From Fertilisation to Fifty, Episode 21: The Accidental Scientist – how I accidentally stumbled into Science

21. The Accidental Scientist

In 1993, I started my third and final season of summer work on a pig and arable farm close to home in Devon.  It was hard physical labour and the only pure job I’ve ever had, where I was only doing it for the money.  As I write this, in summer 2022, I look back on that time fondly, there’s something more honest and less mentally corrupting about doing a job purely for the money, with social life, enjoyment and those slightly bollocks modern concepts of ‘self-improvement’ and ‘networking’ completely separate from the day job.   After the summer, before embarking upon my 1 year long industrial placement as part of my four year ‘sandwich’ degree course, I had no career plans; no idea of what I wanted to do and no real sense of what my future had in store.

In September 1993, except for my summers working on the farm, I had spent most of the previous two years ridiculously drunk.  And I’d not done enough work.  I had coasted through my course prioritising parties, socialising, drinking and exploding from my sadder, posher and more isolated teenage years.  If Dad hadn’t died, I may not have become obsessed with becoming a 1950s GP and consequently may not have chosen chemistry, biology and maths A levels, and may not have ended up studying chemistry (with a bit of business) at university.  I enjoyed the chemistry part of the course much more than the business part.  I found the business content rather vacuous and lacking in substance.  My mind wanted feeding with academic meat and detail.   But, arguably, there was too much meat.  I was drawn towards physical, analytical and environmental chemistry and both befuddled and disinterested in the interminable curly arrows of organic (carbon based) chemistry and the multicoloured magic of inorganic chemistry; but none of the endless dissemination of facts and concepts, nor the never-ending illustrative practical work filled me with incandescent joy.

Glaxo (now GlaxoSmithKline) had visited Kingston (now – in my second year – a new University, I think I preferred the Polytechnic moniker) to do some preliminary interviews for third year placements earlier in the year.  Mine went well, I remember discussing the concept of polarity as the means of separation in liquid chromatography.  This led to an invite to Ware in Hertfordshire for a second interview, and my first experience of the stultifying hell of the technical interview.  I crumbled.  Someone else was offered a place and I was put on hold and not rejected.  I was holding out for an offer, when my tutor suggested that I went for an interview with SmithKline Beecham (now also GlaxoSmithKline) in Tonbridge, Kent.  I was very relaxed, as I was still hoping to hear back from Glaxo.  I had a great day and still remember my three interviewers, Dr Mike Webb, Brian Stockton and Mike Kingswood.  Mike Webb was a real character and a huge Rolling Stones fan, which somehow came out in my interview.  I had a good feeling about the day and wasn’t surprised when I was offered a position the next day. 

On my first day, in early September 1993, I was assigned to the mass spectrometry section of the Analytical Sciences department within the Chemical Development division.  Initially, and momentarily, I was disappointed not to be in the chromatography section, having excelled in that part of the interview, but once I met my supervisor and the brand new, carpeted mass spectrometry laboratory it was clear that I had landed on my feet.

The whole site housed only about one hundred people: about thirty analytical chemists; about thirty synthetic organic chemists; about ten chemical process engineers; some HR, finance, maintenance, catering and support staff and eight undergraduate placement students, including me.  On my first morning coffee break in the canteen, there was a real buzz.  The previous year’s students overlapped with us for a week and there were a few summer students and CASE (sponsored PhD) students kicking about, so the room was filled with a younger and cooler crowd than I was expecting.

At coffee, sitting around a low table, the cool kids assembled.  I’d met Marion, (who hailed from Omagh in Northern Ireland) from the NMR (nuclear magnetic resonance) lab next door, but all the other early twentysomething faces were new to me.  There was very friendly Neil, from Sheffield, who was the IT (information technology) student, but it was a tall, dark-haired girl from Nenagh, in Co. Tipperary who caught my eye.  Cathriona had twinkling blue eyes, a pale complexion and was dressed all in black, including a pair of black leggings accentuating the slender, sinewy anatomy of her legs.  They were crossed tightly, the top one rocking gently as she demurely uttered sparse, dry comments in a soft, southern Irish accent to die for.  I fell in love instantly.

Three weeks later Cathriona, Marion, Neil and I were living together in grotty student digs on Goldsmid road in Tonbridge, the girls on the top floor, Neil and me on the ground floor and the kitchen and living space on the first floor.  Cathriona finished her brief summer fling with a departing student from the year before.  She worked in one of the upstairs chromatography labs and we flirted via MSDOS email whilst controlling our respective scientific instruments via computer software.  We got together on a drunken night in October, my first proper girlfriend of more than one month.  She was lovely and beautiful and my first true love.  But I was a twat.  I was still a playful, drunken, exuberant puppy and not emitting serious relationship vibes.  I really, really liked her but getting pissed, talking bollocks and not ‘settling down’ seemed more important at the time so, in late January, I finished with her.  A regret, as I type this, but not back then. 

Outside the lab, there were some riotous house parties and lots of drunken Friday nights in Tonbridge, or back in Kingston, less than an hour to the West.  Two weeks into my tenure, and before Cathriona happened, I managed to get myself onto the Tonbridge and Walton Oaks ‘It’s a knockout’ team at the annual SmithKline Beecham R&D fun day.  This was a huge, heavily subsidised event, in the grounds of a stately home in Kent – I think – which hosted employees and their families from the seven R&D sites dotted around the M25.  The merger of American company SmithKline & French and British Beecham’s only occurred in 1989 so, SKB was still relatively fresh in 1993 and still trying to unite its research and development scientists across their legacy sites by sponsoring them to get drunk and behave like idiots, all compered by Stuart Hall, long before he was convicted of multiple sexual assault crimes.

My superviser, Dr Duncan Bryant – a pretty good party animal himself, was both astonished and amused by my antics.  It was the late, great Duncan who properly turned me on to Science.  Before meeting him and others that year, I had presumed the stereotype – of most scientists being socially inept nerds who listened to heavy metal and attended Star Trek conventions – to be true.  It was this pernicious stereotype, and the onerous curriculum content of GCSE, A level and undergraduate Science courses which rather put me off the idea of science as a career, but Duncan and a few others completely changed that.

Duncan was only seven years older than me, and had only started working as a mass spectrometrist the previous December.  He had a chemistry degree from Imperial college, where he started a PhD (3 year full time post graduate degree) studying the chemistry of Nitric oxide (NO, sometimes called Nitrogen oxide) which he finished at the Open university in Milton Keynes, as his supervisor moved.  Then he spent two years as a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Maryland in Baltimore.  He was a seriously bright guy and highly respected by the entire Analytical Sciences department, across many sites and the synthetic organic chemists too.  But he wasn’t just a brilliant scientist, he had a broad, deep intellect across many fields – almost a polymath!  He was a keen pub quizzer with deep knowledge of geography, music, literature, art and sport who’d appeared on University Challenge.  We used to do a weekly Sunday and Wednesday night quiz together.  Culturally he was an oxymoron – a huge fan of The Jam and Queen, deeply into dub reggae – especially Scientist and King Tubby but also a keen purveyor of the great 20th century symphony composers of Sibelius and Shostakovich.  Apart from Queen and The Jam, he introduced me to all these things.  He was funny and silly too, very tall and bendy with an elastic face – frequently impersonating John Cleese’s Ministry of Funny Walks and Alexei Sayle’s stand up act. 

There were some quite good teachers at school and the odd lecturer at university who didn’t make me yawn but Duncan was in a different league.  The single most inspirational, brightest, and down to Earth scientist, nay human, I’ve ever had the pleasure to know.  We became good friends, he came to my stag do and wedding in 2000 but his life was cut tragically short in 2005, from a recurring heart condition.  He was only 40 when he died, leaving a second wife and two very young boys, the second born after his death.  I miss his wisdom.  And his humour.   Before the end, he was chair of the Molecular Spectroscopy group at the Royal Society of Chemistry and The Duncan Bryant Award in Molecular Spectroscopy for a novel research paper for a promising young scientist was set up in his honour.

If I hadn’t met or worked with Duncan, I may not have pursued science as a career.  The respect was mutual – I was his first industrial supervisee, and the first student to be trained to operate the Sciex-API-III atmospheric ionisation, triple quadrapole mass spectrometer.  This state-of-the-art instrument cost £330,000 in 1993 and looked like a small jet engine mounted on top of the WOPR computer from the cult 1980s film, War Games starring Matthew Broderick and Ally Sheedy.   I realised from early on what a privilege it was to work with Duncan, and use such pioneering technology.  Having coasted through my second year of university, on for a third, and been perpetually pissed in my first year, distracted by head of house and extra-curricular activities, not studying hard enough and still grieving Dad leading to suboptimal A levels I was starting to believe that I wasn’t particularly bright academically.  Duncan changed all that, he made me realise that I was sharp and communicative and quick to learn and that I understood perhaps more than my grades and efforts inferred.  He made me realise that I was, or could be a scientist. 

