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There isn't a Snake in the Cupboard

A Review of the Life of J H Fremlin

CHAPTER 3 - 1927 to 1931
John, Celia and Margaret, 1927
At about the time John was finishing junior school, the family moved along Berkhamsted's High Street to a bigger house at number fifty-seven. This house had more room for John's indoor hobbies one of which was building Meccano models. Over the years, he had built up a sizeable collection of Meccano pieces by regularly spending most of his pocket money on them. When there was nothing else going on, he would spend several hours a day bolting the coloured metal plates together, and this went on until he was at least seventeen. Most of his designs were not innovative, but were copied accurately from the leaflets that came with the sets or from the Meccano Magazine, and he progressed from ideas for beginners to extremely complex working models. But he was much put out when the Meccano Magazine ran a model-making competition for which he had no original ideas; Celia, who never played with Meccano normally, made a model of an Allosaurus chasing a man up a tree, the dinosaur making a series of grabs as a handle was turned, and she won a guinea's worth of Meccano parts for a prize. To add insult to injury, she wouldn't spend the guinea on nuts and bolts which were clearly needed, but got some fancy bits which could be used on particular models only. The end of the Meccano era came when the school asked all the boys in John's class to provide Meccano parts in order to build a group model. When this was taken apart, John was one of the last to come and collect his pieces and he found that many of those he knew to be his had already gone and there seemed to be no easy way to retrieve them.

When the weather improved for the summer, much of John's time was spent on his butterfly and moth collection. Not only did he catch butterflies but he also searched for caterpillars and carried them carefully home, not forgetting a supply of their favourite leaves. No one else wanted to use the attic and so he took his precious charges up there. At first he just put them in boxes together with a few leaves, but as time went on he developed his own style of ventilated case where his caterpillars could grow and pupate successfully. Made from wooden packing cases he found lying about, they were perhaps 18 inches high, 12 inches wide and 6 inches deep, with hinged doors. Large muslin covered windows gave the occupants air, and food plants could stand in jars of water inside the cases.

In an age when mothers couldn't provide a plethora of cheap plastic containers from their kitchens, John even made his own boxes for bringing his specimens home. Each little collecting box was made of strong cardboard and was cylindrical, with a close fitting lid made of a marginally larger cylinder with a circular piece of glass let into the top. To cut the glass, he traced a circle on one side of a piece of glass with a hardened steel glass cutter and then followed round the same line on the other side at which the line just split as he went round. He must have developed great skill to do this, for it is an extremely tricky technique and when he tried to revive the trick in his forties, either nothing happened at all, or the glass broke. As if this wasn't enough, he made a number of these boxes in nested groups of three, the largest having a diameter of two to two and a half inches and some of them survived for long enough for me to have been familiar with them during my own childhood: I still have one, which for some reason contains half a gold tooth!

Butterflies could be caught on summer days, and John often got up early to go out searching for them before breakfast taking Pete with him for company, but most moths had to be caught after dark. However, in the 1920's a number of the Berkhamsted school rules were the same for boarders and day-boys with the result that unaccompanied boys were not allowed out after 6 pm in the winter or after dark in the summer. John simply disregarded this prohibition, going to the bottom of Swing Gate Lane, which ran out into the open country, and where the last street lights of the small town attracted a lot of night flying moths. The moths attracted bats as well as the young collector, and with the sharp hearing of the young, John could hear their squeaks very clearly, though he did not know then that they were used for echo-location.

John also used the large attic, which ran across the full width of the house, to practise shooting with his airgun at a paper target with appropriate circles drawn on it. This used up a lot of expensive airgun pellets, which crumpled against the end wall of the attic after piercing the target. While in the garden one day he shot (for unknown reasons) an unoccupied deck chair and noticed that the pellet bounced off undamaged. So he hung a piece of cloth behind the attic target with a box lid below to catch the pellets. This was so successful that he then didn't need any new pellets until he had left Berkhamsted. Later he liked to point out that this discovery pre-dated the adoption of layered fabric bullet-proof vests. He also used to out of the bathroom window to shoot at small birds in the garden until he hit a blue tit. This so upset him that he stuck exclusively to his target from then on.

Although John would have said that his main interests were sport and his hobbies, by the time he was in the senior school he was regularly performing extremely well at his academic work; when he was fourteen, he won an internal school scholarship, which paid his school fees of £ 26 a year for the rest of his time at school. On the day she learned of his success, Margaret sent John out to meet his father on his way home from work to tell him. Heaver seemed pleased, but John was amused later when he heard him asking Margaret: "Scholarship, what is a scholarship?" Did Heaver really not understand the word, or, in distancing himself from the realities of bringing up his children, did he miss the fact that such a thing was available at Berkhamsted School? With Celia at the equivalent girls' grammar school, the Fremlin finances were very tight, and the scholarship must have made a big difference.

