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”.

You Can Call Me Al(phonse)

H G Wells Society Lecture on Hypnosis, 1982

H G Wells Society Lecture on Hypnosis, 1982

The image above is somewhat adapted from an ink-and-brush poster that I designed for a 1982 lecture on Hypnosis, presented by Imperial College’s H G Wells Society.

Like many artists, I have drawn much inspiration from the work of others. Some have said that no art exists in a cultural vacuum; all art is in some way derived from that of previous works. For this poster, I was strongly inspired by a poster created by the great Czech Art Nouveau illustrator, Alphonse Mucha.

At that time, while trying to generate ideas for the design of the Hypnosis lecture poster, I’d just bought the book Alphonse Mucha: the Graphic Works (cover shown below) from the nearby Victoria & Albert Museum.

Mucha Graphic Works Book Cover

Mucha Graphic Works Book Cover

One work that was reproduced in the book, and which particularly appealed to me, was a poster produced by Mucha for a 1921 exhibition of his own work at the Brooklyn Museum in New York.

I borrowed ideas not only from Mucha, but also from other artists; in fact, the line technique that I used for the hair was inspired by the work of the British illustrator, Robin Jacques.

The Poster

Frankly, my poster design was a bit of a muddle (to put it mildly), because, although it was a striking design that achieved its purpose of attracting attendees to the lecture, I’d completely lost sight of the Art Nouveau style of Mucha’s composition.

For that reason, I decided that I didn’t want to reproduce the original poster here, so the illustration above is an adaptation of my original painting, with some of the most incongruous aspects covered over or redrawn!

My design is monochrome-only, for reasons that I explained in a recent post on my professional blog. The Student Union’s printing equipment was not capable of printing in full color, so, for speed and simplicity, all my poster designs were monochrome.

The Lecture

The lecture on hypnosis that my poster advertised was presented by Martin S Taylor, who soon thereafter went on to become the Editor of the Imperial College Student newspaper, Felix (which traces its ancestry back to the founding of the Science Schools Journal by H G Wells).

I recall Martin’s lecture (and accompanying demonstration) as being utterly fascinating, as indeed were most of the H G Wells Society’s presentations at that time.

Martin’s successor as Felix editor was Pallab Ghosh, whom I’ve already mentioned in a previous post.

Martin was an IC student at the time of the lecture, but apparently he went on to make something of a career of hypnosis, as described on his own web site: http://www.hypnotism.co.uk/

London Terror Attack: Don’t Surrender our Freedoms

London Bridge Station & Southwark Cathedral, 1983

London Bridge Station & Southwark Cathedral, 1983

I was very saddened to hear the news yesterday of the latest pointless terror attack in London. Naturally, my best wishes and thoughts go out to all those affected by the incident.

This latest incident reminded me of the ever-present terrorist threat that existed when I lived in London during the 1980s. In those days, almost all the threats (real or hoax) came from the IRA, and there were several actual bombings in London while I was there.

As a result of living in London for a few years, I was forced to think about the delicate balance of opportunities and dangers presented by living in a free society.

Bag Searches

In response to the IRA bombings, every building in London that admitted the public adopted a policy of searching the bags of visitors entering the premises. This naturally included the museums near Imperial College on Exhibition Road, such as the Victoria & Albert Museum. Nonetheless, it seemed clear to me that there was really nothing that could be done to prevent all such threats, and that it was inevitable that some attacks would succeed.

I became quite accustomed to the bag searches when going into a building, but, on one occasion, the guard searching my bag admitted that these efforts wouldn’t really deter a serious threat. He said to me, “This is really just to reassure the public. You could put a bomb in a cigarette packet and walk in with it in your pocket, and we’d never spot it.” Sad but true.

While I was a student, I also worked as a Sales Assistant at Selfridges Store in Oxford Street, London. In that job, bomb threats were a daily nuisance, although, while I was there, all of them fortunately turned out to be hoaxes.

The point I want to make here is that, during all the years that I lived in London, I was never personally involved in an actual attack of any kind. The press coverage naturally given to such events makes it seem that they are more widespread than they really are. The attacks of the IRA were a real danger and a constant worry during those years, but they failed in their aims, and they never prevented Londoners from going about their lives.

