Fred Hoyle An observer of the world and a ponderer on its problems ...
A Yorkshire Childhood
Hoyle’s broad interests and love of the outdoors soon brought him into conflict with the education system. Between the ages of 5 and 9 he attended 3 separate schools and was absent through illness or truancy for three quarters of the time.
When punished by his teacher with a blow on the ear for proclaiming his specimen of a flower had 6 petals when the teacher said it had 5. Hoyle refused to return to school. His parents were called before the Education Authority, supporting their son who had retained his specimen. This incident serves to illustrate Hoyle’s intolerance of inequity, reflected in later life in clashes with the establishment.
The headmaster, Alan Smailes, a graduate of the Mathematical Tripos at Cambridge, was clearly impressed by Hoyle’s accounts of the books on chemistry and stars he had read and a scholarship place was offered. During his time at Bingley Grammar School Hoyle learnt systematically and was an avid reader.
Hoyle ‘matricked’ at the age of 15 and returned to school to study for the Higher Certificate. His aim was to gain a County Major Scholarship to support him at university, studying Chemistry at Leeds. Hoyle attained the previously accepted standard, but because of cuts to the education budget in the depression Yorkshire raised its standards in 1932.
In September 1932 Hoyle returned to school unhappy at repeating a year. With the support of the headmaster, Alan Smailes, and the chemistry teacher, Herbert Haigh, Hoyle and his cousin, Fred Jackson, embarked on an assault at the Cambridge scholarship examination of the St John’s College group in December. Once again Hoyle just failed to attain exhibition standard in all papers – laboratory practicals and mathematics having let him down.
It required both exhibition standard in the Cambridge exams and a County scholarship in the summer exams for Yorkshire to fund a Cambridge degree course. With Smailes’ unerring support Hoyle achieved both and set off for Emmanuel College Cambridge in October 1933.
My Father always wore a trilby hat. It wasn't anything to do with the weather, because until his later years he worked bareheaded in his garden. Yet for the short step into the local village of Gilstead, for a walk to the town of Bingley a mile away, and certainly for business in the bigger city of Bradford, he always wore a trilby hat.
This male fashion would only be a minor shift of custom from the 1920s to the present day if it were not for the large size, to the modern eye, of those hats. The effect of wearing a brimmed hat rather than a close-fitting bonnet is to make the head look bigger. If you were suddenly transported back to the 1920s the difference that would surely hit you with the force of an executioner's axe would be that everybody walking the streets would appear to have heads twice as large as we see them today. Here, in one move, we have the reason why it is so difficult to notice the circumstances and events in one's own day that will appear remarkable, important and even amazing in the future. No commentator in the 1920s would have thought to record the size of trilby hats. If it hadn't been for the existence of the camera, this really quite big shift in human psychology would be well on its way to becoming lost. Why did people in the 1920s want to make their heads seem so big? Or to put it from their point of view, why do we today want to make our heads seem so small?
The River Aire rises in limpid pools in limestone hills near the village of Malham, which because of its beauty was always a mecca for my parents. After passing Skipton, which I suppose means sheeptown, the Aire opens into a wide valley filled with sediments that extend as far as Keighley. Continuing downriver a further three or four miles, the valley narrows into a bottleneck at the town of Bingley. Thereafter it opens out again in a flattish bottom at Shipley, where it continues nearly eastward to Leeds, and thence eventually out via the River Humber to the sea.
People commanding a strategic bottleneck traditionally live by exacting tribute from travellers and traders, and so it seems to have been with Bingley as far back as the Domesday Book. In industrial times, traders plying their wares between the agricultural communities of the Wharfe Valley around Ilkley and Otley and the early manufacturing centre of the Halifax district took care to steer clear of both Bingley and Shipley - the latter probably because of swamps, the former because of rapacity. Their route is being imitated nowadays by modern motorists. It went over Ilkley Moor and down through the village of Eldwick to Gilstead. Here it turned into Primrose Lane to avoid Bingley, passing immediately before the very door of the house where I would be born. The community of Bingley responded to this scheme by doing its worst to convert Primrose Lane into a quagmire. The tug-of-war from Domesday down the centuries culminated in July 1758, when an indictment was made against the inhabitants of Bingley, for the solid reasons that the King's subjects could not 'go, return, pass, ride and labour without great danger of their lives and loss of their goods [wherefore] the inhabitants of the parish of Bingley shall repair and amend when and so often as it shall be necessary the Common Highway aforesaid [Primrose Lane] so as aforesaid being in decay'.