The experience of doing science was so much more fulfilling than learning science.  All those endless derivation of equations from first principles in physical chemistry lectures; all those curly arrowed reaction mechanisms in organic chemistry lectures; all those befuddling complexes and oxidation states in inorganic chemistry and the never ending illustrative, procedural chemistry practical sessions never filled me with joy.  But I found preparing an unknown sample for characterisation by mass spectrometry, using the data to elucidate the molecular structure and reporting the results back to the synthetic chemists (not manmade people, rather people specialising in the chemical synthesis and chemical process development of organic drug molecules and intermediates) – face to face – immensely satisfying.  Sometimes it was routine, but often there was problem solving and discussion and deep thinking with Duncan, or the group leader Brian, or one of the chemists. 

It was an exciting and very casual environment to work in too.  Most people were a little quirky, with a story to tell.  Duncan wasn’t the only inspirational colleague.  Mike Webb, Kingston alma mater and head of the wider spectroscopy group, was great fun…he went on to become head of Chemical Development in GlaxoSmithKline at Stevenage.  Dave Lathbury, one of the more senior chemists moved to Astra while I was there, to head up their Chemical Development group.  Soon after he poached Dave Ennis, then a young post doc chemist who I learnt a lot from, who has since climbed the ladder within AstraZeneca, now heading up their Chemical Development group, who my ex-Pfizer friend and colleague Dr Stefan Taylor now reports into.  Some great, internationally renowned, synthetic and analytical chemists coalesced at SKB Tonbridge in the early 1990s and it felt good to be a part of.  

As well as being a fully integrated member of the mass spec team, under Duncan’s tutorage, working on real world projects and problems, I got to carry out a two month mini research project, which provided the data and inspirational for my final year dissertation.  Duncan modified the Sciex ion source, introducing ND3 gas (deuterated ammonia – normal chemical formula NH3, with each hydrogen atom replaced with a deuterium atom).  Deuterium is an isotope of hydrogen which contains 1 proton and 1 neutron in its atomic nucleus, meaning that it still has the chemical properties of hydrogen but instead of a relative atomic mass of 1, it has a relative atomic mass of 2.  So the [M+D]+  molecular ions entering the mass spectrometer have a mass 1 unit greater than an [M+H]+ ion.  We used toggled the ionisation gas from ammonia to deuterated ammonia to collect spectra ionised with both hydrogen and deuterium and used it to study labile (easily exchanged) protons (hydrogen ions) in organic molecules, peptides (short chains of amino acids which constitute larger proteins) and proteins.  The most exciting data came from comparing the relatively few labile protons in native (folded in its natural state) bovine Myoglobin (the protein which stores oxygen in muscle cells) with the far greater number found in denatured (unfolded, like cooked egg white in comparison with raw egg white) Myoglobin.  I found this immensely exciting.  Analysing and interpreting new data that no one, knowingly, anywhere in the world had seen before was immensely exciting.

I didn’t find it exciting enough to study for a PhD in mass spectrometry, partly because after graduating I was keen to earn some money and rather bored with university life.  Is this a regret today?  Not really, I think I’ve learnt that I’m a storyteller with broad interests; easily distracted too – so dedicating myself to a niche field of research for three years wouldn’t have suited me, but I learned from Duncan that I was more than capable of it and that I had the intellect, the curiosity, and the capability to become a research scientist in industry.  I also learnt that I needed to go back to university for my final year and work my socks off to get a good degree, to renounce the coasting demons of my first and second years, cut back on partying and drinking and turn up for lectures on time, as multinational science companies only employ graduates with PhD’s, 1st class or upper second class (2:1) degrees.

My year in Tonbridge was more than the year that I accidentally became a scientist, it was the year I grew up and became an independent adult.  I enjoyed earning money and spending it all on gigs, CDs, beer and stereo equipment.  It enabled my first life enhancing trip to the Glastonbury festival.  I found love for the first time.  And I had a brilliant time – working hard and playing hard.  Looking back, as a science teacher who’s rather anti our GCSE system and sceptical of the excessive conceptual, factual and theoretical content of Science GCSEs, A levels and degrees, I wonder how necessary all that rote knowledge is.  And how indicative grades at GCSE and A level of in our potential in specialist careers.  I’m obviously blessed with a high capacity for facts and their recall from memory, but I genuinely didn’t learn a huge amount at university.  What I could do, and still can, was learn fast, ask questions and engage with experts.  I find the idea that to become skilled or capable or expert or creative in anything, we first have to become a walking encyclopaedia in that discipline – deeply flawed.  I don’t believe you can teach anyone to do anything, but providing that you are competent in maths, English and most of all interested in finding out then I believe – and I’m good evidence of this – that you can become a scientist if you want to.  Unfortunately, our current education system alienates too many people from this possibility with our ever-increasing obsession with exam grades at 16 and 18, and the excessive amounts of prescriptive content in the school and university science curricula.  Also, my year in industry taught me, that knowing stuff and studying stuff and being interested in stuff isn’t always enough.  We need to be inspired, we need to be enlightened and have our minds opened to the wonders of science, of life, of art, music or whatever.  And for me, that person was the late great Dr Duncan Bryant.  R.I.P. you wonderful, brilliant, funny big wonder of a human.  And thank you.  

From Fertilisation to Fifty: Episode 22 – Glastonbury Festival 1994

The Vale of Avalon – memories of Glastonbury 1994

I think I first heard of Glastonbury festival in the very late 1980s, in my mid-teens.  It was a niche, underground and alternative affair back then.  Some of my peers were proper music scenesters who read the NME or Melody Maker religiously.  I was a little more middle of the road at the time, more Q magazine, all U2, Simple Minds and retro rock outfits like the Rolling Stones, Cream and Led Zeppelin.  There was a boy at school, nicknamed Mully, a stoner and dreamer and lovely guy who was into the hippy scene: Hendrix, Jefferson Airplane, Fairport Convention, Joni Mitchell and Neil Young.  He lived on the Somerset / Wiltshire border and may well have attended Glastonbury in 1990, before our last year at school.  Back then, not long after Dad had died, I was sensible and grieving and not keen on the idea of being silent for long enough so that everyone could get stoned, inanely grinning in their delusional appreciation of the first Pink Floyd album, whilst repeatedly stroking their beardy bumfluff!

Then summer 1992, the end of my first year at university, still largely a retro-head, with the exception of the Friday night nosebleed at the bottom of the student bar moshpit, perpetually soundtracked by Nirvana’s ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit.’  I was skint from nine months and ninety gallons of snakebite and black and heading back to Devon to work on the pig and arable farm again.  I didn’t scarper until early July, late enough to witness the state that friend Nathan was in after four days comatose in a field in Somerset.  I was still a bit scared of the tales of hedonism and debauchery, clean living heavy drinker that I was. 

In Spring 1994, with several bands I was into on the bill and earning decent money (I never had the balls to jump the fence) – as an undergrad placement student in industry – I decided it was time to go to Glastonbury.  I rang the ticket line, got through first time, and bought a ticket for about 80 quid.  I didn’t know much more about it then than I did in the late eighties.  But I loved Blur’s new Parklife album, had a bizarre and thankfully passing obsession with The Spin Doctors and sometimes pretended to be an acid jazzer to a bit of Galliano, and they were all playing.  It hadn’t – yet – been televised and it rarely made the national press, unless something negative had occurred.  Outside the music weeklies (NME, Melody maker) which I still didn’t read, it was barely mentioned gaining only scant column inches in the glossier music monthlies of which Q magazine, my then bible, was the leader.  But it had gained momentum amongst indie kids, illegal ravers and undergraduate hedonists, beyond its antiquarian reputation of new age travellers and ageing hippies.  Some of my friends resisted its hippy charms, sticking to the ‘meat and two spuds know what I like and know what I’m getting’ Reading Festival.

Friend Ben and his younger brother Simon and his friends took my tent down and pitched it for me on the Wednesday.  I drove down with Neil, a fellow placement student at SmithKline Beecham; stopped in Fleet on the M3, to pick up friend Jo and her French pen pal.  Driving down the M3 and A303 from Kent or London was already engrained upon my Devon soul, but on that Thursday in late June 1994 there was a different vibe to the journey.   There were a lot of old style VW camper vans travelling west.  And a lot of beaten up, third or fourth hand cars full of camping gear and ruck sacks with students and young people squeezed amongst them.  We were all very obviously heading to the same place.  Horns were honked, waves were exchanged and grins were ecstatic. 

At Mere, on the Wiltshire / Somerset border we were siphoned off the 3-oh-3 into a police cordon.  There was nothing to find in our innocent car, but there were other less roadworthy vehicles packed to the rafters with crusties, having their stash confiscated.  Then back on the road, up past Castle Cary station towards Shepton Mallet and through Pilton village, then left across some dusty fields and into a car park.  1994 was back in the good old days, pre-mobile phones, so there was a flag, or pair of pants on a pole to look out for.  The walk from the car park, lugging a lot of glass bottles of Kronenbourg 1664 (I have no idea why I carried so much glass but I was a sub 22 year old idiot) was torturous, in hot, sticky weather.  Car after car, then tent after tent, then turning a corner and the whole city in the fields opening up afore me.  I’d never seen a picture of the site before, never imagined its enormity and never expected a huge wind turbine next to the main stage.  It was magnificent.  I’m so glad that I had that element of surprise.  It’s gone now, there are posters and wall to wall TV coverage, so everyone knows what it looks like before they first attend now.  We can look up setlists online before watching our favourite band and decide on baby names and nursery wall colour before the baby is born today.  The world hasn’t got better with all this media and TV and technology.  It’s not necessarily got worse, but surprise is a gift we’ve pilfered from the Earth.

