In October 1938 I went up to University College London, travelling daily from Welwyn Garden City to Kings Cross, and then walking to Gower Street. I had a useful but minor County grant, but the bulk of my expenses were shouldered by my parents.
Living at home and making a long daily trip is not a particularly satisfactory modus vivendi for a student, notably because it greatly restricts the social life which is so important a part of what a university should offer; however, I made a good effort to join in college activities. Still uncertain about Christianity per se I joined the Student Christian Movement and made some good friends, I played squash, I listened to talks by Professor JBS Haldane, who was given to carrying out experiments using himself as a guinea pig in the interests of humanity, I became friendly with a fellow student -Don Kitchener, an industrial chemist, who travelled daily to UCL on the train from Welwyn North. We often travelled together.
My principal objective was defined as obtaining a degree in Geography, but on account of having failed my Latin “O” level, necessary as an entry qualification for an Arts degree, I was obliged to switch from the Faculty of Arts to that of Science, both of which included Geography as a study. This meant entering the first – Intermediate Level – year of the Science Faculty, which would have been unnecessary in the Arts Faculty.
In the end, this extra year was for the best. I would feel deprived not to have taken both arts and science mainstream studies to a reasonable level. Moreover, my Latin failings channelled me into membership of a rather select group – a scientist with an arts background.
My chosen first-year topics at UCL were Geography, Physics, Botany – my long time interest – plus Geology, this last to make up the four subjects needed and because it was advised as easy and as most relevant to Geography.
The physics was uneventful. I will not say I particularly enjoyed it, but it followed on naturally enough as a progression from my O level of 1936, and very useful it later turned out to be when the start of my army days was to involve a crash course in electronics. Medical students also took this physics course in their first year. As many of them hardly seemed to take their studies – of physics or anything else – particularly seriously this fact left me with, I fear, a permanently warped view of the medical profession.
The Geography Inter course was a disaster. As in the case of a number of subjects, the departmental head, in this case, a well-known geographer named Professor CB Fawcett, chose to lecture to first-year studies himself. His principal foundation topic was natural regions, on which he had written a beastly little book, and his announced intention was to begin at fundamentals in order to direct his students into the correct frame of mind from the start. This meant pedantically crawling across ground well below the level I had already reached at school. Professor Fawcett, although well-intentioned, was also humourless and uncharismatic. He rapidly put me off geography – in hindsight, it was perhaps as well.
The botany course also received its lectures from the departmental head, a Professor EJ Salisbury, joint author of “Plant Form and Function” by Fritsch and Salisbury, a learned tome to which I still refer. Unlike Professor Fawcett, Professor Salisbury was a good teacher, small, rotund, busily, and competently earnest. Despite my botanical enthusiasms I turned out to suffer from the disadvantage of finding myself in a class of students of whom most – probably all – had studied academic botany for a number of years at school. Much to my chagrin, I ended by getting a second in the Botany Inter exam.
The Geology course was the surprise, and again…