OF LOVE AND EXPLORATION - AN AUTOBIOGRAPHY© Christopher Earls Brennen
``may my mind stroll about hungry
and fearless and thirsty and supple
and even if it's sunday may i be wrong
for whenever men are right they are not young''
From a poem by e.e. cummings.
If the Rainey taught me how to think and gave me confidence in my analytical abilities, then Balliol College, Oxford University, polished my outward appearance and gave me the tools and the confidence to succeed in whatever company I might find myself. This transition from a small Irish grammar school to one of the world's elite university environments truly changed my vision and my life; when I think back it came about partly by happenstance and partly through my lifelong gift for optimizing my opportunities. I recounted earlier how the Rainey School and my parents arranged for me to remain in high school for an extra year in order to prepare for the scholarship examinations at Oxford. So it was that I spent a special year absorbing a remarkable quantity of mathematics and physics thanks, in large measure, to some remarkably dedicated and inspiring teachers at the Rainey. Then at Easter 1960, Derrick Crothers (my fellow student in this special educational opportunity) and I were driven by my father to the docks in Belfast where we boarded the night ferry across the Irish Sea to Liverpool. Arriving the next morning at Liverpool harbor after a rather sleepless night in the uncomfortable bunks of steerage class, we found our way to Lime Street Railway Station where we caught the train that, after several changes, would finally deliver us to Oxford. I remember walking through the streets of this strange city with its crumbling, sandstone buildings to Balliol College, where, strangest of all, the porter at the front gate referred to me as "sir". I remember thinking how odd that was for surely I did not deserve such a sobriquet, especially from this elderly, dignified and confident man. He directed us to our spartan rooms in one of the staircases in the front quad, accommodations as strange to me for their Victorian archaicness as for their aristocratic connections.
Broad Street entrance to Balliol College
The scholarship exams in mathematics and physics began the next day in the great hall of Jesus College just across Broad Street from Balliol. They lasted a couple of days and concluded with an interview in Balliol with the mathematics tutors of that College, one of whom was called Jack de Wet. When these trials were over both Crothers and I were informed that we had won scholarships to attend Balliol. In my case the award was called the Williams Open Exhibition. Thus we returned home to Northern Ireland via train and ferry to be met at the Belfast Docks by my father who was clearly delighted by the outcome of this venture.
In the weeks that followed my family and I began to plan for my departure the following September. We soon found out there were several additional and unforeseen hurdles that would have to be overcome before I would be admitted to Oxford University. First I would have to pass an examination in Latin (this requirement was abolished by the University just a couple of years later). It was agreed that the Northern Ireland Senior Certificate Ordinary Level exam would satisfy this requirement. I had not studied Latin for several years and only had about two months to prepare. So began the first of several intensive study periods. I immersed myself in Latin full time at the Rainey and followed this several evenings a week by studying Virgil's Aeneid with the local Presbyterian Minister, the Rev. James Johnston. While the basic mechanics of Latin grammar and structure were easy for me, the Aeneid and I never quite saw eye to eye. Nevertheless, in the end I passed that Latin exam fairly easily. I also found out that there was a second hurdle, the matriculation exams at Oxford University and that I would have travel to Oxford two weeks before the beginning of my first term in order to take these. The school wrote away to obtain samples of past exams and when these arrived it was clear that though the mathematics exams would pose no problems for me, the physics exams involved material that I had not, as yet, studied. This hurdle was overcome thanks to the kindness of the Rainey's physics teacher, James McAteer, who volunteered to spend one morning a week with me during the summer to teach me the necessary material. I remember both of these special study efforts with considerable gratitude for I realize now how much each of these these teachers gave of their own time to help me. I also remember that these experiences taught me how to study on my own; indeed work habits formed in these months laid the groundwork for a lifetime of study.
