Thursday Dec 18

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1938 Was A Good Year


“I thought that you might like this” said Bill. “It’s a 1938 Homing World Diary.” “1938_ he went on “is the first year that book was published.” 1938 is also the year of my birth. I have in my possession a copy of the Racing Pigeon published two days before I was born, so the book more or less gives me a full set, so to speak.  I settled down to read it, as I read everything, from the very first word to the very last one. You never know what you are going to find in old pigeon publications. What half remembered youthful memories are suddenly going to come into focus and for the first time in your adult life make absolute sense. Things that the old fliers of your teenage years did but only hinted at. Things that you yourself said which in retrospect now make you cringe, as you suddenly come to appreciate the stature of the men you said them to. Their patience and forbearance now crystal clear. A Mark Twain saying  comes to mind. “When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.” Quite. And so it was with me.

I read on. Page 152. Giles Bros. 26, Ryknield Way, West Harton Est., South Shields. My old stomping grounds. A short walk from where I was brought up and lived until the age of 26. Jimmy and Freddie. Jimmy, fair, slightly built and quiet. Freddie, stockier, dark-haired, mischievous. Coal miners. Both of them. Freddie eventually found dead in a big coal hopper at the pit after being missing for a while. As a schoolboy I haunted their loft. The good blue cock. Tommy Burke’s one-eyed mealy. The egg given to me after lying for ages on a windowsill, which hatched and won the first young bird race. And got itself lost in the second one!

Hold on a bit. Could the advert have been placed instead by Albert Giles and his brother Norman? Albert worked as a Deputy at the pit, Norman looked after the pit ponies. The two lofts weren’t that far from each other. As befitting cousins I guess. On the same set of allotments. Albert bald, barrel-chested, good-humoured. Norman an inconspicuous, gentle man. A gardener. Both lofts flew in the same club. Same Federation. Albert was like a father to me. Taught me to play darts. Gave me my first winning pigeons. The foundation strain read Wegge with Thoroughood & Bonami. The balance of probability now points to them as the advertisers. By this time I was hooked. Read on Mc Duff!

The famous Old Haki. I’d heard the word Haki before. Back in the seventies. My partner and I. Standing in Tot Douglas’s  kitchen. He then flew in Delves Lane HS near. Consett. In the West Durham Amalgamation. A lovely man. Showed us his birds, gave us some eggs. The name Haki kept cropping up every time Tot talked about his birds. It has been in my mind ever since. I read the advert . Douglas & Son. Valley View Lofts. Leadgate, Co. Durham. In the past three seasons we have competed in 85 races winning 150 positions in the first three, including 48 1sts, flying into N.W. Durham, 20 to 30 miles from the coast. Brilliant flying, especially considering that the loft then flew in the Up North Combine. And I still know nothing about the origin of the Haki pigeons. Tot must have been the son in the advert but then again perhaps not as I ‘m pretty sure that Tot had a brother who raced pigeons in Consett. Regardless of this Tot’s own son, Malcolm, turned out to be an exceptional fancier.

Fernandez? The name jumped out at me. I looked at the address. Bloemfontein, Orange Free State. A place I passed through in December last. What a surprise! “Try South African bred birds.” Strains -  Stassart, Osman, Barker, Toft and Logan. A list of race points flown in 1937. To the north. All distances up to Bulawayo, 633 miles. To the south. Stages up to Cape Town 565 miles. And I wasn’t even born then! Who was E. A. Fernandez? And what was he doing in South Africa? Questions. Always there are questions. And this book promises to raise even more. Good!

Doing nothing when things are going wrong is one of the hardest things to do when you are a pigeon man. Sitting tight is not easy. Reaching for the antibiotics is! Nobody has a divine right to win. Your birds don’t have to be sick or your corn useless. Maybe the other fellow has better pigeons. Is enjoying a run of form. Had a better bird that day or is  riding a lucky streak. Whatever! The reaction of most fanciers is to do something. Anything. And fast. Not to simply contemplate their navels for a while.

