David Tall : Life

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I entered Wadham College Oxford in October 1960 as a Minor Scholar in Mathematics. In the first term I played Rugby for Wadham College, viola in the pit for the University Opera Group’s performance of Men of Blackmoor by Alan Bush and generally enjoyed life. In the first term I also worked particularly hard and reckoned years later that this provided the essential foundation for the whole of my mathematical life.

In the second term I had a shared tutorial with Peter Graves-Morris. By this time I was too busy doing other things to do all the problems set for each next tutorial. He had invariably done them all and simply had a couple he needed help with. I always found that I could do his problematic questions off the cuff and felt strangely superior. However, when we got to the examinations at the end of the year he scored higher than I did.

In the Summer there was punting on the Cherwell and watching cricket in the Parks, when not playing music. In that term I played viola in the Kodaly choir’s performance of the Beethoven Mass in C, conducted by Lazlo Heltay. It was a seminal experience. For the first time in my life I played under a real maestro. This proved later to be a significant turning point in my music, although I was not to realise for a couple of years.

On the day before the Honours Moderations Examinations at the end of the first year, there was a stifling hot evening and thunderstorms. I was unable to sleep until about six in the morning and after a fitful hour, awoke with a splitting headache. I could not think coherently in the first algebra exam. But I could reproduce what I had learned. I took each question in turn and spent half an hour on each to answer six full questions. (Three or four full questions is the equivalent of a first class performance.) I was very pleased and settled to a well earned lunch with Peter Graves Morris. Then I learned that he had finished eleven problems! In my foolishness I had expected that each question should take half an hour and if my solution was proving shorter, I just put in more detail! However, despite this gross miscalculation, I was still placed 4th in the list of 150 students. Peter was placed second, but after his experiences in our tutorials he felt he wasn't really happy as a mathematician and turned to physics instead. It is always strange how the most able are the most critical of their own performance.

During my undergraduate years, I played a lot of chamber music, keeping in touch with school friends from Northampton and playing in a piano quartet at a range of concerts in Northampton, Oxford and Cambridge.

Back at home in the vacation, my father lost his job as a blast-furnace worker. I was working at Whitworth Fruit Packing Factory at the time. My father applied for a job and was turned down. I spoke to Gordon, the manager, and asked what the employment situation was; he said there were always jobs. So I responded, “That was my dad you turned away.” I explained that my father was a loyal and committed worker, even if he was fifty years old. Gordon told me to tell my father to return in the morning. Back at home I found him very despondent. I explained that there had been a problem and some men had walked out, so he would walk into a job the following morning. “I ent gooin back ther no more, boy,” he said in his Wellingborough dialect. Luckily, I was able to persuade him and he got his job. But it was eighty hours a week, ripping boxes of dried fruit open with his hands, splinters in his fingers, juice in the cuts causing his fingers to swell. It was no life for anyone, expecially my dad. Then I went back to Oxford ... coffee and chat in the morning, tea and chat in the afternoon, beer and chat in the evening, a bit of work and a lot of music and rugby. I decided out of respect for my Dad, I would work at least forty hours a week at mathematics. I sat religiously in the college library, keeping a diary. I made 48 hours the first week, 42 the second. Then my Applied Mathematics Tutor, Jack Thompson commented that my work seemed to lack flair. He asked me what I had been doing, and I explained my private commitment for my father. He asked what I had done before, and I told him I sat in my room, studied a bit, then, when I had a problem, I went out for a walk and looked at the records in the town record shops. He told me to do what enabled me to do my work and I went back to working, reflecting and relaxing whenever I felt the need. My productivity returned to normal.

From then on I have always mused at my problems on and off all the time, realising that I could understand better by working hard for a while, then relaxing and reflecting on my problems. As an undergraduate, I never again spent long hours doing ‘busy’ work. I remember well on a Friday evening singing in an ad hoc madrigal group in a room in Exeter, one of the girls left at 9.30pm saying, “I have to go now and work for my two-one!” (meaning she was working for an upper second class degree). I suggested she would do far better by relaxing occasionally and reflecting on the ideas rather than working her socks off. “Well, what degree do you expect to get?” “A first, of course,” I replied. She was furious and demanded to know why I expected to get a first without working hard whilst she got only a second working all the time. “Simple,” I said. “I was fourth out of 150 students in the first year when 25 students got firsts; half of those will get firsts in finals, so I only need to carry on at the same level to stay comfortably in the zone for a first class degree.”

