Bryden Allen's Website

My Dad




This long article was written at the end of 2005. I had just broken both my legs (the femurs) through falling out of my wheelchair – so I was going though a hard time. Somehow the simple exercise of writing about a wonderful guy like my Dad cheered me up enormously in this difficult circumstance. This writing period included Dad’s old birthday.
            These photos are just all the photos that are reasonable to show and I happen to possess. Many of the photos come from Dad’s own little booklet about hiking around the ACT in the 1920s and 1930s.

 

 

This is our Mum and Dad, as they were when

we were very young.

I liked me Dad very much (and he liked me) – so don’t expect me to give a completely unbiased view of him.
            My Dad presented a much more colourful image of himself while we lived on Mt Stromlo - so lets start there. To a not very discerning child of age 5 the outstanding feature of my Dad was that he was remarkably good at walking on his hands. True, when compared with my uncle Jim, he was nothing – uncle Jim could run, jump, gallop up and down steps etc. But then uncle Jim was not normal – he was built like a top - huge muscular development in his upper body and arms. For just a normal guy my Dad was incredibly good. So this was my first great memory of him. However there was another feature of my Dad that even at that early age was a lot more important to me - which I didn’t really appreciate then. This is that he was very keen on singing. Every night we would gather round the piano and sing (my particular joy was to sing ‘Tavern in a town’ or ‘Polly-wolly doodle’ - and then watch my Dad get flustered at the fast bits on the piano). At that early age this is what I assumed that everyone did in the evenings – this is why the evenings were created. I still feel the same way (as did my Dad but not quite as extremely as I do). Later, as I was to learn more about life, I was to find out that me and me Dad were a little abnormal. The real world is horrible. It was just that my Dad was extremely good.

 

 

 

My Dad was active and good at all the usual activities of the day - fishing, rabbiting (he had his own gun), swimming (his party piece was to cross a river by walking on the bottom ,carrying a large rock), cycling etc. Before getting married he had also been very active in road-walking and bush-walking. For us children the amazing remaining item of this period was his sleeping bag - it was his own construction and must have weighed about 20 kilos - neither I nor Clabon could lift it – imagine carrying this while walking 40 miles a day (which was dad’s road-walking pace). All this is reasonably well covered in his own little booklet ‘Bush-walking around Canberra’ - so I won’t go into details.
            Dad was a keen gardener and we kept chooks and goats (my job was to milk the goats - of which I was excessively proud). Somehow Dad was not real good at beheading the roosters (when due to be eaten). We always seemed to end up with a half-headed rooster tearing all around the garden. Everyone must have their weaknesses. When we needed to eat a billy-goat we needed a neighbour to help with the slaughter and this cost us half the animal. This always rankled with me.

 

            Dad was very keen on the scouts and we followed suit. The cub/scout sports day saw our family in all its glory. For a start Dad was shown high respect by the rest of the scouters and was always referred to as “the doctor”. {I don’t think Dad payed any attention to this at all – but I loved it). I, at least, took the sports very seriously indeed. First Clabon and I practised 3-legged racing until we could do it as fast as normal running. We were both naturals for obstacle races - but we practised it in any case. The sack race needed special attention because it depended on what sacks would be allowed. Thus we prepared for all situations. Firstly we were lucky in that we had these sacks in which goat’s food arrived. They were slightly bigger than normal sacks (and hence faster) but were scarcely distinguishable from normal sacks. We practised with these carefully as these were our special weapon. We prepared to put on a great fuss if people came with Hessian sacks - these were obviously too large and a complete cheat. Finally we practised with normal sacks in case only the scout-owned regular sacks were allowed. {In adult sack races people tend to jump. However when children are racing it is easier to run rather than jump – hence the size of the sack is more important.} Thus we could reckon with pride that the 3-legged, obstacle and sack races were virtually in our bag.