Some of the best pigeon men I have ever known have had a rare ability not to panic when things went wrong. I realise in saying this that it is an easier thing to do if you are a distance man with a long-term object in mind. And not so easy if you are on the weekly grind of all-out sprinting but there are times when doing nothing is the best option. Pigeon men are great worriers. Full of irrational fears and I am no exception. It is part and parcel of the game. In order to keep on top of things you have to be prepared. “By failing to prepare, you prepare to fail.”

The right hand not knowing what the left hand is doing is nothing new in some partnerships. The classic example being the time that one fancier that I know thought the pigeons were being fed too much protein. So he fed them 100% Barley in the mornings. His partner on the other hand thought they were being fed too much carbohydrate. So he fed the birds 100% Beans in the evenings. The end result being that between them they unconsciously achieved pretty much a balanced diet!

Partnerships are very common in the North East and tend to come in three styles. One- The partners all think absolutely alike and all work towards a common aim. This is exceptional. Two-You have an experienced dominant partner plus a “gopher” or maybe a young lad. This is fairly common. The third and least successful unit is where all the partners think they know best and each does his own thing. Come to any allotment site with me and I’ll show you examples of all three. The saving grace is that the pigeons don’t know which system they are labouring under. And can still win despite, not because of the system!

The man could cause an argument in a silent order of monks. He reckoned that the birds we have now are pretty much the same that we have always had. But the techniques we use to fly them are so much better now that most of them can compete successfully at all distances up to nearly 500 miles. I could have challenged the first part of his statement, in fact I feel strongly that this isn’t so, but I can recognise a good opening line for a discussion when I hear one, so I let it go and waited for others to have their pennyworth.

The majority now fly their darkness youngsters out to a distance of a little under 300 miles and it appears to be doing them no harm. I can remember our Federation being won from Lillers with a pigeon that had flown the same race-point the year before as a youngster. This really was the basis of what our stirrer was saying, because when he was doing the same thing, many years ago, he was using natural youngsters. These did not seem to carry their youthful promise on into later life so maybe the techniques weren’t as good then as they are now. Or the pigeons weren’t. Or he wasn’t!

When I am not 100% certain of my facts I ask around. There is an old Maltese proverb which states that “asking is the sister of knowing”. So I asked around. And now I know a bit more than I did before. I eventually located a fancier with a loft full of hens, pushed right out down the line as darkness youngsters. Every last one of them of a size and shape to make any distance flier drool. Hens which are winning, and winning well, at National level out to almost 500 miles.

He is, needless to say, a man with a full armoury of techniques, both old and new, at his disposal. And is more than willing to use them. He told me that the losses he incurred on the way to where he wanted to be were substantial but, using certain lines of his old family, basically pigeons at their best up to 350 miles, he eventually got there. “He who dares wins.” Indeed!

My cautious temperament, as a belt and braces man so to speak, has played an important part in the development of the distance birds which I have at present. And to what success I have had along the way. The late Tom Kilner, whom I have always held in high esteem, was probably the most cautious man I have ever met. Ever reluctant to commit himself or take chances with his racers and stock birds. And it did him no harm at all. My own nature is also not to gamble. On anything. If it were otherwise I would have stuck to sprint racing instead of opting for the long slow haul into the ranks of the distance men. It is my belief  that it is hens that are the most dominant in the longest races. Certainly in my area.

When I think back over all the good distance birds that have been through my hands in the last forty years or so I would say that nearly all of them have been hens. In those years when I have had a good male racer it has usually played second fiddle to a better hen. You could argue that I have bred a “hen loft” over time because I am a natural flier, but looking around me I don’t see that many day- racing 600 mile widowhood cocks . The odd one comes through of course. I am excluding mid-day liberations at the distance in other areas of the UK  where  widowhood cocks are being timed regularly simply because that is not what we are doing here in the North of England. We corridor fly. Up to 600 miles. On the day. So day racers at that distance are what we need. And it seems to me they are predominantly hens.