In the summer of my second year I began thinking about a job a year before I took finals. I considered I had a choice of three different kinds of position. One was to be a teacher, the second was to stay on and do a research degree, the third was to make as much money as possible. I went to the Oxford Appointments Board and was told that if I wanted to be a teacher, I could have any job in any location in any kind of school I desired. With this comment I was shown a whole filing cabinet full of jobs and invited to choose. I reckon I would have enjoyed being a teacher at the time but the better alternative was to stay at Oxford and get a doctorate and see what happened after that. The other alternative, to make a lot of money and be really well off, was something I felt I should investigate so that I knew I would make the right decision. I asked what the possibilities were to go into top management. I was told that such top jobs always went to classics scholars, mathematicians were too valuable to go into general employment. I was peeved about this. I felt that classics scholars were pretty useless beings, not knowing anything of value in the real world and I was blocked from top jobs because I was useful at something else.

The most highly paid mathematical jobs were as insurance actuaries. So I wrote to four main London insurance companies to look at what they had to offer. I went for interviews dressed in a new (brown) suit and (brown) shoes. The first company looked at me as if I was something the cat had dragged in. They all wore traditional black pinstripes and the place was not for me. Then I had an interview at XXX insurance company where my interviewer said, “You will like it here, there are lots of us here.” I was bemused and moved back a little. Seeing my discomfort, he added, “On Varsity Match Day we close down,” hinting that he meant the place was full of Oxbridge graduates. The third place I was interviewed by a bored, overweight, immaculately dressed man with manicured finger nails and sharply coiffured hair. It was not inspiring. At the end of the interview he asked me if I had any questions. Not relishing the journey into central London everyday, I said, “Yes, there is one thing. What has being an actuary done for you that you couldn’t have done otherwise?” He puckered up his face and drawled, “I have lunch on the fifth floor.” These manifestly encouraging interviews convinced me that working as an actuary in London was not for me. Even though the fourth interview, with a jolly chap who played viola in a big amateur London orchestra, drew a flicker of interest in me, I decided my top choice would be to follow a career as a postgraduate at Oxford.

Even so, three out of four firms all offered me a job. Top maths students from Oxbridge were clearly at a premium. The fourth company (the ones with black shoes) wrote and said that if I wished to be considered further for employment by them, perhaps I would contact them after I had obtained my degree.

At the beginning of my third year I lost my way. I told Jack Thompson that I couldn’t make sense of fluid mechanics and that I had no enthusiasm for mathematics. I expected a sympathetic hearing, but I didn’t get it. Jack stood there with a lighted cigarette stub stuck to his lower lip, bouncing up and down as he spoke. “My dear chap,” he said, “we all feel like that sometimes.” His response was so dead-pan and inconsequential, I burst out laughing, realising how fortunate I was in the luxury of my position as an Oxford student. He advised me to concentrate on things I enjoyed doing, as there was plenty of choice in the examination.

I returned to my diet of music, rugby and other activities, laced a few hours work and other hours of relaxation and reflection. In my third year I lived in digs in north Oxford, a couple of miles from college and went in and out on a motor powered bicycle. A couple of evenings a week I worked at my academic studies in my digs and went to a nearby chippy for dinner. I was fortunate to have some friends in college. Joe Riley, Martin Green and Johnny Parkes shared a big room and I often spent time there playing darts. There was a moose head on the wall and that had a few pinpricks in it when a dart was propelled in the wrong direction. A full height cupboard concealed the dartboard itself and the wall around was peppered with dart holes. It seemed as if it had got woodworm.

My favourite past time was ”shove ha’penny”. The college had the best shove ha’penny board in the university. The game is played with five halfpennies, smoothed flat on one side, propelled successively up the board which has eight lines drawn across to give seven strips (or ‘wells’) between. The game is to fit halfpennies between the lines. Those that score are returned and a chalk mark is placed on the corresponding well. Three scores are required in each well and the first to fill all the wells (a total of three times seven, equals 27) wins the game. The class player prefers to go first and to score the in the first well, using halfpennies already on the board as backstops to get others to stop in the right place. The board is heavily polished in the centre and the chalk is allowed to accumulate at the side, so a spinning action diagonally enables a more accurate placement to stop in the rougher side areas. I whiled away many hours and got pretty good, though I never made it as champion in the college knockout competition. It was a pleasant pastime to while away an innocent half an hour when work got too intense sitting in the library.