As John moved up the school, there was increasing pressure on him to join the OTC (Officers Training Corps). This was cordially disliked by practically all recruits, as it meant hours of drill in khaki uniform in all weathers. Theoretically it was voluntary, but in practice, everyone not excused for medical reasons joined. John held out for a couple of years, though frequently accused of 'letting down the House' and just as frequently told that membership was important for character building and developing the capacity for leadership. Eventually he succumbed and joined up. Most of the activities were as dull and uncomfortable as he had expected, but he enjoyed the lessons in shooting, and became quite a skilled marksman.

He lasted only eighteen months in the OTC. One day he noticed a poster on the wall of the armoury showing how to kill someone with a bayonet and pull it out ready to kill someone else in six motions. He could see no way in which this could improve his capacity for leadership or even less how it could build him into a good character, so he resigned. This seemed to be unprecedented, and led to some long and unpleasant interviews with his housemaster, who informed him that his defection was bad for his house, that his objection was trivial and irrelevant and that he was lazy. However, John stuck to his position and got away with it, pleasing his mother and disappointing his father. John continued to see himself as a person who normally took the line of least resistance: he always obeyed any school rules in the breaking of which he might have been caught, and he was still going to church every Sunday. But he already held one or two very strong opinions that led him to hold his ground against the stoutest opposition.

In making friends, John certainly took the line of least resistance: he allowed people to befriend him if they felt like it, and two boys in particular adopted him and became lifelong friends. Ronnie Lahey-Bean was, like him, a keen collector of butterflies and moths, but because of a weak heart, could not accompany him on his longer walks. Jack Coughtrey was the son of an unemployed stonemason, and also lived on the High Street; he had held a scholarship to Berkhamsted School from the age of eleven. He didn't collect insects himself, but was happy to take long walks with John while he scoured the countryside for them.

When he was fifteen, John took the School Certificate, a set of exams ancestral to the modern GCSE. In mathematics, there were three papers in each of which candidates had to do a certain number of questions out of ten and the teacher had told them that the geometry questions got the best marks. In each paper, John did all ten questions on separate sheets of paper, but handed in only the required number, including all the geometry questions. By this method he achieved three hundred marks out of three hundred, and a special school prize, 'The Life of the Bee'. Much to his amazement he also got credits in the biological part of the general science exam and in Latin.

So John went into the sixth form to do chemistry, physics and mathematics with subsidiary English and German, and continued to find all his work fairly easy. In later years he liked to say that he could have learned much more during his time at school had the teaching been better but really he was lucky to get a sound scientific education at sixth form level at that time: there was virtually no science taught at Celia's school. John's teachers simply stuck to the material that experience told them they could push relatively easily into the average brain. Thus the chemistry practicals consisted entirely of qualitative analysis, the detective work by which a substance can be identified: while the boys executed and re-executed the standard series of tests on each new powder, the teacher was able to mark the homework of junior forms. At about this time, John failed to re-discover chromatography -1- . He had overfilled his pen nib, and let the surplus ink soak into a piece of blotting paper. To his great interest, he saw a circular pattern with an inner blue circle and an outer red one. He realised at once that this meant that the ink had been a mixture of two colours, which the blotting paper had separated, but it never occurred to him to use the method to separate other mixtures that turned up later in chemistry practicals.

Practical physics he always enjoyed, but only one experiment stuck in his mind. This was the measurement of the viscosity of water by its flow through a capillary tube. The teacher having left his normally well-behaved class to get on by itself, a boy called Steele decided that it would be interesting to measure the viscosity of treacle. He filled a funnel with treacle, and rigged it up so that the funnel was above a piece of capillary tubing, the whole apparatus fixed precariously to the wall. The treacle ran into the capillary tube as planned, but advanced only a few millimetres in several minutes. So the inventive Steele attached another rubber tube to the bottom of the capillary tube, and lay on his back on the floor to suck it. Presently his audience noticed that the conical funnel had escaped its holder and was slowly bending over with the weight of the treacle. The class watched with bated breath and waved down a spoil-sport who was starting to warn Steele. A minute later, a large gob landed with a squidgy noise on his cheek, followed by a thin string, which twirled into his hair as he sat up.

The boys did not take their German lessons seriously and an ineffective teacher didn't help. For homework he would ask for a translation of a page of Die Forscherfahrt, but didn't require it in writing. John and two others organised themselves to simulate a useful amount of work: two of them took half a page each, and with a dictionary wrote in pencil the English meaning over each of the words they didn't know, which amounted to nearly all of them. The results were handed to the third member who would try to connect up the words into meaningful sentences, handing the result to whichever of the three was asked to translate. Eventually the teacher gave up and took his students round to the music room to sing German songs. John got to know by heart Die Lorelei and a couple of other songs together with their meanings and liked to sing them to Celia. After two years, John was left with good pronunciation, but not the basic knowledge of written German that was widely thought to be useful in a scientific career.

Subsidiary English went a little better. John usually tried to estimate the marks he would get in exams, and estimated 50% for both his English Higher Certificate papers, knowing that he had got all the contexts right, but that he would get very little for his essays. In fact he got 51% for one and 52% for the other. An unfortunate effect of the lessons was that he avoided going to any Shakespeare plays until he was over fifty, when, to his great surprise, he found that he could enjoy several.