The bottleneck of Bingley had more valid commercial advantages during the second half of the nineteenth century. Its importance continued, but with the bang gradually fading to a whimper, through my boyhood. The steep sides of the Aire Valley offered sources of water power for textile mills which provided the main employment for the outlying villages of Morton on my side of the valley, and of Harden, Cullingworth and Haworth on the western side. There were sheep in plenty on the hill farms on both sides of the valley, with spinning mills close by, a way of life that formed the background to the novels of the Bronte sisters. You could see their village of Haworth from my village of Gilstead. For that matter, you could see Bronte country from my bedroom window.
Gilstead wasn't a place of manufacture, however. In my boyhood there couldn't have been more than two or three hundred village people, earning their livings in diverse ways. There was a big quarry supplying stone to Bingley, of which my maternal grandfather, William Pickard, had been the foreman. He died in his early thirties long before I was born, apparently from silicosis, although it wasn't called that in those days. In addition to rising from stonemason to quarry foreman, William Pickard, by the time of his early death, had built a house for himself and his young wife, my maternal grandmother. Had he lived, my mother would surely not have had to work for so long in the local mill to earn the money that took her eventually to the Royal Academy of Music in London.
There were two farms, Walsh's and Robinson's, around which my youth revolved. There were a few substantial properties and the more modest houses of folk like my father who worked down in the Aire Valley itself. One of the substantial properties had a determining effect on my life - the Milnerfield Estate. A mystery surrounded this estate, a mystery which still persists to this day.
I never had sight nor sound of any member of the Salt family, which was the nearest thing to divinity I ever heard of in my youth. The Salt family owned the Milnerfield Estate. The Salt family had a big textile mill down where the Aire Valley broadens into the Shipley region. The family built houses close to the mill for its employees, and the conglomerate ultimately became so large that it formed a township in its own right, known as Saltaire. The Milnerfield Estate stretched all the way up the valley from the lowlands around Saltaire to the highlands around Gilstead. Where the estate abutted the village, a stonewall fully ten feet high was built. The remarkable thing about this stonewall was that its construction was so precise, stone fitting exactly on stone in a manner the ancient Incas would have approved of, that at no point was even the most agile village boy able to climb it. In my youth we made hundreds and hundreds of attempts, but never once did anyone manage to 'swime', as we said, on top of the big, overhanging flagstones which capped the wall.
Nearest to the village was a narrow lane about six feet wide, with the Great Wall of Milnerfield on one side and a dark strip of woodland on the other, the woodland also being enclosed by walls, so that you went along the lane between high walls on both sides. We called it the 'Sparable', but later in life I learned that its proper name was the Sparrow's Bill. Even on a bright day it was dark along the Sparrow's Bill, and since there were many twists and turns to it you had the impression that an ogre was waiting around the next corner, an ogre from which it would be impossible to escape because of the walls on either side. It was by forcing myself to go alone along the Sparrow's Bill at night that somewhere about the age of seven I learned not to be afraid of the dark.
The perimeter of the Milnerfield Estate remote from the village was more readily negotiated, even though the wall was everywhere well constructed and fairly smooth. The estate was no small affair, by the way. Before the outlying farms were sold off it was an extensive block of land that lay strategically athwart the ancient traders' route between the Wharfe and Aire Valleys. But to proceed with my personal story. The trouble from our point of view was that low wages permitted a truly great number of gardeners and gamekeepers to be employed, so that except by using real guile you could hardly make a hundred yards inside the place without having a brawny adult seize you by the ear and march you at the double to one of the exits. In retrospect, the geomorphological cunning of us village boys fills me with admiration, for really it couldn't have been better done. We realised that since the estate was on a general downslope, water had inevitably to flow through the wall. There was one particular place along the Sparrow's Bill where the masons had left a low hole in the wall to permit the passage of a stream, and provided the stream wasn't in flood an agile young boy or girl could just squeeze through without becoming too seriously wet. This was our point of attack in exploring the Milnerfield Estate. One day we came on a partridge's nest with perhaps fifteen brown eggs in it. We hadn't been admiring the nest for more than a minute or so before a gamekeeper came roaring down on us with a threatening stick. I can't vouch for the intention of the other lads, but I know I had no particular intention of seizing the eggs. It was the sheer beauty of the nest which impressed me, to a point where I can still conjure a vision of it to this day.
I was never a great one for taking eggs from birds' nests, for the reason that I could see no interest in them once they were taken. If you blew them there was only an empty shell that did nothing, and if you didn't blow them they soon started to smell terribly. I found it far more interesting to watch what happened if you left the eggs where they were. On one occasion when I was scouting alone I found a kingfisher's nest along the banks of the same stream by which we entered the Milnerfield Estate. I told one of the lads about it; whether he took the eggs or someone else did I never knew. When I found the nest empty it seemed an absurd waste. Here had been something which would make marvellously coloured birds that were not to be.
