Friday 20 November 2020

Britain has lost, but Wales was the nation which made and anointed the future Prince of Solid-State Chemistry, John Meurig Thomas

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John, who has died at the age of 87, was one of the greatest British scientists in recent decades who was known worldwide for his research achievements in solid state chemistry and catalytic science. He was both inspirational and eloquent in his expression of the elegance and utility of science beyond the world of academia through his lectures, articles, reviews and books.

Although he left Wales at the age of 46 in 1978, after working at the Universities of Bangor and Aberystwyth, to become Professor and Head of Chemistry at Cambridge, it was in Wales that he spent his formative years in the 1940s and early 50s, as a child, a grammar school boy and university undergraduate. It was here that he was made as he was influenced, in turn, by his father, the chapel, his Physics teacher, the popular science writings of J.B.S. Haldane, Dorothy Crowfoot and Eric James and the examples of his hero and lodestar, Michael Faraday and the Principal of University College Swansea, John Fulton. From his mother he gained his prodigious memory. With all his success in solid-state chemistry, John paid tribute to all of them when he said that his greatest achievement had been "to combine being a teacher, a researcher and a populariser of science over 50 years".

He was born, the son of Edyth and David, in the winter 1932, in small mining village between  Llanelli and Camarthen, South Wales and grew up in a family of seven in the Gwendraeth Valley. He recalled the area with great affection : "It's an area where the coalmines run out and where beyond that valley you come to the agricultural  areas of Carmarthen and they're beautiful. It's the setting of Dylan Thomas's Fern Hill, for example". He was proud of his solid, Welsh, working class stock : his maternal grandfather was a gardener in the Swansea valley and paternal grandfather was a farmer and engine driver in Carmarthen. His own was a coal miner and fiercely intelligent man, who rose to the position of 'overman' in his colliery, but was barred from management through lack of formal education He had a profound influence on John as a boy and he recalled : "He taught me a great deal; he had great linguistic skills but was quiet hopeless mathematically". His mother, on the other hand, who spoke to him throughout her life only in Welsh, had no linguistic skills, but did have a formidable memory.

His father clearly did not fight shy of talking about his service in the Welsh Division in the First World to his son, since John recorded that War had influenced him profoundly and said : "It was his university". He fought on the Western Front at the Battle of the Somme, on the Greek Island of Patmos and in North Africa and must have been a warrant officer, since he received the Military Cross at Gallipoli in 1915, as a recognition of his 'distinguished and meritorious service in battle in situations'. 

John recalled that the : "thing I took a great interest in at a very early age and induced by my father, was bird watching. He knew all the birds there were in that area and could tell how the skylark went about its nesting and how the nightingale sometimes came very, very rarely to that part of the world". He also collected birds eggs, but very responsibly, only taking one egg when there were five or six. 

"The Welsh words for birds; the dipper is called the 'yr aderyn trochi', the 'black bird of the water'. The jays, they're called an onomatopoeic
description, 'sgrech y coed', which means the 'terrible screeching of the bird'. That's exactly what it does. Its not a  mellifluous bird, from the point of view of its song."

He acknowledged the influence of the power of the Methodist chapel over him both in its music and language : "The chapels in South Wales where brilliant  places for getting 'Elijah', 'The Messiah', 'Judas Maccabaeus'. I was about six when I heard the choir in the chapel and all the congregation sing "The heavens are telling, the glory of God", in 'The Creation'. Fabulous". Over 70 years later, in 2014 when he became the President of the National Eisteddfod of Wales, in his address he declared: “I am proud, indeed I rejoice in the fact of my being a Welshman. It was in the chapel that I learned to be an academic by listening to and analysing very many powerful sermons.”

He recalled that in 1942 : "My father decided, when I was ten, that my English was so atrociously bad and was petrified with the idea that I might not pass my 11+ , he expressed a very firm imperious edict : "From now on I speak to you in English and you answer in English". Which is what I did until the day he died in 1954".