Balliol College Dramatic Society photograph
Despite all these positive developments, I remember preparing myself to leave home and suffering considerable emotional turmoil at the prospect. On top of the understandable uncertainity associated with the prospect of leaving the security of my family, my home and my village, I had just fallen hook, line and sinker for a girl whom I would love for the rest of her life (see "Embroidered Cloths"). And now I had to leave her for long periods of time. Perhaps these stresses were what caused me to become quite ill; that, at least, was what my parents believed though I believe it was just an unfortunate and vicious virus. Thankfully I recovered sufficiently to travel to Oxford in time to take the Matriculation exams. These were spread out over about two weeks and I remember those as the two loneliest weeks of my life. There were few other students staying in the college and so I was very alone. I recall that I survived by studying during the day and then rewarding myself by going to the cinema each evening. But the exams went well and very soon all the other new students arrived and we began to forge friendships that would last for most of our lives. More senior students arrived to conduct welcomes for various extra-curricular activities. I connected with members of the Rugby Club and the Balliol Dramatic Society. By tradition the latter participated in a University-wide festival of one-act plays and the Balliol group chose a Harold Pinter play entitled "The Dumb Waiter". I played a thug called Ben while another frosh, Peter Bleasby, played the other, dumber thug called Gus. The play was directed by Peter Snow who went on to become a news reader and political analyst for the BBC. It was one of the productions that I remember with great glee. Many other theatrical activities followed and I recount some of these in another chapter (see "Acting"). My other pastime was rugby and I enjoyed the conviviality of the college team though I never had the ability to excel on the field. One fellow team member did however enjoy great success; Richard Sharp, a lithe and brilliant fly-half went on to star for the Oxford University team and then for England. Indeed our class contained several outstanding, international caliber atheletes; in addition to Richard, the Nawab of Pataudi became a great cricketer who captained India's national team. Other contempories who went on to prominence included Lester Thurow in academia and Chris Patton in politics. But perhaps the most illustrious was Crown Prince (now King) Harald of Norway. He was a genial and private man who was a core member of the Balliol Rowing team and who enjoyed playing shove-hapenny (an English pub board game) in the student lounge. I suspect the University dreamt up a two year course of study for him that ended with some kind of degree that none of us had ever heard of before.
1962 Balliol College Rugby Team. I am standing on the right while Richard Sharp is seated just to the right of center.
So began three marvellous years as an Oxford undergraduate and resident of Balliol College. Indeed I was lucky to have a room in Balliol for all three years. The College was divided into vertical staircases and so the rooms were designated "Room A, Staircase X". For the first year, we were arbitrarily assigned rooms, some singles, some doubles, though, again, I was fortunate to have a single, perhaps in part because of the priority I received as a scholarship-holder or "scholar" (non-scholarship-holders were known as "commoners" and this included most of the students). In the second year, my group of friends selected all the rooms on the only corridor in the College, a corridor called "Dicey" that had been added to the roof of the original Victorian building. That year saw many lively parties in Dicey. In the third year, I got a random room at the last moment when someone dropped out. The rooms were both spartan and dated. They came with sinks but the baths were in the basement some distance away and, in the cold of the English winter, it required some fortitude to have a bath. Though there was no central heating, each of the rooms had ancient gas fires. In normal times these provided adequate heating. However the winter of 1962/63 was severe and as the gas supply dwindled, the situation rapidly became critical and we survived by wrapping ourselves in blankets. In contrast to these physical facilities, we were all cared for by men servants known as scouts who woke us in the morning, changed our beds and cleaned our rooms. As with the porters, I could never quite adjust to this aristocratic treatment.
Balliol College JCR Committee, 1962
Breakfast, lunch and dinner were served in the great hall, a cathedral-like building with a vaulted ceiling, stained-glass windows and wood-panelled walls lined with paintings of ancient benefactors and alumni. Breakfast and lunch were informal buffet-like meals. However, dinner was more formal and we were required to wear a jacket and tie as well as our academic gowns. (As a scholar I wore a long knee-length black gown whereas commoners wore short waist-length gowns.) At the end of three years of mopping-up spilt food and beer these gowns were seriously rancid. During dinner we, the students, all sat on the wooden benches and tables that were arranged lengthwise in the hall. A raised platform at the end of the hall held the "high table" and the faculty or "dons" would eat there after a formal entrance and a saying of grace (many years later, during a sabbatical in Oxford I was invited to dine at the high table.)