Upon arrival at base camp – up the hill, above the Pyramid (that wasn’t a Pyramid 1994 to 1999 due to a fire a few weeks before the 1994 festival) towards the farm, overlooking the Vale of Avalon below – introductions were made.  There were a lot of us.  I knew Neil and Jo and Ben and his girlfriend Vicky.  We were all 21 or 22.  I didn’t know Simon or Shades (also Simon but best mates with other Simon and worked in a lamp shade factory that I assumed was a sunglasses factory for several years hence nickname Shades) or Kev or Sally or any of the other five or ten approximately seventeen or eighteen year old members of the Meopham / Istead Rise / Gravesend contingent.  While I’d largely renounced much of my public school roots through university and industrial placement life, I was still undeniably a posh public school boy with a chronic affliction of floppy hair and semi-drunken verbosity.  The Gravesend crew, all connected to Ben’s younger brother Simon, were quite different to me but we hit it off like a house on fire.

Neil and I went for a walk, through the market areas, the meeting place and past the main stages.  It was all brilliant, like Paul Whitehouse’s Fast Show character, according to Neil.  He was right but I was trying to be cool.  I obviously failed at that when I chose, with Neil – a fan of excessively noodly guitar (Steve Vai, Joe Satriani, Eddie Van Halen) – to watch the funky grooves of the Spin Doctors instead of the Beastie Boys.  I would definitely NOT make such a terrible error now, and partially made up for it by watching the Beasties at Reading festival in 1998. 

Looking back from my eclectic live music fan and snobby, awkward musicologist’s perspective today – via my late nineties festivals (& beyond) where I gorged on as much music as possible – I feel embarrassed by how little music I actually watched in 1994.  And I look back at the programme and think, oh man – why oh why did I not go and see them, or that: Manics (with Richey); Pretenders; Oasis at 1pm on the NME stage before they turned into formulaic, stodgy pub rock; Elvis Costello; The Cure;  Jah Wobble;  Julian Cope; the pure, squeaking joy of Bjork; agit-punk-rappers Senser and the aforementioned and glorious stew of hip hop, punk and chaos that were the Beastie Boys. 

No, it was all about the campfire vibes.  I drank half my body mass in warm lager.  Kev drank his entire body mass in John Smiths.  Shades and sexy Sally and most of the Gravesend massive got off their head on whatever it was they got off their head on back then.  Simon had a little Lee Scratch Perry pipe and got deliciously stoned from dawn to dusk, leading astray little Jo’s French pen pal who was un-affectionately nicknamed French Fucker on account of her perpetually stoned stick drumming on empty Kronenbourg bottles strewn around the edge of the edge of the smouldering campfire.   Jo’s brother was nicknamed the master of ceremonies, I was nicknamed Satan due to the precarious positioning of two giant candles / flares outside my tent.  We laughed.  We talked a lot of shit.  I think the campfire banter, escapism and downright ridiculousness at Glastonbury 1994, 1995 and Phoenix 1996 are some of the funniest and happiest moments of my life.  There’s a part of me still burning inside, wishing I lived like that all the time.  A nomadic, hippy, anti-establishment new age traveller.  It’s hard to take corporate scientific life, the compliance of mainstream education and politics and economics seriously after experiencing that collectivism and community coherence.

Our commune was large and we often invited passers by to join us.  Typically they were stoned wastrels, or pissed crusties, who sometimes fell asleep with their feet in the camp fire.  My greatest ever Glastonbury achievement was on the Saturday night in 1994, with Elvis Costello’s Attractions pumping out some frenetic and percussive rhythms on the main stage in the distance:  a young lad, wearing Orbital rave glasses walked through the middle of our circle, “Where are you going?” I asked.

“To see Orbital, my favourite ‘band’”

“You don’t want to do that.  You want to stay here and drink beer with me.”

“Okay, I’ll just have one then…”

Three hours later he was still with us, pissed, stoned, laughing and very confused.  Shame he missed one of the most seminal dance gigs at Glastonbury EVER…. It was the presence of Orbital in 1994 which brought in the Dance Tent in 1995, a belated reaction to the well established rave and dance scene by Michael Eavis – who was never really into the more hedonistic aspects of the festival, though he turned a blind eye to it all.

Despite not watching much music, I did manage a groove to Galliano, some boredom watching Paul Weller, a little bit of Peter Gabriel and some deliciously scuzzy guitars from L7 but it was the Sunday afternoon on the NME stage (now twice the size and called the Other Stage) where my music world exploded.  Ben dragged me to see a band he’d liked for ages who I’d never heard of called Pulp.  Jarvis Cocker was and remains unique for his between song wordsmithery and I was hooked.  This was after the release of His n Hers but before they recorded Different Class.  Whenever I play or hear Babies by Pulp, I’m transported back to that sleep deprived, hot, dusty Sunday evening in Somerset and everything is good with the world.  A year later in 1995, they were back, fortuitously headlining the Pyramid after the Stone Roses dropped out and I was there, singing and grinning inanely along, as Jarvis and Pulp went stratospheric.   

In 1994, after Pulp came the Inspiral Carpets.  Okay.  But I needed some food and lie down.  Then back for a betwixt Pablo Honey and The Bends Radiohead.  I’d seen them in the student bar in 1993 and always loved, still do, Jonny Greenwood guitar.  They played a lot of new songs from The Bends.  It was good, but they hadn’t become the legendary outfit of 1997 yore quite yet.  I was there for their seminal Pyramid headline in 1997 too.  But I was too far back (then still naïve in how to strategically position oneself in prime, if not quite front, position for a big Pyramid crowd) and the sound was awful, so I went to see David Byrne (ex Talking Heads) on the Jazz World stage (now West Holts) and he blew my mind.

In 1994, after Radiohead, with the Sunday sun going down behind me, I eagerly anticipated my predicted high point of the festival.  I’d stayed up all night on Saturday, dancing around the stone circle at dawn, and not really napped in the day, so I was dead on my feet and in my bones but then…

The closing soundtrack music from the Italian Job blasted through the PA, ‘We are the self-preservation society…’, a snyth rhythm and drumbeat followed, it was Lot 105 and those cheeky Blur boys bounced exuberantly on to stage and the crowd went nuts.  “It’s Sunday” screamed Damon before launching into Sunday Sunday from Modern Life is rubbish, then a punkier, edgier, dirtier Tracy Jacks than the Parklife version caused much movement in the crowd, a wobbling of tectonic plates and alignment of lay lines.  Ben bolted, his meagre frame not built for the moshy, sweaty, stinky armpit euphoria; while I fucking loved it.  I really liked music.  Really liked it.  But over the course of their 70 minute set, I fell in love with it.  And I fell in love with Blur, especially Blur live, too.

Glastonbury 1994 was probably as pivotal as any other moment in my life.  It opened my mind to the possibilities and pure joy of live music.  It changed me: politically, and socially.  Over the ensuing years I’ve discovered a love of liberal, libertarian, left leaning politics; of gigs and live music of many styles; of wild jazz and afrobeat rhythms; of noisy, scuzzy, punky guitars; of euphoric anthems rinsing through a joyous, connected, peaceful, tide of humanity.  After the wild, timeless coast of Hartland in North Devon; a festival crowd is where I feel happiest, most attuned to this thing called humanity and most life-affirmingly joyful to be alive.

From Fertilisation to Fifty, Episode 10: Photography

I’m pasting these posts in from Word and something weird is going on…have to paste them in short blocks…maybe wordpress is trying to tell me, “Toby, too many, too, too many words!” *oh sort of fixed this now…

Sorry, and thank you small, yet beautifully formed readership! Things are going to get more emotional, personal and soul searching in the next couple of posts after this one, so stick with me…then the joys of a very benign yet confused adolescence! Thank you, Thank you, Thank you.

My son compiled a wonderfully creative A level photography portfolio throughout 2020 and 2021 using the digital technology of his smartphone and photoshop. Just twenty-three years earlier, in April 1997, I attended the Spring school in colloid science at Bristol University, as a fresh-faced young graduate two years into my career as a formulation chemist with Zeneca Agrochemicals. A friend and colleague of mine had a friend at the university who was researching polymeric film coatings of colloidal silver nitrate, for a doctorate sponsored by Kodak. Kodak once employed over 100,000 people globally and had one of the largest research budgets of all science-based companies. It was huge. It had grown to one of the largest chemical companies in the world, built upon humans twentieth century fascination with taking photographs of each other. Yet by the time Ollie chose to study photography in 2019, Kodak was no longer a household name. It had failed to adapt, failed to foresee the coming digital revolution and stuck resolutely to the mysterious chemistry of silver compounds upon which its world changing technology was based.


Back in 1982, when I turned ten, the internet hadn’t been invented, the personal computer (PC) hadn’t entered the home, let alone the digital camera, and a smartphone wasn’t even on the radar of the most imaginative computer scientist. There was a computer room at school but very few of us were particularly excited by the mighty Sinclair ZX81 with its 8KB memory and natty little silver papered printer. Admittedly, computers started to enter the mainstream a year later in 1983, when most of us went mad for Chuckie Egg on the ZX Spectrum. While I briefly enjoyed my handheld Crazy Kong and mini-Pacman computer games, I was never, and I’m still not, particularly swayed by the rapid advances in computer and computer gaming technology. It is all the product of someone else’s imagination; all about them luring you into a multicoloured, high octane dopamine rush. Not for me.


