Category Archives: On this day

Hello – you must be my wife!

Poitiers town hall

Poitiers Town Hall in France – I met my wife on the front steps 28 years ago today…

Ever since I started re-reading my diaries for followthehumming, I’ve been counting down to the day I met the girl I would one day marry.

And so here we are. 26th October, 1986.

28 years ago, today’s the day.

Just for the record, here’s the ‘how did it happen?’ bit:

Back in 1986, I was about to start a year abroad in France, teaching English in a junior school in Royan. Unbeknown to me, my equally blissfully ignorant wife-to-be was going to be doing the same thing in the nearby secondary school. We met on a basic teacher training course in the regional capital, Poitiers, and were both immediately disappointed to find out that another English student was going to be living in what we had already separately decided was going to be ‘my’ town. My (as it turned out, entirely inaccurate) diary entry for the day we met tells me this unwanted female interloper was “a year older than me, and quite serious” and that – on the train journey we took together to Royan once the course had finished – she was not terribly talkative. This was October 1986, yet by Christmas not only had there been a bit of a turnaround, but we’d set out on a relationship that has now survived 28 years and three children.

The tiny, insignificant events that all had to come together perfectly for us to meet still amaze me – as do the ever-widening impacts that our life together has had (yes, I’m talking about you, kids!). If ever there was a moment of singularity in our own personal universes, our meeting was surely it.

Identifying the absolute key moments in the randomness of our lives before we met is impossible. I asked to be sent to that particular town in France because of a previous family holiday nearby – the only overseas holiday we ever had as children. But what were the events that conspired together to make my parents choose to travel to that specific location when they did? My wife’s request to teach near Royan was similarly based on the flimsiness of chance. She’d had previous experience nearby as an au pair, something that could have taken her almost anywhere.

In some ways, the odds that we would ever meet at all seem vanishingly small. But of course that assumes she is The One, and that no other Ones could possibly exist – a theory that neither of us – rather unromantically, I’m afraid – subscribes to. Perhaps a more interesting question might be to ask what the odds are of meeting someone who it’s highly likely you could end up spending your life with.

Well, it turns out someone has already given that particular question a decent amount of thought. Researcher Peter Backus published a rather tongue-in-cheek paper in 2010 entitled ‘Why I don’t have a girlfriend‘ in which he used Drake’s equation (suggested by Frank Drake in 1961 to estimate the possible number of alien civilisations in our galaxy) to work out the size of the pool of his potential partners. By focusing on a variety of measures of compatibility and practicality (things like age, education, location and mutual attractiveness), Backus determined that there were 26 women in London at the time that he could possibly have a ‘wonderful relationship’ with, and that the odds of meeting one of them on a given night out in London were about 0.0000034%, or 1 in 285,000. This may sound rather depressing, but in a very satisfying and odds-defeating postscript, Backus ended up meeting someone and marrying her last year. Here he is describing his paper:

My conclusion? Well, I’m not sure there is one, other than to confirm that life is full of tiny moments of coincidence that almost all have the profoundest possible impact, however insignificant they may seem. And that sometimes, if you’re as lucky as I have been, they can work their random magic in a way that transforms your life.

Advertisements

Atomkraft? Nein danke!

Smiling sun: Atomkraft? Nein danke.Diary date: 18th May, 1986

My diary for this period 28 years ago makes a series of slightly concerned references to an ‘apparently quite serious’ nuclear accident in ‘a place called Chernobyl‘ – a previously unheralded town in the then Soviet republic of Ukraine.*  With typical reluctance, the Soviet authorities only agreed that an accident had taken place after the radiation alarms went off at the Forsmark Nuclear Power Plant in Sweden – over 1,000 kilometres away.

‘Apparently quite serious’ turned out to be a significant understatement. Chernobyl remains the worst nuclear power plant accident in history (in terms of cost and lives lost) and is one of only two to reach the maximum classification on the International Nuclear Event Scale – along with the Fukushima Daiichi tsunami-related meltdown in 2011. Its effects continue to be felt to this day.

A decade earlier, the accident at Three Mile Island had thrown doubt on the future of nuclear power, but Chernobyl cast an even longer shadow. It quickly became impossible to imagine a completely ‘safe’ nuclear plant, many countries began scaling back their nuclear ambitions, and 70’s-style ‘Nuclear power? No thanks!‘ (or more frequently, ‘Atomkraft? Nein danke!’) stickers began to proliferate once again.

Yet despite all this, the industry survived and eventually began to thrive. In many ways, the longer-term impact of Chernobyl was to promote the international nuclear cooperation which has resulted in today’s more robust global safety regime.

Nuclear remains controversial for obvious reasons, but with the end of fossil fuel supplies in sight and global warming an increasing threat, many countries – the UK included – are returning to it as the possible answer both to longer-term energy independence and challenging climate change targets. Even some of the early environmentalists who were instinctively anti-nuclear – such as Whole Earth Catalogue author Stewart Brand – have begun suggesting we should revise our thinking. Brand now sees nuclear as the cleanest current form of reliable, grid-scale energy generation, and believes there are practical ways of dealing with related issues such as reprocessing, waste storage and weaponisation.

