Ch 1. Downing prelude and coda
I came up to Downing College, Cambridge, from Hemsworth Grammar School in South Yorkshire on an RAF six-months’ short course in September 1943 to read Geography. I have poor memories of this period. I spent three spells in a sick-bay in Emmanuel College with a septic throat, leading to a three-and-a-half weeks’ spell in the RAF hospital at Waterbeach having my tonsils removed (and providing a guinea pig for sodium pentathol then under trial as an anaesthetic) before I joined the RAF as an aircrew cadet in April 1944 (Figure 1.1).
Figure 1.1. AC2 3040938, May 1944
Reminiscences of a career in Geography
After six weeks’ square-bashing at Scarborough and 12 hours initial flying training at Brough near Hull, I remained a cadet awaiting training for over a year. In the meantime, I was periodically posted to load bombs onto aircraft at RAF stations (including the dam-busters’ squadron at Coningsby in Lincolnshire) and twice wangled spells into the meteorological sections of flying control towers at Oakington and Waterbeach (where I was once confronted with knowing what to do – which I didn’t − with a freak May-Day radio call from an aircraft seeking to make an emergency landing at Mersah Matruh in North Africa!). I was in New York en route to flying training in Florida when the Japanese war ended in August 1945, so was quickly returned to the UK (on the Queen Mary, then a troop-ship). Thereafter, with other grounded cadets, I was sent farming: harvesting potatoes in Lancashire and Lincolnshire, and frozen sugarbeet in the Fens. In mid-1946, I was promoted to the dizzy height of sergeant (on 10s/6d a day) and transferred to the Education and Training Corps (where, so far as I recall, I was the only one benefitting from my education activities). I was demobilised in July 1947.
Having been ill for much of my first innings, I decided to start first-year Geography again when I returned to Downing in the Michaelmas term of 1947 on the then-ample £240 a year RAF grant. I recall with pleasure the friendship and company of fellow geographers Terry Sayles and Dai Williams whose rooms on the ground floor of I staircase in 1947-48 also provided an informal common room for other mutual friends including Don Hitchcock, Bob Nixon, and brothers Tony and Chris Williams (who, if I recall correctly – which, at 88, I don't always! – took over the same rooms in the two following years). In the summer of 1949, with Tony, Chris, Terry and Dai, I made a one-month trip through France, Andorra and northern Spain in a war-surplus 30-cwt Bedford truck, acting as photographer and taking the opportunity to learn how to develop, manipulate and print photos on our return.
I don’t know that I contributed much to Downing during my second innings. I was not a sportsman, nor did I join any college society. But I have much to thank the College for. It was my tutor, Clive Parry – a renowned international lawyer, not a geographer – who got me onto the first rung of the remarkable career in soils and agricultural development that I subsequently enjoyed; (he had also tried, unsuccessfully, to get my regional essay on the Pontefract liquorice industry published). Several months after I had gone down, while I was on a teacher training course, he put me in touch with someone seeking recruits for a soil survey in the Gold Coast. I promptly applied, was duly interviewed, selected and appointed, gladly abandoned the teacher training course (the airy-fairy theoretical part of which I would surely have failed) and, as will be described in Chapter 2, left for the Gold Coast in April 1951.
While a student, both at school and at university, I had been fascinated with weather and the coming ice age – I vividly remember the ebullient climatology lecturer Gordon Manley's growing excitement as, twice, the North Sea stated to freeze over – and my ambition was to become a meteorologist. However, that field was patently full after the war, with so many meteorologists having been trained in the armed services. Even now, however, my eyes still lift up to the clouds before they look down to the landscape or soils. But I don’t regret finding that celestial door closed and a more down-to-Earth one opening. Meteorology became a numbers game, for which I would have been ill fitted. I started my professional career at the very beginning of geomorphology-related soil surveying for which I was much better suited. I could not have been more fortunate. I have much to thank Clive Parry for in opening that door to me!
I then lost touch with Downing for some years, though I always spent parts of my home-leaves in Cambridge where an uncle and his family provided what was, in effect, a second home for me. I did, however, keep in touch with Benny Farmer, a former supervisor in John’s; and it was he who, in 1979, suggested to me the name of a PhD student, Bill Adams – now Professor W.A. and Downing Fellow – for a short-term consultancy in cartography on a project I was then running in Bangladesh. It is through the latter that I subsequently maintained a loose relationship with Downing, supplemented later, as I will describe in Chapter 6, by my funding research studies in the Geography Department via donations to the college. The latter has provided me with a means to thank the college for the benefits that I clearly received from my education in sensu lato and the manifestly in loco parentis tutorial system. Seventy years after I came up to Downing, I was greatly honoured in October 2013 to be invited to become the Honorary President of the college geographical society and to have the society named the Brammer Geographical Society. Thankyou again Clive Parry!
Cambridge remains a second home. I acquired a residence there in 1994 – off Chaucer Road, up and down which I had frequently marched while in the University Air Squadron in 1943-44 – intending to move there at a time when I was involved in consultancies with colleagues who lived near Cambridge and where we sometimes met. However, I never got around to moving substantively, so I still enjoy having both a splendid sea-view in Hove and, in effect, a country residence in Cambridge (where I can see the stars on clear nights). I visit Cambridge about once a month while participating in research studies that I have promoted, but I now mainly visit Cambridge on pit-stops en route to and from family in Yorkshire. In the next chapter, I will explain how I came to be called Hugh, the name by which I am now generally known.
Figure 1.2 With founding members of the Brammer Geographial Society, November 2013