Strange events were in train at the Milnerfield Estate, an almost literal enactment of the first part of the story of Sleeping Beauty. The practice in my early boyhood was for the managing director of the Salts' textile mill to live at Milnerfield House, from which he drove daily to and from the mill in a horse-drawn carriage along a mile of driveway, on the sides of which the grass was mown meticulously by hand. But the house itself was a grim pile indeed, designed by some more than usually insane architect in a fashion that would have done credit to the stories of Edgar Allan Poe. And grim stories were rife in the village as to what went on in the house, stories which delighted my young ears, I can tell you. Deaths and disasters, ghosts and ghouls - no good ever came to anybody who lived there. When I was about nine years old it fell out just as the old ladies of the village said it would. Just as the princess in Sleeping Beauty pricked herself on a spindle, so the managing director of the Salts' textile mill pricked himself on a thorn bush. Within hours, blood-poisoning had set in, and within a week a hearse was carrying his coffin down the mile-long driveway to the cemetery in Saltaire. The gardeners and gamekeepers melted away. Nobody ever came to live there again. Grass grew thick down the carriageway, the splendidly cultivated gardens and orchards fell more and more into disuse, more and more of the greenhouse windows were broken due to chance events, and above all the house simply fell down, to be carted away stone by stone, until today there is literally nothing but a place left for sixty years to become a jungle - just like the environs of the castle in Sleeping Beauty.
There was a time early in the century when it was very much otherwise, when the estate looked as if it might swallow the village itself. Four houses known as 'Milnerfield Villas' were built outside the high wall to accommodate the highest-ranking servants - the butler, the head gardener and so on. They were substantially built, as estate agents say, a step ahead in quality of most of the other houses in the village. In 1910, a decision was taken to reverse this process. The houses, including the four known as Milnerfield Villas, were sold, probably because it was found that estate folk didn't mix with village folk. I have a fair idea why. When I was about eight, apparently during some crisis at the estate, a footman erupted from the big iron gates that guarded the entrance to its carriageway, and then rushed with a bundle of letters to the village post office. I remember nothing of the man's appearance, but I do remember as if it were yesterday that he was wearing white gloves. In a derisive gang we followed him to and from the post office, dogging his heels as closely as we dared. Since white gloves and earthy village life obviously didn't mix, the estate decided to sell its scattered properties outside the big, flagstone-capped wall. And my mother decided that somehow, someplace, she would raise the money to buy the residence at the lower end with the high-sounding address of 4, Milnerfield Villas. It was there that on 24 June 1915 I was born.
It wasn't the high-sounding address my parents had wanted. It was the view. From number four you can see over the flagstone-capped wall into the kitchen-garden and orchard of the estate. More relevant, however, the eye lifted to the summit of a moor two miles away, Rombald's Moor to give its official name, although nobody local ever called it anything but Baildon Moor. The point is that with astute use of Ordnance Survey maps you can walk from the summit of Rombald's Moor to the outskirts of Edinburgh without ever descending even into a village, sleeping at night only in remote farmsteads. If at Edinburgh you take David Balfour's route across the Firth of Forth and thence beyond the Highland line, you can continue through remote places to the end of Britain at Cape Wrath. So throughout my youth at 4, Milnerfield Villas, I had half-a-thousand miles of open country beckoning me everlastingly towards adventure.
Owen Glendower says to Hotspur:
... at my nativity
The front of heaven was full of fiery shapes,
Of burning cressets; and at my birth
The frame and huge foundation of the Earth
Shaked like a coward.
So it was at my own birth, the fiery shapes and the shaking of the Earth being caused by the thundering guns of armies locked in the battles of the First World War. My father was already in his mid-thirties when the First World War broke out in 1914. Shortly after I was born, he was conscripted into the British Army, choosing to opt for the Machine Gun Corps, which choice he said in after years was dictated by his dislike of 'bull'. The life expectancy of machine gunners was so short that 'bull' was not demanded of them. Nor were machine gunners likely to be accused of insubordination, a risk which an infantryman of thirty-five holding strong views about the intelligence of his senior commanders might easily have been exposed to.
So it came about that my mother and I were left alone to live on fivepence a day, the government allowance to the wives of soldiers serving a country that needed them so much, according to General Kitchener. Had it not been for me, my mother could have returned to her former job of school teaching. But with me so very young, and of a somewhat frail disposition I believe, she felt a job which avoided leaving me during the daytime was to be preferred, if it could be found. During the first years of the century my mother had worked in a Bingley mill, as I mentioned earlier. With the money she saved, and with help from her own mother and elder sister, she had then studied music at the Royal Academy. The outcome was a training and a qualification which permitted her to embark on a career as a professional singer. Times were hard, as they always seem to be for young musicians, so my mother was tempted out of full-time professional work to teach music in schools. Her career was blocked, however, in 1911 when she married, because in those days married women were not employed as teachers, although during the war years the rule was held temporarily in abeyance.
