David Tall : Life

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SUSSEX (1966-1969)

Sue and I moved with our week-old daughter to Sussex at the end of September 1966. We lived in Woodingdean, to the East of Brighton, inland from Rottingdean. We had a beautiful little bungalow at 16 Brownleaf Rd on a steep hill. As we looked out of the window south to the sea over a mile away, in the summer, all we could see was the sky, the sea, and trees. At night we need not close our curtains and could watch the sun go red as it set in the west. To reach the University, I travelled to the north up the road, away from the sea on my lambretta scooter, over the downs and on to Falmer where the University of Sussex is situated. It was so close I could come home for lunch every day.

In the early days our different metabolism meant that Sue and I could look after Rebecca cooperatively. I was an ‘evening’ person who started the day slowly and worked in the evening, so it was easy for me to stay up and feed Rebecca with her bottle in the small hours of the morning. Sue was a ‘morning’ person who found it easy to rise at 6 am to give Rebecca her early morning feed. It seemed as if we could cope with absolutely anything. After a few months, Rebecca began to sleep through the night, but after a while, she began to wake at 2am. I told Sue, resolutely, to let her whimper. The first night she howled large and long. The second the crying turned to a plaintive whimper, and the third she burbled a little and went back to sleep. I felt that I was the perfect father.

We had the odd time when disaster was close. Our little bungalow had the bedrooms set in the front half of the house and the kitchen and living room in the back half, looking south to the sea. One morning, Rebecca got up early and decided to amuse herself. We found her sitting on the kitchen table with several banana skins left over from eating the bananas and a loaf of bread with half a dozen sharp kitchen knives stuck in it. Fortunately she was unharmed and, from then on, we separated the two halves of the house at night by bolting the interconnecting door.

Rebecca soon grew into a super child. She seemed so mature for her age. At two years old, it seemed only necessary to explain things to her and she understood. At two and a half she decided she didn’t like the record that was playing and pushed the stylus to the centre of the disc, ruining both disc and stylus at the same time. As a responsible parent, I discussed this with her and told her she must pay for the damage. She had a building society account with a few pounds in it and we went to the office of the building society, taking out money to pay for a new stylus, while, without her knowledge, I repaid the money to her account in cash. She took the money and I escorted her to a music shop to buy a new stylus. She was already mature enough to make the request herself and to hand over the money to pay for the goods. I was very pleased with my parenting skills until a little later, she had a further accident. “Never mind,” she said, confidently, “Becca pay for it.”

In my first term in Sussex I retained my links with Oxford. The Meryfield Choral Society had not found a new conductor, so I travelled up every Friday to rehearse the Haydn Nelson Mass for a last concert with them just before Christmas. I also visited Michael Atiyah from time to time to continue with my PhD. There were several young lecturers just started at Sussex and we were told that those of us who finished our PhDs would be promoted to full lectureships. I told Michael about this and mentioned the very real need to have more salary to buy clothes for my new born child. He surprised me by saying I already had enough. So I completed my PhD thesis that year and was given the necessary promotion to a permanent lectureship.

Meanwhile, I soon got into my musical stride at Sussex. Some of the students from Eastern Europe were of the Russian Orthodox faith and attended services led by Father Sergei Hackel, a lecturer in Russian at Sussex University. We performed in services with Father Hackel at the University and also for Metropolitan Anthony of Zuroszh at Chichester Cathedral. From this group of singers we formed the A Cappella Singers in the summer of 1967, intending to have a quality group of 16 singers to subdivide into any required number of parts. However, the choir recruited so well in the autumn of that year that we soon had three times that number for our first concert, as our press release showed.


In the second year of my time at the University of Sussex, the University Choir essentially collapsed and the A Cappella Singers took over the main role of music at Sussex. Not only did we perform our own concerts of music with the A Cappella Players and the University of Sussex Brass Ensemble, we also were asked by the University Musical Director, Evdoros Demetriou, to take of the University Choir’s commitment to provide a chorus for a professional engagement at the Brighton Festival. This was to provide the chorus for the British Première of Lehrstück, an anti-Nazi piece written in 1929 by Bertolt Brecht and Paul Hindemith that was banned after its first performance in Germany in 1929 and was receiving its first British performance at the Brighton Festival conducted by Alexander Goehr. The concert took place at the theatre at the end of the Palace Pier. I remember well the difficulties of the final rehearsal. I had always indicated when the chorus should breathe and when they should begin and end, but Goehr simply conducted the beats and the chorus did not come in. How could they? They had prepared from a chorus part that had many bars rest indicated and we had no idea of the music that preceded the chorus entry. Happily Goehr was the complete professional and soon got it together. I remember vividly during the rehearsal that Yehudi Menuhin walked in to listen and talk to us as one of the artistic directors of the festival. It was a great experience. Goehr was a competent and workmanlike conductor who managed a satisfactory performance.

