King George V Grammar School – KGV for short – was a state grammar school in Southport on the Lancashire Coast that was founded in 1920 and that was succeeded in Autumn 1979 by King George V Sixth Form College .
The last remark I recall a teacher making to me before I left school was by George Wakefield who told me I should carry on writing. I’m glad he did, because it’s a remark that I remembered. Over the years since, that encouragement has helped me to keep on writing and recently to achieve a long-held ambition to write a book.
At KGV, I was part of a small group of ex-grammar school boys and former High School girls who met in Autumn 1979 in the newly formed Sixth Form College to take the Oxbridge Entrance exams. The preparations for our tests – written as well as oral interviews in our chosen colleges – seemed somewhat haphazard, a mixture of tackling previous exams – physics questions in my case – and meeting together once a week with Mr Wakefield for a debate on history, philosophy or politics. In his class we were set essays as homework, none of which of mine had any discernible merit, except for the week we were tasked with writing a short story. My tale about a young lad who loses his way on a mountain and finishes up meeting his time-travelling granddad was praised by my teacher and featured in the 1980 edition of The Georgian. It marked a second essay success for me at KGV, which followed a previous piece of homework I’d been set as a 12-year old by my previous English teacher in 3X, Mr T.B. Johnson.
“Why I would like to visit America” was the title, and my first line, which I only re-read quite recently, now seems like it would be hard to beat. “I would like to go to America”, I wrote, “to see whether it is really as bad as it is made out to be”. It was clearly an original take for kids at that time, most of whom would have wanted to visit Disneyland, and Mr Johnson liked it enough to stump up the one pound entry fee and post it off to the organisers of the 1975 National Essay Competition. My essay was selected as the winner of the Junior Section. Not only did I receive a silver cup from Prince Charles at St James Palace – for which I was happy to miss my end of year exams – my parents and me as well as my teacher and his wife (thanks to that one pound entry fee) got to enjoy a lovely sunny holiday in Bermuda, all expenses paid. (We were supposed to cross to New York on the QE2 and then fly to Bermuda but the ship caught fire shortly before we sailed so we flew directly to Bermuda instead.)
So writing at KGV seemed to pay off, at least when it wasn’t debating historical, philosophical or political topics (I remember a caustic comment by my history teacher, Mr Collier, that my line “Meanwhile back at the Royal Palace” belonged in a mass-market novel and not in a serious essay about the Russian revolution). But after I left school, I concentrated on science. The absorbing business of studying physics and maths at Durham, then maths at Cambridge and a PhD in environmental science at Imperial College took up much of my time, effort which has been rewarded with a fulfilling career in climate research at the Met Office. I became a scientist, not a writer.
Nevertheless, I didn’t give up creative writing completely. In 2009, I attended my first writing course at one of the houses belonging to the Arvon Foundation, a wonderful organisation dedicated to fostering the development of writers of all abilities. After that I tried my hand – with limited success – at writing a climate change thriller and a climate change play, but eventually, after attending another Arvon course in 2016 on Popular Science Writing, I started writing a book about my own experiences in scientific research. I wrote about the search for the causes of climate change, the antics of the climate deniers who sought to delay action on climate, and the victims of climate-related disasters including the people I met whose house had burnt down in deadly fires. Many words and several years later, I was taken on by a literary agent who sold my book, Hot Air, to Atlantic Books for publication in 2022.
It will have taken me a long time to become a published writer, 42 years from when I left KGV in December 1979 with those words from George Wakefield, if not ringing in my ears, then at least resonating somewhere in my psyche. Thinking back to those days it reminds me how important my teachers have been to me, not just in the sciences, but also in the arts. Messrs Collier, Johnson and Wakefield taught me to have confidence with words as well as with mathematical symbols. Thanks to them, I have had a writing as well as a scientific life, and for that I am very grateful.