Remembering how I felt watching events in Russia unfold, it’s hard to believe that the push for ‘green’ energy is yet to yield a resounding winner. And if the post-Chernobyl nuclear makeover continues, it may be some time yet before the incentives to develop clean renewables are quite as strong again.

*These sorts of national boundary changes are nothing new to followthehumming – and current events in Ukraine suggest more may be on the way before too long.

Crossing the Channel by stagecoach

Channel TunnelDiary date: 26th January, 1986

My 1986 diary has more space than the previous year and comes with an unexpected bonus feature – an area headed ‘Notes’ every two or three pages. On the now 28-year old Notes page for January – conscious of my requirement to keep abreast of all things French – I solemnly recorded the fact that British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and French President François Mitterand had signed an agreement on the building of an undersea tunnel between the two countries.

The scheme they chose involved the construction of two one-way rail tunnels for shuttle and high-speed trains, plus a third service tunnel connected to the other two at regular intervals. Among the schemes they had rejected in coming to their decision were a suspension bridge, a set of artificial islands joined by bridges and a tunnel, and a set of road and rail tunnels.

However, for sheer visionary ambition, I doubt anyone has ever really improved on the plan put forward in 1802 by mining engineer Albert Mathieu-Favier. Favier suggested a single two-level tunnel. The lower level had practicality in mind and was a watercourse designed to collect and deal with the inevitable leaks. By contrast, the upper level was an altogether more romantic affair. It was to be used by horse-drawn carriages and stagecoaches, and lit with oil lamps. Air was to be provided by great iron chimneys connecting the tunnel to the surface, towering at regular intervals above the waves. Half way across, an artificial island was to be built on top of Varne sandbank to allow tired horses to be changed and travellers to rest and stretch their legs.

Favier’s zeal was sufficient to gain the support of Napoleon Bonaparte, who took the opportunity at one point to discuss the tunnel with a visiting British statesman – Charles James Fox. However, with war in the air – and the British suspicious of the First Consul’s motives – the idea was quietly put to one side.

Today’s tunnel is about as far from Favier’s vision of sedate, lamp-lit carriages as it is possible to get, with high-speed Eurostar trains hurtling beneath the sea at 100mph and the world’s largest roll-on-roll-off shuttles ferrying lorries and cars to and fro every 20 minutes. It’s an astonishing feat of engineering – and one that Favier would almost certainly have approved of.

2014 is the new 1986

Diary date: January 5th, 1986

1986 h

The first month of a new year is as good a moment as any to pause and reflect on my followthehumming journey so far. Re-reading my 28-year old diaries week-on-week has been fun and fascinating, sobering and thought-provoking. I’ve used the differences between then and now as kick-off points for what I hope have been some interesting contrasts, but what has really hit me hardest is how little of the detail I genuinely remembered. There’s a whole new blog post just in that thought, but at times I barely recognised the person writing the diary, let alone the situation he was agonising about.

So now I’m moving on to a new diary for 1986, one that covers a whole new set of hopes and fears. As it starts, I’m close to half way through my second year at university, I’m working hard and playing hard, I’ve just  fallen for a lovely new girlfriend, and – if I but knew it – I’m also about ten months away from meeting my wife for the first time.

One thing that will make 1986 a little easier to write about than 1985 is that it’s a perfect clone of the current new year, 2014. Every Tuesday then is a Tuesday now, every weekend is a weekend.

Whether the similarity ends there, I am hopefully about to discover.

Happy new year!

Wimbledon: normal service is resumed

WimbledonDiary date: 2nd July, 1985

If my diary has it right, I think I may have watched more of the 1985 Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Championships than I have of any tournament since – including the one that’s happening right now.

The reason? I was waiting.

Nervously.

The first year of my course in French and Scandinavian Studies had come to an end and I was about to head off for the Summer to work as a cleaner on a Gothenburg dockyard. While I waited anxiously for departure day and the trip to Harwich to catch the ferry, I sat mesmerised by the goings-on in SW19 and tried not to think about how little Swedish I could actually speak.

Somehow, that little patch of grass in London was like a haven of stability just as everything was about to change – reassurance that things would turn out for the best.

So, in honour of the hallowed turf that helped keep my nerves at bay, here are five Wimbledon men’s service-related facts of the kind that might have kept me occupied for at least a minute or two of my maiden voyage across the North Sea.

Meanwhile, I’m off to catch that ferry.

1. Height equals speed

As a top player, more centimetres in height generally equals more speed on your serve. In fact, the link is so strong that an analysis of Wimbledon statistics from 2009 showed that the height of a player in centimetres is almost exactly equal to his average first service speed in kilometres per hour!

2. Aces high

More aces are served in the men’s singles at Wimbledon than at any other slam tournament – the US Open comes next, then the Australian, then the French. Between 1990 and 2009, the number of Wimbledon aces shot up from about 1,900 to around 2,900. The number of aces per tournament has grown steadily at all the other slams too.

3. Speedy slams

In 1999, the average men’s first service speed at Wimbledon was about 15 mph faster than at the French Open. But by 2009, things had evened out, and the average first service speed at all four grand slam tournaments was almost the same at around 116mph. The record for the fastest serve ever at Wimbledon belongs to Taylor Dent and stands at 148mph.