Except for breakfast which I enjoyed, the food we were served was sometimes edible but invariably atrocious. There are few nations in the world where the cooking is worse than in England (though Ireland is only marginally better, perhaps because they simply fry almost everything.) We were required to sign up for these meals (or at least a large fraction of them) and so, on those evenings when the dinner was truly inedible, we usually repaired either to one of the many pubs in Oxford that served various meat pies or to one of the Indian restaurants where you could purchase quite cheaply a large plate of rice and curry. Hunger forced us to ignore the frequent rumours that the cheaper of these Indian restaurants obtained their meat from dubious sources.
Dinner in college also involved an old tradition that has hopefully been abandoned in more recent times. I refer to the tradition of "sconcing" that existed in one form or another in almost all the Oxford colleges. It was derived from the aversion most students felt toward the discussion of certain topics during dinner. For example, you were not supposed to discuss women, work, the paintings on the wall, or a few other arbitrary subjects. If you violated one of these ill-defined restrictions then you were liable to be "sconced" by a fellow diner. This meant that you could either (a) buy drinks (beer) for all those within earshot or (b) consume a large flagon of drink without allowing the liquid to leave your lips. These flagons were large traditional silver tankards containing several pints of liquid (the amount was standard but differed from college to college). The liquid could be chosen by the consumer but was traditionally beer. If the consumer succeeded in this task then the person who had initiated the sconce would have to respond in kind by either buying drinks or by consuming a sconce. Of course, the process usually ended quickly with a sudden rush outside to vomit up the liquid. Though I always liked a drink I preferred to enjoy it and therefore thought this tradition was ridiculous, sophomoric and dangerous. There were other beer consuming games that were sometimes played at parties (such as "chugging") that were equally ridiculous. Somehow this foolishness continues among the young.
The student body in the College was governed by an elected board called the "Junior Common Room" or "JCR" (in contrast to the "Senior Common Room" which consisted of the faculty or "fellows" associated with the college). The name derived from the physical common rooms or lounges used by the students (or by the dons). As well as the usual newspapers, etc. tea was served in the Junior Common Room and it was part of the daily routine in the summer months to carry large mugs of tea out to the manicured college lawn during an afternoon break. There we would lounge on the carefully manicured lawn and talk the day away. Sometimes long games of croquet would absorb the rest of the afternoon and continue until it was time for a beer before dinner. The bar or "buttery" opened for business at 6pm. In my second year I was elected a member of the student governing body of the JCR and performed several duties such as managing the second-hand bookshop for students. We also planned a substantial renovation of the JCR that was funded, in part, by Harald's father, the reigning King Olav of Norway. Indeed the King came to open the newly renovated common room and it was at this event that I met King Olav.
The Oxford system of education was an elite one based on two rather separate activities. The Department of Engineering Science was an integral component of the University; there I participated in the usual array of lectures and laboratories which constitute the curriclum of almost any undergraduate engineering course. The Department was situated about a half mile north of the College and the route along the storied St.Giles Street was one I walked hundreds of times. The quality of the lectures varied from good to mediocre but I enjoyed the labs and learnt alot from them. At the end of the first year we were also required to participate in a two week surveying course. Among the exercises were several surveys we were asked to conduct in the countryside around Oxford. I do remember several visits to country pubs that magically appeared along the route of our survey. Those bucolic visits did not improve the accuracy of our calculations but did make the results more palatable. Unlike universities outside Oxford the Department required no end-of-year exams before the major examinations at the conclusion of the three year course.
