The Century Numbering Mystery

Arch of Titus, Via Sacra, Rome

Arch of Titus, Via Sacra, Rome

The photo above shows the Arch of Titus, spanning the Via Sacra near the forum in Rome, taken by me while on holiday there in 1978. Although the arch displays several Latin inscriptions commemorating the achievements of the Emperor Titus, nowhere in those inscriptions are any numeric year dates provided.

Historians believe that the arch was built in 82 AD, where AD (Anno Domini) is of course a reference to the supposed year of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, but at that time Rome was not Christian, so obviously they would not have been numbering years “AD”. How then did the Romans, and other early civilizations, number the years?

What Have the Romans Ever Done for Us?

Given that so many aspects of our civilization can be traced back to the Classical times of Greece and Rome, it’s reasonable to assume that our system for numbering years would have Roman origins. However, thanks to an attempt to “Christianize” the Roman system, our current system has some strange quirks that continue to cause confusion.

Recently, during a news report, I heard the announcer state that an event that had occurred during the 1920s took place in the “Nineteenth Century”. In fact, as most people know, the period from 1901 through 2000 was the Twentieth Century, but exactly why is that? Why aren’t years from 1900 through 1999 referred to as the Nineteenth Century, and why did the Twentieth Century start in 1901?

I’ll answer those questions here, but I’m afraid that the answers may be rather uninspiring!

Trick Questions

When I was growing up, I used to spend quite a lot of time watching quiz shows on TV. (Well, we only had two channels, so there wasn’t much to watch!) Most of these were “trivia” contests, where the participants were asked questions to test their knowledge of a wide variety of subjects.

I’m not sure how educational those experiences were, but I do recall one type of “trick question” that was often asked on these shows. The quizmaster would ask something like, “What is the first year of the Twentieth Century?” The correct answer is 1901, but the anticipated wrong answers would be either “1900” or even “2000”.

These oddities sparked my curiosity, leading me to ask the questions listed above. I asked my schoolteachers about it, but they seemed unable to give a rational answer. Eventually, as an adult, I discovered that the reason for this mystery is, in part at least, ancient ignorance!

Year Zero

Our current “Common Era”/”Before Common Era” year numbering system (abbreviated to “CE/BCE”, and previously called the “AD/BC” system) is one among several systems that have been used during the past few thousand years. Some other systems are still in use now.

A common feature of all these systems is that the starting year is completely arbitrary. Some systems attempted to number years from the supposed creation of the Earth, but their estimates of Earth’s age were wildly inaccurate, so in effect the starting year was still arbitrary.

In fact, it may be just as well that we do have an arbitrary datum year, and that we don’t attempt to number years from the date of Earth’s creation. According to the latest research, Earth is about 4.54 billion years old. Every time you sign a check or contract, would you want to have to write out the year as something like “4,542,311,018”? I don’t think so!

The Years AUC

When Romans in the West wanted to provide a numeric year date, they sometimes numbered the years from the supposed “Founding of Rome”, which they named Ab Urbe Condita (AUC).

This date again was arbitrary, in the sense that there was no independent confirmation that Rome had really been founded in that year. In our current CE/BCE system, the year 1 AUC corresponds to 753 BCE.

The AUC system was not used consistently, and such dates may have been added in surviving literature.

The Years AM

The Byzantine Empire (which was the development of the Eastern Roman Empire) used a year numbering system known as AM (for Anno Mundi), which supposedly numbered the years from the date of Earth’s creation. The Year One AM was from September 1, 5509 BCE, to August 31, 5508 BCE.

This also illustrates the point that, even in our own calendar, the start of a year hasn’t always been on January 1st. This fact makes it more difficult to align year computations in different calendar systems.

In about 525 CE, a Christian monk called Dionysius Exiguus was once again engaged in an attempt to determine the age of the Earth from the Bible, and this led him to develop the CE/BCE (or AD/BC, as he called it) year numbering system that we now use.

Ancient Blunders

Frankie Howerd in a Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum

Frankie Howerd in a Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum

My illustration above shows Frankie Howerd performing in the stage play version of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. His expression seems appropriate in this context, because some details of the CE/BCE system seem like something that Howerd’s Roman slave character might have concocted!

The CE/BCE system also has an arbitrary start year; in this case the supposed birthdate of someone who may never have existed (and if he did exist, probably wasn’t born in that year)!

If you’ve learned about the history of arithmetic, then you’ll know that the concept of zero was introduced to Europe during the Middle Ages from the Arabic world, and was previously unknown to Western civilizations. Dionysius Exiguus apparently wasn’t familiar with the concept, so he omitted it from his year numbering system.

