CAM 72 letters

CAM 72 letters

  • Cover of CAM 72
    Cover detail from CAM 72

Many readers continue to share their recurring nightmares. We also received a great deal of correspondence about the history of the bicycle, May Balls and the Hopkinson family.  We have published here the full text of some letters which had been edited for the print edition.

Exam nightmares

I read the piece on exam dreams with great amusement. For many years I used to dream that I had finished my exams and was busy indulging in May Week when I discovered there was one last exam I had forgotten about. Sometimes it was the next day, sometimes in five minutes time, but invariably I was not prepared for it.

In some scenarios I’d done the work but was in a blind panic because I had relaxed into May Week and put exams behind me, so had no focus or last-minute preparation. In others I’d completely missed out the whole course and knew nothing about the subject

Perhaps mercifully I always woke up before the exam actually started!

Paul M Hemingway (Emmanuel 1980)

In the 27 years since I left Cambridge I have never had a disturbed night caused by exam-related post-traumatic stress disorder. On the other hand I have lost count of the number of times I have woken, terrified, convinced that tomorrow is the first day of the Bumps and our crew has not been able to get out on the water to practice.

Stefan Kukula (Churchill 1984)

I had nightmares following the wartime Tripos in 1941 and again after the LLb in 1947. After leaving the army in 1946 I had again war nightmares when I would wake up shouting but these eventually went away. I had never heard of post-traumatic stress disorder at that time.  After becoming an international civil servant and having to travel to meetings I have had occasional nightmares usually involving railway journeys where I leave without money, passport or documents and also lose my suitcase! I can only assume that this is a common occurrence.

Frank Gutteridge (Trinity Hall 1939)

Philip Edmondson writes (Letters CAM 72) that he regularly awakes sweating from his dream of entering the exam hall having done no work and in total ignorance of his subject. I, on the other hand, although I have been retired from teaching for 18 years, still awake sweating from a dream in which a sixth form is about to take their A level History exam, but somehow I have never turned up to teach them or have taught them an entirely different syllabus from that which they are about to sit. 

Ian Beckwith (Selwyn 1958)

In 1954, a colleague was reading English Literature, which included knowledge of some French works. At his exam the first question was a text in French which candidates were told to discuss. He studied the text carefully until half-time and then wrote slowly, “This appears to be in a foreign language”, before getting up and walking out. He was awarded a Pass.

Neil Butter (Queens’ 1951)

I’ve followed the discussion on exam nightmares in recent editions with interest. I’ve generally had supervision nightmares, with lack of preparation the alarming factor. But then, having been at the school identified in CAM 68 as having lazy pupils, perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised.

Rory Anderson (Trinity 1992)

Waking terror (CAM 72) will no doubt strike a chord with many readers. My own exam dream does not seem to involve sitting a paper, but is more a rambling ‘documentary’ of me doing no work, often over a considerable period, magically condensed by dreamland, and finally realizing that the upcoming exam is already a failure. I have become familiar with this dream and seem to know I am in it, and it can develop a fanciful storyline of its own – I have even been to Oxford!

I actually did have the ‘finals nightmare’ in real life, in 1974, when I had never laid eyes on one of my Coptic set texts before I read the paper. It did not really matter, as Coptic texts fit into a fairly narrow range, and I got on with it well enough. When I told my professor (who was often away in Egypt) afterwards he said: “It was on the list I gave you.” Naturally, the list had long disappeared and I was, conveniently for him, the only candidate in the University!

Michael Coultas (Trinity 1970)

A more robust approach to final exams is expressed in the following limerick:

There was a young man on the Cam

Who sat for his final exam,

When he asked if he’d passed

And was told “You are last”,

His only reply was “Gentlemen, you surprise me”.

JH Arrowsmith-Brown (Caius 1939)

I was fascinated by this very interesting article in CAM 72. Whilst I have no dreams recalling dread of sitting examinations, I can offer a comment from the ‘other end’, as it were.

I have marked examination papers for many years for CIE/UCLES, and have more than once dreamt of having a huge sack of papers, not even opened, and which have reached the date by which marking should have been completed! In one of these I was even expecting a personal visit from the chief examiner.

More common, but linked because of school teaching, are dreams about being completely unprepared for the start of a new term, or likewise for a lesson in a classroom a walk away for which I am already late! I talked about this with an Oxford friend who, as a priest, was apt to dream that congregations had no service sheets (imminently needed) and, when getting his robes out of the wardrobe, finding them covered in mud!