Unfortunately, it suits the purposes of some politicians to exploit this kind of event to whip up fears and con the public into signing away their own freedoms. We’ve just seen a particularly transparent attempt to do that, with the irrelevant and unhelpful tweeting of Tweedle Don, trying to link the London atrocity in the UK to his unconstitutional travel ban in the US.

Don’t be Intimidated into Surrendering our Freedom!

Given the possibilities for committing terrorist attacks in large conurbations such as London, it’s actually a relief that so few actually succeed. I realize that this is no consolation for those whose lives are affected by these atrocities, but, for the remainder of the population, it’s important not to blow these events out of proportion.

The only way to guarantee that such attacks could not happen would be to implement a surveillance police state, which would entail giving up many of our existing freedoms. However, most of us value our freedom, and wouldn’t want to live in such a state. The price of living in a free society is the risk that a few such horrific events will occur.

Of course, that realization makes it no less shocking when these things do happen.

Architectural Redevelopment: Vandalism or Progress?

St. Pancras International Station, London, 2010

St. Pancras International Station, London, 2010

In 2010, I visited a spectacularly transformed St. Pancras Station in London, for the first time since I had lived in the city. In the photograph (below) taken during a 1981 visit, St. Pancras was a dowdy, run-down relic, the only possible future for which seemed to be closure and demolition.

St. Pancras Station, 1981

St. Pancras Station, 1981

But, thankfully, it was not to be, partly due to the efforts of one man, and instead, the huge Victorian edifice was not only saved, but was transformed into the impressive, functional St. Pancras International Station. The photograph below shows the beautiful and airy interior of the trainshed of St. Pancras International, on a day when a German ICE train was visiting to promote future usage of the station by DB.

Interior of St. Pancras International Station, 2010

Interior of St. Pancras International Station, 2010

Although the redevelopment of St. Pancras is one of the most internationally famous triumphs of architectural rehabilitation, there have been many other examples of success and failure.

Yesterday, someone posted on the Facebook page of my alma mater, Imperial College, a photograph of the Imperial Institute, which was a predecessor building in South Kensington, the site of which is now occupied by Imperial College. That reminded me of the many heated battles that have occurred during my lifetime over architecture, and the demolition or redevelopment of buildings. In the past, the usual result was demolition, but, during the past twenty years or so, more enlightened thinking has prevailed, resulting in such wonderful renovations as St. Pancras.

During the 1960s (long before I became a university student), the Imperial Institute building was the focus of a heated dispute between those who wanted to demolish the Victorian edifice completely, and those who wanted to preserve it.

The redevelopers of the Imperial College campus wanted to sweep away all the Victorian architecture and replace it with what they considered to be modern and functional structures.

However, an organization called the Victorian Society, led by the poet Sir John Betjeman, fought for the preservation of Victorian architecture, and became particularly involved in the Imperial College plans. Although they were not able to save everything, the Victorian Society won a partial victory in that case, and managed to force the developers to retain the central tower of the Imperial Institute, which, as a freestanding building, was renamed the Queens Tower, as shown in my 1981 photograph below.

Queens Tower, Imperial College, in snow, 1981

Queens Tower, Imperial College, in snow, 1981

Now, whenever anyone needs a general photograph of “Imperial College”, you can be fairly certain that they’ll choose a view that includes the Queen’s Tower. The sad reality is that most of Imperial College’s modern architecture has very little character, and the Queen’s Tower has become a de facto icon of the college. (Incidentally, the tower is not the only pre-1960s architecture remaining on the Imperial College campus. For example, the original City & Guilds College building still survives on Prince Consort Road. However, that structure is relatively undistinguished and squat, as you can see in this current Google Streetview.)

I must admit that, while a student at Imperial College, I myself was responsible for heaping further derision on the Queens Tower. As part of a spoof Felix article about the stationing of US troops within Imperial College, I contributed the illustration below, showing how the Queen’s Tower was to be converted into a launch platform for cruise missiles! (“Felix” was and still is the Imperial College student newspaper, tracing its roots back to the days when H G Wells was a student at the college.)

Queens Tower Missile Installation, 1983

Queens Tower Missile Installation, 1983

Betjeman and the Victorian Society were also instrumental in frustrating plans for the demolition of St. Pancras Station, which preserved the building for its eventual renovation. Appropriately, Betjeman’s contribution has been commemorated with a statue of him on the platform at St. Pancras, as shown below.