It seems to me that there are conflicting views on the use of electrolytes. That is, if I have been correctly interpreting what I have been reading. On various web-sites. Electrolytes are simply salts that occur naturally in the body and which are lost during periods of exertion. Particularly on hot days such as we have been having of late. Fanciers are aware of this and seek to replace these salts as an aid to speedy recovery. They are of course of invaluable help in treating long-term diarrhoea, when body salts are lost en masse and in burns cases where salts are leaked from the raw areas of skin but let us confine ourselves to the business in hand. To use them or not. And how and when to use them.

First of all I just don’t see the point in giving them prior to a race as I have seen advocated. Any extra salts will simply be excreted. You cannot stock up the system against future losses. So when to put them in your drinker? For the returning bird’s first drink? Or later? The most convincing argument goes like this. Returning pigeons will be dehydrated to a greater or lesser degree. They will have lost water along with the salts. They will both need replacing. The salty taste of the first drink may cause the pigeon to take less water on board than it should, so its first drink should be nothing more than water at ambient temperature. And the electrolytes should be given later on in the day or the next morning. It makes perfect sense to me but they are your pigeons not mine!


It isn’t every day that I see Orange Tip butterflies in my back garden. Even though they have been steadily expanding their range northwards in recent years. Right up into Scotland. The Mustard family is their chosen food plant and I do have some Garlic Mustard growing in my back garden so maybe that’s it. There has been two of them. Both quite clearly males as the females lack the orange wingtips. So far I have had no luck photographing them but there is still time. It’s nice to have them about.

Maybe it’s my memory but there doesn’t seem to be as many butterflies around as there was when I was a boy. A few years ago I was mooching about in a sub-tropical rain forests in Brazil. The butterflies there were as big as Sparrows. And brilliantly coloured. I just couldn’t get over the size of them. And of the huge numbers that were present. I’m easily pleased. And I like butterflies. Those two Orange Tips made my day.

As did a certain young lady of my acquaintance when her boyfriend (who had earlier tipped me off) eased up her already short skirt to reveal her new tattoo as they were exiting the bar of my local. On her very shapely left buttock was tattooed a fair-sized butterfly. In full colour. I studied it appreciatively. The butterfly of course! “Red Admiral” I queried? “No” he replied, just before she hit him, “Painted Lady.” I should have known!



No So Much A Hobby More A Way Of Life

I was in Patagonia gazing up at the Southern Cross trying hard to orientate myself in an immense place. No Plough, no North Star in that sky and no, I wasn’t lost. I was in the town of Calafate in Argentina; my hotel was in the next dusty street and I had my Silva compass with me. I had flown down from Buenos Aires, three and a half hours on a plane and I was still in the same country, having flown over Tierra del Fuego (the land of fire) and looked down upon the historic Beagle Channel, through which Charles Darwin sailed, and Magellan’s Strait before landing in Ushuaia the southernmost city in the world and the gateway to Antarctica, then turning north again to land in Rio Gallegos, the capital and largest settlement of the Patagonian province of Santa Cruz, at one time the main military airport from which the Falklands War, a mere four hundred miles offshore, was waged. Rio Gallegos is still very much a military city containing both army and air force bases.

Patagonia; Where Swift was said to have set his book “Gulliver’s Travels” because of its remoteness and it being known as “the land of giants,” as the natives were considerably bigger than the average Europeans of that time. Patagonia; Where there are said to be 5000 square metres of land available for every sheep, and there are lots of sheep! Is it any wonder that as I was gazing up at the night sky I was overcome by the immensity of the place and my insignificance in the greater scheme of things? I remember thinking “you’re a long way from home Adams,” (about 7000 miles), a grand title perhaps or maybe “a long way from Tay Street” would be better, for the book about my travels which I’ve never written and am now unlikely ever to do so.