As a result of that ancient ignorance, there is no Year Zero in the CE/BCE system. The year numbering goes straight from 1 BCE to 1 CE. This is part of the reason why century numbering in this system seems so confusing.

The system also has no concept of a “Zeroth Century”, either BCE or CE. Thus, the years from 1 CE through 100 CE are the “First Century CE”, which accounts for the correct answer to that “trick question” about why the years from 1901 CE through 2000 CE are the Twentieth Century CE.

Below, I’ve created a table showing how the years AUC, CE and BCE align with century numbering. This should be a helpful reference, at least for people like me, who are more visually-oriented.

Centuries BCE and CE

Centuries BCE and CE

The general algebraic formulae for the centuries are as follows:

The Nth Century CE runs from [(N-1)*100 + 1] CE through N*100 CE

The Nth Century BCE runs from N*100 BCE through [(N-1)*100 + 1] BCE

Of course, as I mentioned above, years didn’t always start on January 1st, so this table is only a rough guide. There have also been date adjustments over the centuries, such as when the Gregorian calendar superseded the Julian calendar, so, before asserting the exact equivalence of two dates, further checking would be wise.

Arch of Titus, Via Sacra, Rome

Arch of Titus, Via Sacra, Rome

Leaving Home

Whitefriars, Coventry, 1979

Whitefriars, Coventry, 1979

I took the photo above in Coventry (West Midlands) in 1979, depicting an interesting contrast of ancient and modern. The building on the right is what remains of the Whitefriars Monastery, which has survived because it became Coventry’s workhouse during the nineteenth century.

On the left, next to the monastic remains, the city’s elevated Inner Ring Road sails past, with a modern office tower in the background. Ironically, since I took the photo, the modern tower seems to have been demolished, while the ancient Whitefriars building looks just the same now as it did then.

I first left my parents’ home in Scarborough, to live independently in Coventry, almost exactly forty years ago today, during the first week of October 1978, and the scene shown above was just one of many extraordinary sights that greeted me after I arrived in a new city.

A Memorable Day

For most of us, the day when we leave our parents’ home and start living independently is likely to be a memorable one. That was certainly true for me, although it was an event that I’d somewhat feared until it actually happened.

When I did finally make the move, I found it to be wonderful. A whole new world seemed to open up for me, and I never wanted to return to living with my parents!

To College or Not

For those who go on from school to university, their first experience of independent living is likely to be as undergraduates in college “dorms” (halls of residence). However, back in the 1970s, when I reached that age, only about 10% of Britain’s young people went on from school to university, so that experience was available only to a minority. (The situation is drastically different now.)

In those days, there were no universities in our home town of Scarborough, so, for me, going to college would inevitably involve living somewhere else. The nearest universities were in York and Hull, but even those were not sufficiently close to allow daily commuting.

The Stay-at-Home Who Didn’t

As my younger brother and I were growing up, it seemed that I was usually the “stay-at-home”, whereas he seemed to be the more “adventurous” one, who was thought to be more likely to leave.

The idea that I might one day “go away to university” was first suggested to me by my mother when I was about 8 years old. I really didn’t like the sound of that, to the extent that she had to assure me, explaining that, when my father went away to Teacher Training College, he had really enjoyed the experience. (She failed to add that, when my father went away to that college, he was about 40 years old!)

Tea in the Garden, West Street, Scarborough, June 1973

Tea in the Garden, West Street, Scarborough, June 1973

The photo above shows (left-right) my mother, our dog Meg, my brother and me, staying at home!

Artificial Limitations

In 1977, I was preparing to sit my Advanced-Level examinations, and it was time to start thinking seriously about what I would do after leaving school. Everyone seemed to take it for granted that I would continue my education at a university. Personally, I wasn’t so sure, and in any case, what would I study and where?

I’ve mentioned in a previous post that, thanks to poor career advice, I decided to apply for Civil Engineering degree courses. (With the benefit of 40 years of hindsight, that decision seems even more ludicrous!) Some universities offered a more general Engineering Science degree, in which you could opt for a Civil Engineering specialty before graduation.

I interviewed at and received offers from four universities, and, on the basis of my experience during the interviews, I eventually decided to accept an offer from the University of Warwick (located in Coventry).

I was the first in my family even to apply to a university, so I had absolutely no guidance as to how to choose between the offers. I seem to remember that my final decision was made on the basis of the landscape in each campus, which is actually quite a poor basis for making such an important decision!