Computers and photographic film technology both store memories. A photograph taken during our childhood, or at our wedding, or of us collapsed in a drunken stupor at the end of an undergraduate party becomes the trigger of a memory stored in the mystery of the human mind, whether we recall the precise moment of the photograph or not.


The above is all a rather meandering digression. My mother liked taking photographs. And I quite enjoyed taking them too. Collecting some freshly developed prints from the local chemist is one of the lost thrills of a bygone, pre-digital age. In 1982, I wanted to go one stage further: I wanted to develop my own photographs.


Mr Cowgill, an affable and very traditional prep school master (same tweed jacket every day, shiny bald head, over fifty, weathered face, engaging timbre, perfect elocution, smoked a pipe), ran the photography club at Buckland House School. It was a niche group, just two of us, I think. My newfound enthusiasm for the art and science of black and white photography culminated in my best, and most expensive (I think it cost £50 at the time) childhood Christmas present – a Praktica single lens reflex (SLR) camera.


It was a special Christmas because we went for a family walk on Boxing Day with my new camera, fitted with an Ilford ISO 125(?) black and white film. We walked around grey sands at the Appledore end of Northam burrows and I remember talking a photograph of an old, decaying, wooden boat and a family photograph of my parents and sister. Dad rarely walked, in fact this is the only walk I remember him joining us. I remember him fondly as a solid, upright, warm and playful presence that day.


I took a lot of photographs, playing with shutter speed and aperture, centring the line in the middle of the circle while depressing the button on the in-built light meter. At school, I remember talking photographs of the gnarly contours of a rotting tree trunk, of boys playing on the lake in canoes and topper sailing boats; of pastoral scenes and of the imposing, F-shaped, southern façade of Buckland Filleigh manor house.


Then to the dark room, to spool the film into its special developing box in complete, fumbling darkness. I loved the chemicals. Were they made by Agfa? Or Ilford? I don’t recall. I remember them being stored in small, rectangular, opaque grey plastic containers with red labels and white lids. Opening a new one was super exciting, breaking the foil heat seal and diluting an accurate measure of the chemical fixer with its distinctive and pungent odour into water; using a plastic measuring cylinder and then pouring the solution into a tray, turning on the red light, extracting a large piece of photographic paper, projecting the image from the enlarger onto it and then slipping it into the fixer solution and miraculously watching the image appear. I loved the applied science of it, and sometimes wonder if my brief dalliance in the art of analogue photography did more to inspire my future career in science than anything that occurred in a school chemistry lab or textbook.


Photography wasn’t my only extra-curricular pass time at Buckland House, but it was the most enduring. I picked it up again at my senior school and still greatly enjoy the art of composition, with my memories of the art and science of the dark room indelibly etched upon my mind.
Photography – whether digital or in its original, world changing chemical form – is all about memories; about capturing important moments, people or places in our lives. The memories captured by a photograph are episodic: memories which are deeply infused with emotions and readily evoked. Yet, most of school is about developing our semantic memories – the nuts and bolts of language, grammar, number or the fundamentals of science, history or geography. We have become increasingly obsessed with the development of memory, rather than the development of memories. And yet, it is photography club, carpentry club, building dams, swinging from the flexi-branch or playing with friends in the Avalanches which I most treasure from those more innocent and relatively care-free times. I think we underestimate the importance of time to play, explore and discover things for ourselves within the confines of schooling. Yes, the rudiments of maths and grammar and the perfect sentence matter, but not at the expense of the pure undiluted joy of pre-adolescent childhood, arguably the best days of our lives.

From Fertilisation to Fifty, episode 7 of 50: Westward Ho!

I spent a lot of time alone.  I don’t recall being lonely, as it was all I knew.  My imaginary world in the Chocolate Factory and our other disused barns, in the beech tree or on the farm next door consumed me.  Sometimes my younger sister joined me as we played make believe, to my rules.  Dad was in the kitchen garden, potting shed, feeding the chickens – perpetually feeding the chickens, watching the one o’clock news, having an afternoon nap, or watching Grandstand on Saturdays.  Sometimes he was standing at the kitchen sink, looking up the yard, forever peeling potatoes.  I remember him saying, if we had risotto or Spaghetti Bolognese for supper, ‘that was very good, but we will have potatoes again tomorrow, won’t we?’

We came together as a family in the evenings, invariably in front of the television in the snug.  Thursdays were my favourite: Top of the Pops followed by Tomorrow’s World.  Most of our food was home cooked, tasty and relatively simple.  I remember Findus crispy pancakes, boil in the bag cod in parsley sauce and toad in the hole with mash and gravy.  On Tuesdays and Saturdays, Mr Bromfield the butcher delivered – so there was liver and kidneys on Tuesdays which my father refused to eat, claiming no self-respecting farmer ate offal!  The Sunday roast was a more formal affair.  If it was just the four of us, we ate in the kitchen, always in fixed places.  If Granddad came, or my Aunt and cousins; or some family friends called the Bollands, we’d eat in the dining room with all its attendant rituals.  I’d often help lay the table, and it was always my job to fill the ice box and cut the lemon for the adults’ pre-lunch gin and tonic or Cinzano.  Granddad always had sherry.  Does anyone still drink sherry?

On typical home days or evenings, Mum was normally in the kitchen, or mowing the grass while Lucy and I roamed around our happy home, garden, barns and neighbouring farm.  But there was a peculiar ritual on a warm sunny, summer day.  My mother would rummage through the discarded remnants of my parents’ past, stored in the cavernous and terrifying TARDIS of the understairs cupboard.  After various expletives and shoving of fallen coats, hats and other paraphernalia she would appear in the kitchen clasping her navy blue tote bag, with its rigid, white plastic lining. 

The tote bag would then be stuffed with towels, blankets and factor 2 suntan oil (sun cream with high SPF screen had either not been invented in the late seventies, or my mother renounced its cautious nature, gloating that we should be lucky to be greased up with suntan oil, as her sister – my aunt – used olive oil)! and we’d jump in whatever old jalopy we’d bought for £100 or £200 from Norman and Len at Monkleigh garage (I fondly remember a Ford Anglia, a Ford Cortina mk1 estate and a Cortina mk2 estate, a Vauxhall Victor estate [my mother called these shooting brakes, though we never went shooting] and a particularly stylish, white Vauxhall Viva with a black vinyl roof).

We’d turn right out the driveway, down a narrow country lane past the farm and then fork onto the A388 Holsworthy-Bideford road next to two lavatory brick, flat roof houses.  The road is fast from Wonders corner, past Hollamoor farm, then the hamlet of Frithlestock Stone where John and Millie Toogood’s grocery store was, a sharp left hander, up over the blind summit and then a couple of miles of twists and turns onto Monkleigh, with a patchwork quilt of green fields, hedgerows and relatively few trees, rolling east down towards the Torridge valley.  In Monkleigh, the road kinks left and meanders through Saltrens with the countryside opening up ahead as one descends down the hill to Landcross, where the A388 merges with the A386 Torrington – Bideford road.  The road then follows the brief tidal section of the River Yeo and then runs alongside the River Torridge into Bideford.  I could probably drive this eight mile long journey from Withacott to the twenty-four different sized arches of Bideford’s long medieval bridge with my eyes closed: every twist, turn and precarious overtaking stretch indelibly imprinted on my mind.

Along the picturesque Bideford quayside, which, if it were located in the more affluent south east of England would be full of antique shops, restaurants, gastro pubs, bookshops and fashion boutiques, but – perhaps endearingly and romantically – it was not, and is still not corrupted by such fickle and vacuous wealth.  Up the hill into Northam, past my great grandfather’s Doctor’s surgery and past the rectory and church of my father’s childhood, through the tiny village square and then a steep kink right and then left on to Golf Links Road which does what it says on the tin.  Then the sea and a million acres of blue sky.

A brief stop at the wooden hut to pay for a daily car pass and along the private road across the golf course on Northam Burrows country park, avoiding being hit by golf balls approaching the 17th green and then off the third tee; or running over a gormless, nonchalant sheep.  We’d pull up in the car park on the Eastern side of the two miles long stretch of naturally occurring pebble ridge which obscured the sea.

There was no manmade concrete path over the ridge back in the seventies, or the early eighties, so the first challenge was scrambling over a three metre high and about ten metres wide triangular wall of smooth, rounded, grey pebbles with an average diameter between 20 and 30 cm.  The eastern side was typically scaled in low wind but by the top there was invariably a strong westerly breeze battering one’s senses.  At the lowest tides, the sea projected a distant roar almost half a mile away.  At the highest tides, there was no beach at all, with the roar of four feet tall Atlantic rollers crashing onto the pebbles and reclining with a hypnotic cacophony of pebbles attritting against other pebbles.