John gained his selective, fee-paying place in secondary education and remembered : "What was so nice about Gwendraeth Grammar School, was that there was a mingling of the sons and daughters of farmers and rural agricultural communities and the sons and daughters of coal miners and there was a big contrast. The former class were rather lugubrious and slow, very matter of fact, didn't really rush to things. While the latter were, in that respect, the sons and daughters of coal miners, because they were in danger all the time, were much more alert. Much more alert and quick witted".  

John had nothing but praise for the quality of teaching at the school and had 
particular praise for his Physics teacher, Irene James, in whose lessons “the flame of science was lit in my heart and in my mind”. She "had the gift of, not just telling us what physics was about, but mentioning to you what Isaac Newton was like, the great Lord Brayley, Michael Faraday, of course. He became my hero at the age of 14, 15. The greatest joy for me, much much later, was to occupy the chair that was created for him". (John became Director of the Royal Institution at the age of 54 in 1986).  John recalled that he was "enthralled" and "in awe of Faraday from that moment onward.” 

" He left a greater corpus of scientific knowledge after his death than any other scientist and yet he left school at 13, equipped only with reading writing and arithmetic, became a bookseller's apprentice. At the age of 21 he was going to literary debating societies in London. He heard Humphry Davy lecture at the Royal Institution. It transformed his life. He decided to become a scientist at 21. By the age of 34 he was a Fellow of the Royal Society and by the age of 50 he was a Fellow of all the academies of the world".

The volumes of H.G.Wells 'Outline History of the World' were also a favourite with John, but they were eclipsed in influence by the writings of J.B.S. Haldane "an ardent Communist and wrote articles in the 'Daily Worker'". John recalled : "In the barber's shop where I grew up the local Communist, one of several passionate, well-informed individuals, would deliver the 'Daily Worker' free of charge every morning to the three barber's shops". It was here that he discovered Haldane's articles and remembered that : "He wrote in such authoritative terms about : 'Why is there so much iron in the body ?' He described haemoglobin." 

'Haemoglobin is of a deep purple colour. If you want to see the colour, prick your finger or ear lobe and let it bleed into some water till you have a nice clear red fluid. Put this in a small bottle and add a crystal of sodium hydrosulphite (not hyposulphite). This will combine with the oxygen and the liquid will turn purple.'

"There was a wonderful one on 'Being the right size'. If you were to drop a mouse down a well it would drop 20 feet then run away. Try doing the same with an elephant. How it was the stretch of your bones, rather than dimensions. 'How do you lose heat ?' He was a scientist and he would talk about the atmosphere of the planets. He induced my interest in science through that adventitious paper in the barber's shop".

John gained another source of inspiration in science in Mee's 'Children's Encyclopedia' where he "pondered on a writer, Dorothy Crowfoot, who turned out to be Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin the Nobel Prize winner". In later years he got to know her very well and told her how she had influenced him as a child.  

John recalled that he studied chemistry in the sixth form by accident. He'd wanted to study  physics, mathematics and geography at 'A' level but the Headmaster decreed that the timetable would not allow that so he was told to take chemistry. He was the only pupil in that class, so in one-to-one tuition, during the first hour would talk about rugby and the second would do his chemistry. 

He recalled that he "read an extremely important book by Eric James, later Lord Rushholme, then chemistry master at Winchester, 'Problems in Physical Chemistry'. What struck me about it was it was so elegantly written. It was like reading a novel. There was mathematics in it too. It was exhilarating. He did influence me in an ineffable kind of way."

Having gained his place to study chemistry as an undergraduate at Swansea University in 1950, John came under the influence and was inspired by the Principle, John Fulton. He recalled : "He was the leader and when he spoke he was inspiring. He didn't talk about fund raising and things like that. He talked about : 'What is democracy ?' 

We had to read essays to him - all the all the first year students. There were 250 of them. They each had to do 4 essays in all, on various subjects. He gave you a list, you could choose and every two weeks or so, in the first year, you had to read an essay - Rush Rhees the philosopher, who was a big friend of Wittgenstein. Others you might read to -  the Assistant Director in French or the Reader in Physics. 'The idea of Nationalism', for example, you'd speak to the Professor of History on that. But John Fulton took as in, four at a time. We would each read our essays and we'd have an hours conversation. The top man found time to do that. That's impressive". 