 

            Dad’s wider scouting associations also meant that we could go to some other exciting activities. My most wonderful memory is a night camping at the Cotter beneath tarpaulins with the bigger scouting fraternity. We were singing “Camptown Races” and it has this bit about “running a race with a shooting star” – and it so happened that it was an incrediblely starry night and shooting stars were doing their stuff all around us. A weekend skiing at Mt Franklin should have been more exciting. We went up in this old hired truck with everyone with packs piled in the back and singing. That was terrific but alas at that age the technicalities of skiing were too much for me.
            Let us end this period with this my most brilliant memory. The family were returning from a day at the Cotter in our old car. {An Austin 7 - a wonderful car – canary yellow (as are all true Austin 7s) - we just used to pile into the back via the windows and for short trips would often travel outside standing on the foot-runners - I wish we had kept it.} We had just turned into the Mt Stromlo road when Dad brought our car to a screeching halt, jumped out of the car, tore his pants off and started frantically spanking himself all over. We thought he had gone out of his mind - but in fact he just had ants in his pants. Dad was not always one for keeping his cool - so on occasions he could provide great entertainment to us all.

 

When Dad got his professorship and we moved to London he had - a new course to set up, new lectures to prepare and besides all this he had a very difficult book to write. So he started work at 4 a.m. and did 3 hours work before breakfast. He clearly now had much less spare energy. Still he was always around and we could always talk to him if we wanted to. I started to learn more of his past.
            The scout troop he belonged to in Western Australia was highly acrobatics oriented and hence his hand-walking abilities. He was also highly skilled on the horizontal bar. He taught some of the easier movements to me (but not the hard ones – thus at one stage he could do the full straight arm loop around the bar). Related to this he also had a keen interest in swings – thus he built us kids a swing at our house on Mt Stromlo. He had also been on a special swing in California where you have solid bars instead of ropes and hence you can do the full circle. Here he taught me my first bit of not obvious physics – I, like most kids, thought you went up because you sort of ‘pushed yourself up’ when going forwards. He explained that you go up because you do extra work by pushing yourself up at the bottom of the swing when your effective gravity is high and hence you go up because of the law of conservation of energy. It was definitely true because you can do a double swing (push up on both the forward and backward parts of the swing) and you do indeed move upwards at double speed. However you need a big swing to make this useful and there are very few large swings around (they tend to wipe out small children who are not watching). This gave me a challenge as to how to create a really large swing. I was well prepared for this challenge because I was already highly skilled at climbing houses and trees and had acquired a reasonable large amount of rope. We had a large oak tree in our back garden and I had already used this as a simple single rope swing for a bit of fun. However as a proper two-rope swing it was hopeless because the lower branches always got in the way. Then I had the cleverest little idea that I have ever had in my life. Our house was 2-storey with a nice solid chimney at the top. I had one very solid rope (I used for hand-over-hand climbing) and fortunately this was just long enough go from the chimney to a correspondingly high large branch in the oak tree. From the middle of this I could suspend a normal swing in the region between our house and the oak tree which was free of obstacles.

 

The diagram shows the picture.

            This gave a swing height of 25 feet which is very high. I could actually swing to a height of 30 feet by swinging 5 feet above the horizontal and accepting a free fall drop of 10 feet as you fell from your high point to join the normal circular arc 10 feet below. It felt horribly dangerous – probably because it was. It really needed the double swing to get yourself up. Anyway I thought it was a great feat and it was nice to have Dad around as one of the few people that could appreciate what a feat it was. He didn’t try it seriously himself – at his age it was outside his league. I only left the swing up for 6 months as there was abrasion on the rope around the chimney and this needed constant attention.
            Now I’ll have a very minor gripe against Dad. Dad taught me to play the piano and as such he was a very patient and an excellent teacher. But he taught me the wrong way – he just taught me in the standard teaching manner of the day such - as you would learn from any normal piano teacher (and as I was to receive 2 years later). But dad should have known better – he didn’t learn that way himself. He learnt in a sane manner – thus he learnt at an early stage to put a simple accomplament to a tune he knew because that is the essential thing you need to know, if you want to be useful and play for dances (which he did). Teachers don’t teach this way because it gives the students too much independence (and you can’t examine it). Thus I had to learn music all over again when I left home and returned to Australia. Of course the exercise of transcribing the music on a page to the notes on a key board is a useful exercise (particularly if you want to chat up some girl by playing duets with her) – but it is hardly an artistic expression - which is what music is supposed to be all about. My Dad was terrific but he never was prepared to step too far away from the expected mode of normal behaviour (as I am – and proud of it). Dad himself played the piano very simply but very well. One of the joys of my life was to hear him play again the old two-step tunes he used to play for dances. I wish I had made a recording of them.