Memories of my earliest visits to Westward Ho! beach in the mid to late seventies have faded.  But I know that we went there a lot.  There is countless photographic evidence of the summer procession of my mother’s old London friends and their young children.  I don’t recall loving it.  Sometimes we played cricket on the sand or played in the sand dunes between the pebble ridge and golf course.  I only paddled, as I was a non-swimmer until I was eleven.  It was undoubtedly a place of great significance to my mother, perhaps an escape from the monotony of parenthood, perhaps a bit of social stimulus away from the contented, hermit-like nature of my sixty-year old father.  With the exception of an annual, (or biannual?) trip in May half-term to family friends in Wiltshire it was the only change of scene my mother experienced throughout my childhood and early adolescence.  There were no family holidays, but there was always Westward Ho!, just twelve miles from home, on tap.

In the mid-eighties, the BBC Radio 1 Roadshow rolled into town, normally on a cloudy, cool day and then in summer 1990, once I had wheels, I spent a lot of time there with friends.  I loved the sea by then.  Diving into the waves, body surfing and grappling with the force of three thousand miles of Atlantic waves crashing against two miles of Devon sand.  The obligatory, rich, creamy local Hockings ice cream after a breathtaking, wild swim; sometimes a cheeseburger from the Cheffles van too.  Once into my twenties, and adult life beyond Devon, I got my Devon coastal kicks elsewhere, perhaps popping to the beach at Westward Ho! for a quick swim occasionally, whereas my mother and sister worshipped at the vast church of the place all day long, perennially working on their windswept Devon tans.

I prefer it as a winter walk now, perhaps from Appledore and then along the Torridge estuary and around the wide open skies of the mouth of the Taw and Torridge onto the beach, all the way into the recently smartened up, and previously rather unloved British seaside town of Westward Ho!, the name taken from a Charles Kingsley (who wrote The Water Babies) novel.

So much family history and childhood nostalgia clings to this great sweeping bay, and its sprawling holiday village, with Northam church and its numerous dead relatives looking over us; a Rothko-esque canvas of grey pebbles fusing with beige sand, deep blue ocean and light azure sky.   

From Fertilisation to Fifty, episode 6 of 50: An old Massey Ferguson 135

The disused barns of my rural childhood idyll were the centre of my loci, but Withacott also had another playground – a large expanse of garden we call the orchard.  As one drives down the yard, with the farmhouse in the dip in front of you and the barns to your right, the orchard is on the left, behind a bank rich with primroses and pink campions in the Spring, topped with a higgledy-piggledy beech and hawthorn hedgerow.

The western, further flank of the orchard borders the neighbouring farm cottage, obscured by an established wall of sycamore and ash trees and the enormous, iconic beech tree.  The bottom of its trunk twists and curls amongst the dark, mossy and fern lined bank at its base, with three towers of majestic tree rising in parallel up into its expansive canopy.  In the bank, gnarly and partially exposed roots form a step ladder up into the tree.  Lucy’s (my younger sister) place is about four feet above the ground between the two main towers of trunk with Toby’s place, a further two or three feet scramble up over slippery moss and oozing sap, wedged tighter between the central and Northern towers.

We spent a lot of time in that tree, particularly on warm summer days, sheltering in the cool of its plentiful shade.  Beyond the bottom, north-western corner of the orchard was the Ley’s neighbouring farmyard.  Partially hidden behind some unloved trees on the Northern border are the rear of two – then large and modern, now semi-derelict and much smaller than most – farm buildings:  one a cowshed emitting frequent mellifluous moos of calves and young stock, with the occasional pained moans of a cow in labour.  The other taller and wider shed has a base made of vertical, recycled railway sleepers; a green, now rusted, steel frame and a layer of corrugated, asbestos cladding above the sleepers.  This shed was the covered silage clamp.  Its south-eastern vertex was almost in our garden, very close to the north-western edge of our house.

For most of the year the activity inside it was largely silent, with the sweet smell of silage – fermented grass – filling the soporific air.  But then, for several days – at some point in early to mid May, and again in late June or early July – the inside of this vast building (to my younger self) came alive with the seductive rattle of a three cylinder Perkins diesel engine inside the body of an -F reg (1967-1968) Massey Ferguson 135 tractor.  This was – perhaps – the happiest sound of my childhood.

I was probably four or five years old, perhaps younger, when my mother held my hand and first took my sister and me next door, to investigate.  By the age of six, I was free to pop over to the farm on my own, providing I told my mother in advance.  Between 1978 and 1982 (aged 6-10), I spent as many free hours on the neighbouring farm as I did roaming around my own bucolic paradise.  

My first siting of arguably the most enduring icon of British Agricultural Engineering, the faded red livery of a Massey Ferguson 135 tractor, with the now humble power of forty-seven horses, was with its cab doors and roof removed and double rear wheels attached.  David Ley, the farmer’s son was about sixteen at the time.   A Twose of Tiverton rear mounted buck rake was attached to its three point linkage (well done Harry Ferguson, a most marvellous invention).  David lowered the prongs of the rake and reversed at high speed into a mound of freshly cut grass, lifted the hydraulics inducing an enormous wheelie of the tractor’s front end, pulled forward and then reversed the load up the steep slope on to a far larger pile of compacted grass, which filled the shed.  And repeat.  It was immensely exciting.  From that day on I developed a rather obsessive fetish for tractors. 

There was a brief passing interest in cars in the early eighties including the inevitable James Bond induced fascination with Aston Martins but in the most part tractors, and they still do, satisfied my insatiable interest in wheels.  In my early teens and when working on farms during university summers I became more interested in bigger gear, big six cylinder 100 or 200hp engines, but I’ve since reverted to the romance for the vintage tractors of the 1970s.  Small is beautiful, but it was all big to me back then.

Watching the tractors drive in with trailers full of grass, empty their load and speed off back to the field; and then the MF135 whizz up and down the mountain of grass, gleefully wheelying as it heaved another load up with the buck rake filled me with joy.  The smell of fresh grass was delicious and everything was so clean and fresh: the usual Devon mud or cow shit nowhere to be seen. 

Silage making is the peak of my farming calendar, but I loved it all.  I’d be playing in the barns or the orchard and I’d hear the rattle of a tractor engine which would then lure me next door like a siren call.  David, or his father Brian, were always very welcoming whenever I appeared.  I’d watch them feed the calves, or milk the cows, or tinker in the workshop – asking endless questions.  Sometimes, I’d bicycle down the lane to sit at the foot of a buzzing hedgerow watching haymaking after school: the sweet, dusty smell hanging in the damp evening air.   I wasn’t quite a working farmer’s son but I was farmer’s neighbour’s son which was the next best thing.  It was bucolic and blissful in my childhood’s rural idyll.

From Fertilisation to Fifty, episode 5 of 50: The Chocolate Factory

It is hard to decipher one’s first tangible memory.  And when we do, it is likely tainted or embellished with multifarious tricks from within the synaptic wiring of our minds.  The family photograph album provides pictorial evidence of something happening and then the image of that moment becomes a trigger of a memory we don’t – if we’re honest with ourselves – tangibly recall.  My childhood family photograph albums – which were  lovingly maintained until I was twelve – contain a lot of photographs from the long hot summer of 1976, the summer I turned four years old.

That summer, my Godfather – an enthusiastic amateur photographer – took a lot of black and white photographs of our immediate family unit: my fifty-eight year old father, my thirty-four year old mother, me, my twenty-one month old sister, Ben the docile yellow Labrador and Pipsqueak (or Pippy), the skittish black and white cat.  I still have one in a frame in my sitting room, and several of them sit in the same place on the polished, dark brown furniture in the drawing room at Withacott, nearly forty-six years later.  One of the photographs is of me on the climbing frame, mounted on a small area of lawn, adjacent to the flat concrete yard in front of the bottom barn.  I remember playing on the climbing frame, remember being a little scared of climbing and then perching myself on top.  I remember outgrowing it.  Later, I remember dismantling – vandalising maybe a better word – its small frame and utilising the various rusted struts and bars on some of the imprecisely engineered and short-lived contraptions that I built throughout my pre-adolescent childhood.

One of my first tangible memories is on that little plot of grass, sitting on the steeply sloping bank in between my mother’s legs, basking in the low evening sun.  My younger sister was with us too, picking daisies.  We called this part of my childhood stomping ground, ‘down the bottom,’ as it lay at the bottom of the long sloping yard, tucked behind the lowest of the barns that bordered the Eastern side of the concrete driveway, and to the west of the four acre field which my parents bought with the property in 1971, sold to the neighbouring farmer in 1976.  Sometimes, Brian or David Ley would usher their dairy herd of black and white Friesians into the field after milking, and we’d watch from behind the fence.

At the bottom of the sloping, daisy infested grass was a flat section of concrete with the bottom barn beyond it; perpendicular to all the other outbuildings and bordering the Ley’s farmyard to its rear.  This barn became my first independent playground. 

From the age of four or five, I’d slip on my wellies and coat in the back porch, and potter Northwards, under the low arch, turn eastwards through the Alpine garden, down a couple of concrete steps next to the Northern, rear face of the farmhouse, turn left onto the last few metres of sloping yard and enter my imaginary world.  On the yard, next to the barn was a disused cattle drinking trough.  The ballcock didn’t work anymore but it was always partially filled with rainwater.  Underneath a thin layer of murky water was a thick layer of brownish black sludge, with the consistency of molten chocolate.

