June 23, 2014, by Editor

Landladies and Laboratory Classes

Blog 2: Landladies and Laboratory Classes

In 1957 it was frowned upon by the University for students to rent and share houses and flats in the private sector: Nottingham’s finest, and there were fewer than 1000 at that time, had to be cosseted in halls of residence aping the Oxbridge tradition, or looked after by an approved landlady. My new Lenton landlady, Ada Gillott, was an absolute gem. Her house at 12 Lombard St off Willoughby St wasn’t salubrious as I indicated in Blog 1, but this was more than compensated for by the warmth of her personality. And the Willoughby St community had vitality in spades: there were three pubs known locally as ‘Top House’, ‘Middle House’ and ‘Bottom House,’ two beer-offs, two pawn shops and a bookies. Although off-course betting was illegal at the time, Pam the bookmaker was at little threat of being busted as her live-in grandson was in the police. But the centre of the community was the Wash House where all the local ladies congregated at least once a week and which acted as the local community centre. I soon learned that my Ada was a much-loved font of all wisdom and gossip affecting the area. She had a little trolley with which she used to transport the weekly wash – mine included – to the chlorinated cathedral where there were supplies of dolly blue, huge boiling vats, mangles and hot air driers. There was no piped music in those days but maybe ‘The Sorcerer’s Apprentice’ would have been appropriate! Personal hygiene facilities were also available and it was possible to immerse oneself in a huge Victorian bathtub filled to the top. Blocks of green carbolic soap were provided to cauterise oneself after a Saturday afternoon football game and one usually emerged from the Wash House for a night on the town with at least one’s exterior thoroughly sterilised by the dilute Lysol which issued from all taps. However, human papilloma virus (HPV) was resistant to such interventions and affliction with verrucas was a major hazard.

Question: Whatever possessed the Council to demolish this vibrant Willoughby St community in the 1960s and disperse the happy residents to miserable loneliness on distant housing estates?

Ada had brought up four children and graduated in the ‘University of Life’ with her skills honed by an ability to make light of all exigencies, including those thrown at her by Adolph Hitler. The last of her brood had left home shortly before I arrived and I was ‘adopted’ as the fifth child. Ada’s essential nutrients were satisfied by a fondness for Senior Service cigarettes, a glass (or two) of Guinness; and her intellectual succour provided on television by ‘Sunday Night at the London Palladium’ which was hosted by Tommy Trinder and then the young Bruce Forsyth, Mantovani and his shimmering strings, and stirring ballads from Kenneth McKellar and the talented and stunningly beautiful Shirley Bassey. Shirley’s recording of ‘As I love you’ was a mega-hit of 1958 and I still come over all misty when she sings those words “every single touch and tingle”. (Shirls: I do hope you’re reading this.) On a different cultural level I recall Ada and I watching together a riveting performance of Beethoven’s violin concerto – still a favourite of mine – played by Isaac Stern. Spells of television watching were always interrupted by the lights going out and it was necessary to stumble down the cellar steps to put another shilling in the meter.

Now, just because she had left school aged 11 to work in service – this is Ada again, not Shirley – don’t be fooled into thinking that such an upbringing was inimical to having deep insights into the essential ways of the world. Her native wit and intelligence were legendary: you could have taken her to a covey of Vice Chancellors and she would dominate them with her repartee.

Another Question: what is the name for a collective of Vice Chancellors? An ego trip?

The personality of my landlord Wally Gillott was a complete contrast; he was a quiet, gentle even studious, man. He served with the Sherwood Foresters through some of the most torrid battles of WW1 but, being barely five feet tall, was only a small target for enemy guns. He emerged from the carnage with a few shrapnel fragments in his shoulder. He never spoke about these experiences except to pass on some delightful gallows humour learned in the trenches. I particularly liked his use of the term ‘kybosh’ to denote a large stealth bomb, lobbed at random but with your name on it. “That’ll put the kybosh on it” was a favourite expression of his which I still use today. Wally was a die-hard Forest supporter and used to take a box on which to stand when attending matches. He rejoiced when Forest won the FA Cup in 1959.

My rent for accommodation, breakfast, evening meal and full board at weekends, was the princely sum of three pounds ten shillings a week. But my grant of eighty pounds per term left me with ample funds to live on. My eyrie in the attic of 12 Lombard St gave me a secure and happy base from which to launch my career. Every day I used to cycle across Lenton Boulevard, along Church St past the war memorial to Lenton’s fallen, including the legendary WW1 flying ace Albert Ball VC, down Gregory St, across a bridge over the River Leen, through a builder’s yard where QUMC now stands, to the Pharmacy Department alongside Clifton Boulevard. In 1957 the Department occupied a group of roomy but unattractive single-story pre-fab ‘temporary’ buildings built to house civil servants during the war. This was to be my academic home for the next eight years, and the buildings were still in use as cancer research laboratories when I returned to the University in 1992 for my second ‘coming’. I have a treasured brick from the much-loved building and other remnants can probably be found in the footings of the present Centre for Biomolecular Sciences. 