John admitted that John Fulton "made a lasting impression". In addition, "the other thing he did, which set him apart : every tuesday afternoon, every student went into a lecture theatre -world class speakers : Isaiah Berlin talking about 'The Brother Karamazov'. Gerald Moore : 'The Art of Accompaniment'. Absolutely mesmerising.  Garnet Rees on 'Marcel Proust and the Psychological Novel'. Kinglsley Amis, a member of staff there : 'The novel : why was it that Jane Austen, George Eliot and the others all came more or less together ? How do you account for this ? and how important is the novel ? and how long ago did novels start ?  A wonderfully educating thing. Scientists too : Somebody talking about 'Relativity' or 'The Revolution in Modern Physics'. So that was, I really reckon, that in a small welsh provincial college I received first class education". 

When he was in his 50s and lived in the same quarters that Faraday once occupied in the Royal Institution’s building on Albemarle Street, London, he sat in Faraday’s chair and worked at his desk. 

“When I retired at night, the bathroom furniture had a brass plate bearing his signature; and each time I gazed at it, I felt, knowing how prodigiously hard he used to work, that I had not done enough to earn a night’s sleep.”

Monday 16 November 2020

Britain is no country for a very old Second World War spitfire pilot called Flight Lieutenant Edmund James

Edmund, who is 98 years old, is one of the last remaining fighter pilots from the Second World War. While, at the age of 17, he was too young to fight in the Battle of Britain, Edmund enlisted in the RAF and joined 93 Squadron and based at Biggin Hill he saw action over British waters and above the fields of France during and after D-Day in 1944.

He was involved in a lot of combat mission fighting enemy planes and has said "At 17, 18, 19 or 20 you don't think of it as being unnerving, but you think of it as being exciting. I enjoyed it in a way. My memories are just pleasant. I know I lost a lot of friends at the time, but it helps if it's what you wanted to do. I wanted to be a pilot as I was inspired by Biggles."

Now he has been devastated by the fact that the photograph he kept hanging in the same room as his war medals in his home in Falmouth has disappeared, following a pre-arranged visit by someone who was doing some work for him. It showed the aircraft he flew and the photo was signed by fallen comrades.

He said : "I was so angry. The picture was signed by my friends. Some of whom were killed and didn't get through. Gone before they were intended. I would really like to have it returned. It used to hang on a hook in the study, it had hung there for many decades. Whoever took it had piled up books to fill in the gap in the hope I wouldn't notice. I wouldn't like to say what I want to do them, but I just want it returned to the police."

After the War Edmund trained and qualified as a GP and during the 1980s was the head of Child Health in Cornwall.

A reminder of his bravery :

Sunday 8 November 2020

Britain is no longer a country for and says "Farewell" to an old D-Day Veteran, Peace Campaigner and Soulful Singer called Jim Radford

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Jim has died at the age of 92, after two weeks of being treated, in hospital, on a Covid ventilator. 

Seventy-six years ago, he was a 15 year old galley boy serving on the tug, the 'Empire Larch', when it sailed to join the Normandy D-Day invasion on June 6th 1944, which marked the beginning of the end of the German occupation of Europe and the Second World War in Europe. Last year, seventy-five years later, a campaign was launched to get the haunting ballad he composed to commemorate that day, 'The Shores Of Normandy,' to Number One. After performing the song for decades, it was rereleased  last summer and briefly stormed ahead of Ed Sheeran and Justin Bieber's joint single, on Amazon's music chart.

Jim, who is donating profits towards building a memorial in Ver-sur-Mer honouring those 22,442 men and women, under British command, who died during the Allied landings and the Battle of Normandy. He said reaching the top spot was beyond his "wildest dreams". The Normandy Memorial Trust, which hopes to build the monument, helped Jim to promote the single and gather support on social media. 

Jim said : "We want people to remember all those good men. All those young men. Boys really not much older than I was, lots of 18 year olds. They deserve to be honoured and remembered. A way to honour and remember them is to take this commitment and make sure that it never happens again. For that we need a focal point. Just as we need the Cenotaph, we need a memorial in France."