 

            Dad was such a perfect husband, to such an extent that at times I found it a bit aggravating. For example every couple of years Mum would take a month off to return to NZ, see her mum and help around there. Dad was thus left in charge of us 5 kids. It was staggering how well and easily Dad managed to cope without any help (apart from us kids to a slight extent and a weekly cleaning woman). Thus the meals were prepared and the washing up done etc - and the funny thing was Dad that was never flustered and never seemed to work too hard – life just continued to go on like clock-work. However when Mum returned Dad would greet her with “life has been hell without you - we really need you back to put things back in order again” - what a lie.
            The only time I saw any friction between mum and dad was at one of our parties. Dad had a whole rigmarole of puzzles and tests to give to people on such occasions – things like –

• writing a sentence while looking at it through a mirror,

• judging distances by eye,

• questions like “a boy got the back right cheek of his trousers wet. He turned his trousers inside-out so that when walking home the wind, which was from the NW, was blowing fully upon them (and so dry them out). In which direction was his home”.

Normally this went down fairly well particularly if there were students present. However once, when the party was older and more sedate, the puzzles were not well received. Dad got a roasting from Mum - which I thought was unfair. After all Mum knew perfectly well what the puzzles were like and she had agreed to the idea initially as well. However Dad accepted the roasting like a lamb. {In everything I was always a full supporter of my Dad.} However looking back on the situation now I can see I could have been wrong. In all the major things of life Mum had to fit her life into the requirements of Dad’s life i.e. his job, where they lived, his going off to eclipses etc  - and this can’t have been easy for her. Perhaps Dad did have to do the right thing on these minor issues to make up for the general imbalance.

 

Finally I ought to discuss academic matters. I did Physics fairly seriously at school and Dad was a tremendous help, when I had to solve some of the more difficult problems. However what really impressed me was Dad’s willingness to go back to fundamentals. For example once I asked him casually if he remembered the formula for how high a liquid should rise in a capillary tube. Dad didn’t know but simply and on the spot he worked out the formula from first principles. Thus I was inspired to try and do likewise when possible in my own fields. However he made errors of course - like we all do. One day he came to me, very proud of himself, saying “I’ve worked out how many black Fridays there are in a year – it is quite complicated”. I thought about this for a minute or so and said “Surely it is just 12/7”. He, shame faced, agreed – it is amazingly easy, in that sort of problem, to start on the wrong tack and so get led up the garden path - when there can be a very simple solution indeed.
            Dad had a fairly wide range of interests and one of these was a significant factor in me starting my life’s work. Thus he found (I don’t know where) and gave me the problem of “how to divide a cake between N people” (a generalization of the 2 person problem where the solution is that one person cuts and the other person chooses). This is not a difficult problem but the solution is certainly not trivial. And of course if you want to work out “how to form a just political system” this is the simplest problem to start with. Thus this was help to me in starting on my ‘Society of Choice’.

 

At Uni I did maths at UCL where Dad was the professor of Astronomy, which was, as always, closely associated with the maths department. Worse still Mum knew all the wives of all the maths professors through a luncheon club they all went to. I was to be a bit of embarrassment to them in this period. I started quite keen - even to the extent of doing some work in the early morning but this didn’t last long. At the end of the first year I came top of the applied half - mostly on the basis that I was the only student that could correctly answer the simple sounding problem “a regular tetrahedron is thrown into the air – describe its motion and give reasons”. So that was OK. However in the second year I slacked - failed all 3 exams and was nearly thrown out -  (this is a bit like me as you can see if you bother to read my school reports). Dad was genuinely horrified but was very helpful in checking some of my catch up work. In the final year I redeemed myself and got a good first class honours.
            Now to a little incident over which I am ashamed. I was talking to one of my climbing friends when my Dad walked by and my friend said “that is the miserable blighter that complained when we were banging the table with our spoons” and, instead of saying “that is me Dad and he did completely the correct thing in telling you off”, what I weakly said was “that is my Dad but he is not quite with it these days”. I have failed my Dad on occasions.
I went to a couple of Dad’s lectures while at uni. He wasn’t obviously a practised lecturer but he was simple, enthusiastic and easy to understand. I was very proud of him.