There were expected to be 40 freshers in Pharmacy, but the 1957 Asian flu pandemic decimated the class and it wasn’t until near Christmas that some of them turned up. Fortunately I only experienced mild symptoms but the virus, an influenza A subtype H2N2 reassorted meld of an avian and human influenza virus, caused many deaths worldwide. As we were not spoon fed lecture summaries in those days, those students struck down had to catch up by copying the notes of classmates. There were no students from the ethnic minorities unless you count Yorkshire folk who made up about 20% of the entry. It is interesting to chart the fashions in names over 50 plus years. My contemporaries had respectably strong names such Elizabeth, Julia, Kathryn, Mary and the boys George, Michael, Gerald, William, etc. Now the girls are called Chloe, Abigail, Amaryllis and unique monikers seemingly invented by scrabble-playing parents. I have even heard of two recent Pharmacy students called Torquin and Rupert. Crrrripes!

Some students were registered for the old two-year Pharmaceutical Chemist qualification (Ph.C) having already completed their apprenticeship year; others, such as myself, were in for the thee-year haul to a B.Pharm qualification. One of the former, Johnny Hatfield from Sheffield, was somewhat older than the rest of us having done National Service in the RAF. Apart from a wearying tendency to go on about his beloved Sheffield United and the brilliance of their centre half at the time (Joe Shaw)– “the best centre half which never played for England” he asserted – we soon became great buddies, even to the extent of sharing my grant for the first term as his never arrived. We had four lectures on the trot each morning and practical classes each afternoon except Wednesdays. I wasn’t hugely inspired by the lectures and relied on my own learning done in my freezing garret in Lombard St. That self-taught strategy had worked for ‘A’ levels and was to work again come finals.

Practical classes were more to my liking. I developed formidable skills in organic synthesis and could convert a black necrotic tar into glistening crystals merely by looking and talking to it – and in extremis seeding it with some dandruff! Volumetric analysis was more of a chore but I routinely incorporated a ‘fudge factor’ into my titrations. One demonstrator, puzzled at my uncanny ability to always get the analysis spot on, confronted me with the complaint “I know you’re cheating, but at least you can cheat straight”. I took that as a compliment. I also loved Pharmacognosy labs and could use my artistic skills to make my drawing of a shapeless lump of myrrh look like a real shapeless lump of myrrh. I adopted a little trick when drawing microscopic sections of plant tissues which involved taking the illustration in a book, turning it around 90 degrees and then copying it. The gentle Professor George Trease, whose ‘Textbook of Pharmacognosy’ I still treasure, never sussed me out.

Pharmacology practicals used real animals as sources of tissue. I recall the frog gastrocnemius leg muscle preparation. Slippery frogs had to be stunned first by holding them by the legs and bashing their heads on the edge of the bench – strangely the girls seemed less squeamish than the boys at this brutal act – then they were ‘pithed’ (the frogs that is) by sticking a needle down their spinal column; and finally the muscle was mounted in a bath of Ringer’s Solution and connected to a pointer recording on a rotating drum which was smoked in the soot generated by burning benzene. One downside of this primitive technology was that one’s lab coat inevitably got sooted up and, as I could afford only one, I wore it inside out when the appearance of hygiene was required. But the interplay of pharmacological agonists and antagonists recorded as twitches or no twitches on the drum was not easily forgotten from such experiments. I guess nowadays experimental pharmacology is mainly taught by simulations on video. Pity.

I didn’t seem to possess the fine manipulative skills to prosper in microbiology classes – well you can’t see the little critters can you – and I competed strongly for the position of being the worst dispenser in class. It was often a battle of wills between me and the lecturer, Miss Watson, who was an intimidating disciplinarianin class but charming and helpful outside. One subterfuge I exploited was to prepare injections which consisted solely of Water for Injections BP: to add the medicament risked introducing ‘bits’ which provoked a damning comment in my practical book. To overcome my ineptitude in preparing pills, powders, tablets, mixtures, creams, emulsions and the full gamut of the pharmacopoeia, I often took a sneak peek at what my skilful buddy Johnny was doing and copied him. He was an ace extemporaneous dispenser and wrote beautifully neat labels. I still have my ‘British Pharmacopoeia 1953’ with its notes and cribs to remind me of those struggles.

After successfully negotiating 1st year exams – but only just – it was clear that I was never going to make the grade as a community or hospital pharmacist; there were times even when I wondered if I was on the right degree programme. But these ups and downs did steer me towards concentrating on parts of the syllabus where I hoped I might make a future impact.


Malcolm Stevens 20/06/2014

Posted in Student Life