Even before 1911 my mother had begun transferring her main interest from singing to the piano. From my earliest memories to her death forty years later she hardly ever passed a day without spending two or three hours at the piano. The solution to the problem of a job in 1916, therefore, lay literally to hand - to go out of an evening and play the musical accompaniment to silent films at a cinema in the town of Bingley. I was put to bed in my mother's bed and off she would go leaving me to fall asleep, which I did without difficulty until I reached the age of two. My earliest memory is of lying awake for a while and wondering what I would do if my mother never came back. Then I cried for a bit and at last went off to sleep. There were two teenage girls next door, Ethel and Mary Clark, but it seems that when they came round to sit with me 1 said I was all right alone.
Eventually my mother lost her job at the local cinema because her musical tastes did not suit those of its manager. Her idea of accompanying films was to play parts of Beethoven sonatas. Imagine whooping Indians charging soundlessly in jerky black and white, done with the execrable cinematographic technique of 1917, accompanied by the thunderous roll of the third movement of the Moonlight Sonata. About a week after my mother's dismissal, however, there came a tap on the front door of the house. It was the manager come to ask my mother to return to her job. After she'd left there had been a decline in attendances. On enquiry around the town the man had been told, 'We didn't come to see your films, we came to hear Mrs Hoyle play.'
The early development of musical appreciation made it impossible for me to learn to play a musical instrument myself. To a young child of two who knew how the Waldstein Sonata goes, the trite pieces one must play to learn a musical instrument seemed indescribably boring. The gap between appreciation and achievement had become too large to be bridged. Learning comes best if a child does not become too sophisticated too early on.
It turned out better where numbers were concerned. With much time on her hands during the day my mother taught me the numbers, and almost immediately I began to set little problems for myself. I was coming up to three years old when one morning I asked my mother if two sixes made twelve. She answered yes, and then asked me how I knew. I can't claim I remember my answer, but from its reported nature I think it has to be true, since an adult would hardly have thought of arguing like this: 'One and six make seven, so two and six make eight, so three and six make nine, so four and six make ten, so five and six make eleven, so six and six make twelve.' By remembering my previous results and using the same slow but sure method, I managed between the ages of three and four to construct a good deal of the multiplication tables for myself. The reason for the plodding method was simply that I worked in my head after being put to bed at night.
The life expectancy of a British machine gunner in the First World War was only three or four months. It was inevitable then that every day my mother watched in dread for the arrival of the postman bearing the government's heartfelt regret that my father could serve as cannon fodder no longer. As each day passed without the arrival of a letter expressing the government's grief, it could only have seemed to my mother that the inevitable had been postponed for just a little longer.
As the days, weeks and months passed inexorably away with their grim toll on the Western Front, it was said with macabre humour by the men of the British Machine Gun Corps that there were two whom death could not touch: the two 'aitches, Holmes and Hoyle. Random chance, or luck as we say, always works to make it seem like that, and I daresay something of the same sort happened with fighter and bomber pilots in the Second World War. If the life expectancy of the average machine gunner was four months, there would be a lucky one among twenty who would survive for a whole year, a lucky one among four hundred who would survive for two years, and a lucky one among eight thousand who would survive for three years. As well as being lucky, my father had characteristics which must have aided his survival. He was compact in build with a bubbling sense of humour, very quick in sprint races, and with exceptionally keen eyesight. Since exceptionally keen eyesight must surely have been one of the really important advantages that a man in the trenches of the First World War could have had, quite likely Holmes was similarly endowed. But I never learned about Holmes because I don't think he and my father knew each other. And a day eventually came when their meeting became impossible, the day Holmes was killed. It was from then onwards that my father said he began to feel really bad, and suffered from the immovable conviction that for him too the time must surely be coming, just as after a long partnership in cricket both batsmen often fall to the bowlers in quick succession.
If my father had been lucky until March 1918, he was unlucky on the 21st of that month - unlucky to be exposed in the trenches on the day the German Chief of Staff, Erich Ludendorff, launched what is generally conceded to have been the fiercest assault of the whole war, 'Operation Michael' to use its code-name. An official history reads as follows: The launching of "Michael" took the British by surprise, but the ensuing Second Battle of the Somme did not develop as Ludendorff had expected. While the German Army south of the Somme achieved a complete breakthrough, the big attack to the north was held up by a heavy concentration of forces near Arras. For a whole week Ludendorff mistakenly persisted in trying to carry through his original plan in the north, instead of exploiting the unexpected success in the south ... ' Here in only a few words you have an overall distant view of the situation. But what actually happened there on the ground?