I still hadn’t really grasped the fact that I had committed to moving nearly 200 miles away in the near future. However, as the date of the first term drew closer, I warmed to the idea of getting away from the depressing environment in Scarborough.

Expanded Horizons

During the first weekend of October 1978, my parents drove me to the Halls of Residence at Warwick University, helped me get my suitcases into my room, then left me to it.

Any sense of trepidation that I experienced at that moment soon evaporated, as I began to discover the new freedom of independent living!

Of course, the fact that most of my fellow students were experiencing the same epiphany was tremendously helpful, because we could “compare notes” regarding the best places to shop or hang out. Very few of us could afford cars, so we were mostly reliant on public transport. Fortunately, the West Midlands Passenger Transport Executive (WMPTE—which we referred to as “Wumpity”) and the Midland Red company provided comprehensive bus services, so we were able to get to most places that we needed to visit. Even so, bus travel wasn’t necessarily always pleasant, as illustrated by my view below of Coventry’s Pool Meadow Bus Station one snowy winter morning.

Pool Meadow Bus Station, Coventry, in the Snow

Pool Meadow Bus Station, Coventry, in the Snow

For longer journeys, British Rail offered “Student Railcards” that provided a 50% discount on standard fares, making rail travel quite cheap.

An Exciting City

Before I began living there, all that I really knew about Coventry was that it had famously been “blitzed” during World War II, which had destroyed much of the city center. By the time that I arrived there, most of the bombed sites had been redeveloped, and the central area presented a pleasant, neat and modern appearance, as shown below in my view of Broadgate Square from the tower of the bombed-out cathedral.

Broadgate Square, Coventry, from the Cathedral Tower

Broadgate Square, Coventry, from the Cathedral Tower

Although British industry was already in decline in those days, Coventry was nonetheless still very much an engineering center (which was largely what had made it such a tempting target for the Luftwaffe).

Many local engineering companies gave professional presentations on their newest developments, and as a student, I received invitations to those. For me as an aspiring engineer and transport enthusiast, it was very exciting to be able to go along and listen to discussions of new vehicles and other technical advances! For example, one evening the commercial vehicle manufacturer Metro-Cammell Weymann gave a presentation on their new Metrobus in the Hotel Leofric (on the right in the photo above), and I went along not only for the talk, but also for the free “wine and cheese”!

Clipped Wings

Sadly, as I’ve related in previous posts, my first year at Warwick did not go well academically, largely because of the traumatic events that were occurring in our family at around that time. (I even visited the University’s Student Counselor, in the hope that she would have sympathy for my situation and offer me some kind of “deferment”, but she clearly had no interest in such things.) I was forced to drop out of the course at the end of that year, which at the time seemed like a disaster (but as things turned out, was for the best).

Knowing that I was going to have to leave university lodgings, I made some effort in Spring 1979 to try to find a job in Coventry, but received very negative responses. (Later, such attitudes would not have deterred me, but I was too inexperienced at that time to persevere.) Thus, it seemed that I had no choice but to return to my mother’s home in Scarborough (my father having died in April 1979).

A Commitment to Leaving

As related in an earlier post, I ended up obtaining an office job in Scarborough and living with my mother there for about 18 months, before returning to university, this time further away—in London—but with ultimate success.

Despite my “false start”, my mind was made up from those first few weeks in Coventry, that, whatever it took, I would move away from Scarborough and forge my own independent life.

Of course, I still had no desire at that time to move to another continent, which I in fact did within 10 years. Nonetheless, the seed of the idea that ultimately led to my being here, now, was planted on the day that I left home.

Whitefriars, Coventry, 1978

Whitefriars, Coventry, 1978

Trilingualism & Beyond

Postbus & Cows, Engadin, Switzerland

Postbus & Cows, Engadin, Switzerland

I took the photo above during a 1998 visit to Switzerland. It’s a relatively typical scene in the villages of the Engadin region, with the Postbus trying to negotiate its way around a herd of cows just strolling down the street.

Visiting Switzerland is an interesting—even frustrating—experience from the linguistic viewpoint, because the country has four official languages (none of which is English). The languages are: French, German, Italian and Romansh, as shown in this map. Thus, many inhabitants of Switzerland are trilingual or more (they speak three or more languages). That’s fine for them, but for you as a visitor, it presents a difficulty. As soon as you want to speak to a stranger, the question immediately arises as to which language you should use!

In theory, the country is divided into linguistic regions, so it would be reasonable to choose the dominant language of the region in which you find yourself. (For example, in the westerly regions, French is the dominant language.) Unfortunately, as I discovered, that doesn’t always solve the problem.