I knew precisely why I was there. I had come primarily to see the Andean Condor and to listen to the music of the Andes and secondly for the pigeon racing. The TV programme “The Flight of the Condor” had planted the seed of going to Argentina in my mind and this had come pretty close to becoming an obsession, leading in time to me visiting South America for five or six successive years, but just how did I come to get there? What actually triggered the first visit off, and in turn, lead me to Chile, Uruguay, Paraguay (a frightening place where passports seemed to be neither here nor there and full Paraguayan citizenship, papers and all, was said to cost US$1000 and to be available the same day) Brazil, and almost into Bolivia, being put off by striking miners walking the streets carrying sticks of dynamite!

Well, like everything else in my life the answer lies in the world of pigeon racing. Mine has been a life lived in and around racing pigeons. Pigeons have made me what I am today, kept my feet on the ground and largely kept me sane in a barely understandable world. They have also led me to South Africa (to make a DVD on pigeon health with Dr Wim Peters) and even to Hong Kong where I went to watch the World Rugby Sevens competition at the instigation of an ex-rugby playing fancier friend of mine. The whole travelling thing began in Malta where I’d gone to see the pigeon scene there on my first ever flight, a means of transport which I’d assiduously avoided for years, being terrified of (and still not very keen on) the very idea of flying.

Joe had been invited to South America by telephone (whilst I was sat next to him in his home in Malta) in gratitude for his help and assistance in arranging things after the sudden death of the wife of an Argentinean pigeon fancier who was holidaying on the island. “But” he said to the caller, “I’ve got my friend, Rod from England, here with me right now.” “So bring him” said the voice. My wife would have loved that, me disappearing off into the far distance without any warning, so I took up the offer the year after, thanks entirely to my friend Joe.

South America is something else. Everything is different from what it is in the UK. The geography, the history, the customs, the people, the flora and fauna and as for the pigeon racing! Well, apart from the cocks being seemingly completely ineffective at racing and the hens doing all the winning, they have these “compass” races where you send four birds which go to four different races, all at the same distances, but one to each of the four compass directions, for simultaneous liberation, the winner being the person with the best average of the four timings. Any less than four being timed means that you are out!

As for long distance races, these abound at over 600 miles, north and south, but how about this. I watched a release from Brazil which shortly afterwards encountered a tropical storm, sheet lightening, torrential rain; the lot. Surprisingly one was timed the following morning and the owner got absolutely nothing! It was a two-bird race, you had to time in both birds – and nobody did! Incidentally racing north over the vast expanse of the pampas, where there is absolutely no cover, no hills, no trees, no windbreaks, just miles and miles of absolutely flat terrain, is not for the fainthearted! It is heads down and graft from dawn to dusk.

And if you think that kind of racing is strange I met a Namibian fancier in South Africa whose regular racing consisted of ringing up the only other three fanciers that he knew in that country (none of them closer to him than about 80 miles) every Friday night to decide what distance to go on the Saturday, Each then contacted a lorry driver and paid him to liberate his birds at an agreed distance, in whatever direction they happened to be going in, at an agreed time. The rest was simple, no clocks or anything, if you got a bird home you rang up the other three fanciers and if none of them had any birds back you won! As for the pooling system I have no idea about that. It’s a funny old world.

We all have our reasons for keeping pigeons in the first place and taking to racing them thereafter. My reason was quite simple. To escape what to me then was a depressing, unhappy, and overcrowded home in a run-down area; one where too many people stepped daily upon each other’s toes and feelings. I wanted out. I wanted something to call my own, that I didn’t have to share. I wanted space to think and space to rest. You try sleeping four to a bedroom, three boys and an uncle in two beds, one double, one single and I had the single!

Pigeons gave me a way out, first down the back garden, then to an allotment which rapidly became my second home. In retrospect my parents did their best in extremely difficult circumstances. At the time though I hated my home life and lacked any understanding at all of the problems my parents themselves had: Only my own mattered. I was not a dutiful son or a pleasant person to be with and far too introspective for my own good.