Graham Jones (St Catharine’s 1952)

Experts say I must have dreams and nightmares, but if so, I cannot recall them. I have never woken up in a cold sweat in the middle of the night dreading the thought of exams (or anything else for that matter), nor did they cause me sleepless nights. Perhaps some people took exams too seriously. Yes, I revised for them, but I took two days off before they began and spent them cycling round the local villages, or punting with like-minded friends. To me, they were the easiest part of the year – three hours in the morning, another three in the afternoon and the day’s work was done. Apart from my circular slide rule (your calculator in that era), I always took a packet of Cadbury’s finger biscuits into the exam room and treated myself to one with every question I completed.

I treated A levels in much the same way. O levels were something of a non-event – I don't think they were built up to be anything special in those days – just another set of end-of-year exams. I failed English Literature, but that was a nuisance rather than the end of the world as it meant I had to study a subject that was of no interest to me for a few more weeks to take a re-sit (which I passed – just). The only problems I had with exams were piano exams. I became so nervous when I walked into the examination room that I used to wedge the lower part of my left leg between underside of keyboard and floor to steady myself. On the other hand, when I went along as an accompanist for a fellow pupil’s violin exam I was completely at ease.

I do remember a couple of unusual things that happened during the exams. For Prelims we were seated in pairs, one at each end of long tables. At the start of the first paper, materials, I could see, out of the corner of my eye, the other person on my table look over the paper and put a mark by some of the questions. He then folded his arms on the table, rested his head on them and seemingly went to sleep!

Was he working out their answers in his dreams, to dash them off in a frantic burst of activity when he woke up? No. He got a special. Long afterwards I discovered that he was an exhibitioner at Queens’. Then there was the Fitzwilliam scholar who found that his bicycle had been pinched when he went to get it to go to his exams one morning. After borrowing a friend’s bike and a frantic dash to the department he still got a First.

Richard Holroyd (St. John’s 1968)

How the bicycle got its spokes

I enjoyed the article on “How the Bicycle Got its Spokes” (CAM 72). However I think something rather important was overlooked. There was a lovely, almost full-page picture of a folding Brompton bicycle which, as the article points out, is “perhaps the most widely known” folding bike. The text mentions that the Brompton draws on previous ideas, including an ingenious one called the Moulton Stowaway designed by a Cambridge graduate, Dr Alex Moulton.

I expect the writer of the article was not aware that the even more ingenious Brompton was also designed by a Cambridge graduate. Andrew Ritchie (Trinity 1968), a modest chap whom I am glad to say is a friend of mine, designed the Brompton folding bicycle and has devoted almost all his working life to perfecting it. 

Henry Scrope (Selwyn 1962)

I agree entirely with the sentiments of Rose Constantine, as expressed in issue 72, regarding the readability of CAM, and I read the article on the history of the bicycle with great interest.

However, I believe the issue of bicycle balance is much simpler than the “black art” suggested by the article. I do not believe that there is any doubt that it is the gyroscopic effect that balances a bicycle travelling at a reasonable speed. In the initial stages of propulsion, whilst the wheels are running up to a speed at which the gyroscopic effect becomes noticeable, balance is crucial. After that gyroscopes rule. The interesting fact about gyroscopes that you do not mention is that when a gyroscope is forced to turn around an axis perpendicular to its axis of spin, it then rotates (precesses) about the third orthogonal axis. This is why a bicycle leans over when the rider is taking a corner. Indeed, it is not possible to turn and remain upright! In her description of the cancelling of the gyroscopic effect, you do not say whether the effect was cancelled on both wheels. If one wheel was left ‘uncancelled’ it would still allow the gyroscopic effect to work, albeit less positively. In addition, I do not doubt that if there were no gyroscopic effect it would still be possible for an expert to ride successfully, albeit probably weaving a rather wobbly course. We lesser mortals, however, will continue to rely on gyroscopes.

Patrick Derwent (Homerton 1992)

I enjoyed the article on bicycle development in CAM 72. When I was an engineering research student competitions were held between riders on Moulton cycles and ordinary cycles to see who could go the slowest. I wonder if these competitions are still held.

John Cribb (Caius 1965)

Response from Tony Purnell:

Dear John,

Pleased to hear you enjoyed the piece about cycling in the magazine. I've been passed your enquiry regarding slow cycle races. I work both in the Department of Engineering and at British Cycling and have to say it’s the first time I’ve ever been made aware that there was such a thing. This said, the track cyclists (sprinters) are able to stay stationary for lengthy periods as they try to out-fox each other in the match sprint races.  

A look on the internet reveals that they do hold events such as you suggest in Europe and in the UK, although the latter is more of a pastime for kids than an event per se.

Why not suggest it to the captain of the University Cycling Club and see if he has any interest in resurrecting the idea? It would be a fun event for May week.