4. Falling  faults

Despite the general increase in service speeds – particularly at the Australian, French and US Opens – the number of double faults has fallen sharply in recent years. In 2001, the double fault count at Wimbledon was about 1,600. By 2007, it had halved to about 800.

5. Second try

The average men’s second service speed has been steadily increasing since 2000 in all Grand Slam tournaments except Wimbledon, where it has remained relatively steady at about 97 mph.

Just for the record, while I was waiting for my slow boat to Gothenburg back in 1985, Boris Becker beat Kevin Curren to win his first ever Grand Slam title, and in the Ladies’ final, Martina Navratilova beat Chris Evert-Lloyd.

(Data courtesy of the School of Physics at the University of Sydney and Wimbledon.com; Image credit: Spiralz)

Lessons of the Black Ball Final

Diary date: 6th May, 1985

The impact of change over time is a consistent theme on followthehumming, but today I salute that bastion of continuity and tradition: sport. My diary tells me that around this time 28 years ago, I was sitting in a crowded room watching the final moments of the ‘black ball final‘ – the astonishing climax to the 1985 World Snooker Championship.

Steve Davis was the dominant player of the day, the unflappable defending world champion. His opponent was Dennis Taylor, the genial Irish challenger with the specially-made glasses which made you wonder why no-one had ever thought of them before. After two dramatic days during which Taylor had consistently lagged behind, the score was finally tied at 17 frames each with just one left to play. Shortly after midnight, with a wonderful theatrical flourish, the final frame then came down to the very last ball, the black. After an edgy few minutes, Davis was presented with a respectable chance to seal the match, but missed it. Taylor stepped in, held his nerve, and completed the unlikeliest of comebacks. Incredibly, the moment he was crowned world champion was the first time he had been ahead in the entire match.

Back in 1985, snooker was close to the peak of its popularity, and somehow the final had captured the imagination of much of the country. 18.5 million people watched the concluding 68-minute frame in the early hours of an otherwise unremarkable Monday morning – a figure that remains a post-midnight audience record for any UK TV channel.

In 2013, the same game has literally just reached its climax, with ‘Rocket’ Ronnie O’Sullivan beating the unheralded Barry Hawkins in the world final in the very same venue, the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield. Apart from the cut of the waistcoats and the irritatingly prominent sponsorship, little has really changed.

While the rest of the world races on at the breakneck pace epitomised by Moore’s Law, sport draws much of its appeal from a sense of continuity and an ability to compare today with the years that have preceded it. When this is threatened – in particular by improvements in technology, equipment, training and preparation – steps are often taken to ensure the essence of the game is retained. When the increasing speed of the Wimbledon serve began to dominate to the point of boredom, the grass was made slower. When hi-tech golf clubs started increasing average driving distances, tees began to move backwards. Even when significant changes are proposed, like rugby union’s move to five points for a try, American Football’s decision to move the goalposts to the back of the end zone, or baseball’s introduction of the designated hitter, they’re almost always made to safeguard the spectacle that the original rules intended.

I’ve written before about how technological advance sometimes means fundamental change – which is why I’ve suggested that reading a book and reading on a kindle may actually be two different things. But largely thanks to the enthusiasm of fans, players and governing bodies, the world of sport generally still manages to remain joyfully exempt from any serious break with its past.

Calling places, not people

Diary date: 2nd March, 1985

Remember what it was like to make a telephone call to a place, not a person? Here’s how it was. . .

[A public payphone rings in a crowded student common room in a hall of residence. Sarah looks round and realises that no-one else is going to answer it. She picks it up.]

“Hello?”

“Oh hi, it’s Andrew’s mum here. I was wondering if he was there?”

“Hi Andrew’s mum! It’s Sarah here. Give me a second and I’ll see if I can find him for you.”

[Sarah turns to the room.]

“Anybody seen Andrew?”

[Various shakes of the head. No-one replies. Sarah goes to stand by the stairs.] 

“Tony! Are you up there? Tony! Is Kirsty with you? Andrew’s mum’s on the phone and I was wondering if she knew if he was in? Tony? Oh, for goodness sake!”

[Sarah returns to the phone.]

“Andrew’s mum? Hi, it’s Sarah here again. Really sorry, but I’m going to have to go and have a look. Can you hang on?”

“Yes of course.”

“OK. I won’t be a minute.”

[Sarah runs up three flights of stairs to Andrew’s room and knocks on his door.]

“Andrew? It’s Sarah. Your mum’s on the phone. Andrew?”

[Andrew appears at the door, looking hung over.]

“Thanks, Sarah. Can you tell her I’ll be down in a minute?”

[Andrew pulls his clothes on and drags himself downstairs five minutes later. He picks up the phone, trying to ignore everyone else in the room.]

“Hi Mum.”

2nd March, 2013

. . . and here’s how it is now:

[Andrew is asleep in bed. His mobile rings. He is slightly hung over and winces at the ringtone. He reaches over, picks it up and looks at the screen. It’s his mum. He groans, presses reject, rolls over, and tries to get back to sleep.]