Statue of Sir John Betjeman at St. Pancras International Station

Statue of Sir John Betjeman at St. Pancras International Station

Personally, I don’t regard “high Victorian” architecture as being the epitome of good taste, but surely it is preferable to characterless, badly-constructed concrete boxes that replaced so much of it.

In a previous post, I showed how the architecture of Scarborough Central Station was redeveloped from the simple neoclassical design of 1845, to the ornate high-Victorian “wedding cake” that still survives today.

The Value of University

 

The original Imperial College: now the Henry Cole Wing of the Victoria & Albert Museum

The original Imperial College: now the Henry Cole Wing of the Victoria & Albert Museum

What is the “value of a degree”? We frequently see articles in the media engaging in hand-wringing about the “value of a degree” or the “value of university”. Many such articles make questionable assumptions about the meaning of the word “value”. The real value of a degree, and of the university experience, to any individual, depends on many factors, including the skills, goals and personality of the individual.

There’s the frequently-unspoken question of whether the “value” of the qualification is purely financial, or else has less tangible value to the person possessing it. Do you just treat your entire future life as some kind of balance sheet, where you offset the cost of obtaining the degree against the extra earnings that you think it may bring you? What, also, of the value of the experience of obtaining the degree, and the skills learned during that process?

Finally, there’s the issue of the quality of the institution granting the so-called degree. These range from world-leading universities with established track records, to “Mickey Mouse” colleges that seem to be operating mostly for easy money rather than through any commitment to the furtherance of knowledge.

Each individual must evaluate his or her personal situation, but, as the first member of my family ever to have gone to university, I offer here my own experiences and reflections.

My Own Experience

Thunder over South Kensingtion, 1981. View over Imperial College and Knightsbridge Barracks

Thunder over South Kensington, 1981. View over Imperial College and Knightsbridge Barracks

In my case, I enjoyed learning for its own sake, and discovering more about how the universe works. (I realize that most of the population do not seem to share this view.)

Despite subsequent disappointments and unanticipated setbacks, I’m glad that I went to university and got the degree that I did. I would not have regretted it even if my degree had not led to better jobs.

Non-Academic Benefits

There are also many benefits to the university experience that are not directly related to courses of study, and those who haven’t had the experience often seem completely unaware of these aspects.

I had many non-academic experiences as a student that would simply never have been available to me had I not gone to university. For example, I became involved in the Student Television Club at Imperial College, which led to my meeting and interviewing many celebrities, such as Michael Palin, Sir Cliff Richard, Paul Eddington, Gordon Jackson, Sir David Attenborough, and so on. What chance would I ever have had to do any of that otherwise?

Now, in response to my comments, some people would point out that “It’s easy for you to say that”, because my degree was free to me, and I even got a grant for my living expenses. Although that was generally true for undergraduate students in Britain at that time, it wasn’t necessarily true for me when I decided to return to university after taking two years “out” in industry. There was no guarantee that I could obtain a grant for the year that the authorities considered “wasted”, although in the end I was persuasive. I do concede, though, that the threat of a long-term financial burden might have made me think again.

I realize that I was incredibly lucky to have obtained my degree free of any financial burden. Whenever I’m feeling how unfair life can be, I always try to remind myself of my good fortune in that regard!

I was also lucky to obtain a place in one of the world’s top ten universities. I must admit that the value of qualifications from low-caliber universities is more questionable.

Learning to Discover

The university academic experience also has benefits beyond what you actually learn while there. My university studies taught me how to do research and how to develop original ideas, which has led to my making many innovations and inventions. Some of the inventions have been patented, and I continue to strive to innovate today in the fields that interest me.

Summary & Recommendations

Queens Tower, Imperial College, in snow, 1981

Queens Tower, Imperial College, after a snow shower, 1981

Despite the financial concerns, my recommendation would be to try not to view obtaining a degree in purely mercenary terms. If you view the value of a degree and of university experience as being purely financial, then you’ll be missing out on many other tangible benefits.