This silted up, sludgy drinking trough was probed and stirred by collected sticks and old, discarded, partially rotten, garden fork handles.  It was my ‘chocolate factory.’  I’m confident that I came up with this name independently, but maybe I had recently seen the Gene Wilder film version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and the moniker for this old trough wasn’t original at all.  I was so transfixed by my chocolate potions, that the whole barn became known as The Chocolate Factory.

 The other barns had names too, but their names were less imaginative.  The property had been a working farm up until 1970 and several of the barns had straw and hay bales left in them.  Upon entering the property, the barns were to the right, Eastern side of the downhill sloping yard.  The Shippen, an early 1960s concrete building was first; next the Garage with three open parking bays with steps up to the Granary appended.  The yard opens wider at this point, with the farmhouse to the left.  A small yard separated the Granary from Clinton Court and the Potting Shed which was attached to the Garden House.  Opposite the Eastern face of the house was the Big Barn, with lean to Greenhouse to its south and further down the slope, the attached Barn House.  Then tucked down at the bottom of the hill, the iconic Chocolate Factory.

Of course I took it all for granted at the time, but I now realise how blessed I was to have these barns to play hide and seek in, to build dens and camps in, to jump down from the haylofts onto a bed of straw down below, to chat to a neverendingly busy Dad in the Greenhouse or Potting Shed, to pretend to be a farmer in with my long suffering sister enduring my imaginary games, and – a little later – to set up complex rigs of empty buckets, broken wheelbarrows and pretend to be John Bonham or Ginger Baker drum soloing on stage.

Sometimes my sister would join me, occasionally a friend or two would visit, but I was happiest when free to explore, imagine and create on my own.  The Chocolate Factory and the other barns were my freedom, my place, my whole world.

From Fertilisation to Fifty. Story number 4: A short biography of my father.

As I write this, seven months before I turn fifty years old, my father has been dead for over two thirds of my life.  I am also, at the time of writing, five years younger than he was when I was born.  My memory of his presence, his smell and his voice are faded yet I still feel him deeply.  While my character and personality are more similar to my mother than my recollections of him, there is a growing part of me guided by his wisdom, his stature and – yes – his selfishness.

My younger sister and I, his sixth and seventh children, didn’t have him for long but we had the best of him.  He was extremely content in his castle at Withacott Farmhouse, near Langtree in North Devon, with his young family and an adoring young wife: the loyal, loving, whirling dervish of my mother.

My mother was all over my childhood: here, there, and everywhere.  Yet, Dad, or Waddy as my sister and I called him in his later years, was comparatively distant – he was always near and never aloof, but not always there.

When I was very young, he was still secretary at the Royal North Devon Golf Club in Westward Ho!  I think he stopped this when I was only two or three years old in the mid 1970s.  From then, until he died in 1988, he was based at home.  Initially renovating and refurbishing our family home – he was a skilled and very practical craftsman – and then out in the potting shed or kitchen garden, endlessly toiling the soil and growing stuff.  I’ll return to his distant, solid and very loving infusion upon both my soul and mind in subsequent episodes.  But first, a brief history of my father before I was a twinkle in his eye. 

Writing what surmounts to an episodic memoir of my first fifty years feels rather trite when I place my first fifty alongside my father’s first fifty-three.  He led an incredible life and is far more worthy of biography than me.  While he was still alive, virtually everything I knew of his former life came from my mother.  One of my greatest regrets is that I never got to have adult conversations with him: about farming; about drinking; about his past: the war; Cambridge; school; history, maths and science.  Maybe my rose-tinted glasses would be a little cloudier had he parted this life ten years later.  After all, I experienced none of the adolescent and undergraduate tension with him that so many children do with their fathers; including at least three of my five significantly elder half-siblings.  As an adult, I’ve mined various sources to build a more complete picture of Dad: as a father to my elder siblings, as a husband to their mother, as a farmer from various established Devon farmers and as a golfer, friend and much-loved character from family friends, but most of what I write here comes from my mother’s version of her beloved late husband’s version of events, which occurred before she was in his life.

Andrew John Hugh Payne Cook was born on St Andrew’s Day (30th November) in 1917.  He was the third of four children, and only son, of Rev. Canon George Gerald (known as GG) Payne Cook and Getrude (née Middleton Butler) Payne Cook.  His father and my grandfather, GGPC, was rector in Northam in North Devon.  Genealogically, not much was known about the family history of the Payne Cooks until recently.  The Middleton Butlers were a more documented family, with a line of Butler’s establishing and running Kirkstall Forge, a famous steel works in Leeds in the 19th century.  There is some evidence, researched by the father-in-law of a niece of mine, that GG was born a Cook but adopted the family name Payne upon marriage due to a bequest from an Aunt from GG’s maternal line.  It is possible that the Payne Cook name was established to impress the more upper class Middleton Butlers.  According to the research, GG’s father was a schoolmaster at Cheltenham college (my great grandfather).  His father and my great great grandfather, a John Cook, was apparently a carpenter.

A young Andrew, my father, purportedly played all sorts of stunts to extract himself from Sunday church services led by his vicar father and was, by all accounts, a very sporting young man.   He attended St Petrock’s Preparatory School in Bude (also attended by my four elder half-brothers) and then went on to Lancing, nr Worthing in East Sussex; a senior school which specialised in football over rugby, a rarity among boys’ public schools.  I have some of his old school reports from 1932-1933.  In his first year (modern day Year 9, or the 3rd Form), he was bottom of the class in English with this endearingly concise report, ‘Never have I encountered a boy more illiterate or disinterested in his academic studies.’  By the following year, aged 15, he had climbed to 4th in a class of 14 and had a more promising report.  He went on to become Captain of Football, and Athletics too, I think.

From Lancing he gravitated to St Catherine’s College, Cambridge to read history becoming a Cambridge blue in golf, athletics and football.  He didn’t study hard enough, and misbehaved a lot too, so was ‘sent down’ in his second year, then moving to Wye Agricultural college in Kent.

Then war in 1939, as an officer in the Royal Artillery.  He served in Italy and then later, under General Montgomery in North Africa and ascended to the rank of Lt. Col (Lieutenant Colonel) by the end of the war.  He never spoke about it.  Never glorified it.  As he was dying, when I was studying History GCSE, I did speak to him about the 1930s and the rise of the Nazi party in Germany, but I didn’t manage to glean that much.  He’d been abroad before the war, skiing and partying – there are some great photographs of him smoking, flirting and laughing in the aforementioned family collage compiled by my mother.  After the war, after friends and contemporaries being shot dead next to him; after the irrepressible heat and the unimaginable grimness he vowed never to go abroad again in 1945, and he stuck to his word.

He married Anne Somerset, a niece of Lord Raglan, whilst on leave during the war.  Their first son, and my eldest half-brother, John was born in 1943.  A second son, David, was born in June 1946.  Shortly after his birth, my father was searching for farms in Warwickshire, so that Anne, a stage actress could continue with her career.  Then tragedy struck.  She hung herself and died when David was just three weeks old.

I cannot begin to imagine the grief and pain of those weeks and months for my father: back from the war, two young sons and a dead wife.  I know very little of exactly what happened next.  Initially my father’s two sisters looked after the boys but then he found a good nanny and mother for them, Phyllis, who he later married.  They moved to Devon, where he managed a farm for someone else in Musbury, near Axminster in East Devon for two years from 1947.

In 1949, Andrew and Phyllis, John and David moved to Cleave Farm in Newton St Petrock between Holsworthy and Great Torrington in North West Devon.   Their first son, James was born in 1951; a daughter Elizabeth, known as Lizzie, followed in 1952 and then Quintin (number 5), was born in October 1955.  From 1949 to 1961, they lived in the large Devon Stone farmhouse at Cleave.  My father expanded the farm from 233 acres to nearly 300 acres, a large farm back then by Devon standards.  He employed four men – the three Hutchins brothers and Henry Vanstone who Dad used to tell wonderful stories about.  Cleave is only three miles from the home I grew up in and I have become well acquainted with it in recent years.  The Poole family farm it now.  By all accounts, my father was a pioneering farmer in the growing age of mechanisation and glory days of farming in the post war boom, with huge demands for food and a rapidly growing population.  He milked a herd of Ayrshire Dairy cattle and reared beef and sheep and grew arable crops too.  I am extremely envious of my elder half siblings, growing up on a working farm.  I’d have loved it.

I think Dad still farmed at Cleave until 1964 but in 1961 the family moved, twelve miles North to Woodtown Manor between Alverdiscott and Bideford.  There, my father invested in a herd of ‘virus free pigs’ but the venture, so far as I understand failed.  I have since found out from the Poole family that the herdsman my father recruited to run the Dairy herd at Cleave was also a disaster and all this was going on while my father’s second marriage was breaking down.  I wasn’t there and I’ve since grown very close to my elder half siblings, most of whom feel that my father treated their mother rather badly.  So far as I understand, my father was unhappy, busy farming, drinking a lot, spending a lot of time in the Union Inn at Stibb Cross, having an affair, or countless affairs and – in his spare time(!) – he also spent a lot of time at his beloved Royal North Devon Golf Club in Westward Ho!