Nonetheless, before arriving in Switzerland, I had naively thought that I was relatively well prepared for the experience, because I had learned two of those four languages at school…

Linguistically Prepared?

At the high school I attended in England, French was a mandatory O-level subject (along with Math, English Language and English Literature). The school was a typical British “comprehensive” and there was nothing particularly unusual about the O-level requirements. In general, pupils were expected to study at least one foreign language, and French was the usual choice.

We were also able to select 4 further O-level subjects based on our own preferences, of which one could be another language (but only one of those taught at the school: German, Russian and Latin). I chose to study German, and I passed my O-levels in both foreign languages.

At that time, I had no real idea about the direction that my future life might take, although the idea of perhaps working in Europe some day did appeal to me. Unfortunately, as things turned out, knowledge of French and German has proven to be of very limited usefulness to me, whereas knowledge of Spanish would have been very valuable!

In a Taxi in Zurich

As I mentioned above, I expected that my knowledge of French and German would be beneficial in Switzerland. The first night that we arrived in Zurich, we had to get a taxi from the airport to our hotel. I got into the taxi, and, figuring that I was in the German-speaking part of the country, I asked the driver to take us to the hotel in that language.

He returned my request with a confused look, so instead I tried English. Still no luck. Eventually I tried French, to which he smiled and nodded. It turned out that he wasn’t Swiss at all, but was in fact un colon from Morocco, where French is not an official language, but is widely taught.

Our driver seemed quite surprised that I was able to ask him in more than one language, and even accused me of being Canadian!

Arrival in Davos

Arrival in Davos Platz

Arrival in Davos Platz

We did eventually get to the hotel in Zurich, and stayed overnight before heading for Davos the following day. The photo above shows Mary and me on arrival in Davos, although we had actually traveled by Rhaetian Railway train, rather than the Postbus behind us.

Linguistically, I figured that Davos would be a “safe zone” for me, because surely now we were in the midst of the German-speaking portion of the country.

My relief turned out once again to be premature, because the version of German spoken in Switzerland was almost completely unintelligible to me. The people of that region speak Schwyzerdütsch, which is a very strong (unwritten) dialect, with substantially different pronunciation rules. Listening to a conversation between two locals, I could barely pick out more than a few words, and only then when I began to grasp the varying pronunciations.

Watch Your Gender

Nonetheless, most locals understood standard German, so I felt that at least I could ask for things in German if necessary. Unfortunately, that too turned out to have its pitfalls.

We couldn’t locate the main Post Office in Davos so, while buying gasoline, I asked the attendant for directions. I said to her, “Entschuldigen Sie mir, wo ist der Postamt?

The response was another very puzzled look (and if you speak German you’ll probably already have spotted my error). I then engaged in much hand-waving and explanations, along the lines of wanting to buy a stamp. Eventually, the attendant figured out my meaning, and, with a smile, explained that I should have said, “Wo ist das Postamt?”.

I’d got the gender wrong, which to me as an English speaker didn’t seem all that important, but clearly I was mistaken!

Don’t Learn Too Much!

At long last, just over a year ago, I decided to make the effort to begin learning (Latin American) Spanish, given that I’ve now lived for more than 30 years in California, which has a substantial Spanish-speaking population.

I called up a local tutor who was offering group lessons, and discussed whether she could help me. She asked whether I had ever learned any other foreign languages. I felt that mentioning my previous studies in French and German would be seen as beneficial, so I was surprised by the tutor’s negative response. “That’s going to confuse you”, was her claim.

I’d never before heard of the idea that it might be possible to learn too many languages! And yes, while learning Spanish I have sometimes resorted to the use of French words, but only in cases where I didn’t know the Spanish equivalent anyway! If I didn’t know French, then I’d just have had to use the English word in those cases.

I did some online research to determine whether there’s really any evidence for this odd notion that learning more than two languages is potentially confusing, or conversely, as I had believed, beneficial. I found several articles on the topic, such as here, here and here. On the whole, the consensus seems to be that, while it can lead to temporary confusion, in general knowing two languages makes it easier to learn a third.

So, yes, I still believe that I can safely say that Trilingualism is not something to be ashamed of!

The Miracle of Literacy

Stories of Mr Wolf, 1966

Stories of Mr Wolf, 1966

The image above is an excerpt from one of my earliest attempts at writing (and illustrating). It’s a page from a book called “Stories of Mr. Wolf” that I wrote at home, at the age of six. I still have the book, which I’ve recently scanned because the paper is gradually disintegrating. I can’t claim that those stories would win any literary prizes, nor even hold the interest of anyone else, but I had to start somewhere!