In my case, one reason that I chose to go back to university after working in industry for a few years was because I realized that, the longer I waited, the more difficult it would become to return and obtain a degree. I decided that, if I went back and graduated, then, even if my qualification turned out to be less useful than I’d anticipated, the worst that would happen would be that I’d wasted a couple of years of my life. On the other hand, if I didn’t go back, I’d continue to be shut out of many jobs that I was quite capable of doing, and I’d never be able to get those years back.

After all, life is not a mechanical process where you press “Start” and then go through a mindless sequence of predictable operations, which inevitably will only culminate in your death. Surely, it’s just as important to enjoy each stage as much as you can, and it’s about appreciating the journey at least as much as the final destination.

Life Drawing Practice

Life Drawing Sample. Cricklade College, 1985

Life Drawing Sample. Cricklade College, 1985

This article describes some of my experiences while learning to draw the human figure. I practiced my skills by attending “Life Drawing” classes in various locations.

As I mentioned in a previous post, while studying for my electronics degree at Imperial College, London, I also took time to continue practicing my artistic skills, attending a part-time class at St. Martins School of Art. I wonder whether I am the only ever Imperial College student to have done that (please comment if you know otherwise)?

After graduating, job transitions took me to various locations, but I tried to continue practicing my artistic skills wherever I went. Given that learning to draw the human figure is perhaps one of the most demanding tasks an artist can face, I frequently attended “Life Drawing” sessions, which typically involve drawing or painting a live human model.

I’ve always felt that the goal of being able to draw well (at least since the invention of photography) is to be able to conjure up convincing scenes that don’t exist in reality. However, in order to be able to do that for images that involve humans, you have to have a thorough understanding of the structure of the human body, which of course is a very complex shape. As far as I know, the only real way to obtain that understanding is to practice drawing actual humans, hence the benefit of life drawing classes.

Cricklade College

In 1985, I started working for Link Electronics, which was a company in Andover, Hampshire, that designed and manufactured television cameras for the BBC and other worldwide customers. I discovered that Life Drawing classes were being offered at Cricklade College nearby, so I began attending regularly.

During that time, we had a regular model (shown in the pencil drawing at the top of this article), who was in fact the wife of a local sheep farmer. While we were drawing her, she would sometimes regale us with tales of how she’d just been up all night, birthing lambs!

(Incidentally, the models at life drawing classes usually pose nude, and this was the case at Cricklade. Therefore, I’ve cropped the picture above so that it won’t be “NSFW”!)

Those life drawing sessions sometimes gave rise to some amusing situations. One evening, when it was almost dark, I was arriving at the college and getting out of my car when someone walked past me and said “hello”. In the dark, it took me some time to realize that she was our model, to which she responded, “Don’t tell me; you don’t recognize me with my clothes on!” If someone overheard that remark, I wonder what they made of it?

Pencil Technique

As a result of these practice sessions, I evolved a standard technique for pencil drawing. I preferred to draw in pencil because it was relatively fast, and required minimal preparation, while still allowing for some correction of errors. I mentioned in an earlier post that the idea of sketching in pencil was something I learned at school. My earliest drawings were typically laid straight down in pen, which left no chance for error correction.

Nonetheless, speed was of the essence in life drawing sessions, because live models cannot hold their poses indefinitely. Even in a very relaxing pose, most models would need a break after an hour, and most poses were held for only five to thirty minutes. Therefore, even if my technique allowed for the correction of errors, there was usually little time to do that.

My technique certainly did not follow “conventional wisdom”, and in fact I found some standard advice to be counter-productive. The details of my technique are:

  • Pencils. I found it best to use an HB “writing” pencil instead of the usually-recommended soft drawing pencil. I found that the softer pencils wore down too quickly, and that their marks had an annoying tendency to smudge. The Eagle writing pencils seemed to have smoother graphite composition than so-called “drawing” pencils, which provided a more uniform line.
  • Paper. I used thin marker paper rather than heavy Bristol board or watercolor paper. Again, the smooth surface of the marker paper allowed for more subtle shading effects, because the pencil line did not “catch” on irregularities in the paper surface.
  • Sharpening. I did not use a pencil sharpener. Instead, I sharpened my pencils by carving off the wood with a knife, leaving about 5mm of graphite projecting, then rubbing the tip to a point using sandpaper. This was a technique that I’d actually learned at school during Technical Drawing O-level classes (it was never mentioned in any art class). The benefits were that I didn’t have to sharpen the pencil so frequently, and could adjust the shape of the point to provide either a very fine line or a broader “side” stroke.