I never heard my father say exactly where his post was located and I doubt that he really knew, because almost surely he wasn't issued with a map, although he had long been the leader of a machine gun crew of eight men. But from his description, never put together in one piece but coming out on odd occasions over the years, it is likely my father's post was in the Somme Valley, in the south where Ludendorff made his unexpected breakthrough.
There is at least one semi-official history of the British Machine Gun Corps. The writer says that very little is known of what happened to machine gunners in the Somme Valley on 21 March 1918, because few of them survived the day. According to the writer there was a thick morning mist. At first light the German field command sent patrols, amply equipped with stick grenades, through the mist. Because of the mist the machine gunners were caught unawares and were almost completely taken out, mostly without firing a round in their own defense. In just a few spots, the writer says, a capricious swirl of mist happened to clear the ground, permitting the machine gunners to see ahead to open fire effectively, and so to save themselves. If I believed this story I would have to suppose that my father's life, which as a result of his survival made a big difference to my own life, turned on a capricious swirl of heavy morning mist. But there was more to the matter, issues which either the writer of the semi-official history did not know about, or did not wish to discuss. The question this history actually raises is how the German patrols made their way through thick mist and managed to take out the British machine gun positions so unerringly. I happen to know the likely answer to this question. It was because the leaders of British machine gun posts were under orders at all times while in the front line to fire bursts at ten-minute intervals, to fire mostly, therefore, at nothing at all. Consequently the Germans knew from simple observation exactly where the British posts were located. Presumably the German patrols came through the mist on compass bearings. Knowing the exact direction and more or less the exact distance they had to go, they would perhaps walk at first and would then crawl the last yards until they heard voices.
The machine gun was the single most important ground-based weapon of the First World War, a crucial fact the British High Command never seems to have understood from the first day of the war to the last. By March 1918, Douglas Haig was Commander-in-Chief of the British forces in France. Haig had written in a report dated 1915 that he thought a ration of two or three machine guns to a battalion would be quite sufficient, which showed that, despite an already long career as a professional soldier, Haig had not understood the basic strategic lesson of the American Civil War of 1861-5 - namely, the astonishing extent to which a few posts equipped with even the crudest of early automatic weapons could hold up large numbers of infantrymen, always provided the posts were carefully concealed. Even riflemen in concealment, snipers as we call them nowadays, were effective in the field to a degree that officers in staff colleges could not believe, until during the First World War the fact was rediscovered in the hardest conceivable way, or, as in Haig's case, not rediscovered at all.
From the earliest days when he had become the leader of an eight-man machine gun crew, my father had ignored the order to fire random bursts at ten-minute intervals, telling his crew never to fire except on critical occasions. Although his ignoring of orders was probably dictated at first by thoughts of survival, practical observations in the field soon convinced him that his policy had to be correct. The Germans always went for machine guns first, which proved, as my father told me in later years, that the positioning of the guns was critical, at any rate in German eyes. Of course it was, because the machine gun more than anything else defined the nature of trench warfare, a truth it was possible to stumble on in practice, but a truth that remained perpetually hidden at British headquarters. Time and again British commanders sought to break German defences with heavy artillery barrages followed by advances of large numbers of infantry, only for the infantry to be mown down by German machine guns - thereby leading to those many letters that came daily through the British post expressing the heartfelt grief of a government which nevertheless maintained those who made these disastrous misjudgments in their posts, largely, I suppose, because summary dismissal would have been 'bad form'.
So it came about on 21 March 1918, when the German ground attack eventually came an hour or so after the activities of the stick bombers, that my father's post was still operating. Now indeed he had unprecedented luck. In an ordinary engagement, where every hundred yards of ground was bitterly contested, the loss of support on either side would have been disastrous. But the staggering magnitude of the German advance in the Somme Valley meant that the German infantry simply poured through the holes on either side of my father's position. Doubtless it would be the intention of some German officer to clear out the few still-active British machine guns in due course, but why bother for the moment when the way ahead was clear? So hell for leather the Germans went, at first in hundreds of yards, then in quarter miles, and at last in whole miles. Leaving a crew of eight men still alive, one a dazed, half-shell-shocked man approaching forty and the others recent recruits on the right side of twenty. Through his mental mist my father told me that he almost became convinced, because of the uncanny silence now fallen over the shattered British line, that he had indeed been killed and had passed into some grotesque new form of existence.