I was always eager to learn to read and write, and was quite happy to practice at home when I felt so inspired. Perhaps unlike many children, I didn’t have to wait for my schoolteachers to insist that I must do it.

The Magical Skill

I can just remember back to the days before I learned to read and write, and I recall my amazement at the adults around me who seemed able to do it with ease. My grandfather, who was retired and lived with my parents, took a daily newspaper and several magazines (including the Dalesman, which is still in print today).

As it appeared to me, he would open the newspaper or magazine, stare at it for a few minutes, then tell me that he had read it! He didn’t seem to need to sound out the words, or follow the text with his finger, and yet, at the end of the process, he had clearly absorbed and understood the printed words that he’d been staring at. I just couldn’t imagine how anyone could ever learn to do that!

Four Generations of our Family

Four Generations of our Family

The photo above was taken when I was about 2 years old, and shows 4 generations of my mother’s family. The group on the right consists of me, my mother, her mother, and my grandmother’s mother. The man at lower left is my grandfather.

My drawing below is from another book that I wrote and illustrated in 1966, but this was one that we were required to write in class at school, and it features one of my earliest “self-portraits”. Unlike most of my other school work, this book has also survived.

Self-Portrait, 1966

Self-Portrait, 1966

Based on the remaining evidence, a notable difference between the books I wrote at home and those I wrote at school is that the subjects I wrote about at home were generally more imaginative and adventurous! It seems that, at school, our teachers must have restricted us to writing about very mundane topics (perhaps because we all had to write about the same things).

The Basis of Civilization

It seems to me that literacy is the one critical skill that allows human society to advance, and in fact is the sole reason why we’re not all still living in trees or caves.

Anthropologists tell us how other species rely more instinct than humans, so newborns of those species already have many critical survival skills. Humans, as they tell us, have to go through a very protracted growth process, and must be taught almost everything by their parents.

The specifically-human ability to read and write, however, allows individuals to record and transmit knowledge from one generation to the next, and that ability has been critical to our progress as a species. If each generation of humans had to restart “from square one”, learning everything from scratch, we would never advance. Instead, each generation is able to learn from the one before, and “stand on the shoulders” of its ancestors to make further progress. Most of this knowledge transmission has always occurred, and still occurs, via reading and writing.

It’s true that recent technological developments have provided us with other mechanisms for recording and transmitting information (such as video). While such systems offer a much richer and perhaps more engaging experience, our basic writing systems still offer vastly greater efficiency for disseminating information than any other recording system. I came to a forceful realization of this when writing my first multimedia title, Dave Hodgson’s PC Secrets (mentioned in this article on my professional blog). I was faced with the choice of delivering information via onscreen text, or via audio, or even via video. In very rough terms, audio playback required about 1000 times the bandwidth of text display, and video playback required about 1000 times the bandwidth of audio playback.

A New Literary Revolution

At the present time, another literary revolution is actually occurring. All genuinely creative writers and artists should be excited about this revolution, but I wonder how many actually realize what is happening!

The invention of printing allowed written information to be disseminated to mass audiences. Previously, all written works had had to be hand-copied, which was such a laborious process that only a few copies of each book were ever produced.

Nonetheless, printed books still had to be produced and distributed physically, and this led to a situation where publishers became the dominant “gatekeepers”, controlling what could actually reach the mass market.

The image below shows the title page of the oldest printed book in my possession, which obviously I acquired secondhand! The book was published by the University of Cambridge in 1828, and is a collection of the surviving works of the Greek playwright Æschylus.

The Works of Aeschylus, Printed in 1830

The Works of Aeschylus, Printed in 1828

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I taught myself some Ancient Greek while studying in Manchester, but my fluency never became sufficient to read Æschylus’ work in the original! Nonetheless, my efforts led me to the purchase of this and a few other works in Greek.

Books Without Paper

During the past few years, eBooks have started to become popular. Instead of being printed on paper, eBooks are distributed electronically and are read on digital devices. In fact, in many cases purchasers cannot print their eBooks on paper.

Although eBooks have several pros and cons relative to printed books, a remarkable situation has developed whereby major booksellers such as Amazon are actively encouraging authors to self-publish their own eBooks, instead of being forced to follow the traditional routes via established publishers.

In view of this development, I think we’re living at a very exciting time, when the potential for writers (and artists) is greater than it has ever been. There’s really now nothing to prevent those with real talent from being able to publish their works to the world.