Improving with Age

Even as a child, I attempted to draw the human figure, but I was always embarrassed by the results. In fact, I would often contrive ways to tell stories without having to draw human figures, just to get around the painful limitations of my skill. I chose characters that were easier to draw, such as dinosaurs or “Daleks”, such as the page below, from a strip that I drew at the age of eight.

Part of a Daleks Adventure, drawn when I was 8 years old

Part of a Daleks Adventure, drawn with a blotchy ballpoint pen when I was 8 years old

It wasn’t until I was about 22 that I began to feel that I could draw the human figure sufficiently well that the results wouldn’t be an embarrassment. That turned out to be a useful skill, since I obtained “commissions” from fellow Imperial College students to produce posters for various university election campaigns. Typically, the student wanted to be shown in some fantastic situation that, for practical reasons, couldn’t be set up in reality, so it was necessary to synthesize a pose that did not actually exist.

Typical of this technique was the poster that I produced for Pallab Ghosh, a Physics student who was standing for the office of Student Newspaper Editor. Pallab wanted to be depicted as Superman (not my idea!), and of course it was important that the illustration would be recognizable as being Pallab. Apparently, my poster (shown below) did the job, because Pallab duly won his election! (For some of Pallab’s own recollections of his editorship, see https://www.union.ic.ac.uk/media/iscience/old/article_template_typ.php?articleid=10.)

Pallab Ghosh as

Pallab Ghosh as “Super-Editor” (Superman)

The drawing of Pallab is not pencil, but was in fact done with a black ballpoint pen (many such pens, in fact. because, as I’d learned from earlier experience, the tips would eventually become clogged with ink!). This was another benefit of attending the part-time class at Saint Martins School of Art, because I could “look over the shoulders” of practicing full-time artists, and was able to copy that technique from one such artist.

I also had a technical reason for selecting that particular technique. Although it may not be obvious in the reduced-size image shown here, there are actually no shades of grey in the drawing. All “shading” is achieved via very fine black lines. At the time, the scanning equipment that we used to produce these posters didn’t cope well with continuous shading, so I felt that this technique would lead to a better scanning result.

How I Became a London Student and (Almost) Went Astray

img0020rotatedGiven my education as an engineer, you may expect that I began reading the work of H G Wells because of his science fiction writing. It’s true that, as a child, I watched several movies that were derived from Wells’ science fiction, such as “War of the Worlds”, but I never actually read any of his books.

In fact, though, I was first motivated to read Wells’ work because of his social ideas. One of the first titles I read was “In the Days of the Comet“, which is now largely forgotten, but, when published, was regarded as outrageous, and was even denounced as pornographic!

Not all of Wells’ works fall into the genre of science fiction; some are simply social novels, such as “Ann Veronica” (also now forgotten, but controversial when first published, because it advanced the cause of women’s rights). Many include autobiographical details, such as “Tono Bungay“, which he published in 1909.

A few years after reading “Tono Bungay”, I moved to London to begin my undergraduate studies in Electrical Engineering. It was only then that I picked up the book again, and realized the ominous title of the first chapter:

tono_bungay_title

I recalled that Wells had indeed been a student at London’s “Normal School of Science” himself, almost a hundred years before I began studying at the same university, now renamed as Imperial College. Wells’ own studies didn’t work out as planned; he did indeed “go astray” and failed his degree. Nonetheless, his experience working on the college’s student newspaper led to his successful writing career, so the outcome was actually successful.

For my part, although I found London very distracting, and it would have been easy to have “gone astray”, I managed to get through and obtain an Honours degree. In addition, I gained vital experience in several other fields that proved useful professionally, but which I’d never anticipated, such as illustration and television.

The college building in which H G Wells studied still exists, across the road from the current Imperial College. It is now known as the Henry Cole Wing of the Victoria & Albert Museum, as shown below in my 1996 photograph.

The original Imperial College: now the Henry Cole Wing of the Victoria & Albert Museum

The original Imperial College: now the Henry Cole Wing of the Victoria & Albert Museum