Oxford, Birmingham, June 1986

23/6/86, 1635

It's more usual for me to start a diary when I go away; but this calls for special treatment.

Awake at 5am when that infernal alarm on the clock went off. (At that time of day, the option of waking to the gentler strains of Radio 4 doesn't exist -- and Sheila wouldn't countenance any other station!) Sheila off to the Channel Islands until Thursday. She left at about 5.30. I couldn't get back to sleep, so I read Newman's biography. At about 6.30 Neill came in, and lay absolutely still and quiet for a while before going peacefully away to get dressed. The other two were less gentle with me. Hester refused to practise before breakfast. Then Hester and James had a fight over breakfast. As near as I could make out, they fought because James had Frosties for a change, and Hester accused him of trying to lay claim to the Frosties free offer. Then after breakfast Hester and Neill had a fight, whose origin I couldn't fathom. Hester still wouldn't practise. Jenny came early and Hester panicked when she couldn't find her rucksack, while I was panicking trying to write a letter to Mrs Powell. (Hester's violin exam clashes with the Caribbean Focus, for which she's been specially selected. This is a large part of the reason why she won't practise. I have to find out if she can come along a bit late.)

Finally I got her underway and the boys up to school. Even that isn't so easy at the moment, with Neill cycling and James on foot (and grumpy about it). Having bundled them in, guess what? -- a flat tyre!

It seemed a slow leak, so I went back for a pump (fortunately it's out of term, and I had till 10 to get down for the College meeting). I made it down on four inflations, and took tools to do the repairs (before lunch, I'd hoped).

Arriving in College, I was greeted with damage to the astrolabe (culprit apprehended, thanks to Roger Highfield), a couple of fire extinguishers let off, and quantities of broken glass in the Fellows' Garden and Dead Man's Walk. Only time to deal with the first of these before the College meeting.

My last College meeting and, I think, the longest. I'd hoped to get my puncture mended before lunch but, in the event, the meeting didn't finish until 2.35. A little time on the report of the Standing Committee on College Officers, more on the Buildings Working Party, and much more on a minor gaffe by the Higher Studies Fund Committee, which needn't have taken half an hour, in my opinion. Much disquiet in evidence over the issue of undergraduate charges for next year. But a much better-natured meeting than I'd feared. I think, though, that while wine with lunch is a well-deserved reward, it is a mistake if the meeting is to continue.

Anyway, during my lunch break I had to confront as well the culprit of the astrolabe incident. He was so abject I couldn't be cross, but I fined him and charged him the cost of repairs.

After the meeting I set to work on my bike and had it done in a little over half an hour. I didn't inflate the tyre fully, so as to give the rubber solution time to dry; but, ominously, when I came back later it was quite flat. I fear the worst.

"Later" meant after a trip to town for a battery for Neill's watch (Ratner's sent me to Gowing's in the Market, who said to come back in half an hour), discs and paper, and money, together with some time to kill in the rest of the half hour. But they'd done it, and now it seems fine.

I'm w

24/6/86, 0909

Well, that's over.

I was about to say: I'm writing this hurriedly in the few minutes before a schoolboy arrives. But he arrived early. He had a hesitant manner of speech but after he got warmed up he was better than I'd thought. He didn't stay long, and my bike tyre held up, so I was able to be early for my next engagement: Hester's piano lesson. In fact I was so early, and she a bit late because her rucksack had broken, that I came upon her struggling along First Turn in the drizzle, burdened down by bundles, and I was able to cart the bundles home for her and come back in time for the lesson to start five minutes early. She got good value; it went on a quarter of an hour late.

I dashed frantically back home, relieved Ruth, got dressed (having lost my shoe, which Hester found), panicked that Frankie hadn't arrived to babysit (Hester went around and found her just coming), and set off. The day then unleashed its last trick on me. The rain started, and it poured and poured and poured down by the bucketful. When I arrived in College, water was pouring off me all over. I went to my room, borrowed a towel to wrap my trousers in, draped myself and the rest of my clothes over the radiator, and emerged ten minutes later looking a little less bedraggled.

My last College dinner, and I managed to be lively and not even very sad. I was most moved when the Warden added an extra toast to those leaving -- there are many in that category, but I'm the most senior, believe it or not, at 39.