And yes, just as with the Desktop Publishing Revolution of the 1980s, the democratization of book publishing will inevitably mean that vast amounts of dross will get published along with the masterpieces! Nonetheless, I think that the wheat will eventually be separated from the chaff, and the world will soon see a whole new publishing landscape. For a skill that has been so critical to the development of our species, that has to be a good thing!

Delusions of Potential?

Wadham College, Oxford, during my Interview in 1980

Wadham College, Oxford, during my Interview in 1980

The photo above shows Wadham College, Oxford University, while I was staying there for an interview during 1980.

During the period 1977-81, I visited and was interviewed by quite a few universities in England, but Oxford has the unique distinction for me of being the only university that interviewed me without my having ever applied to them.

Deluding Myself?

At that period in my life, I was painfully aware that I could reasonably be accused of being a “habitual university interview attendee”. I realized that I was spending much of my free time traveling to and attending interviews at universities, with no assurance that any of that effort would lead to anything. Was I simply deluding myself, tricking myself into thinking that I had the potential to graduate from one of these institutions? Should I not instead be spending my time in looking for a better full-time job than the one I was trying to escape from?

I was nagged by doubts about what I was doing, and whether I was really just being a conceited fraud.

As I related in a previous post, having dropped out of the University of Warwick after one year, I was working full-time as an Accounts/Sales Clerk at Swifts of Scarborough. I applied for many jobs, and repeatedly received the same advice; to go back to university and obtain a degree.

By the Spring of 1980, I had essentially decided to pursue the university application route, despite knowing that, if I did so, there would be no chance of my starting a new degree course any earlier than the Autumn of 1981. That meant that I would not be able to graduate any earlier than 1984 or 1985, depending on the details of the course.

Taking a Leap of Faith

My decision seemed a particularly difficult one, because there was no guarantee that any university would consider the application of a student who’d already dropped out of another institution. Even if some university did offer me a place, how would I finance my studies? There was no guarantee that the North Yorkshire Education Authority would award me a grant (for the first year, at least), and my father had died in 1979, leaving my mother to support the household.

Having decided to study Electronic Engineering, I hoped that I might be able to obtain some kind of industrial sponsorship, whereby an employer would provide me with an apprenticeship and some kind of paid employment to complement my studies. The reality, however, was that such sponsorships were even harder to obtain than university places. In those pre-internet days, even finding sponsorships that might be available was a difficult task, requiring research at reference libraries.

I also looked at the possibility of obtaining some type of scholarship to help my finances, but that also seemed to be outside the realm of possibility. Such scholarships were intended for exceptional students who were applying from school, not for someone who had already had “one chance”.

Even if I was able to overcome those obstacles, there was still a significant risk. Unlike the case in some other countries, the award of an undergraduate university place in Britain is no guarantee that you’ll get a degree at the end of it all. What if, after all that, I went back to university but had to drop out again without a degree? What a disaster that would be, and what an immense waste of time.

The Oxford University Mystery

The Carfax Tower, Oxford, 1980

The Carfax Tower, Oxford, 1980

The City of Oxford is, of course, now internationally famous because of the Inspector Morse mysteries, written by Colin Dexter (who died in 2017). In those days, Oxford was already famous for its renowned university, but Oxford was not one the universities to which I applied, so how did I come to be interviewed there?

After I dropped out from Warwick, word eventually got back to the Scarborough Sixth Form College, where I’d taken my university entrance exams, about what had happened to me. By that time, the Sixth Form College had a new headmaster, who seemed keen to try to rectify the problems left by his predecessor. The new headmaster was a graduate of Wadham College, so he set up an interview there for me, with the idea of encouraging my efforts to return to academia.

Unfortunately, though, at that time Oxford did not have a particularly good reputation in engineering, so, weighing up the pros and cons against other institutions, in the end Oxford simply didn’t make the list of universities to which I applied!

Potential or Politics?

On the whole, I found that universities responded to my application more positively than I’d anticipated.

Chapel of Kings College, Cambridge, 1980

Chapel of Kings College, Cambridge, 1980

The University of Manchester Institute of Science & Technology (UMIST) made me an offer quite quickly after interviewing me, as did a couple of other prestigious institutions. Oddly, Cambridge University initially seemed interested, but then declined. I’ve never understood that, because I sat both the Cambridge entrance exam, and the supposedly-tougher Imperial College Scholarship exam, and obtained one of the top prizes in the Imperial College exam!

Nonetheless, I came out of the process with several offers from prestigious institutions.