Woodtown and the farm were sold in 1964, a year or two before land prices doubled and my father invested a lot of the money into some golf practising contraption, the swingmaker or something or other.  Phyllis and the younger children, moved to Wiveliscombe in Somerset and in the mid-sixties, my father took the rather unusual step of moving to London, in Shepherd’s Market, Mayfair with his lover, Liz.  He was trying to secure investment in the swingmaker but he didn’t patent it and someone else launched a very similar product and he ended up losing a lot of money.

He returned to Devon around 1967, and a flat in the previous United Services college building in Westward Ho!, where Rudyard Kipling had gone to school and became secretary of the golf club: drinking, smoking, playing his part in creating perfect golf greens, and – of course – playing rather a lot of golf. 

Then, presumably boredom, followed by flattery.  Flattery that a lively female, twenty-four years his junior should bat an eyelid at his big man, but rather out of shape presence.  My mother came into his life in 1971, then after nearly eight years of separation and eventual divorce from Phyllis, they married.  Divorce disapproval and subsequent disinheritance from his two rich spinster Aunts from the Butler side of the family left him with very little money.  Then a run down Withacott Farmhouse, in need of modernisation.  Then me, when his story became my story too. 

Stories numbers 2 and 3 from 50 (to celebrate my fiftieth year).

Before 1) Fertlisation, next 4) A short biography of Andrew Payne Cook then we’ll get onto stuff I actually vaguely remember from 5) The Chocolate Factory and 6) Westward Ho!

2) Nearly born a bastard

I grew up in a late 17th century farmhouse with a Victorian extension in the rural hinterland of North West Devon.  My mother still lives there, the house now in an endearing yet considerable state of disrepair.  My parents bought it in May 1971, with seven acres and an extensive range of outbuildings, for £8100.

The hub of the house is the large farmhouse kitchen, replete with obligatory and antique oil fuelled Aga, pine dresser and pine table.  Off the kitchen is the ‘Snug’: a gloriously scruffy semi-derelict den of TV viewing, former family TV dinners watching Top of the Pops and Tomorrow’s World on Thursday evenings, board games, my Mum’s old PYE record player and collection of 45 singles and a shelf spewing a wall of technologically defunct recordable VHS video cassettes: Grease; Blame it on Rio; Footloose; Annie; The Sound of Music; Risky Business; Weird Science.

When I was a child we lived in those two rooms – with an army of dogs – and my Mum still does today: now dogless, childless; a widow of thirty-three years; fiercely independent; gregarious and sometimes lonely.   The painstakingly paint-stripped pine door from the kitchen; adjacent to the Snug took you into another world.  A world we passed through – momentarily – every morning and every evening.  My Dad carried the bulbous, heavy, 13 inch portable Panasonic TV upstairs every night, until the mid 1980s: to watch the 10 o’clock news upstairs, having watched the 9 o’clock news downstairs. 

To the left of the long, narrow hallway were two doors into the dining room, a large room used for infrequent late 70s and early 80s dinner parties hosted by my parents, special family occasions and my mother’s delicious Sunday roasts if we had wider family visiting or staying.  The dining room features in a later story (the Strangest Day of my Life), so, at the foot of the stairs, to the right of the hallway (or on your left if you were important enough to enter the house through the front door), we’ll withdraw after our metaphorical dinner into the Drawing Room, nicknamed the Dromy (droy-me).

The Dromy is my favourite room in the house.  It has a large East facing window recessed deeply into the Devon cob walls.  On the windowsill there are sun degraded bottles of Whisky, Sherry and Cinzano untouched since pre-lunch drinks in the late 1980s.  Bookcases, brimful full of books that haven’t moved for over forty years cling to the rest of the eastern wall and the south-eastern corner.  The external ground level to the south is about a metre higher than the floor level internally, so my Dad decided – somewhat eccentrically – to fit two circular, wood framed port holes either side of the large fireplace and chimney breast.  The rest of the room is filled with two sofas, two armchairs and a lot of brown, antique furniture.  On the surface of the furniture there are countless family heirlooms:  silver cigarette boxes, cigar boxes, cigarette lighters and ashtrays; an inkwell; lady’s glove stretchers made of ivory; some Herand rabbits and a large ceramic Buddha.  Nothing has moved from its place since the room was refurbished in 1975.  Paintings by mother’s artistic ancestors grace the walls. The room is timeless, warm, and home.

In the side drawer of the large gate-leg table along the windowless and doorless western wall bordering the kitchen, there is the original family home photograph album.  The drawer is a pig to open, and the floppy album is stuck together with fractured layers of dried Sellotape.  Inside the album are several pages of photographs of the house, garden and barns taken in the Spring and Summer of 1971. 

Then there are some photographs of my mother and father with her parents next to a newspaper clipping announcing their engagement in the Daily Telegraph.  After that there are pictures of me, baby Toby, and later my younger sister; then a never-ending procession of my mother’s former London friends and their children on Westward Ho! beach in full, glorious technicolour.

As a late teenager and early twenty something, I was always fascinated by this photograph album: extracting it carefully from its drawer, delicately unfolding its heavy, faded pages and showing friends of mine from boarding school who’d come to stay, and later, a girlfriend or two – down for the weekend.  By the late eighties and early nineties the house and garden had changed immensely from those old photos from the early 1970s. 

It was around this time, into early adulthood, that I noticed something else.  I noticed that my parents’ engagement announcement had been doctored.  An indelible black ‘1’ had been etched above the newsprint ‘2’ below it.  My parents did not announce their engagement in April 1971, but in April 1972.  They married on 3rd August 1972, three weeks before I was born.  I have some vague recollection of my mother – Dad was no longer with us – sheepishly explaining this heinous crime against morality to me in the early 1990s.  I couldn’t understand the fuss, yet obviously delighted in winding my mother up by overstating my mortification that I was so nearly born a bastard.

This huge cover up is indicative of the paradoxical traits of my dear mother.  On one hand she was deeply unconventional: spontaneously moving out of London and terminating a long affair with a married man to start a family with my father, a man twenty-four years her senior, with five grown up children and a self-contained desire to remain in the environs of sleepy, rural North Devon for the rest of his days.  On the other hand, she was strongly guided by the book of etiquette and correct form (published 1923); seemingly fearful of revealing to me that I was so nearly born out of wedlock.

3) Genealogy, my mother and a long lost country estate in Gloucestershire.

So, I had officially begun.  In the physical, cultural sense.  At twenty past three in the morning, on my birth day.  Fortunately, I don’t remember any of this; nor what followed for about another four or five years.  I’m fascinated by this; by the primitive nature of new born human babies.  A calf, foal or lamb can walk within minutes of birth.  Yet all we can do is scream, poo, piss and suck.   We don’t walk until we’re around one, and not proficiently until eighteen months or so.  Yet, by the age of two we start to talk.  And then those pernicious artefacts of culture take over: family, education, work, finding meaning where there is none, art, literature, science, joy, despair; mortality.

I am frequently bewildered by our obsession with age appropriate and understandable vocabulary in our education system, when we learnt to speak our mother tongue by silently absorbing a plethora of sounds, their associated facial expressions and radiated mood from our mothers, parents, carers, grandparents or elder siblings.  What happens inside our brains between 0 and 2 is nothing less than a miracle.  It is almost impossible to fathom how it happens and neuroscientists and neurogeneticists are only beginning to figure it all out.  For most of the last one hundred years or so, our attempts to understand our exponential cognitive, emotional and social development have resided within the field of psychology. 

I am far more interested in the human condition from a psychological and philosophical perspective than from a purely chemical, genetic and evolutionary basis.  I delight in shades of speculative grey; subjectivity; opinion and experience despite having trained my brain scientifically, logically and rationally in the pure, black and white world of science.  Simplistically, psychology is akin to nurture while pure science is akin to nature.  The nature Vs nurture debate is petering out as we learn more about the dark, twisted and wonderful complexity of the human brain; understanding that both are incredibly important, and complementary.

It is interesting watching this false dichotomy unfold and rupture in the most vociferous and passionate corners of the teaching profession.  Since the 1960s there has been a mainstream subtext of nurture and psychology to the way we educate our children.  The idea that nurture and experience can make anything possible for all of us.  This belief sits uncomfortably beneath the noisy Govist and Gibbesque neo-traditionalism, which places greater emphasis on purely cognitive development, of imparting knowledge and cultural capital as a foundational template for all from which to prosper in a modern, economically driven society.

Whatever one’s educational beliefs, none of us can deny the mounting evidence that it is a combination of our genetic inheritance (established upon the formation of our zygote approximately nine months before our birth) and our intense emotional inheritance from our pre-school years of life outside the womb which make up the largest part of who or what we become.  I’m not suggesting that what happens to us, and what we experience from the age of six or seven onwards doesn’t play a part in influencing our future choices and decisions in friendships, education, relationships and work, but I’m fairly sure that our characters, capabilities and complex psychologies are borne, and largely unchanged, from the myriad interactions of our genome (genetic template) with the intensive nurture of our early childhoods.

Yet, none of us can remember much of what the hell happened in those early years.  From later evidence, I know that my mother loved me very much; perhaps too much.  And she would have spoken to me incessantly.  She likes to talk.  I like to talk.  We both talk far too much.  Neither of us appear to be able to do much about this debilitating malaise.

Those months and early years in close proximity to our primary carer – in my case, indubitably my mother, leave an indelible impression upon us.  In comparison with my younger sister, who spent a lot more time with our father in our childhood than I did, I am similar to my mother, in character and personality. 

