RALPH AT LARGE
A long time ago, a good friend of my mother gifted me a book on pond life. I still have it (Engelhardt, Wofgang and Merxmüller, Hermann, 1964. The Young Specialist Looks at Pond-Life London: Burke). In those days I would cycle down to the marshes that fringed the southern edge of the Swale, the arm of the Thames/Medway estuary that separates the Isle of Sheppey from the mainland. The richly-smelling drainage ditches on the mershes contained all manner of freshwater invertebrates, as well as populations of small fish such as Rudd. I would return with my watertight saddlebag filled with damp water weeds, to be loaded into an aquarium, liberating any captured beasts. I would also retrieve more creatures from watercress that my mother purchased, which in those days came straight from the watercress beds unwashed, with attached mud and including much wriggling life!
At school I was good at biology (thank you Mt Burrell), fired by my interest in pond life. I bought and pored over a battered paperback of Ralph Buchsbaum's Animals Withut Backbones. When the time came to choose Advanced Level subjects I was torn between arts and sciences, and my parents pushed me towards the latter, assuming that it would be easier to gain respectable employment with a scientific degree. I therefore went on to take A Level zoology, botany and chemistry, and managed to gain a place at Imperial College, London, to study zoology.
I studied at the Royal College of Science between 1967 and 1970. I was lucky enough to be one of the last to study old-style zoology and botany, statring with single-celled organisms and working upwards, sitting in the Forbes Laboratory beneath the glassy stare of a stuffed fish that had probably been collected on the chalklenger expedition, and may have stared a H.G. Wells a few decades earlier. The botany lab was beside the steps leading up to the Royal Albert Hall, and our studies might be occasionally accompanied by warming-up musicians. During fine weather, when windows were opened, we would hear musicians practicing in the Royal College of Music across the road.
I thoroughly enjoyed my first year. had slightly less fun during the second, and by the third had lost much of my enthusiasm for zoology as it was in 1970. I had several vacation jobs, those on archaeological excavations at Mucking, Essex, and in the London Roman Forum beneath the corner of Fenchurch and Gracechurch Streets being the most memorable. A summer job at East Malling Fruit Research Station made me realise that I probably wouldn't survive a career spent counting aphids, examining the reproductive organs of small flies, or working on ways to kill as many of them as possible.
During the first two years, in the Forbes Lab, which looked out on the Beit Quadrangle on one side and the Royal College of Organists on the other, Mrs. Dowson bravely assisted us in our attempts to dissect various slimy creatures and mount others on microscope slides. Life centered on the Beit Quadrangle: on one side there was a snack bar where we could purchase thickly-cut jam sandwiches. Zoology and Botany had a side each. On the fourth side was the Student Union, with its bar noisy with rugby players and its cafeteria.
We digressed a little into physiology (using such advanced technology as smoked wax cylinders to record the twitches of frog legs) and mathematics (using hand-cranked calculators to work out our statistics). But mostly we peered at entire creatures, or bits of them. By the third year our departmental library had been absorbed into the huge main college library, and the museum in the zoology building basement, where I'd drawn many mammal bones and peered at pale specimens floating in glass jars, had vanished.
I may not have become an entomologist, but having learned something of their incredible variety and beauty, I did come away with a deep love of plants and animals that has never diminished.