An Abundance of Rewards

As I mentioned above, given my concerns about how I would support myself financially during my years of study, I had pursued several possibilities to supplement my income. In the end, amazingly, all those efforts paid off!

  • I had struggled to obtain an industrial sponsorship, and succeeded in obtaining a Student Apprenticeship with Ferranti plc, in Manchester. Ferranti would provide me with employment during the summer breaks, and also gave me a small annual bursary to help with my living costs.
  • I had sat several optional examinations in an attempt to win a scholarship, and I obtained a Royal Scholarship from Imperial College, London. The award was only for my first year there, but that was the year for which I’d been concerned about obtaining a grant.
  • In the end, the Local Education Authority was convinced of my bona fides, so they did award me a full grant for the term of my studies.

My Employer’s Misplaced Concerns

By May of 1981, everything seemed to have fallen into place. I had an apprenticeship set to start at Ferranti, and an undergraduate place at Imperial College waiting for me that October, so it was time for me to give notice to my employer, Swifts of Scarborough.

As we discussed the termination of my employment, Swifts’ Managing Director claimed to be quite concerned for my financial future. Had I considered, he asked me, that I’d be giving up a full-time income and would be forced to live on a student grant, and in London too!

Yes, of course I had considered that, I explained. I went on to explain to him that, with my full grant, my Ferranti bursary, and my Royal Scholarship, my “take home pay” would actually be higher than it had been working for him! That was the last I heard from him on the matter of my future…

You Have to Stay in it to Win it

The decision to commit to re-entering university was, at that time, the hardest and riskiest that I had had to make in my lifetime. Nonetheless, I’m really glad that I rejected the warnings of the naysayers and stuck to my own “gut instinct” that it was the right way to go.

There have been other occasions since then when I’ve had to make similar decisions, without any assurance that I’m going to be able to meet the challenge that I’m setting myself. As I see it, there is no choice but to accept the challenge and face the risks. After all, if you back down, you are absolutely guaranteeing that you will never succeed; you have to “stay in it to win it”.

Demise of the Typewriter

My Pencil Drawing of our Typewriter, 1977

My Pencil Drawing of our Typewriter, 1977

I produced the pencil drawing above in March 1977, while studying for my Advanced-Level Art qualification at Scarborough Sixth Form College. Back when I produced it, I could never have imagined that, some 40 years later, I’d be using exactly that image to illustrate an article about the demise of the typewriter!

As weekly homework, our teacher (Miss Mingay) required us to draw some object or scene in pencil, in a sketchbook. I considered the task very boring and tiresome at the time, but, fortunately, my mother hung on to the sketchbook, so some interesting drawings have survived (albeit now very smudged).

On that particular occasion, my chosen subject was a typewriter, which had originally been used mostly by my mother. (This was our second typewriter, and I think that it was an Olivetti). By that time, however, I was getting ready to use it myself, to type out the content of my A-level Art study in Architecture.

(The following year, Miss Mingay retired, and the onerous weekly homework requirement disappeared with her! That confirmed my suspicion that it was not a requirement of the A-level course.)

My Mother’s Career Plans

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, my father was a teacher, but suffered his first stroke when I was about two years old. Given that he was the family’s sole breadwinner, my parents began to fear for their future financial security, and considered alternative plans for generating sufficient income.

One idea, which my father seemed to favor, was to buy a Guest House or Hotel, then generate income by letting out rooms. Given Scarborough’s status as a seaside resort, this was a reasonable idea, although the sheer number of such businesses in the town meant that it was highly competitive.

The other idea was for my mother to learn typing and shorthand, with a view to becoming a secretary. In those days, that was still one of the few career paths open to women without specialized qualifications.

My mother did start taking secretarial classes at Scarborough Technical College, and that was what initially prompted their purchase of a typewriter. She also decided that, to be effective in her new career, she would need to learn to drive, which she also achieved. My father’s concession on that count was that he sold his large Humber Super Snipe, and bought a smaller Austin 1100 (shown below, with me in the back seat), which my mother was more comfortable driving.

Our Austin 1100, c.1968

Our Austin 1100, c.1968

I was particularly excited about that car, because it was the first time that my father had bought a brand new car rather than a used model.

Change of Plan

Eventually, though, the Guest House plan won out, and we all moved to a suitable building on West Street in 1970. My mother seems to have abandoned her secretarial aspirations at that point, but she did continue her studies with some Open University courses, and the typewriter was useful for those.

From Typewriter to Computer

While an undergraduate student at Imperial College in the early 1980s, I decided to invest in an electric typewriter, since I was noticing that typewritten papers were better received by our tutors than handwritten ones.