There is much more to Jim than just his song. He was a founding member of 'Veterans for Peace UK' in 2012 and was present at their Remembrance Day protest at the Cenataph in London in 2013. 

Back in 2014, when interviewed on the BBC Radio 4 'Today' programme, he explained that he no longer regularly attended the Remembrance Sunday Service held at the Cenotaph in November each year, unless in his capacity as an anti-war campaigner and said :  "Normally I don't go to the Cenotaph. I stopped going years ago. I go to the Merchant Navy memorial on Tower Hill. The reason I don't go is because that ceremony's been hijacked by politicians, by the Royal Family, by the Church. It's not about the Royal Family, it's not about the politicians, and it's not about the Church."

He also said that he thought the Second World War fought against Nazi Germany was justified but none of the wars fought since have been : "If you've seen slaughter on that scale, you have to stop and think, was it justified ? Well it was justified, in that case it was necessary, but in so many cases it's not. Most of the wars that have been since, I can't think of a single exception, seem to me unnecessary and avoidable."

Jim, who was born in 1928, was an 11 year old growing up in Hull, in East Yorkshire, when the family got the news that his brother Jack had been killed when his ship, the SS Cree, was torpedoed in the Atlantic and was 13 when his other brother, Fred, joined the 'Royal Navy Rescue Tugs Service' in 1942.

Determined to follow his brother and at 15, too young to be allowed to join the Royal Navy, he went into the Merchant Navy as a galley boy on the tug the Empire Larch and later said : "I joined the tugs because that was the only way I could get to sea and every kid in Hull wanted to play a part in the War" and “in 1944, you were either a boy or a man and we became men very quickly.”

He sailed out to join the invasion fleet and said : "As we got closer, there was the most tremendous bombardment taking place, every ship was firing it's gun. It was like Dante's Inferno. There were blazing landing craft on the beach and you could still see the fighting going on. Like everyone else, even then in '44, I'd seen war films, but it's amazing the difference when it's real."

"The water was full of dead men. A very sad memory of D-Day is all the poor devils who never made it to the beach, who were in the water with life jackets on, floating, and we hadn't time to pull them out. Your thought is 'this is real, this is actually happening'."

He was on his tug towing a 'block ship' into position before it was scuttled to help build a mulberry harbour to facilitate the landing of supplies for the invasion forces at Arromanches on Gold Beach.

After the War, Jim joined the Royal Navy and served for ten years ten years before retiring from the sea in the 1950s. After a varied career, he took a keen interest in the folk and maritime music, both as an attender and performer at maritime festivals around Britain and was best known for his sea shanties.

When asked if he 'had returned to the site of the landings since the War ?' Jim has said: "I've only been back three times. When I saw it was a beach, covered in children and sandcastles and people running and playing, that moved me enormously. The contrast is so amazing."

In 2015 he was appointed a 'Chevalier of the L├ęgion d'Honneur' by the French Republic 'In recognition of steadfast involvement in the Liberation of France during the Second World War.'

Jim composed his autobiographical 'Shores of Normandy' fifty years ago, after an emotional return to Arromanches-les-Baines in Normandy in 1969 and in 2014, sang it for all those men who had served and died on the 6th June 1944 in BBC Radio 2's tribute concert at the Royal Albert Hall..He received a standing ovation from the audience where, there was doubtless, scarce a dry eye. It was also in 2014 that Jim was interviewed and related his D-Day experience on BBC Radio 4 :

The Shores of Normandy 
In the cold grey light of the sixth of June, in the year of forty-four,
The Empire Larch sailed out from Poole to join with thousands more.
The largest fleet the world had seen, we sailed in close array,
And we set our course for Normandy at the dawning of the day.

There was not one man in all our crew but knew what lay in store,
For we had waited for that day through five long years of war.
We knew that many would not return, yet all our hearts were true,
For we were bound for Normandy, where we had a job to do.

Now the Empire Larch was a deep-sea tug with a crew of thirty-three,
And I was just the galley-boy on my first trip to sea.
I little thought when I left home of the dreadful sights I'd see,
But I came to manhood on the day that I first saw Normandy.