At the end of my second academic year at Sussex, the musical director Evdoros Demetriou resigned and, in the autumn of 1968, we had a very different individual take over: Lazlo Heltay. This was the self-same man who inspired me to be a conductor in the first place. I knew he would be good for the University, so I encouraged all my singers to support him in his endeavours. His first act was to form the Brighton Festival Chorus which continues to this day. His arrival was an enormous success. I sang in his Brighton Festival Chorus which he prepared for Colin Davis to conduct Mozart's Kyrie in D minor and for Sir William Walton to conduct Belshazaar’s Feast. I remember vividly how Davis joked with the orchestra then suddenly a tension came into his whole being, the concentration immediately suffused through everyone, and an intense performance of the Kyrie followed. Walton was nothing like this. Lazlo had prepared us well for Belshazaar's Feast but he had taught us the rhythms precisely with no jazz feeling. Walton, meanwhile was prosaic in his conducting without any pretensions at all. But when we began, another magnificent performance rose from us as we warmed to the man who had written this wonderful music. I felt humbled by being conducted by Colin Davis. I had learned a great deal about being a conductor through my own experiences, but I knew nothing like this. I knew I could not invoke the magical qualities that came from his mental grasp that Davis had of the music and the performers. As with Lazlo’s performance of the Beethoven Mass in C eight years before, I sensed the difference between competence and genius.

This period was also a time of great sadness and solace. Our second daughter, Clare Susan was born and lived just two days. Sue was taken into hospital on the Saturday ready for the birth and I stayed at home to look after Rebecca. I did not visit until the baby was born. Sue held her at birth but Clare was a little premature and was taken for special care. On the Sunday I visited them both in separate rooms. Clare looked so beautiful in her cot in the premature baby unit. That evening at home I was telephoned to say there was a problem. Clare was suffering from Hirschsprung's syndrome, meaning she had no peristaltic movement in the lower intestine. She needed an emergency colostomy operation. I gave permission and the operation was performed on Sunday evening. Sue came home on Monday and we were joined by her mother who came down to help after the birth. On Monday Clare was holding her own when I went to see her, but she became increasingly distressed. On Tuesday evening a telephone call told us that she had died. She had been christened in the Church of England and was buried in the Russian Orthodox Church, in a touching service in which Sue and I were comforted by our friend Sergei Hackel. For the very first time in my life, I knew that I was not as in charge of my destiny as I thought. It was a salutary experience.

We steadily recovered our composure over the next year. By this time my lecturing was going well. There were 36 lecture courses to be taught in mathematics and 42 members of staff, so some lecturers did not in fact lecture. By the second year I had acquired not one, but two, lecture courses, second year complex analysis and third year Galois Theory.

I really enjoyed giving lectures on mathematics. I thought very deeply about the ideas and worked hard to present the ideas in a way that could make sense to the students. Every lecture was a performance, designed to have a specific plan within a clear overall development of ideas. I drew pictures and encouraged the students to think about the ideas in ways that made sense to them. I got to know them as individuals and talked to them about the meaning of the mathematics. It was a very different experience from my ongoing work in research.

My supervisor, Michael Atiyah won the Fields Medal in 1966 just before I moved to Sussex. The whole world of mathematics wanted him to speak to them and since he could not be in many places at once, as his student, I was asked to give several seminars on my research with him. Each time I offered a choice: a broad review of ideas suitable for a general talk or a specific seminar on my own PhD with Atiyah. Every time the choice was for the detail of the thesis. Within five minutes of the beginning of the seminar I found myself looking at a room full of blank faces. The technicalities of new research are often difficult to grasp, and no matter what I did, my ability to communicate that stood me well in music and in teaching undergraduates failed me in research seminars. It was demoralizing. Did I want to spend a life of non-communication in research when I had such pleasure in conducting and teaching? I considered changing my life to study music as a conductor and Sue agreed that I should go ahead, but then I was cheered by a review of teaching in the department.

A review of all the mathematics lecture courses was carried out, based on questionnaires given to all students. Of the 36 courses, mine were 2nd and 4th in popularity. First and third were the courses on Linear Algebra and Group Theory by Professor Walter Ledermann, a much-loved professor who had perfected his courses over many years. These four courses clustered together at the top with a wide gap before the rest. Walter affected my life in several ways. In mathematics he invited me to write my first text-book Functions of a Complex Variable based on my lecture-notes. He counselled me that I should say what was necessary to help the student understand. I need not tell the whole truth, but I must never lie! It was sound advice.

On another tack, he was an amateur violinist who loved chamber music. So we played string quartets at his home, Frank Clifford, an applied mathematician as first violin, Walter on second, myself on viola and whoever we could get to play cello. We took our families to his house. The day went like this. Arrive about nine-thirty for coffee and cakes and talk. Around 10.30 we played for half an hour. Then we had a long break for more coffee and cakes and talk. Then we played for another half an hour. Then we had lunch for an hour or two. Then we played again. Then we had tea and more cakes and more talk, a final flourish of playing and time to take the children home at around five o'clock. These were halcyon days!

I remained on course as a teacher of university mathematics and a musician conducting my choir and orchestra. Then a new challenge appeared on the horizon. In 1969 I saw an advert from Warwick University for the post of Lecturer in Mathematics with Special Interests in Education. This offered me a new direction in which my increasing interest in teaching could be combined with a position as a mathematician.

Chris Zeeman, the Chairman of the Warwick Mathematics Department contacted me and agreed an offer I could not refuse. So after three beautiful years in Sussex, where family life was balanced with mathematics and music, we moved to Kenilworth where I began my new post at the University of Warwick.

The story continues here ...

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