That typewriter saw much use for a few years, but it was the last one that I ever bought. I brought it with me to California in 1987, but never used it again. Why bother, when a computer+printer was so much easier, more productive, and more powerful?

We Don’t Get Much Call for Those Now

I was by no means the only person who realized that the typewriter had been superseded by computer technology. In fact, should you wish to buy a typewriter now, you’ll have to find a used example, because the last new machines were manufactured in 2011, in India.

Just as digital camera technology swept away film cameras, so computers and printers have swept away typewriters. I sometimes find it sobering to reflect on how different the world is now from that of only 30-40 years ago.

The Inheritance of Dysfunctional Thinking

A Bracing Walk on the Cliffs, Filey, 1963

A Bracing Walk on the Cliffs, Filey, 1963

The photo above was probably taken some time in 1963. It shows (from left to right) my mother’s parents, my mother, my younger brother (in the pram) and me, all apparently out for a “bracing” walk on the sea cliffs. A book that I’ve recently been reading caused me to think about how I “inherited” unhelpful ways of thinking and reacting from my parents, without even realizing it.

Based on the background details, the location of the photo definitely isn’t Scarborough, and in fact I believe it’s the nearby town of Filey. Given that he doesn’t appear in the photo, I assume that my father was behind the camera.

At that age, I could never understand the attraction of these walks, in cold and windy weather. If you must go walking on a cold day, then why not at least choose a sheltered place in which to do it? Why walk along the top of a sea cliff? I went along only because I was given no choice in the matter. Now, of course, in retrospect, I see the exercise value, and understand the fact that my parents and grandparents appreciated the clean seaside air, which must have been such a contrast compared to that of the dirty industrial city in which they’d grown up.

As is probably the case for all families, the scene of calm in the photo above hides all manner of inter-personal tensions and frustrations, many of which were never even discussed, let alone resolved. It wasn’t until I myself became an adult that I began to realize that I had unconsciously inherited some of my parents’ dysfunctional ways of interacting with the world.

The Dysfunctional Parents of H G Wells

Wells Aspects Of A Life: Cover

I’ve just been reading the book H G Wells: Aspects of a Life by Anthony West, and biographical details in that book prompted me to compare the dysfunctionality in Wells’ family with that in my own.

West, who was Wells’ illegitimate son by author Rebecca West, goes into considerable detail concerning the lives of his father’s parents. Although I knew the broad outline of their history from other biographies, it is clear from the additional details in this book that both parents not only had serious personal shortcomings, but also that their marriage was a complete failure for most of its existence.

Wells himself found it necessary to defy his mother’s wishes, knowing that, whatever direction he took, she would be unhappy with him. His mother was quite determined that he was not to “rise above his station” in life, and tried to force him to become a draper’s apprentice. She did nothing to support his efforts to forge a career in teaching, and then in writing. She remained unreasonably critical of him, even after he rose to international fame.

Our Parents Made Us in Their Image

I’ve come to realize, over the course of my life, how we all inadvertently tend to inherit both successful and dysfunctional coping mechanisms from our parents. We all grow up assuming that the way that our parents behave is the way that all adults behave (because what other reference do we have?), so we tend to adopt their approaches to problems, without even being conscious of what we’re doing.

Nobody is perfect, of course, and that’s as true of ourselves as it is of our parents. The problem here is that, by unquestioningly inheriting our parents’ ways of dealing with the world, we may unnecessarily condemn ourselves to repeat their mistakes and frustrations.

I suspect that this inheritance creates many problems that are sometimes claimed to have a genetic basis, when in fact the children simply learn the flawed responses from their parents. For example, is a tendency towards optimism or pessimism, or to “addictive” behavior, really genetic, or is it just learned behavior, based on observations of our parents?

This Be the Verse

The British poet Philip Larkin, who spent much of his adult life in the Yorkshire city of Hull, described this phenomenon very succinctly in his well-known work This Be the Verse. For the most part, the parental curse is by no means deliberate; as Larkin says, “They may not mean to but they do”.

City Hall, Hull, in 1981

City Hall, Hull, in 1981

A Ray of Light

This may seem like rather a downbeat topic, suggesting that we’re all trapped by the shortcomings of our parents, but it really shouldn’t be seen that way. Surely, the key to breaking the chain of “inherited dysfunction” is first to realize that that’s what is happening.

Once you realize that you’re automatically copying your parents’ coping mechanisms, instead of considering whether there may be alternative approaches that would work better, you’ve taken the first step to escaping from this trap.