The other notable thing was finding that Nigel Smith plays the bass guitar. We arranged a get-together; unfortunately I made it for Thursday, having forgotten about the feast.

I got home and paid off Frankie, and then went and played with my new toy a bit; I formatted a new disc and saved Tasword onto it as the boot program. It even worked. Then to bed; slept soundly until nearly six, awoke relaxed. Hester came in first, and after a cuddle she was prepared to go and do her violin practice. The boys didn't show up at all. We got them all breakfasted, the washing done, Hester ready to leave early for school (she's in a play at assembly), etc., with the minimum of fuss and rancour. Neill, newly certified proficient at cycling (though the certificate hasn't arrived yet), took himself to school while I took James. Then I came gently down town, and am now indulging in an unaccustomed luxury -- sunning myself on a seat outside the library while I write this up.

I had always been vaguely attracted to Newman, though knowing little about him. But his biography, at least up to his conversion, has given me second thoughts. He repeatedly upbraids himself for pride and vanity. In the first place, that's a proud, vain thing to do publicly (is there a vicious circle there?), but second and much more seriously, he influences a great many people by his words and actions while claiming them to be based on a disinterested search for truth. This comes near claiming to know the mind and will of God. The truth that he finds is also hard to take. His biographer claims that his views are dynamic and in tune with the evolutionary thought of the later part of the nineteenth century. But dynamicism seems to consist of allowing the Church's freedom to invent new traditions about its founder, and discard old ones, as long as this is done with Papal authority, up to the fifth century, when all is suddenly ossified, so that further change or reformation is in error; and on evolution, he anticipates not Darwin, but the fallacy into which most of Darwin's followers fell, of equating it with progress. (It would be interesting to know what Darwin said or thought about the Oxford movement.) Other things about Newman, however, are much more attractive. Perhaps I should read the "Idea of a University", a book which Helene Hanff also mentions.

It's a clear, sunny but cool day, with a definite feel of autumn to it. In the west, light mackerel clouds high up, congealing into stratus lower down; a bank of cirrus in the east, from which the sun is well clear. The grass glows in the sunshine, and the shadows are deep and rich. Yellow and brown leaves from the ornamental trees behind Grove blow in the cooling breeze, brushing the ground or drifting over the library roof. Straight above, a wisp of cloud breaks away from the main western mass and flies, fast and low, overhead; in front, the chestnut is solid and dark while the wind sings in the branches. The clock chimes the half hour. One yellow rose shines in the green on the fence; further along is a constellation of pink roses, almost without foliage. Birds cry, trains roar, and the main cloud mass has just swallowed up the sun. The richness of the lawn must have derived from the contrast of light and shade; without it, I am aware of drabness, imperfections, and many brown leaves. But the sun returns through a gap and all is as before.

A letter came from Simon Thomas today. He tells me he's learning to drive and is to teach linear algebra next year. He also says Cherlin is interested in the possibility of an anomalous example over GF(2) with n2=n3. Maybe I should think about this.


I went shopping (for hamster food and a few books, including Pillay on stability theory) and then worked on Pillay for a while, taking notes. After lunch I read New Scientist and Scientific American (bits thereof, with articles on supersymmetry and El Nino), worked a bit more, and set out for home. Passing the end of Squitchey Lane, I saw Hester, and stopped to wait for her, but it took her ages to get across the road. Traffic is getting worse at such an incredible rate now, surely largely due to cheap petrol.

At home, I worked on writing my Pascal operating system. The changes in the upgraded disc interface mean quite a lot of work. Some things, like Tasword and Devpac, work fine (despite the fact that TR claim to have changed the entry address to their DOS), but others need changes: there is no longer a RUN xxxx CODE command, and the system needs more room, so that it is impossible to fit a BASIC program, an RS232 interface channel, and the space for DOS (or even two of these) beneath Pascal. So I have to write it in machine code and put it in the printer buffer and/or the UDGs (424 bytes between them). Then I had to feed Hester, help her with her piano practice, and put the children to bed, before going to bed myself. I'm very tired.