At the Beach of Gold off Arromanches, 'neath the rockets' deadly glare,
We towed our blockships into place and we built a harbour there.
'Mid shot and shell we built it well, as history does agree,
While brave men died in the swirling tide on the shores of Normandy.

Like the Rodney and the Nelson, there were ships of great renown,
But rescue tugs all did their share as many a ship went down.
We ran our pontoons to the shore within the Mulberry's lee,
And we made safe berth for the tanks and guns that would set all Europe free.

For every hero's name that's known, a thousand died as well.
On stakes and wire their bodies hung, rocked in the ocean swell;
And many a mother wept that day for the sons they loved so well,
Men who cracked a joke and cadged a smoke as they stormed the gates of hell.

As the years pass by, I can still recall the men I saw that day
Who died upon that blood-soaked sand where now sweet children play;
And those of you who were unborn, who've lived in liberty,
Remember those who made it so on the shores of Normandy

In an interview in the Telegraph last year, Jim said that writing the song was "very hard" because "it meant reliving very harrowing experiences. I hadn't realised that, without knowing how I'd done it, I'd managed to convey that emotional impact to other people. I was very surprised that large numbers of people had contacted me to say they had been moved by it."

* * * * * * * * * * 
The last year of Jim's life was blighted by the fact that, in September last year, he appeared via videolink before magistrates at Caernarfon in Gwynedd accused of seven sex offences, between 1992 and 1998, involving two girls. His lawyer said that Jim denied the charges and he was granted conditional bail to appear before Carenarfen Crown Court last October. Given the fact that his case hasn't come before the courts, Jim will always remain the brave 15 year old galley boy from Hull who, on a tug called the Empire Larch in 1944, saw the 'Shores of Normandy'.

Wednesday 4 November 2020

Britain is still a country for an old Music Teacher called Paul Harvey who brightened the darkness of dementia with his Four Musical Notes

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Nick Harvey, who is in his late forties has, has over the last 25 years built a successful career as a composer of musical scores for more than a hundred television productions, including, in this year alone, 'Secrets of the Museum' for BBC 2, 'Tyson Fury : The Gypsy King' for ITV and 'Portrait Artist of the Year' for Sky Arts. Nick studied music at his secondary school, Sackville School in East Grinstead and then for his degree in Music and Theatre at Dartington College of Arts in the early 1990s. In fact he had scarcely graduated when, in his early twenties he wrote the score for 'The Learning Zone' series for BBC 2 in 1995. 

Although school and college must have played a role in the formation of Nick Harvey, the young composer, there is no doubt that the formative influence in his life must have been his Dad, Paul. Born in Stoke-on-Trent in 1940 and now 80 years old, he left school in the 1950s to study piano at the Guildhall School of Music. Then, like Nick, he became a composer and in his case, a concert pianist, appearing on the BBC Radio Home Service in 1964.

However, he changed direction and decided to become a music teacher when he was in his thirties in the early 1970s, shortly before his Nick was born. He then spent 20 years teaching at the Imberhorne School, a mixed comprehensive in East Grinstead. In his early years at the school, before he became the Director of Music, him came into contact with a promising young musician called Nick Van Eede who formed a school band. Having left school, Nick went on to have his biggest success with Cutting Crew in the 1980s.

Five years ago, Paul moved into sheltered accommodation and Nick said : “The moment we realised that something was awry properly when Ali, my wife, invited Dad over for Sunday lunch and he arrived at 6am, looking flustered and confused. That was a turning point.” Paul had a fall at home, then a 12-week hospital stay that prompted a cognitive decline. Occupational therapy, regular home care and a memory clinic have all played a part in slowing down dementia, but Nick said that Paul had often been depressed by his condition.

Paul has the usual problem with a declining ability to remember associated with his condition. However, sitting at a piano keyboard, his forgetfulness disappears. He said : “My memory’s fine when I’m playing the piano. I can remember all the things I’ve done. When I am looking at television or other things around where I live, then I start forgetting things and if something is not in the right place, then I panic a bit. But if I’m a bit stressed, I will go and play the piano, and I’ll be alright then.”

