THE FADING MARGIN: serial 23Posted: May 17, 2013
Going Up Late
It is a day in summer, 1955. In the dining room at Oxford’s 149, Banbury Road, which is the largest room in the house, sheets of hardboard have temporarily been laid over the long dining table, at which I am working with an electric iron and several great rolls of polythene, each about a yard wide. My task is to join 12-foot lengths of the plastic together, side by side, so as to make individual sheets measuring 12 x 9 feet; the dimensions dictated by the practical working space available in the room, not by the use to which each sheet will eventually be put. It could hardly be called highly skilled work, but must be carefully done, since any incompetence will eventually prove catastrophic. The joining process consists of positioning the sheets of polythene so that they overlap laterally by about an inch, covering the overlap with newspaper, then slowly tracing the now hidden and protected overlap with a hot iron. If the iron is at the correct heat the loose union underneath the newspaper will become an airtight weld. Too little heat, and the weld will not be effected. Too much, and the plastic will simply melt, uniting polythene, newspaper and hardboard. When a sufficient quantity of 12 x 9 feet polythene sheets have been manufactured, the owner of the house will take over the iron and with myself manoeuvring the plastic under his anxious direction will with the dexterity and judgement of which he is a master, and with a precise understanding of what he is intending to achieve, will fashion a very large envelope destined to be filled with air heated by a large gas burner, thus acquiring a buoyancy which will carry it over the Oxfordshire countryside at heights and for a distance which, even with its creator’s scientific abilities, are unpredictable. Which is half the fun. (Years later, he will buy a proper hot air balloon and fly it himself).
The owner of the house and sole instigator of the present activity is Dr.E.T. (“Teddy”) Hall, whom I have known for only a few months but in whose company I find myself spending increasing amounts of time. He is one of the five statutory senior members of the Gridiron Club (“The Grid”), the undergraduate wining and dining club to which I belong. Which may be how I first met him, but I think it was otherwise. Hall is just nineteen days older than myself. After Eton, he joined the RNVR, served in landing craft as an ordinary seaman, went up to New College, Oxford, and won the first of his many academic distinctions with an aegrotat honours degree in chemistry. An aegrotat (the Latin word means literally, “he is sick”) can be awarded when a candidate is prevented by illness from sitting an examination which, in the opinion of the relevant academic body, he would otherwise have passed. Such a degree is officially unclassified, but Hall’s subsequent performance left little doubt that in the ordinary course of events he would have achieved a First. Switching from chemistry, he gained his D.Phil in physics. Before his untimely death in 1971 he will have become the founder of the Oxford Research Laboratory for Archeology and the History of Art, the Emeritus Professor of Archaeological Sciences, a Trustee of both the British Museum and the National Gallery, a member of the Advisory Council of the Science Museum, an Honorary Fellow of the British Academy, a CBE and a Fellow of my own college. Briefly, he will have achieved popular fame for his part in the exposure of the Piltdown forgery and the definitive dating of the Turin Shroud. I suspect that the cause of our meeting was the Piltdown affair.
It was an affair that shook the very foundations of paleontology. In 1912, on Piltdown Common, in Sussex, a skull and jawbone had been discovered which a number of eminent anthropologists declared to be the link, hitherto missing, between ape and man in the story of human evolution. Huge excitement and international controversy ensued. In the one camp were those who believed Piltdown Man to represent one of the greatest advances in knowledge ever made. In the other were those who considered the “discovery” to be part of a gigantic hoax. There was no entirely convincing proof one way or the other until in 1953, using carbon dating, Hall and his colleagues were able conclusively and incontrovertibly to declare for the unbelievers. It was all rich material for cartoonists and others who saw the funny side of it. Encouraged by my earlier success as a freelance contributor, I sent The Spectator an appropriate piece, which the magazine published as a letter to the Editor and paid me ten guineas for. Unquestionably, Teddy Hall would have seen it. That my invitation to dinner at 149 Banbury Road was a consequence is more likely than not.
It was now that I was richly compensated for my failure in Prelims and subsequent rustication. I had missed the Trinity term in 1952 and even though I had passed Final School in 1954 was obliged to come up for the following (Michaelmas) term in order to make up in statu pupillari time. I had no tutorials or lectures to attend, no essays to write: simply a lot of time to be filled in. What was I to do with it? “Teddy”, said one of Hall’s oldest and closest friends, “always liked to have something on the go”. The balloon project was one example. Close on its heels, the West Country cannon excursion was another. The scene is the spacious grounds of a large mansion in Cornwall. Lying on its side is a medium calibre, 18th-century cannon. Gouges in the turf of the otherwise well-groomed lawn would appear to suggest that recent firing and recoil have forcibly removed the heavy barrel of the weapon from its mountings. Loosely grouped around it in the early summer twilight, wearing evening dress, champagne glasses in hand, are half a dozen men and an equal number of girls who a short while before were at table in the large dining room that overlooks the lawn until disturbed by an explosion that shook not only the windows and themselves, but also (though no one present knew it until later) a number of Boy Scouts sitting round their camp fire in a clearing of a wood a thousand yards or so away.