Towards evening his judgement of the situation gradually returned. After more than two years of practical experience, and with the keen sight I mentioned before, he had learned to judge battlefield situations, to judge where men were fighting, where guns were firing, and the lie of the land generally. At last he understood that the unbelievable had happened. As if aided by powers never seen before, the Germans had done what our official historian says they did: 'The German Army south of the Somme achieved a complete breakthrough.' Seeing how it was, my father explained things to his young crew, telling them there were two possibilities. They could stay put, with the prospect of being taken prisoner, or they could move back and try to penetrate the now greatly advanced German front from its rear. My father then said that in his physically shocked condition he didn't feel he could manage to crawl great distances across vile, crater-strewn ground. So he told each member of the crew, to make their own decision. One of the crew, a young fresh-faced farmboy from Somerset, decided to stay with him. The others elected to try their luck.
It was a long, distressed night that followed, but in the way the human body sometimes does my father began to feel stronger towards dawn on the 22nd, so that eventually he was able to move. He and the farm boy from Somerset set off, not walking openly, of course, but edging from one depression to another. The problem was whether to try crawling through the German position, or to stay behind it, moving parallel to what had become an entirely new front in the hope of there being a gap somewhere along it. Not being an infantryman himself, it seemed better to trust to observation and geography rather than risk a tussle with German infantry. So it was a hole in the front, or nothing. After three days of crawling and dodging, a possible gap was found. A gap it turned out to be, and after a week, by 28 March or thereabouts, my father and the farmboy from Somerset rejoined the British concentration near Arras. He never saw the other six members of the crew again.
The war over, the British government showed considerable generosity to young officers, sending many of them free of charge to university. I never detected a comparable generosity in the treatment of ordinary war widows. In all cases known definitely to me, the sons of war widows left school at fourteen to earn what they could to support mothers in straitened circumstances. I cannot say this would necessarily have been my own fate had luck, sharp eyes and common sense not aided my father's return from France. My mother might, with her qualifications, have obtained a teaching job again, so that events for me could have fallen out not too differently from the way they actually were.
By the late summer of 1918, German prisoners were coming over in droves. They were ragged, half starved and desperately hungry. Rations were distributed to them in groups of ten, rations that were by no means generous. One day my father watched a group distributing its combined ration. One of the group was first elected by lot. The chosen man then divided the ration into ten portions as equally as he could manage. Thereafter the others drew lots among themselves as to how to distribute nine of the portions, leaving the last and tenth portion for the man who had done the division.
The German government put out peace feelers in 1916, but owing to the political confusion, from which no Allied leader emerged with credit, the German initiative came to nothing. This moment in 1916 was perhaps the crucial turning point of the twentieth century. Had there been peace in 1916, needless slaughter would have been stopped in the short term, and in the long term we would probably not have anything like the present day superpower confrontation, for the 1917 communist revolution in Russia would most likely not have happened either.
The year 1916 is not very far back in time, in the sense that it lies within the span of a single human lifetime. A visit to any major library would permit you to examine the issue of The Times for any day in 1916 you pleased. Yet so far at least as some aspects of technology are concerned, a single human lifetime has covered greater change than occurred in the whole of the preceding thousand years. The biggest social change, I believe, has been in communication. No young person today could, I think, conceive of a society in which there was an almost impenetrable barrier of communication on a day-to-day basis between government and the upper levels of society on the one hand, and the mass of ordinary people on the other. Notably, we have radio and television in most households today telling us of happenings, not just in Britain and other developed countries, but in every corner of the world. We have newspapers available at a cost that can be sustained by most households. The cost of subscribing to The Times in 1916 amounted to half an ordinary man's wage. Aside from possibly at the Milnerfield Estate, there would be no daily copy of The Times in our village, and probably not more than a dozen copies throughout the whole Bingley area. There was no radio or television, of course, so that news travelled literally by word of mouth. In the 192Os my father would bring a copy of the Bradford daily paper back home when he returned from business in the evening, but unless the skies fell in on a national or international basis our sources of news were intensely local. There were no opinion polls either, so governments were just as out of touch with ordinary people as ordinary people were out of touch with governments.
The almost instant formation of public opinion today, over issues the public would scarcely have heard of in 1916, constitutes one of the greatest changes the world has ever seen. Almost everyone today, except the media, agrees that they are a blessed nuisance, but the media have changed the world from one in which people could be trivially manipulated to one in which a catastrophe like the 1914-18 war has surely become impossible.