Kind regards,

Professor Tony Purnell

As a Coventrian, I was especially interested to read the article about the evolution of the bicycle However, you wrongly attribute the “safety bicycle” to James Starley (1831-1881). It was his nephew, a similarly brilliant inventor, John Kemp Starley (1854-1901) who invented the safety bicycle. Another Coventrian worthy of mention is Charles Kingston Welch who patented a pneumatic tyre that was detachable and then sold the patent to Dunlop.

Eleanor Nesbitt (Girton 1969)

I dare say that, bearing the name MacMillan, I may be unduly biased in favour of Kirkpatrick MacMillan. Nevertheless I believe he deserved a mention as one of the key figures in that evolution as the man who first powered a bike without putting a foot to the ground. Although his treadle action didn’t catch on, tradition maintains that he proved that it worked by riding 70 miles in two days – no mean feat, considering the state of the roads then and (except where specially repaired for the Tour de Yorkshire) now. 

Of course my case depends on the assumption that Macmillan was, in fact, the first in this particular field. I'd be interested to hear if there are other contenders. Truth, after all, is more important even than family loyalties. 

In 1989, my wife bought a replica of what is believed to have been Kirkpatrick’s model, developed 150 years earlier. We’ve had it on the road occasionally. Although, admittedly its turning circle is large, it can certainly handle the kind of curve one encounters on a normal country road.

George MacMillan (Trinity 1949)

The article on the bicycle in CAM 72 mentioned the development of the loop frame for long-skirted ladies. This reminded me that when my mother Iris (nee McCrea; Newnham 1916) showed me the sights of Cambridge, she was careful to include the gravel paths in Newnham Gardens, where her aunt, Gertrude McCrea (Newnham 1895) had demonstrated to her tutor's satisfaction that she could not only cycle along the paths, but also dismount without showing her ankles, and so could be permitted to ride into town.

Rollo Woods (Jesus 1947)

May Balls

I was surprised to see my photograph in the article about May Balls in the Cambridge Alumni Magazine. I am the fourth reveller from the left in the post-ball breakfast at The Orchard (still there, I’m pleased to see). It was after the 1950 Downing May Ball. None of us achieved distinction comparable with Siegfried Sassoon (in the 1906 photograph). A knighthood was conferred on Michael Holt, seated on my left, for political services in eastern England. After National Service, I read Natural Sciences and, like many graduates before and after, became a teacher. I also worked for the University of Cambridge Local Examinations Syndicate.

Roger Greene (Downing 1949)

I very much enjoyed the article on May Balls in the last edition of CAM. I was at the infamous King’s May Ball in 1982 and, although I enjoyed it very much, I remember some tension and heated exchanges. The attendance seemingly doubled over the course of the evening as more and more gatecrashers strolled in unopposed. The atmosphere during the set by The Stranglers was heady, but once breakfast started to be served in the early hours there were arguments and cries of “Do you know how much we paid to be here?” from genuine guests. In vain, a female member of the Ball Committee pleaded for two queues to be formed: one for paying guests and one for non-paying. I don’t think I ever did get my bacon roll, but it made for a memorable evening. I was a paying guest and had joined the appropriate queue.

Bill Cashmore (Downing 1980)

In the latest edition of CAM, Cambridge’s Director of Communications asks for readers’ help in promoting admissions on the basis of academic talent not social background. Curious then to find a nearby article celebrating May Balls, complete with 100 years’ worth of clichéd images of young people in evening dress.

There have surely always been students who found May Balls offensive and would prefer to recall our efforts, naive as they may now seem, to create a better world. In the 1970s that might have been sitting in the Amnesty International Cage on Kings Parade, helping out with the student run bottle bank in an empty house on Castle Hill, or campaigning against perceived injustices of the University’s administration. Our long hair, flared trousers and earnest young faces may not make for such pretty pictures, but perhaps they tell a story we would be prouder to share with potential new recruits?

Ursula Martin (Girton 1972)

CAM 72 (We had a ball) informs us that in 1973, at King’s, “the May Ball was rebranded the King’s Banana”. This had already happened in 1968 or (more likely) 1969; I attended it, along with a young woman, now my wife, who agrees with me about the date. (In 1973 we were no longer at King’s but at Oxford.) It was, in contrast to the May Balls, inexpensive and non-exclusive, in line with the College’s ethos then as now. We don’t recall what bands were playing… after all, it was still the 60s.

It preceded the Garden House affair (1970) by a year or two, rather than, as the article says, being after it. There were demonstrations and sit-ins (mostly “teach-ins”) in 1968 and 1969, ie before the 1970s, following the Situationist uprising in Paris in 1968.

Roy Dyckhoff (King’s 1966)


I was not at the 1982 King’s May Ball to witness The Stranglers, the gatecrashers and the police.