Two days before, Hall had been showing me a piece of equipment that he had recently acquired and was eager to try out. What appeared at first to be an unexceptional container on wheels, some seven feet long, six feet wide and two or three feet deep, opened up into a canvas-sided shelter. It was a very early example of the now commonplace and much refined trailer tent. Camping was not of itself one of Teddy’s preferred forms of recreation. Characteristic, on the other hand, was his readiness to experiment with anything that seemed to offer itself as a useful accessory or addition to his current interests. Whether the cannon or the trailer tent came first in order of inspiration I am unable to say, but over a drink one day Teddy proposed that he and I should drive down to Cornwall where during the coming weekend a friend of his would be entertaining a house party. On the lawn there fronting the dining room, pointing out over a ha-ha, looking seawards, Teddy said, was a cannon of which his friend was very proud. It would be fun to drive down the day before, camp overnight somewhere near the estate, wait until dinner time on the Saturday evening, then set off the showpiece gun with as noisy a charge as we might safely contrive. There were four berths in the trailer tent, so we could collect a brace of girls to join the expedition. As an ex-gunner, I would be just the man to supply any technical advice, if it were needed. (This, tongue in cheek: elementary technical contributions from others were rarely needed in any experiment with which the holder of a D.Phil in Physics was involved.)
At his boyhood home near Ewelme, not far from Oxford, Teddy said, they kept a supply of gunpowder for the excavation of old tree roots. Discreetly, we could obtain a sufficient quantity of this to make propellant charges. He knew that a number of cannon balls were piled ornamentally beside the gun. All we would need by way of tools would be a good hand-drill to unblock the touchhole of the weapon and some sort of a reamer to clear out any debris that might be found in the barrel. This, Teddy himself, who was skilled at metal working, quickly fashioned in the estate workshop, using a length of iron rod which he made into a giant corkscrew fastened to the end of an old broom handle. Organising the girls and camping gear took a little longer, but less than a day and a half after the idea was mooted we were ready to go. Packed in a biscuit tin along with bags of silica gel (a desiccant) was a pound or two of black powder that I had crammed into several of Teddy’s old socks. Everything went wondrously well. We had sent one cannon ball over the wood and were preparing a repeat firing when Teddy’s friend burst onto the lawn, soon joined by his fellow diners. For the perpetrators, the amazement, admiration and delight were very satisfactory. Champagne was fetched and eventually dinner resumed with four extra places set. Next day there was a visit from the local constabulary. The night before, a troop of Boy Scouts, camping in a clearing, had been considerably alarmed when the sound of an explosion had been almost instantly followed by a crash and a shower of leaves and branches immediately behind them. It was, the complaining Scoutmaster had reported, as if they had been under shellfire. Weeks later, Teddy’s friend, prominent in Cornish society, was told that a prosecution for “illegal discharge of ordnance” would not, after all, be pursued.
Thus time in the summer of 1955 never hung heavily on my hands. The workshop in which the reamer for the cannon had been manufactured soon came to be of a significance even greater than that of featuring in so memorable an escapade. At Littlemore, on the outskirts of Oxford, Hall at this time acquired the house which was to become his lifetime home. The premises embraced an outbuilding in which he proceeded to install the lathes and other items of professional metal-working machinery which had been at Ewelme, and others, newly acquired, together with a full-time machinist. “On the go”, currently, and in particular, was the design and construction of a meter for the continuous measurement of the average speed of a moving vehicle. When he ruefully remarked how expensive it all was I suggested that his accountant might be interested in the thought of establishing a company that would own and operate the whole caboodle: setting costs against tax, and so on. What about “The Littlemore Scientific Engineering Company” for a name? His accountant approved. It was the beginning of the company that was to make not only the average meter as its first product, but an invalid chair incorporating a respirator, freeing its user from confinement to bed. Originally designed and built exclusively for a close friend, it was the prototype for a device that revolutionised the lives of numberless severely disabled people and inspired the foundation of an entire charity in aid of them and their families. The Littlemore Scientific Engineering Company (ELSEC) flourishes today under the ownership of William Hall, one of the founder’s two sons. The average meter caught the attention of the rally team belonging to one of the world’s largest motor manufacturers and its cars were fitted with the instrument. Trouble came when it was found that a certain spindle had a tendency to snap if it was incorrectly fitted. Time before a crucial race was desperately short. Rigorously instructed by Teddy in the proper procedure, I was despatched to the team in the role of mechanic extraordinary to save the day by working late into the night. Memory has nothing to say how the team fared.
Such activities represented opportunities that I welcomed. Among the extravagancies that Teddy could amply afford but I could not were dinners at the Bay Tree in Burford or PK’s, a restaurant near Henley that was not only by far the best in the county but one of the most expensive. PK himself had a genuine affection for Teddy as a customer who was as gastronomically discerning as he was agreeable to serve. Our visits there were frequent enough for me at times to at least go through the motions of resisting them; gestures which Teddy treated with the argument that since he enjoyed our dinners together it was “pretty unfriendly” of me to object to them on the purely selfish grounds that I couldn’t afford them. It was much the same with the Bay Tree, where the ambience and food were particularly agreeable and service was by girls handpicked to match. Teddy had immense personal appeal (“charisma” would be today’s word), faultlessly carried, and there were evenings when I would return alone to Oxford in the Delage and he would follow by taxi, or I might fetch him, next day. To have taken resistance to his unpretentious generosity beyond the decency of an occasional gesture would have been a kind of vulgarity which he would have found intolerable, and to have risked that most heinous of all social offences – being “boring”. I was comforted by making myself useful from time to time.