27/6/86, 2324

Well, it just shows that there is a great difference between being abroad alone, absorbing all kinds of weird experiences, and being at home minding house, kids, and job. Once or twice I almost got around to stopping long enough to write this up, but not until now (strictly speaking after the end of the period I set myself) have I actually done it.

Also, be warned: in five minutes the train will start and this will become totally illegible. But I'll try to write it anyway.

Wednesday morning: Hester going to a party; I managed to persuade her to do some practice before school, without setting off one of her almighty tantrums. I took the boys up to school on foot. Coming back, thinking about how wonderful the meadow looked from the bridge.

I started on the machine code version of the disc operating system for Pascal. Apart from a couple of mistakes, due entirely to my own carelessness (not having checked carefully the parameters of the Spectrum's own operating system), it was a success, and by the end I had at least produced a system which handled the input and output (the part I'd most dreaded) roughly as I expected. It just remained to get the computer to act on this.

At lunchtime I headed for Summertown to buy the necessities for Thursday's binge. Between the Delikatesserie, the greengrocer at the far end on the right, and Budgen's, I managed to get most of what I wanted, though I begrudged the prices I had to pay for olive oil and olives.

(Worry -- this train should have gone three minutes ago.)

I also bought a magazine headlining once again the way Sinclair is being run down by Amstrad into a provider of hardware for nobody but pre-teenage games freaks -- this time the news was that Amstrad would block a third party from supplying upgraded QLs (a machine which looked like being much more useful to me than any of its competitors, i.e., decent 16 bit processor, wide range of compilers and assemblers, no need to fight my way through plagues of mice, icons, etc., to use it).

Back home after lunch: Ruth came and spent her free time tidying Hester's room. I hadn't the energy to go down town, and in any case I realized that I hadn't finished shopping. (One vital ingredient I'd forgotten was mince for the spoonbread tamale pie.) The boys came home and, inevitably, asked Michael around. I had to take Neill to choir, so I resisted, and felt justified in persuading James instead to invite himself to Michael's place -- a little difficult, because Michael had a friend there already, but eventually it worked.

(We're off at last, a mere 12 minutes late.)

After he'd gone, I discovered from Neill that, although he'd been to Peter Ward Jones' house before, he couldn't remember the address, and was quite sure he wouldn't know the house when we got to the right road. Moreover, we found that he wasn't in the phone book under any conceivable combination of names and initials. So we set off anyway, in the vague hope of seeing either something Neill should recognize or Matthew's car outside a house. In the event, both hopes were fulfilled, after a rather slow journey up there. He's at 25 Harbord Road, a well-pointed brick house; Matthew's car was outside when we arrived, and Peter's car had a poster about a harpsichord concert he's giving in the window.

While Neill went to his lesson, I decided to go and look again for Tolkien's grave in Wolvercote cemetery. (I'd been in once with the boys but hadn't found it.) In beautiful summer weather, with an hour before the cemetery closed, I had almost immediate success. Going straight to the end opposite the gate, I located the Catholic section by the concentration of Irish names (some Polish too), and then working back from the most recent graves, found it just where it was supposed to be, and just as described by Humphrey Carpenter. On the grave grew a red rose, two lavender bushes coming into flower, many polyanthus long gone over, and some nameless garden plants.

I also had time to walk down to Cutteslowe Park, and to read some more of Conan Doyle's biography (my current book) before Neill came out. The greatest virtue of the Doyle biography is the gushing is balanced by some fair but often critical comments about his writing or his general personality, with extensive quotes from little-known parts of his works, or from controversies in which he found himself embroiled.

We cycled home. I found Hester already there. After summoning James home, I decided it was the children's bedtime. But it wasn't mine. Jacinta came round to deliver vegetables and to borrow my electric drill; she stayed to help me make the chestnut parfait (cooking is so much more fun socially, isn't it?). After she'd gone I set out on the hommous, using the tin of chick peas Neill had won on the tombola on Sports Day as well as the ones I'd boiled up. To bed after midnight; tired.

Thursday morning, and it was beyond my power to make Hester do her practice. (On the other hand, Neill has rediscovered the recorder. He took the Number 1 book and played through from his favourite tune, "Boat Song", to the end.

(Too tired to continue. More later.)

28/6/84, 0021

(Returning to the fray after a little doze.)