A visit to the Soviet Union is to be recommended for the insight it gives into the way things used to be. Most Western visitors experience a prison-house atmosphere there, an atmosphere which has nothing to do with actually being in prison. Your papers can be completely in order, you may even be a privileged visitor on some mission or other, and yet if you are at all sensitive to atmosphere you get the prison-house feeling within hours of arriving in Moscow. It comes, I think, from the communication barrier. The Russian people do not have our two-way communication with their government. There is just the same pall over present-day Russian national life that there used to be over ours. While nowadays people speak of a free world in the West, it is as well to remember that our freedom is, historically speaking, a very recent occurrence. My own memory easily goes back to days when it was not so, to days when ordinary people had no voice, days of easy manipulation for governments. Perhaps in another fifty years the same changes will have taken place in the Soviet Union. If so, a great cloud will have been lifted from the world as a whole, a cloud which descended on it in only the third year of my life.
Copyright Fred Hoyle 1986
ALAN SMAILES. M.A., LL.B. (CANTAB)
THE GRAMMAR SCHOOL.
Tel: Bingley 7.
3 December 1932.
Dear Dr. Giles,
Once again the time has come round for me to write to you in the interests of boys of this School who are candidates for the Entrance Scholarship Examination. This time, two of my pupils Fred Hoyle (age 17-6) whom you will see at Emmanuel and Fred S. Jackson (age 18-2) who is to appear at St. John's (where he has a cousin: otherwise he, too, would have tried at Emmanuel) are to compete for Scholarships in Science.
I know very well that the competition for these is very keen, and that you have a large number of well-prepared and able candidates from all over England. It isn't easy for a pupil of a comparatively small School (250) to compete with those coming from the large Public Schools where there is a long-established tradition of preparing successful candidates for Cambridge Scholarships; but in this old Grammar School we have, from time to time, pupils of distinct ability and promise, as I think, who with the better organised courses of instruction possible in a larger School, would certainly have been strong candidates.
Some ten years ago, we sent up Basil Wood, who had any amount of ability in Mathematics and Science. The boy, Hoyle, is very similar to Wood in insight, energy and originality. He is young, as you observe, and when you see him, his appearance and a certain diffidence and awkwardness will not predispose one in his favour. I venture to hope that his answers in Science will show that he has real ability, has read widely, and has assimilated what he has read.
He comes from a good home: only child of thrifty and intelligent parents. The father has been a manufacturer in the Wool Trade (in Bradford) though he has suffered very much from the slump, and is now without any situation. The boy will have to win Scholarships (from the West Riding C.C. and the School) to get to the University, and I am confident that he will do so.
He has little interest in Outdoor Games; but is a good Chess player, and keen on Music. I know that Headmasters are apt to think 'that their geese are swans'. I may be deluded in this case; but I certainly believe that he will turn out a 'swan', no matter what sort of duckling or gosling he now appears.
I am very anxious that Jackson too (who is Senior Prefect, and has more attractive qualities than Hoyle though not greater ability) should be accepted at either Emmanuel or St. John's. I expect that Mr Wood will be fully occupied in interviewing Science candidates who have made Emmanuel their first choices. Jackson has distinct ability, and a certain freshness of thought and manner which would make a strong appeal, and I should be grateful if Mr Wood were able to see him.
I keep living in the hope of a visit to the College before long. One of my pupils is at Queens, and if one of these two succeed, I shall pay a visit while they are up. I remember with deep feeling how much my life at Emmanuel meant and had meant to me, and remember your unfailing kindness to me.
From Alan Smailes Bingley Grammar School to Dr Peter Giles, Master of Emmanuel.
Canals were a better idea than dams have ever been for exploiting rivers. Canals never figured, however, as the Americans say, as a means of transporting people. They were for transporting heavy goods like coal, iron and steel from city to city. A canal was an artificially-dug ditch, mostly chosen along their lengths to be close to some river, not more than a mile or two away. The trick was to dig auxiliary ditches to the local river, which you could open up or close down at will. By digging one ditch on a slope from the river to the canal you could fill the canal with water. And by digging another ditch on the opposite slope you could empty it. And by alternating these opposite processes you could periodically flush out sections of a canal in order to prevent the water in it becoming unbearably stagnant. Although in past times, even in my own day, what was considered unbearably stagnant differed rather substantially from what television commentators would consider stagnant today.
The heavy goods were packed into barges which were drawn by big horses, which was a good reason for giving this idea at least one positive mark. Anything that provides jobs for big horses should be given a positive vote in my opinion. A good thing about big horses is that they can't be hurried. In my youth I used to watch bargees attempting to hurry big horses. Typically, the horse spluttered and then reared a bit and then the bargee backed off sharply. With credit going to the horse. Especially as the bargee was usually an ugly looking brute.
Experience in later life with committee work gives me some confidence that when the canal companies first planned their constructions one particular difficulty was not foreseen. That was dead dogs.