The second educational activity was centered in the College rather than the University for each of the student members was assigned a tutor who was a Fellow of the College (usually in addition to being a faculty member in the University). This is where the Oxford (or Cambridge) system was special for the student would meet with his/her tutor once a week (or more). Reading, exercises or essays would be assigned and one was expected to complete these and discuss them individually in the tutorial the following week. Each of the tutors had rooms in the college (some with living quarters) and the tutorials took place in living room comfort within these rooms. I can remember standing and waiting outside my tutor's room for these hour-long sessions, often wondering how my work would be received. My tutor for all but my first term in Balliol was a New Zealander by the name of Leslie Colin Woods with whom I went on to do my PhD after I completed my undergraduate degree. Les was a brilliant mathematician and a rambunctious character who enjoyed his quixotic role in the college and in academia. In the latter part of his career his research focussed on the subject of magnetohydrodynamics and, in particular, on the physics and mathematics of machines called "tokamaks". These are the huge toroidal devices designed to someday extract energy from nuclear fusion but which, to date, have failed to come close to that objective. Les' explanation of that failure differed from the conventional wisdom and that disagreement formed a large part of his later academic life. Unfortunately, it also detracted to some extent from the outstanding contributions he made to aerodynamics in his earlier life. His autobiography, "Against the Tide", details these disputes but also describes a truly remarkable life than began as the shoeless child of a New Zealand fisherman who lived in a tent on the beach and progressed through a career as a fighter pilot in the New Zealand Air Force to end as a distinguished professor of mathematics at Oxford University.
Les arrived at Balliol to take up his Oxford appointment in December of 1960 just three months after I got there so I was one of his first students. I think he had little clue how to conduct the tutorials that were part of his duty but since we were both "outsiders" (and would remain so) we got along well. I learnt a great deal from him. He had the sense to understand the value in my extracurricular sporting and theatrical activities though I think he viewed the second askance. He also had the sense to know that he had little knowledge of some of the engineering topics (such as electrical machines) that we had to study and he therefore arranged for us to go to an engineering fellow in another college for this instruction. So it was that I met and learnt from another fine teacher, Don Schultz, without whom I doubt that I would have succeeded as I did. In these tutorials, with Woods and Schultz and several others, we typically spent a term studying two subjects, two undergraduate texts. I relished this kind of focussed study for I think it allowed me to develop my own impresssions and opinions in a way that helped greatly when it came to research.
After three years of this elite education we were faced with an intense 8 days of examinations that would entirely determine the grade of our degree. These exams were held in a large building built especially for this purpose and called, not surprisingly, the Examination Halls. The exams were strictly proctored and we were required to wear academic robes for their duration. This outfit consisted of a grey suit, white shirt, white bow tie, gown and mortar board. In the heat of an Oxford summer this was not the most comfortable attire. There were about 10 exams each three hours long and, in my opinion, were one of the most exhausting experiences of my life. I truly think that my better than average physical fitness helped me keep up a pace that allowed me to do better than most of my classmates. When the results were announced several weeks later, I found that I had obtained a first-class honors degree. This opened doors that might otherwise have remained closed. Les asked if I would like to continue to obtain a PhD (or in Oxford's notation, a DPhil) and I was delighted to be able to say yes. But more of that graduate experience later.
When I think back to those halycon days as a privileged student in one of the best undergraduate educational institutions in the world, I remember several great experiences. Of course, I remember the great friendships that I made. I also remember the confidence that it gave me, most permanently and valuably in my intellectual ability; I still remember specific moments when, to my surprise, I realized that I had abilities that were superior to most of my fellow students. But mixed with that is the recollection of some struggle to keep myself grounded, to recognize that the special intellectual tricks that I had been privileged to inherit and to have been given, did not make me any better person than those around me on the streets of Oxford. The College boasted of conveying to its students a sense of "effortless superiority". That attitude was infectious and I was not always successful in resisting its destructive lure; it still gives me pause.
Last updated 8/1/01.
Christopher E. Brennen