After taking kids, back to work on POS (where P could stand for me or Pascal). I typed in my handwritten code; and, wonder of wonders, apart from a few little glitches, it worked, with one major exception. The Beta interface refused point-blank to work when called from machine code. I tried all sorts of things, e.g., isolating the calling routine to ensure it was the source of the trouble; loading my Pascal-based "Disc-in-and-out" routine to check what I'd done there (it worked OK then). Nothing. Total silence from the disc drive. After such a long session, I was prepared to admit that later, coming at it fresh, I might do better.

After lunch, I went up for a brief return to the fray. This time, total silence from the television set. Whatever else, this couldn't be laid at the door of my programming errors! Anyway, absolutely no choice but to put it to one side until I could get the television mended.

Then Jacinta and Ruth had arrived, and the long haul of the party began. I had done as much as possible of my preparation in advance -- only beetroot soup, spoonbread topping, and whipped cream remained, fortunately -- so I found myself in the role of general dogsbody, kitchen assistant, and (mainly) washer-up. (Regarding the later, Judita Cofman came before too long, and was a real brick in the roles of washer-up and chopper of onions, easing my task immensely.)

Jacinta went off to Summertown for some last-minute shopping, and Tracey set about trifle. After a discussion on custard, during which her pragmatism had won out against Jacinta's idealism (or, to put it another way, Birds custard powder rather than egg yolks), she was too enthusiastic with the heat, and burnt the custard to the extent that we decided to throw it out and start again with another three pints of milk. This time, I stirred it and kept the heat low. I claimed it wasn't burnt at all (I stuck by this), though by the power of suggestion I managed to persuade the others that it was.

Once Dave, and later Malcolm, came, things really hotted up. It was usually impossible to allocate one hotplate to each chef. I had to make sandwiches for the boys and pizza for Hester, and as well to keep a low profile and to get the dining room into some semblance of order, with sufficient plates and cutlery for everyone.

In the middle of all this, Sheila came home, very tired, bearing gifts. She'd bought me a pottery vase which seemed better suited to be a doodling toy for a six-fingered person, four beautiful postcards of paintings in white clarity mostly of flights of steps, a packet of seeds of the giant Jersey cabbage, and some cheap booze (a half of Captain Morgan, identical to one I'd bought at much greater expense for the parfait, and a bottle of brandy). Hester was displeased with hers, for no obvious reason except her need to express anger -- a backpack, a beautiful silver bangle, I don't remember what else. Nor do I recall what for the boys, except a teddy for Neill (he's been asking for one for some time, claiming that a panda is nice but no substitute for a teddy) which he fell in love with and christened Ruthbert.

Then events begin to blur. Hester and Sheila went upstairs for Hester's practice. Ruth went. Malcolm came and was set to work on a cauliflower curry. I tried desperately to get my nose into the fray, to make soup (which was desperately underdone, having yielded its hotplate for a valuable hour of cooking time), and to make the pie topping, the latter while dishing up soup to those who had by this time arrived -- I burnt my finger quite badly while juggling hot pan lids. After that was done, I had no real function any more, and rather than fight my way to the food table I hovered round the drink table. Sheila tried to fill a dish for herself but kept missing out through being too slow. Isabel came in tears because of some misunderstanding with Dave, and threw herself into Jacinta's arms. Several things didn't improve this. She also missed a round of food by being hesitant -- at this stage it was disappearing as fast as we put it out; soup, hommous, salad, quiches, lentil bakes, all vanished in a twinkling. The problem was compounded when the two of them managed to be in different rooms unaware of each other's presence, then Dave went off somewhere and Isabel discovered he'd been and gone. (By the end of the evening they were reconciled.)

The turning point came with the spoonbread tamale pie. A triumph for our new huge anodized saucepan, and so large in quantity that the hungry hordes, already reeling from what they'd consumed, were reduced to a standstill. In fact, too effectively. When the curries came, there was nothing to pour them over (I had to cook rice, and it was superfluous in terms of bulk) and little room left to fit them in. We ended the evening with large amounts of curry leftovers. But food kept coming at a rapid rate. No sooner had the curries been taken away than people's appetites recovered, and they tucked in to the trifle and parfait so hungrily that those poor souls doing an intermediate round of washing-up really thought that they were going to miss out altogether! The parfait dish was licked clean in short order, though one of the three bowls of trifle remained.