When I began racing proper and joined a real pigeon club the older fanciers, miners, shipyard and heavy industry workers and such like, became my family, my surrogate parents if you will. They undoubtedly helped me overcome my then sense of inferiority and inadequacy. They gave me not just pigeons and advice on how to fly them but much, much more than that. These men taught me all about life itself. Their friendship was unconditional. They cared nothing about the area where I lived, who my parents were, and even less about where I worked. I was who I was and that did them. It was not so much a hobby to them but more a way of life, and for a long time it was the only kind of life that I had too.

I consider myself fortunate indeed to have lived through what I consider to be the best years of conventional pigeon racing, the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s, and to have been tutored by and linked with some of the finest of men, for whom the sport was not the numbers game that it is now and who cared little about money, not all of them I admit, there were some small scale dealers even then, but money was not the be all and end all as it is in today’s world of one-loft and futurity racing that the sport appears to be turning into. These were traditional fanciers racing the time-honoured way, they were brilliant with it and I have long felt that I owe it to them to put something on record.

Taking off my rose-tinted glasses, which I admit to wearing now and then, this brings me to the motivation for my admittedly often nostalgic writings. In the absence of any central organised archive or website collection (apart from some published historic material, handbooks and various assorted records plus writings on the internet) it seems to me to be important that future generations be aware of these men, their pigeons and the often heroic performances of their birds. These men left their mark. Future generations must know who they were; that they existed as a force for life, and what they were about and this is one of the things that drive me to write. As J P Hartley wrote, “The past is a different country – they do things differently there.”The sport as my generation knew it is rapidly disappearing and needs to be remembered, which leads me rather nicely to my own efforts, for which you can blame Jane Asher, well her father Richard really.

Jane Asher was a rather attractive long-haired redhead (to this day I remain wary of redheads and still carry the mental scars from a close encounter with one in my youth, but that is another story) who was Paul Mc Cartney’s girl friend in the early sixties, until she allegedly caught him in bed with someone else, but it was her father Dr Richard Asher who really intrigued me, despite my then predilection for long-haired redheads! A haematologist and endocrinologist (with private consultancy rooms in Wimpole Street above where the family lived) he was also the physician in charge of a mental ward and described and named, amongst other things, the condition now known as Munchausen’s Syndrome. He was considered one of the foremost medical thinkers of his time and a quite brilliant writer of medical articles.

I used to sneak into the medical library at work when I was a very junior Laboratory Technician to read his articles in the foremost medical magazines of that time, such as “The Lancet” and “The British Medical Journal.” Articles that I struggled to understand and which required the use of a medical dictionary, but persevered with because of their logic and the quality of the writing. However it was an article that Richard Asher wrote on writing itself, “Aren’t I Lucky? I Can Write” which stuck, and remains still, in my mind.

In it his cardinal advice to aspiring writers was to write about what you know best. I know myself best of all which is why I write mostly about myself and my life, which, in effect, means writing about and around pigeons. Dr Asher outlined how to go about producing a finished article and not spoiling it by introducing change for changes sake, an easy thing to do. His advice was to draft an article out, amend it where necessary, then to polish it up and edit it until you were happy with it. After that he recommended throwing it into a drawer (this was in the pre-computer days) and forgetting about it for a few weeks. If upon re-reading it still seemed good to you then to go ahead and publish it. This is also what I try to do, but there is no drawer involved, just a computer file.

He reportedly died by his own hand aged 57 in 1969 after virtually retiring from active medical practice in 1964, deeply affronted when it was decreed by the powers that be that a qualified psychiatrist should assume responsibility for the mental observation ward that he had overseen for many years, and  he suffered from depression in later life. I  recently managed to obtain a rather battered second-hand copy of an anthology of his articles entitled “Talking Sense” and it was everything that I hoped it would be, even better for my understanding of its contents now being much greater than what it was when I first read the articles it contains. Everything comes to he who waits!

According to Lord Rosenheim (President of the Royal College of Physicians and Fellow of the Royal Society) Asher was “an eccentric in a world that was becoming increasingly uniform; he revelled in the clinical paradox and the unusual; delighted in poking fun at authority and pomposity; a modern Don Quixote.”  Henry Miller, the Dean of Medicine and later Vice Chancellor at Newcastle University where I worked in the Medical School, a man that I was in absolute awe of (he was God to me) wrote about the “Talking Sense” book referring to it as “this valuable and continuously enjoyable anthology.” How could I have avoided being an out and out admirer of Dr Asher? And, of course, his daughter!