The Leeds and Liverpool Canal ran plumb through the centre of my home town, a town of 20,000 souls. Likewise, it ran through scores of other towns. In fact it was specifically designed to take in as many towns as it could, starting in Leeds and ending in Liverpool. Or vice versa according to your orientation. In total, the population integrated along the Leeds and Liverpool Canal must be in excess of five million, perhaps even as many as ten million. Ten million people, not all of them souls because souls only counted from the Yorkshire border inwards. And how many dead dogs I ask you do ten million people generate as year succeeds year?
People lived mostly in those days in back to back housing. They kept dogs as a matter of both culture and of divine providence. No government dares deny the right of everyman to keep his dog, while no man dare be seen by his mates not to have a dog. If you say one dog to two people I don't think you would be much adrift. Making at any time a total of about five million dogs along the Leeds and Liverpool Canal. And how long in those days did your average dog live? Five years? Ten years? Certainly not more. Making for a total of between half million and a million dead dogs going each year into the Leeds and Liverpool Canal. Meaning that the number that went into the immense maze of canals that criss cross the English Midlands quite staggers the imagination.
Why not bury them otherwise you might ask? Where would you recommend? These are back to back houses, not country mansions surrounded by 10,000 acres of open ground. We do not live, like an 18th century squire, have an army of retainers to dig a grave at some appointed spot, carry the body and place it circumspectly, fill in the soil and mount a tasteful brass plaque to the memory of a no doubt faithful animal. Absolutely not. We would certainly put it on a cart and trundle it to the local park, gain illicit access there of a night and proceed to dig up some public lawn. But the park keepers have seen that one often enough and we are not likely to succeed. Several of us could push the cart uphill a long way next Sunday, - we have to work the other six days, - to some spot on the moors which tower over the town. But then the problem with digging a grave for our dog is this. The top soil up there on the moor is less than a centimetre thick. Below is stone, millstone grit. Which as its name implies is proof against spade and pickaxe. By proof I mean precisely that. If you try to dig it you end with dislocated elbows and shoulders. So what could possibly be better than the local canal for disposing of the remains of your best friend?
The canal has the excellent convenience of a good tow path everywhere along its bank, a broad tow path suited to the tread of large horses.
As it passes through the town the tow path at night is sometimes in pools of light and sometimes darkness. So all we have to do is to wheel our cart to the tow path with our dog's carcass hidden under some sacking. Then walk until we have come to a section in real darkness. Where the only impediment to two of us each taking a couple of well remembered paws and giving a final heave ho into the canal centre is the number of others who are precisely bent on the same errand. At our previous estimate of 2,000 dog deaths per year, the number to be disposed of in our small town of 20,000 people would be over five per day. Meaning that you could expect to be by no means alone in your endeavour. Meaning that in the darkest part of the tow path you could always count on there being a fair sized group of mourners. Meaning you could count on help with the heave hos, if you were a substandard size yourself.
The accumulation from day to day of carcasses in the canal could not be permitted to continue indefinitely. There had to be a corresponding fishing out of dogs. Done spasmodically as far as I could see. Presumably things were allowed to continue until the boss in the local canal office decided enough was enough and ordered a clean up. The days decided on for clean-ups must have been kept secret. Otherwise I would have found out by direct observation exactly how it went.
Rather obviously the local canal boss didn't do it himself. He hired somebody, a watery looking person to do it on his behalf. There would be a large cart, capable of holding something of a mound of dogs, pulled by a big horse that proceeded bit by bit along the tow path. Stopping at every floating body until it had been fished out with a hook mounted on a long pole. What happened then? Was the cart load of dogs taken to some commonly dug grave? In a fastidiously oriented town perhaps. But almost certainly not in ours. Although I didn't observe it explicitly myself, I would be rather sure the cart was trundled to some local factory, where the watery looking individual would have an arrangement with the boiler man. Handing over 10 shillings for the job. I would also be rather sure the main reason why these occasions were kept secret was that otherwise there would have been scores of children waiting around for the dogs to start sizzling. There being no TV for children in those days.
The reason I know about the watery looking individual is that a great uncle of mine walked while acutely drunk into the local canal, and didn't leave it except by the hook on the pole. The way things were in those days this didn't create much of a fuss, not even in the family. So who was there to fuss about the dogs? My father had a song, about the same thing happening to cats, which he used to sing to young children. It was immensely popular at least in part because it was American in origin. The Tale of Johnny Noolans’ Cat. I wish quite acutely that I could remember it. All that remains is the line in which the boiler man thumps his hands together and says "I think that's all that you require." After which he and the cat's owner retire to have a pleasant smoke.
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