Life with an Inventive Father

contributed chapter for A Scottish Childhood, pp.154–158, edited by Antony Kamm and Anne Lean, Collins (1985)

Early on an April morning in 1947, the through train from King’s Cross steamed into Helensburgh Upper station. My mother, my sister and I had come to live in Scotland. This was a great transition point in my life, because my first eleven years had been spent in England.

My father’s work on television kept him in London and until 1939 the family had lived in Sydenham, near the Crystal Palace. At the outbreak of war we moved to Bude in North Cornwall and it was there that my really vivid memories begin. The family at this time included my maternal grandmother and we all crammed into a succession of rented houses, each of which seemed to be a long walk from the school, the shops or the beach. My father continued with his research at Sydenham despite the bombing, and he would come down to Bude once or twice per month. I recall the excitement of standing on the Southern Railway platform, waiting for the 5:09 to appear. My father would emerge tired after the long and crowded journey, but he usually had small presents for Diana and me. Sometimes there would be sweets, and sometimes a small gadget from his laboratory.

My father tried to instruct me in optics, and I recall the pleasure of discovering that a piece of paper could be set on fire by focussing the sun’s rays on it with a lens. If the weather permitted he would take Diana and me for a walk along the beach. He was a slow-moving figure, muffled in cap and greatcoat even in summer. From time to time he would stop and stare out to sea, deep in abstraction.

He may have been thinking of research in progress, such as the 600-line colour television system that he demonstrated in 1941 or the important consulting work he was doing for the government-owned company, Cable and Wireless. He may also have been thinking back over the turbulent history of television his early breakthrough with the world’s first television pictures in 1925, then the transatlantic transmission in 1928, and the long and bitter struggle of the Baird Company against its Marconi competitors and the sceptics at the BBC.

My mother was temperamentally quite different from my father. She was about twenty years younger, and had begun a promising career as a concert pianist in the late 1920s. She cheerfully admitted that she could not mend a fuse, let alone understand the technicalities of television. My father for his part was totally unmusical. My mother tells the story that late one evening they were listening to the radio, and my father said “Margaret, I think I recognise that tune.” It was the National Anthem.

Whereas my father was abstracted and absent-minded to a fault, my mother had an engaging personality and took up most of the household responsibilities during the war years. She also found time to play in concerts for charities and for the troops, and to teach some pupils from Clifton College which had been evacuated to Bude from Bristol.

From my own selfish point of view, World War II was a happy time. I enjoyed school, and as I got older I explored more widely the superb beaches and cliffs of North Cornwall, which have been described so well in John Betjeman’s poems. For my parents, however, the war was a struggle. My mother had been used to an affluent prewar life, but now she had to make do with wartime rationing and shortages. My father continued to carry a punishing workload in London, amid the air raids.

At the end of the War, the family moved to Bexhill, in Sussex, My father’s health had been weakened by his war work and he died in June 1946. Four months later, my grandmother died. My mother was left in a difficult position with Diana aged fourteen and me aged eleven, and with my father’s estate greatly depleted by the expenses of his wartime research.

Thus it was that in April 1947 we all moved to Helensburgh to stay with my father’s elder sister Annie Baird who lived with her housekeeper Margaret Scott in “The Lodge”. This house had been bought by my grandfather, the Rev.John Baird, shortly after his marriage in 1878. Annie and my father had both been born there, and house had passed on to Annie on my grandfather’s death in 1932. It stood (and still stands) four-square on the corner of Argyle Street and Suffolk Street, a solid grey stone villa in a large garden containing overgrown shrubs. The house had started life as a bungalow, but my grandfather had created an additional floor, the rooms of which had much lower ceilings than the ground floor rooms.

Annie Baird was a formidable character, well known and respected in Helensburgh. She had been raised as a daughter of the manse, and then she qualified as a nurse and served throughout the 1914-18 War in casualty clearing stations. She was always reticent about her war service but her notebooks, medals and citations tell a story of heroism. She served again in World War II, by this time in her late fifties, as Assistant Matron at Lennox Castle Hospital, near Glasgow.

On arrival at Helensburgh, I was enrolled as a day boy at Larchfield, the local preparatory school. Here again I was fortunate that it was a happy school, in great contrast to what it had been fifty years earlier when my father had been a pupil. The headmaster, William (Nobby) Clark was a true scholar and a gentleman. It was with his coaching and encouragement that I was able to win a scholarship to Fettes in 1949.

Outside school, my abiding impressions of Helensburgh are of the lush greenery, the marvellously aromatic air, and persistent rainfall. The population consisted mostly of retired people and affluent businessmen, and there were few organised amusements for youth. In “The Lodge” I discovered a wealth of Victorian books -- Dickens, Stevenson, Conan Doyle, and in particular the early works of H.G.Wells. These books had belonged to my father and his name was still on the flyleaves. Wells’s scientific stories influenced me as much as they had influenced my father, and led me along the lines of experimentation and gadgetry. To some extent my exploits in Helensburgh in 1947-57 were a parallel to my father’s early exploits described in his memoirs. But whereas my father had been interested in cameras, telephones and early motoring, my interests centred on chemistry and radio transmission.

Chemical enthusiasm crept up on me insidiously. I started innocently enough with a bought chemistry set containing “safe” and rather boring chemicals but my interests soon extended to fireworks …and explosives. With a few contemporaries I endangered life and limb and the peace of the quiet back streets of Helensburgh. I must have given many grey hairs to my mother and my aunt, but the only accident was a burn to my hand from a badly behaved mixture containing red phosphorus.

Radio was a good hobby thirty years ago because of the abundance of cheap army surplus components. My other source of material was the occasional defunct radio set obtained from Mr.Manderson’s repair shop. In the course of building a badly adjusted receiver, I discovered the art of transmission and it was not long before I was in two-way radio contact with a friend about half-a-mile away. We carried out our experiments in dread of detection by the Post Office, as we had not attended to the small formality of obtaining an amateur radio licence.

Perhaps it was as well for all concerned that these activities were somewhat curtailed after I entered Fettes in September 1949. It had been a great coup to win the scholarship, for it covered all the fees and the family finances would not have allowed me to attend otherwise. However, Fettes proved to be a much less pleasant experience than my earlier schools. Like my Baird ancestors I was an individualist, and the pervasive discipline of an English-style public school did not suit my temperament at all.

Moreover, Fettes at this time laid a tremendous emphasis on sport, notably rugby football, at which I did not excel. School life thus became a continuous exercise in evasion, and only in my last two years when I got into the sixth form did I regain some self-respect. Academically, of course, I gravitated to the science side. Although the academic slant of the school in those days was decidedly to the classics, the mathematics and science teaching was excellent. I owe a particular debt to Dr.Harland and Mr.Naiff who were able to direct my enthusiasm into constructive channels which have led me away from explosions and into a career in chemical engineering research.

What would have happened if my father had not died in 1946? The family would have stayed on at Bexhill, the financial situation would undoubtedly have improved, and in all probability Diana and I would have received a completely English education. It is curious that my father’s tragically early death was the factor that caused me to have a Scottish childhood, and to learn so much about him through living at his birthplace in Helensburgh for ten years.