Monday, October 02, 2006

Rabin and me at Manor Junior School – 1974 - 1978

Rabin and I were at Manor Junior School together for 4 years, between the ages of 7 and 11. During this time Rabin was my closest friend. I actually appear in the photo of Rabin’s 7th birthday on the website (the photo on the far right, third row up).

Our first year teacher at Manor was Miss Thomas, a Welsh lady with red hair and a rather shaky grasp of spelling. In the second year, we had the truly scary Miss Blunden – if two children were sent by another teacher to give her a message, she would ask them why it took two of them to deliver the message – yes, that scary. In the third year we had the gentle Miss Hawton and then in our last year the beautiful but forbidding Mrs Harvey (nee Murphy – or Mrs Murphy, nee Harvey, I can’t recall which, now). For an unfashionable London suburb Barking had some fairly exotic inhabitants at this time. There were children from the Indian sub-continent, China, sub-Saharan Africa and the Caribbean at the school. There were also the children of people who had fled the Vietnamese war and its aftermath – what were termed in the media at the time, the ‘Vietnamese Boat people’. But Rabin seemed to me to be truly global. My geography was rather sketchy at the time, but I was aware of an Indian connection, a Middle Eastern link and an association with America.

Rabin himself was without a doubt unique. My abiding impression of him is that he was very serious. But looking at all the photos on the website he is always smiling, so I think it was probably just that he was seriously clever. We would spend hours together after school or during the holidays either in my garden shed, our bedrooms or his conservatory at 35 Edgefield Avenue. We didn’t play so much as ‘work on projects’ – hare-brained schemes usually thought up by me (the fantasist) which would then have to be implemented as far as was possible given our limited resources by Rabin (the genuine child prodigy). A working car which we could tour the world in built entirely out of Meccano; a rocket to send our Action Men into space, and so on. Rabin would spend most of these sessions instructing me in the art of the possible and coming up with workable alternatives to satisfy my childish imagination – so the Meccano car became a small but very serviceable crane; the space rocket a helicopter back-pack for an Action Man using a small electric motor etc. In fact electric motors and circuits with light-bulbs formed a very important part of our relationship for a period, which is not as odd as it sounds for two 8 year old boys.

Occasionally we would take a break from our scientific endeavours and I would coach Rabin at football, this being a suitable trade for the hard science that he imparted to me. Rabin was the first person to tell me about things like the Theory of Relativity and quantum mechanics. Even at this young age he seemed really to understand these things: I just marveled at them, and at him for knowing about them. The other thing that interrupted our important and ground-breaking work on Action Man propulsion systems, was the marvelous food made by Rabin’s Mum. I remember Rabin’s Mum having the most delightful smile and a lovely gentle nature which I think Rabin inherited from her.

Even Rabin’s bedroom was unique. His endlessly inventive Dad, whom I revered as a sort of suburban Carl Sagan, had suspended his bed from the ceiling with metal pipes, to give him more room. This was for us an incredibly exciting development which I never tired of seeing. Rabin’s Dad had done all sorts of interesting things in his life. One that stuck in my memory was that whilst in Canada* he had driven several different cars during a single day. I can’t remember why, or what job had involved this feat, but I was extremely impressed by it.

The scope of Rabin’s knowledge was certainly not confined to the natural sciences. He also had insights in fields such as psychology. I remember him confiding to me that he thought one of our rather highly strung schoolmates was probably suffering from a psychological disorder. I can’t recall what exactly his diagnosis was, but it was the first time it had occurred to me that people can break down too.

I was interested, but not at all surprised, to hear that Rabin had mastered Japanese. I recall an early example of Rabin’s analytical approach to language. There’s a road in Barking called Beccles Drive – pronounced ‘Beckals’, like ‘Eccles’ cake. One day walking back from school he challenged the accepted pronunciation saying that as it had a double ‘C’ it should be pronounced ‘Beck-les’. I wasn’t sure, but Rabin was quite adamant. I think in this instance Rabin may have got a little carried away by his own logic (it’s definitely pronounced like ‘Eccles’!), but it is an example of him analyzing and challenging received views at a very young age.

The other area of occasional collaboration between us was in the field of music. Rabin played the violin and I played the trumpet. Rabin played in the string orchestras conducted by the peripatetic teacher, Mr Stuckey. Anyone who has ever heard a Junior School string orchestra (and I understand that they are much rarer now than they used to be) will be acquainted with the fact that young children generally don’t have the motor skills required to produce a truly musical effect on string instruments (I think this is a charitable as I can be on this). Any fool can blow into a trumpet. But to tease a rich, sustained note out of a violin or cello requires a real touch which kids just don’t have. Rabin, as I recall, actually played very well, but as a rule, the string orchestras produced a rather thin, reedy sound. Not to worry though, because Mr Stuckey would compensate by humming the melody over the top of the orchestra – the perfect solution! For the finale of our summer school concert the senior string orchestra would be joined by the senior choir and part of the brass band to form a kind of super-group (think Bayreuth meets the Minipops!). I remember in our final concert together we played the Ode to Joy from Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. Coming as it did at the end of the summer term of our last year at Manor, this was probably the last thing that Rabin and I collaborated on.

All-in-all I doubt whether I made as lasting an impression on Rabin as he left on me, except perhaps in one respect. Some of you may have noticed that Rabin had a slight scar on his top lip – just to the right of centre. I see from the photos on the website that it was still visible when he was an adult. That, I’m afraid, was me. We were kicking a Coke can to each other in the street outside Manor Junior School after school one day in summer. I kicked it a bit too hard, and the coke can hit the edge of a paving stone and reared up hitting Rabin on the lip and giving him quite a deep cut. I always felt guilty about this. Rabin was a very gentle person, not naturally aggressive in the way that you need to be to be competitive in sports. By contrast, I was quite competitive and I think on this occasion I had kicked the tin can as hard as I could to put it past him. I hope the scar didn’t give him trouble shaving in later life.

Kids create their own worlds with a large measure of imagination and perhaps aren’t the most reliable witnesses. But this is how I remember it. I’m sorry I missed the opportunity to compare notes with Rabin – he might have remembered it more clearly. He made a greater impression on me than these few reminiscences can convey and I will always remember him.

Jonathan Fletcher

*Note from Rabin’s father - Rabin’s father was teaching in Canada. His class wanted to visit the Science Fair in Toronto. To raise funds for the visit a car ‘Washaton’ was organized. The teacher, Rabin’s father, was the only one allowed to move the cars – this was approximately 120 vehicles of various descriptions – all this in one day.