 

Dad was a very hard worker.

I did my PhD in Australia so I didn’t see Dad much for the next three years. When I returned we could compare notes on our different theses. {We both held strongly to the view that the shorter the better because it means it contains some significant results – the normal PhD these days is often about 300 pages long.} Mine wasn’t bad – it was only 113 pages long and contained 3 published papers strictly in my own name. But compared with Dad’s I wasn’t in the running. Dad’s was for DSc (normally considered to contain the work of 4 PhDs) and was only 56 pages long. But then it contained the discovery that the aurora at the poles are associated with sun-spot activities that occurred a few days earlier. {On this subject, another slight little gripe against Dad. He left the theory explanation to a theoretician, when he could easily have done it himself. You know the temperature and there are simple formula that associates this with particle speed and hence you know how long the particle will take to arrive at the earth. Dad left this to a theoretician (because that was their job), when he could easily have done it himself and hence got a little more glory for the job. But I fear that wasn’t Dad’s nature.}
            As opposed to current concepts, Dad held to the view that a person should only try to produce one genuine research article a year – otherwise you are probably trivialising the articles. I tend to agree with him on this matter - but I suppose people do have to conform with the expectations of the day.
            When I finished my PhD Dad had a great rave to me on how much better off I was than he was at the same stage (he only had a pass degree and it took 15 years or so to get his DSc). However this ignores the fact that Dad was a hard worker - and I wasn’t.

 

Dad and Mum retired to Canberra in 1970 so I saw more of them again. {In fact the circumstances worked out that I saw a lot more of Dad than any of my brothers.} When Noela and I separated I saw a lot more of them still because it was convenient to take the children there on holidays. Connected with the divorce Dad, the noble fellow that he is, got the rough end of the stick once. He was elected to go and pacify Noela – but all he got for his pains was to be yelled abuse at and chased down the street with a rolling pin. {This is the story – naturally I wasn’t there.} Noela was actually quite good with me – made me suffer of course, as any healthy girl should, as part of the game. But I never had to suffer an indignity like this from her, which Dad went through.
            As time went by Dad and I did a few things together. One of my favourite music pieces is a thing by James Hook called Sonata in G. Dad and I played this together - initially I playing the recorder and Dad playing the piano. However Dad had bought himself a recorder and I had played the piano part with Naomi before thus we tried it the other way around – it sounded awful but it was great fun. We also sung a bit together. I am still very keen on some of Dad’s old favourites – things like “Old Faithful” (a hill-billy song), “Nancy Till” and “Tyrolean Cradle Song” – so that went well. One surprising thing we found we had in common was that we had both done Playford Dancing (old English dancing as done for example in Pride and Prejudice). He had done it in California and I in Australia – so both of us well out of place. This dancing of his had an effect on his getting married. During his time in America, Mum and Dad had sort of private expectations of marriage. A girl in the dancing group got keen on him and he had to write a letter to Mum so as to make the arrangement slightly more public - to get the girl off his back.
            Later Dad got his diaries down, read them and had them put in the ‘the National Archives Centre’. {I had already read the interesting bits when they resided in our loft in Mill Hill. Only the early ones are worth reading.} Dad, like myself, made ordered lists of his favourite girls (but there is no way that I would let mine be read by anyone). Dad poses the interesting question of “should you kiss a girl when she is not top of the list”. If the occasion arose with me, then I would cheat and make the girl top of the list for the night (very easily done under the right circumstances). Then in the cold light of day one might see the thing differently again. However it is a nice tricky question.

 

Finally to me Dad was simply a great Dad. The most important thing about him was that he always formed his opinions completely independently of the world or any group he was associated with. I think this is a most unusual trait. Of course I am just a little bit biased because his opinions usually corresponded to my own. Anyway I think I was blest with the very best of Dads.

 

Mum and Dad when they had retired back in Canberra

 

You might now also like to look back at:

either my "Home Page" (which introduces this whole website and lists all my webpages),

or “My Life(which introduces this major set of webpages).

 

My next normal webpage is A Better Way to Solve Problems - with Computers.

 

Updated on 14/11/2016.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

You can click on any of the following pictures and this will send you to the relevant webpage.