John may have thought the teaching was uninspired, but the chemistry teacher had his own personal approach to preparing his class for the Higher Certificate exams at the end of their sixth form years, which influenced John in his preparation for exams for the rest of his school and university life. He suggested that instead of coming in for the normal chemistry practical lesson the day before the exams were to start, or doing a lot of last minute revision, they should walk to Whipsnade, where preparations of the enclosures for the first animals were well advanced, about nine miles each way. John and two others accepted. This was the longest walk he had ever undertaken, and with a nice sunny day, he enjoyed it immensely. It left him mentally rested, and he got a distinction in physics and the best all round results of the year. (Waiting for the physics result had been nerve-racking: the same chemistry teacher had suggested that it really was time John changed back to cursive writing. For the first half of the physics exam, John wrote in his best joined-up handwriting, only to decide that it was too slow, and so he changed back to his accustomed printing. The worry was that the examiners should think that two different people had had a hand in the script!)

John's life in the sixth form was much enhanced by the arrival of Wallis Chapman. He had been at a school in High Wycombe, which did not have a science sixth form, so his family moved to Berkhamsted. Wallis became a very good friend of John's. He was a fun loving character with ample initiative for two, and later he was to sweep John into numerous cycling trips and tours. When Margaret met Mrs Chapman, she found that they had much in common, and they collaborated in the staging of concerts for good causes. Wallis was one of those on the expedition to Whipsnade.

In the senior school, there were two day-boy houses, Bees and Swifts. John had been put into Swifts and was an enthusiastic supporter of his house in all sporting events. Finding the work easy, he had plenty of time and energy to throw himself into sport. He preferred rugby to soccer, and had at last caught up with the rest of his class in size and weight. In his final year he got into the Swifts' first fifteen, a team that had only had one try scored against it in seven matches, thanks mainly to its full back, John's friend Jack. In later years John was grateful more than once that playing this game had taught him to fall properly.

John was still quite proficient at gymnastics: there was already the germ of a showman in John, and although he avoided acting in class or school plays, he did like to be seen doing something well. He was also good at cross-country running for which he had had a lot of compulsory practice because the boys who were not in the OTC had to go on a two mile run during weekly drill on Friday afternoons.

So, when he was seventeen, John found himself in the Swifts' team of eight for the annual Ashridge to Berkhamsted school long run of about five and a half miles. Someone had told him that sucking a glucose sweet before the race would help, so this he did on his way up to the start. Then, when the starting pistol was fired, he made no attempt to push through the scrum, which developed when the sixty-four competitors had to share a narrow path. The result was that he was still fresh when the way opened out, and from then on was passing someone every fifty yards or so and, with half a mile to go, was running about seventh and feeling quite fresh, though a long way behind Jack Coughtrey who was in the lead. He hoped to overtake another three, but suddenly got a bad stitch and the bending and stretching, which was believed to cure this, slowed him down so that he overtook only two. To his great disappointment this meant that Swifts were on point behind Uppers instead of one point ahead and the unfairness of his body's behaviour rankled for many years to come.

Cricket on the other hand, he thoroughly disliked. In the sixth form it became his job to look after the cricket practices of the other non-team players on Monday, Wednesday and Saturday afternoons, which prevented him from enjoying his previous habit of climbing over the fence to watch tadpoles and water beetles in an adjoining field during his own side's innings. But one summer, the Swifts' scorer didn't turn up for the opening House match of the season, and despite the fact that John was known to be a poor cricketer and an untidy writer he was asked if he would mind not playing and coming to score. At the end of the game he told each of the players what his batting average was. He was then taken on as scorer for the rest of the term, which, he decided, was the first summer for a long time that Swifts had experienced reliable arithmetic and a scorer prepared to explain it. Some of the players could not see at first why their batting averages should change if they were got out without making any runs.

During the summer of his last year at school, John went up to Cambridge to try for a scholarship in the Trinity group. Jack Coughtrey had won a scholarship to Oxford the year previously, but John had decided that only Cambridge would do. This was partly because of the nuclear physics done there, but he also knew that Cambridge was an easy bicycle ride from Wicken Fen, the only place in England where one could catch Swallowtail butterflies. He appreciated that the latter reason was not one to be given out publicly as a deciding factor in a choice of university, and hoped that his mother believed that Cambridge had won because her cousin 'Uncle' Edward had taken an engineering degree there.

John didn't get a scholarship but was offered a place by Trinity College, and, having gained the school leaving scholarship together with £ 60 a year from his Godmother, Margaret decided that they could manage. She thought that it would be a waste of time to repeat the year at school, even though the staff there were confident that John would be successful if he tried for a scholarship again. Wallis won a place at Caius College, next door to Trinity.

1. A method of separating mixtures. In paper chromatography, the sort John found, the different components of a mixture spread through the paper at different rates, producing a shaded ring or stripe for each component.back

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This page updated 22nd June 2012