Then we got on to singing. Inevitably perhaps, Leonard Cohen was the most popular. I'd found my notebook with the words to the Songs of Leonard Cohen, and in the course of the evening (finishing at about 12.30) we sang the lot, along with lashings of the obvious (Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel, a little Dylan) and some less so (Jefferson Airplane for Geoff). My fingers have never moved so well in those two Leonard Cohens, "Stranger Song" and "Teachers", requiring non-stop finger picking, or at least good faking.

And so to bed, and so we come to today at last. (And we come to the last stop before home.) Kids to school, Hester to face her music exam, and then the need to meet Ruth in Summertown for a taxi ride to her Caribbean Focus -- I don't blame her for the earlier tenseness, but she was incredibly relaxed when she set off. James and Neill for an afternoon of rounders at Friday Club; Sheila off early to work, and me (after watering the plants) to the dentist, for a month-delayed look at the tooth that shed a filling: Oh dear. Perhaps I had expected the worst, but the worst it certainly was. He decided it was beyond saving, and would have to come out. So I screwed up my courage and told him to take it out, which he did. Though the crown was decayed, the root seemed to have a very healthy grip, which it was reluctant to let go of, and he had to fight with it for five minutes or so to get it out. Then, once dismissed, delayed by the receptionist's having to go to post a letter, and again at the station by one very slow-moving queue with an incompetent clerk serving, I missed the Birmingham train (a HST) and had an hour to wait for the next (a 3-carriage local, already delayed, and more so on the way to Birmingham). Also, numb in the queue, I'd omitted to ask for a ticket to University station, and so I had to go out and queue for one again (though I was told later that it may not have been necessary).

Anyway, I arrived safely. I saw Jenny, Jaap (briefly -- he left in a taxi twenty minutes before my talk), Don, etc. Nice. Coffee and a couple of paracetamol before the talk eased the ache, and I think I wasn't too incoherent. I talked on "Geometric sets of permutations", same title as Leeuwenhout, but I interpreted it more broadly, putting things more into context and drawing analogies. Funny, that. I'd been so pleased with the way I intended to present it that I'd entirely rewritten the manuscript along those lines. But this was better for a non-specialist audience. Afterwards, tea, beer, dinner with a large group at the Acropolis Greek restaurant -- and a long talk with Jenny, very liberating and "in tune" -- until time to come home.

We'd checked train times, a 9.13 and an 11.33. I'd aimed for the first, but she talked me into a coffee, necessarily quick, before the later train, which I duly caught. (She'd come prepared to offer emergency accommodation if the train didn't exist, but it did.)

The rest of the journey home is alluded to in the parenthetical comments. One other passenger in this carriage took up about half an hour of the guard's time, checking timetables and fare schedules before selling him a ticket. He also smokes in a non-smoker: a bit unsporting on such an empty train. It's again a 3-carriage boneshaker, the mail train this time. Not much else to describe, but I'm not dozy now, and there is a while yet before we arrive. But two hours for 5 1/2 pages means I couldn't make a living from writing, I think!

The shortness of time left also means that I'm not about to launch into sociological speculations on the meaning of the experience. We thunder (or rattle) on through the featureless dark; the trackside bushes and gravel give no clue as to our whereabouts. Only experience from our speed (or lack of it) and departure time suggests that Oxford isn't imminent. I wish it was. BK fete tomorrow; I have volunteered (or, more accurately, been pushed) to running a roomful of kids watching videos. I'll be tired.

We just passed a landmark, the cement works on the Oxford side of Gibraltar, past which I've run a few times and walked with Hester. So there isn't too much further; only the cycle ride home to dread. We're now in the middle of Kidlington boxes.

My talk went well. One of Jenny's student said she'd got more out of it than any talk at the conference they'd just had (one of Don Livingstone's documentation shows, though as with all of them, the connection with the documentation project remains obscure). But I think I mentioned that.

Wolvercote. Time to stop. If Maxwell got his way, would the Birmingham trains stop once more at Wolvercote Junction?