In the summer of my final year, I wrote the incidental music for Shakespeare’s play Measure for Measure, at the request of Adrian Benjamin, whose name will appear elsewhere in these pages. It was recorded on tape with some of my pals. I well remember editing the various takes by cutting and splicing pieces of tape. One of them had a short brass fanfare and, by accident, I cut the last fraction of a second off the end. I spent ages playing bits of tape draped over the radiator in the room, but I never found that last fraction of a second. We played the recording each night of the performance and I winced every time at the abrupt ending of that fanfare. But no-one else seemed to notice.

As I operated the tape-recorder to switch on the tape at the right time, I filled in time by reading the fluid mechanics book I could not understand earlier in the year. Suddenly the light dawned. In my Finals exam, I answered two questions on the subject when three questions on each paper is the equivalent of a first class degree. I also had another lucky chance. Mr Mauldon, who had lectured in the second year on complex analysis had become quite ill and cancelled most of his lectures. As we had a lecture before the due time, a few of us turned up in hope that he might be well. In the last week of the course he arrived looking very pale and drawn to find just two students in the audience out of 150 in the year. He gave his lecture and said he would give his final lecture even if there was only one student there. There was. ... Me. I sat in this large lecture room alone with the lecturer as he lectured on four possible questions for finals. I was the only student who saw them. Until the final examinations arrived... In the complex analysis examination there were the very four questions printed on the paper. Each one had a different error in it, perhaps a misprint, or a loose definition or a small logical imprecision. I not only answered them all, but corrected the errors in each one. This, taken together with some good work on other papers meant that, after only three of the five compulsory papers, I had enough marks for a first class degree.

However, the Finals examination papers were in two groups, with a first class degree requiring a good mark on each separate group. The second group consisted of three papers with a huge range of choice from all the third year optional courses. Each paper was three hours in duration and each question was estimated to take around an hour. Four ‘alpha’ questions in total out of the three papers was considered the equivalent of a first. I started very badly. I reckoned that, after the first two papers, I had scored only one alpha question and three or four partial answers that would give beta marks. That night I found it difficult to sleep. I knew that in the final three hours I needed three alphas to get a first and the the questions on this paper were known to be more difficult than those on the earlier papers. Fortunately I got a good start and had two alpha solutions in the first couple of hours and another partial response took me up to an estimated total of three alphas and several betas. I felt confident that, close as it was, with the good showing on the compulsory papers I would be all right. In fact I was more than all right. I had been too hard on my myself in analysing my performance and was awarded six alphas, more than enough for a first. I was in the top three out of 150 mathematics students and was given a Junior Mathematics Prize. I took the opportunity to continue for another three years as a post-graduate studying for a Doctorate in Philosophy with Professor Michael Atiyah.

In the summer I began working at the Hind Hotel, as a porter, waiter, barman in turn. The Evening Telegraph did an article on me when I was a barman. At this time the Essex Cricketers were staying at the hotel. I heard on the radio on Sunday morning that Barry Knight the Essex all-rounder had got into the England team. At that moment, Trevor Bailey, himself a well-known ex-England player came in and I was able to tell him the good news, which he passed on to Barry Knight as he came into the bar. There was a celebration. What I couldn't tell the cricketers was that I was not quite sober myself. As the bar had been quiet before they came, I had decided to sample all the drinks in the place. A thimbleful of each and I was well away.

I had an interesting relationship with the Manager who, for some reason, taught me how to make skeleton keys. He was proud of his security and told me endless tales of the ruses he used to protect his property. I told him that the bar was not secure and he was very angry. That night, I was the night porter and I used a bent wire coathanger to ease through a crack and pull aside the bolt to open the bar, leaving his newspaper inside for the morning. I thought he would be impressed, but he was furious! I learned what is was like to be a hired hand at the behest of an employer. Fortunately, the news of the £50 Mathematics Prize arrived at the time and so I had enough capital to resign on the spot.

Sue and I got married that Summer. At the time she had £52 in her savings and I had £48. She always said I married her for her money. But I did have the prize money to put towards a honeymoon in Ibiza. This, apart from a short college rugby tour to Brussels, was the first time I had been abroad.


The story continues here ...

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