I have only one real talent. I believe that I’m reasonably good at a few things: I can cook well, although I don’t have a large repertoire; I can write clearly and understand what I’m writing; I take driving very seriously (and you need to in Hong Kong), although I do drive fast when the opportunity arises; and I used to be quite a good rock climber (more of that later). But I have but one talent.
I have a prodigious long-term memory, and it has dictated my entire life history. When I attended primary school in the 1950s, a subject then known as ‘general knowledge’ was highly prized, and I happened to be very good at it. It is now a major source of personal annoyance that it’s no longer ‘general knowledge’. It’s called ‘trivia’, and it is regarded as ‘useless’. Apart from everyone wanting you in their quiz team, having a good memory has little practical use according to the values of modern society.
Anyway, everything that I read or learned in class stuck in my memory without my even trying. Perhaps I could have made profitable use of this ability, but I also have one besetting vice: I’m a chronic idler. This, too, has been a strong influence on my life history. I saw my memory skills as merely a way to avoid unnecessary work, like revising for exams.
Mind you, I only just made it. Remember, this was 1964, and only 8 percent of eighteen-year-olds got to go to university. And my only offer was for an ordinary degree at Manchester. But I got a lucky break. My subject was geology, and in those days few schools were teaching it. However, I had the great good fortune to have studied the subject at A level, so almost all the first year was a repeat of stuff that I already knew. As a result, I did extremely well in the first-year exams and was consequently upgraded to the honours course.
Something else of major significance occurred during that first year. As part of the course, we were expected to attend a two-week field trip to the island of Arran in the Firth of Clyde during the Easter vacation. Arran can fairly be described as a ‘geology textbook’, with excellent examples of most types of rock and formation that a geologist is likely to encounter. However, every time we stopped at a new rock outcrop, I noticed a small group of students at the back who, instead of listening to the professor expounding on what they could see, were setting each other little one-move climbing problems on another part of the outcrop. I joined in and found it to be more fun than listening to the professor’s exposition. I went out rock-climbing for the first time soon after my return to Manchester.
After that, everything would have gone according to plan, except that I didn’t have a plan. I went out rock-climbing every weekend, whatever the weather, even snow. And I spent more time in the bar than in the library (to be honest, I cannot remember now whether I visited the library once or twice during my three years as a student). But I did attend every lecture. And I never took notes.
At the beginning of the third year, I faced one of those crucial tipping points in life where the later significance of decisions made isn’t considered seriously. We were expected to choose four subjects from a list of seven. Three of these were cast-iron picks, and two were equally certain rejects. This left two: structural geology and economic geology. And had I chosen the latter, my life would have been entirely different.
However, as I discovered much too late, the lecturer who taught structural geology was an insufferable pedant, the type who awards seven marks out of ten for a perfect essay. This clearly had a bearing on my final results, because the marks for this subject turned out to be well below the average of the other six. On the other hand, I was still pretty confident after three exams. I knew I’d done well in two, although I didn’t do myself any favours with one answer in the structural paper. You wouldn’t believe the contortions that theorists used to perform to explain the huge recumbent folds in the rocks of the Alps. I answered that this phenomenon is most easily explained by Africa moving north into Europe and cited a handful of controversial references, but ‘continental drift’, as it was then called, was openly ridiculed. I doubt that I scored seven out of ten. Annoyingly, within six years or so, plate tectonics had become accepted theory! My relative scepticism about science, which I’ve referred to in a couple of previous essays, stems from this time.
Anyway, that left the final, final exam, geochemistry, which was to be held on a Monday. This gave me the weekend to do some make-sure revision. But Saturday morning was sunny, and one of my classmates called:
“Fancy going to Stanage [a gritstone edge near Sheffield]?”
Thinks. Sure, I can always revise on Sunday.
Sunday morning was also sunny, and another classmate called.
“Fancy going to Frogatt [another gritstone edge near Sheffield]?”
Thinks. Which is more important? Frogatt, obviously.
All was not lost though. I looked at the final paper. Answer three questions (in three hours). I picked two and produced very good answers. Just one problem: it took me two hours and twenty minutes. I really needed an easy one, and my eye alighted on a calculation in thermodynamics. Excellent, I thought, I’m good at thermodynamics calculations. Oh dear! It took me thirty-eight minutes to realize that I couldn’t do it. I could have written enough in forty minutes on any other question on the paper to get the required marks, but with one simple error I blew 8 percent of the entire mark for my degree.
Even more annoying in retrospect, I discovered later, through my Stanage friend, who had decided to stay in Manchester to do his PhD, that I’d been a borderline case and the subject of lengthy discussion. In practice, this meant that I missed out on going to Oxford to do a PhD in geochronology by a very fine margin. So I almost got away with it. The irony is that my sponsor to Oxford was none other than the insufferable pedant. And I’d have been working on samples that he’d collected for his own research. I used to wonder whether he realized that his miserly marking was one reason he didn’t get his specimens dated.
So a door closed. Or did it? The bigger irony is that with the kind of money I was able to earn between 1968 and 1970, I could have financed my own PhD. That I didn’t is another story, but rock climbing has a lot to do with it.