His article “The Dangers of Going to Bed” (challenging the value of excessive bed rest following treatment) was influential in changing the thinking prevailing at that time and “Is Your Prescription Really Necessary” still demands an answer.“Diseases Caused by Doctors” with its last line “if you can’t cure the patient of his disease. Give him another disease and cure that” (there is undoubtedly a partial truth in those words) is clear evidence of his willingness “to slaughter the sacred cows of medicine.” “Talking Sense” is a brilliant read – even after all these years. Here was a man who thought that medical writing should provide "useful, understandable, and practical knowledge” instead of “allotov-words-2-obscure-4-any-1-2-succidin-understanding-them” Such men always were, and always will be, thin on the ground.


*This article is the complete text from which a much abbreviated speech was culled and given at the Scottish National Flying Club Annual Dinner Dance and Presentation of Prizes, held on October 26th 2013 in Renfrew. Anyone interested enough to want to know more should take a look at where a lot of my writings can be seen or contact me at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it

Alfred Alexander Harper

Generations of bored medical students had turned the wooden lecture benches into something infinitely more interesting to read than the diagrams on the roller blackboards. Being at that time bottom of the heap I had the yearly job of cleaning the said benches with an abrasive pad otherwise, as my old Chief Technician used to say, “next year’s lot will have nowhere to write!”

Professor Alfred Alexander Harper, the first Professor that I ever worked for, was an autocrat of the old school. He was a tall, immaculately dressed, austere, and aloof man. When he said jump you jumped, and quickly, absolutely no ifs and buts! The entry in the bound edition of “Who’s Who” prominently displayed on his bookshelf listed him as “the man who discovered the enzymes Pancreozymin and Cholecystokinin .” The benches in Lecture Theatre No 3 told a different story. “And Alfred said let there be Pz/Cck and lo, there was Pz/Cck!”

Regardless of how those enzymes came to be discovered he employed me as a Junior Technician in December 1954 and when he was eventually put out to grass as an Emeritus Professor of Physiology I was his Chief Technician, thanks entirely to his good offices. His word was law. If he said he would promote you, you got promoted. No messing about with the University Finance Dept. for him.

A lifelong bachelor he lived in a crumbling old mansion house just outside Newcastle city centre and was looked after by a fearsome housekeeper. A truly formidable woman who had driven heavy lorries in the Second World War and who had once cooked for Winston Churchill! I am still waiting for my first cup of tea from her, and as for being made comfortable when I arrived at the Prof’s house; I never got past the hallway.

Prof Harper had no time for any sporting activities, especially cricket. “Saw this Bradman chap once, playing in a test match. Cricket is an awfully boring game. Slept on the grass for most of the afternoon” and could never understand why I kept and raced pigeons. In his book they were only of interest when served up on a plate! He taught me how to extract Pz from pig intestines which “we”, the royal “we,” as he never ever entered the abattoir, that we used to collect our source material from. It was in fact the local slaughterhouse to which we went every Monday.

My extracts never worked as well as his. To this day it is my firm belief that this was due, not to any superior technique or extensive experience on his part, but to the ash from his ever present cheroot which regularly dropped into the extract as he coughed his way through the various procedures, which took about a week, and yielded only milligram amounts of enzyme! To him, in the beginning, I was his “lab boy”, to me he was God.

He would sweep regally, fully gowned, tasselled mortar board firmly on his head, into Lecture Theatre No.3 (he would use no other) precisely on the stroke of the hour and finish exactly sixty minutes later. Students arriving after him were not allowed in, it was my job to keep them out, and questions were never asked of him when he finished. Nobody dared!