We both have astonishingly good memories for facts, dates, events and people.  We are both extremely gregarious yet very content in our own company and greatly appreciate solitude and freedom.  We are verbose and give the impression of being terrible listeners because our minds are racing at three hundred miles an hour.  We probably both have an undiagnosed form of ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) which we’ve developed various coping strategies for throughout our lives, to varying degrees of success.  I’d also suggest we’re fringe bi-polar, not in a hugely debilitating way – more of a mild cyclothymia – where we get huge rushes of energy, intensity and dynamism, offset with bouts of mild withdrawal and low mood, or cynicism and obfuscation.   And we love to shock.  To be outrageous; to push the boundaries of socially acceptable language and behaviour, at times.  We both find a great many people – frankly – rather dull and we’re often rather transparent, or brutally honest, about it.

So, once I developed my own voice and opinions, we have had a fun, fiery and oft infuriating relationship.  We have argued like cats and dogs and minutes later moved on like nothing had happened.  I am deeply interested in the psychology of early childhood, and I’m very happy to navel gaze at my own rather unconventional formative years but this is a taboo subject for my Mum, and consequently one that I’m rather fascinated by.

While I’m interested in the psychology of childhood and our emotional inheritances, my Mum is not outwardly interested in this – indeed when I recently quoted Philip Larkin* at her, she was mortally offended and took it personally rather than in the more general, broader, deeper societal malaise sense.  But Mum is much more interested in genealogy than me.  I have a sense that it defines who she perceives herself to be much more than I do.  I mean, I’m not, not interested.  I do love a family tree.  But my resemblance to Great Grandpa, or what my Great Great Great Grandfather did or didn’t do in the Crimean war doesn’t feel particularly consequential or relevant to whatever I do or don’t achieve in the twenty first century.  Our sociocultural and socioeconomic backgrounds can flip in a generation now, whereas we were – generally – entrenched ‘in our place’ generation after generation prior to the second world war.

Shortly after my maternal grandfather died in 1993, my mother compiled a huge collage of black and white family photographs.  The photographs range from the 1870s (my mother’s maternal grandmother as a young child) to the early 1980s (my childhood).  My mother had gleaned a few photographs from my Dad’s side of the family but most people in the faded pictures were Notts (my mother’s maiden name) or Francis’ (her mother’s maiden name). 

The male Notts had a distinguished, British empire and military infused history and my Grandad had the middle name Kandahar, which has passed – pompously in my opinion – down through my Uncle, cousin and his son as a family name.  There was a General Sir William Nott who led the march on Kandahar way back in the middle of the 19th century (1800s).  A statue of him, which I’ve visited with my mother, stands in Nott Square in Carmarthen, in South Wales.   She isn’t outwardly celebratory about the Nott family history, but she is very proud of her brother’s success in politics and banking. 

My uncle is Sir John Nott who was Conservative MP for St Ives and the Isles of Scilly from 1966 – 1983 and was most prominent as Minister for Defence in Thatcher’s cabinet during the Falkland’s war of 1982.  He also famously stormed out of an interview with Sir Robin Day on Newsnight, when Day accused him of being a ‘Hear Today, Gone Tomorrow’ politician.  After politics he returned to the city and made stupid amounts of money as Chairman of Lazard bros, and then Hillsdown Holdings.  My mother constantly compares my restless mind to his.  For several years, I felt a certain inadequacy that I’d not climbed to the upper echelons of politics, banking or commerce that my rather lovable, very affable and incredibly impatient Uncle did but as I will explore in later memories, my mind is a contusion of Nott restlessness and a more earthy, creative Payne Cook dreaminess, with an absence of shrewdness and virtually zero interest in the mechanics of the financial world.  Also, I’m not sure genealogical ‘greatness’ is so relevant – or indeed possible (quite rightly, in my opinion) – in the twenty first century.

My mother appears to have a far greater affinity for her maternal line – The Francis family – than the Notts.  My Mum has always been scathing about her father.  Consequently, she has ruled that all Scorpions (my mother is obsessed with Astrology) are flawed at best, evil at worst.   Unfortunately, both her son-in-law and daughter-in-law are Scorpions!  I’ve never got to the bottom of the flaws in her father, other than the generic, ‘he didn’t treat my mother very well.’  The Grandad I knew until I was twenty-one was quite a character: a charmer and raconteur.  I wasn’t especially close to him, but he seemed harmless enough.  My mother, and father described him as being a bit of ‘a Jekyll and Hyde.’

My mother was exceptionally close to her mother and is very protective of her memory.  Granny had a stroke before I was three and was paralysed on one side of her body, affecting her speech and mobility.  She died seven years later following another stroke, not long before I turned ten.  We visited her regularly, but I had no deep emotional bond with her.   Maybe this is why I’m not especially interested in genealogy, because I only had a deep emotional bond with my parents.  My paternal grandparents were both dead before I was born and I had no strong connection or regular contact with either of my maternal grandparents. 

My mother talks a lot about her Francis grandparents.  Her Great Great Grandfather Francis was vicar of St Giles in the Heath, near Great Torrington and Monkokehampton, near Hatherleigh in Devon; her Great Grandfather was vicar of Bridestowe, on the northern edge of Dartmoor and Grandfather Francis (my great grandfather) was Doctor in Northam, near Bideford, in the early part of the 20th century (1900s) at exactly the same time as my father’s father – my paternal grandfather – was vicar in Northam.   My mother – when she was a young girl – remembers accompanying her Granny Francis (the Northam Doctor’s wife) for tea at the vicarage with my paternal grandmother, Getrude Payne Cook (the Northam Rector’s wife).  So, the Francis family sired several generations of rural pastors and then a doctor, all residing in the bucolic paradise of rural North Devon.   This aspect of ancestral genealogy deeply resonates.

In the mid 1990s, when I was in my mid-twenties, I particularly enjoyed a visit to Bridestowe with my mother.  We ambled through the village and churchyard and bumped into a church warden.  She invited us in for tea and spoke engagingly about the past and then she took us along the road, into another cottage and introduced us to an even older lady, in her mid-nineties who remembered my Great Great Grandfather well.

The ancestors my mother is most interested in are the Stephens family, her paternal grandmother’s line.  They had a large family seat in Gloucestershire which left the family in the mid 1800s.  This is where it all goes a bit Downton Abbey and I lose interest!  Family heritage and social class boundaries are of great, subliminal, importance to my Mum.  A large part of her values and social hierarchy appear to be influenced by this heritage.  She’s an upper middle class Victorian with a potty mouth, born in 1941!

Mum was the youngest of three children. John is nearly ten years her senior and a sister Jill is seven years older than her.  John and Jill were off at boarding school from the age of seven, so my mother almost grew up as an only child, possibly mollycoddled and over-protected by her mother.  Her early years during the war were spent in Devon with her grandparents but she returned to Shortlands, nr Bromley in Kent aged four.  At twelve, her parents moved to Westerham, on the rural fringe of South East London.  Her father commuted into the city as a commodity broker, and they retired down to Devon in the late 1960s.  Also aged twelve my mother went to Lillesden girls’ school as a boarder in Hawkhurst in Kent.  She misbehaved, didn’t do any work, enjoyed sport and left at sixteen with a solitary O level in French. 

My mother has a ridiculous capacity for facts and oozes quick-minded intelligence, so when I quiz her about her less than glorious school career, she – somewhat bitterly – says that her education didn’t matter because she was a girl.  She claims that girls’ private schools in the 1950s had no academic aspirations for their charges and that the schoolmistresses were all ‘lesbian spinsters’ and awful teachers.   I’m not entirely clear what or where my mother drifted amongst in her late teens but by 1959 she was in London.  Her longest job was being responsible for wedding gift lists at the General Trading Company, on Sloane Street, just off Sloane Square.  She lived in a shared flat on Radnor Walk, off the King’s Road.  She was a Chelsea girl in London’s vibrant ‘swinging’ sixties.

In 1971, she was twenty-nine and her biological clock was undoubtedly ticking.  She’d been having a long affair with a married man, then married to his second wife and she had no intent of becoming his third wife.  She went to stay with her parents in Westward Ho! in North Devon for the Easter weekend.  The Royal North Devon Golf Club (the oldest links course in England) was a mainstay of Devon visits, where she encountered my father, then fifty-three.   She’d had a crush on him when she was fifteen and he was thirty-nine.  There’d always been a Devon connection between the two families. 

What happened next remains completely unfathomable to me, but both my parents were at a crossroads in their lives.  Dad was secretary at the golf club, separated from his second wife and living in an apartment in Westward Ho! with his mistress (my mother’s description, not mine).  Mum was twenty-four years his junior, living and working in London and perhaps a little bored at the waning end of a long affair. 

They chatted one evening in the golf club bar.  She still called him Mr Payne Cook.  The next day, my mother was playing mixed foursomes with a friend, who would become my Godfather.  They were doing rather well.  Then my father walked out across the course, to the fifteenth green and handed my mother a letter.  She fluffed the last three holes, much to the chagrin of my competitive Godfather to be. 

After that, my mother terminated her affair and her frenetic London life, moved to Devon and planned to marry my father.  I only exist because of this bizarre and spontaneous whim.