imagined in my worst nightmare what was about to happen. She was so full of life and happiness. But it is in retrospect a bitter reminder of how easily we may fail to appreciate or know someone before they are gone. Adding this to worrying about my mother, I felt a hollow emptiness of a sort that I’d never previously felt in my own life.
I have never been a religious person or believed in any kind of god. If I did I might take the view that they were using this life as some kind of ‘test’ to see how we coped, and if we could care for each other or not. To probe us and find out how we react to disasters, to assess our qualities. But if so, what an utterly cruel way this would be to find that out when it might mean the loss, so young, of such goodness. Almost all of my account of my years at QMC is of a time which I really enjoyed and recall with great pleasure. This was the one truly awful event which we shared.
I was just thirty years old. At that age you tend not to think much about death or endings. You think and act as if you, and those around you, will be immortal. But Jacqui’s abrupt death, combined with worry about my Mother’s illness, crystallised one thing in my mind. That when we care about or love someone we should show them, and treat them accordingly. If we fail, it may become too late before we realise what has been lost. By nature I’d always tended to be a bit shy. However I came to realise that it’s better to accept that some people might think you a fool, than to risk a lifetime regretting that you’d never let someone know that you really cared about them. Life is too short and too precious.
9th Oct 2017