Even the power cuts of the early seventies weren’t allowed to interfere with his lectures. In walks “Fred” as the medics called him, but never within earshot, looming over a candle-holder. A hundred students huffed and puffed as one to try and blow it out. It was a fine sight! Unperturbed, he droned away in his peculiar nasal voice discovering, only when the lights finally came on that all the students, bar the front row which he could just see, had silently filed out of the back door well before he finished.

The man wasn’t without humour.  He simply didn’t show it that often. “Where did you come from boy” he demanded of a latecomer to one of his lectures as the lad stood there frozen to the spot, only too aware of his fellow students relishing his obvious embarrassment “Norway” the confused lad replied. “A long way” said Fred kindly “do sit down.”

He had the only carpeted room in the building and despaired of the mess that the pigeon muck from my shoes made each time I entered. I rapidly became a dab hand with a vacuum cleaner. It was that or my job! Formal dress was the order of the day. Jeans were taboo. I must have been the best dressed pigeon man in South Shields. I normally went straight from the loft to work in a dark suit, white shirt and tie complete with furled umbrella and briefcase. And wearing my best shoes, with well polished uppers, the soles of course always with their full with a full complement of pigeon droppings.

There were no half measures with “Fred.” The last of a dying breed of autocratic University Professors it was a privilege to work for him. He surprised me by presenting me with a book when he retired, a book which I still have. The dedication on the flyleaf was addressed to his “Bird-man.” It was signed “Professor A. A. Harper.” I never, ever, called him anything but that. Only one man in the whole building did.

Dr Nolan Wynne taught pharmacology in the days before a pharmacology department existed. I adored that little stubby man, with the sad moustache and his disrespectable ways with other academics, especially Prof. Harper. “I’d like a word, are you busy Nolan” said the Prof. peering in the door as Dr Wynne and I hunched over the operating table? Dr Wynne looked up at him over his half-moon spectacles, “what do you think I’m doing Fred” he snorted “riding a bloody bike!” He was the only member of staff who ever spoke to the Prof. in the way that he did. I never understood how he got away with it, but it was great fun to see him do so and he fast became a hero of mine.

When, as promised, Prof. Harper made me Chief Technician at the age of 26, I inherited the recently retired old Chief’s room, a short walk down the corridor from the inner sanctum from which the Prof. as Head of Department ruled the Physiology Department with an iron rod. No detail was too trivial for him not to want to involve himself, as I soon was to find out, big style! He personally queried and signed every order that I had written out, no matter how insignificant the amount, be it chemicals or electronic components, scientific glassware or departmental repair bills.

I soon realised that there were things that he knew nothing about, such as electronics and used to tell him the first thing that came in to my head whenever, as he often did, he queried what a particular catalogue number was. He never looked up from the order book. A grunt and it was signed. Our relationship soon became formalised. I knew precisely what to expect from him and exactly where I stood. I was still his “lab-boy” and that had to change. My predecessor had been just that, one of the old school who had come up through the ranks largely untaught and had come to accept his status in the Prof’s eyes as a “lab-boy” made good, even though he was the Chief Technician. That was just not on. I had a point to make.

The opportunity soon presented itself. Prof. Harper had a push-button on the side of his desk which he pressed whenever he wanted Albert, my predecessor. A bell would ring in the room now occupied by me and Albert would drop whatever he was doing and literally run to the Prof’s room. I wasn’t prepared to subject myself to the degree of unspoken ridicule that this reaction of Albert’s duly received from all and sundry.

You cannot imagine how unreliable that push-button system became. The number of unexplained failures it suffered, short circuits, transformer failure, broken wires, and even a loose clapper on the bell itself. My workshop technicians, whom I got on very well with, were in on my scheme and offered up all manner of excuses as to why the bell had failed whenever the Prof. asked them to fix it.

Finally I stuffed the bell casing with cotton wool and asked the boys to report this act of sabotage to the Professor. Of course I knew nothing about it and the Prof. and I eventually arrived at an unspoken agreement. If the Prof. wanted me he would use the telephone. He knew what was going on and he knew that I knew that he knew. Of such manoeuvrings are working relationships forged.



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