The fact that music can help relieve depression, anxiety and other problems associated with dementia, is attested by Professor Helen Odell-Miller, Director of the Cambridge Institute for Music Therapy Research at Anglia Ruskin University. Even those in the most severe stages of the disease, who could not speak or dress themselves, could still improvise music, she said. 

According to Helen's theory, back in the 1940s, in Stoke-on-Trent, during the Second World War, when Paul was a baby, his mother, like all mothers, was naturally musical when she interacted with him, so before he understood words, he could understand his mother's expressions through rhythm, pitch and tempo. Helen said that music “is this natural hard-wired element of the brain and the social interactions and musical language that result and build up from this, which lead to procedural musical memories. The start of a song triggers the memory of the whole song, which is owing to the natural pre-language flow of expression. Songs involve patterns and we learn to communicate through patterns and these patterns become embedded in our ‘musical brain.’”

For Paul, five weeks ago, it “wasn’t a great day”, Nick said. Even piano wasn’t helping much. “I remembered this old party trick he used to do, where someone would give him four random notes and he’d compose something on the spot. The first time I saw him do this was when I was nine, he was teaching at a summer school. I remember the pride I felt. So I picked four notes out of the ether and dad did exactly the same thing. And luckily, I filmed it.” He put the resulting 2 minute improvisation using F natural, A, D and B natural and "it went crazy."

Next, after Radio 4’s 'Broadcasting House' featured the song, listeners suggested that it should be played by an orchestra, so the show’s host, Paddy O’Connell, arranged for the song to be recorded by the BBC Philharmonic. Paul watched as his tune climbed to the top of the iTunes and Amazon charts.

On 'This Morning' :

In the whirlwind of attention that has followed, the highlight for Paul was the chance to speak to composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim. “That was very special – I’ve always been an incredible fan,” Paul said. Stephen said : "I love your tune. I'm going to steal it." to which Paul said :"He can have it all for nothing."

Nick said : “I’ve always felt that his music deserves a large audience and the fact that now, he is finally getting it – it fills my heart with joy. For those living with dementia, the ability to communicate is one of the last things to go. I wouldn’t be surprised if this also applies to Dad and his improvising. Dementia won’t be shutting him up for quite a while yet.”

In a Zoom meeting set up by Nick, Paul met, in turn, ex-pupil Dominic Glynn, who became a prolific composer of music for television and film whose work includes the arrangement of the 'Doctor Who' theme music which served as the series' theme for Season 23. Dominic said : "There's no way I would be having a career as a composer if it hadn't been for you Paul. You just allowed people to choose their own route to do music and that's why I felt so encouraged by the way you taught me."

Also present was another ex-pupil, Alix Lewer, who runs a charity which brings people together through music and a choir for people with communication disabilities.

Ex-pupil Nick Van Eede who left school to become a musician, producer and songwriter, best known for singing and writing the 1986 No. 1 power ballad, "I Just Died in Your Arms" for his band Cutting Crew, which saw international success including a top 10 placing in the UK Singles Chart. Nick said, with great emotion : "You made it so inclusive that kids who were just sitting around, not doing great academically, would shine on the stage. You gave people the chance, who wouldn't normally have had."

In another context Nick had said : "I had young and progressive English and Drama teachers and was given the opportunity at 14 to write and sing the narrative songs for the self-written school productions and and more important, most folk didn’t think they were shite. Confidence can be a dangerous ally but at least I got an early glimpse of what really turned me on in life and apart from the obvious teenage pursuits." 

Pete Talman was the Drama teacher Nick referred to and was Paul's old colleague and Head of Drama who worked with him on school productions. Paul's son, Nick said : "‘Where’s The Sunshine?’ was written for an original Imberhorne School production in the 1980s when dad was Head of Music and Pete was Head of Drama. It was a fantastic show. I remember it as if it were yesterday."

Paul's ability to compose piano music stayed with him into later life and his 'Rumba Toccata', released in 2003, is still used in grade 6 piano exams.

Paul said : 

"I love the printed word, but where the printed word stops, you can't describe anything anymore. Music takes over because with music you can do whatever you want with it, in your mind's eye and that's what I feel about music. I think music just comes in. It's a higher level than the printed word."