I do distinctly remember at the King’s 1980 ball being felled by a single blow to the chin by a ticketless squaddie from Bassingbourn Barracks, in black tie (we all were; very un-King’s). 

Having been wrestled to the ground and firmly sat on by a burly policeman, my assailant promptly threw this weight aside and set off across the back lawn towards the river and into the night, pursued by a police dog and more coppers.

Perhaps the die was cast…

Henry Faire (King’s 1976)

Secret Cambridge

The Easter Term issue of CAM had a most interesting article about John Hopkinson. It failed to note that his longest-lasting achievement was the invention of the three-phase power system, which is in near-universal use for electricity distribution today. The reason all those pylons have six wires dangling from them is due to Hopkinson.

The article asserts that Hopkinson had five children. He actually had six. The three that were killed on 27 August 1898 are noted but, tragically, two more sons, Bertie (also mentioned) and Cecil died in the Great War. The sixth child, Ellen Lina, married Alfred Ewing who was referred to in the piece.

The article also said that the only memorial to Lina and Alice is their grave. There is a memorial sundial to Alice in the gardens of Newnham College from which she had recently graduated. Lina, too, has a memorial, The Lina Evelyn Hopkinson Scholarship, which is awarded to pupils at Wimbledon High School for English Literature.

Bertie and Cecil are both buried in the Ascension Parish Burial Ground off the Huntingdon Road, with Cecil’s grave marked by a Scottish-style sundial.

As one who has given well over 1,000 lectures in the Hopkinson Lecture Room, I am a great Hopkinson enthusiast.

Frank King, Fellow of Churchill

(Magdalene 1961)

I was interested, and rather surprised, to find the article about John Hopkinson. I may have passed the memorial plaque in Free School Lane more than once without knowing who John Hopkinson was.

But another person mentioned in the article, holidaying with him in the Alps who did not join in the fateful climb, was James Alfred Ewing. He became a professor at Cambridge two years later (so I read), and made a little known mark in World War I. As an educational advisor to the Royal Navy and with his scientific abilities, he was called upon in 1914 to set up a section in Room 40 of the Admiralty building in Whitehall for decrypting German navy wireless messages. This section was the predecessor of Bletchley Park, but the codes used were much simpler, and several German code books were captured. The most notable prize was the interception and deciphering of the Zimmermann Telegram, sent via Washington DC to German agents in Mexico, suggesting it should be encouraged to push back its border northwards into the USA. This must have helped to persuade the USA to enter the war.

As for Hopkinson himself, his name is still used for the “back-to-back” test of two similar electric motors for determining their efficiency at full load, one of them running as a generator, so that only the power losses need to be supplied – an early example of energy saving.

Richard Wilson (Trinity 1957)

The Hopkinson tragedy resonates with me because I experienced a brush with death nearby.

Sometime in the 1970s a group of pupils and staff set off from the campsite at Arolla. Unusually there had been no frost that morning but we were only going up to the ridge and back. The track soon disappeared under recent rock fall, the snow when we reached it was soft but improved as we climbed to enjoy a magnificent view of the Matterhorn and to view, with some trepidation, the great cauliflowers of cumulus that were looming above Italy. We decided to descend at once.

As we descended the snow became ever softer and the slope steeper. Eventually we hit a rock shelf. Unfortunately it was sloping and wet, about six feet wide and above 1,000ft of air. We teetered along this till we hit the gulleys. I remember the whoosh and crack of falling stones. There were no belays, so it was necessary to plunge my arm into the snow to maintain balance. There was no avoiding the stones – you could not see them, only hear them.

The girl in our party fell and just managed to brake before she went over the cliff. The poor girl’s bladder emptied she was so frightened. A few more gulleys crossed and just as we hit terra firma the storm broke with lightning flickering along the ridge we had just left. Then the deluge hit us, and darkness as well. We fell into our tents and slept late. My only injury was mild frostbite on my fingers.

Philip Knight (Pembroke 1958)

University matters

Following Paul Mylrea’s aside about massive open online courses (CAM 72), or MOOCs, I have the distinct impression that the University has been unenthusiastic about MOOCs.  There are opportunities to be taken and dangers if they are not taken.

One particular opportunity would be to provide a course that would mark a student out as an educated citizen (CP Snow’s The Two Cultures). I have in mind a non-residential MOOC with the Cambridge University brand having an extremely broad syllabus designed to be taken part-time over two or three years. My design would be to give, say, 144 lectures and require the same number of pieces of coursework. An award would be given if the coursework met minimal requirements. Such a qualification could be very attractive in the non-vocational market place.

On the other hand, the problem for traditional lecture courses is that given any topic – say the structure of DNA – one can argue the need for many versions of the lecture, but one cannot argue that every year every institution in the country (or indeed in the English speaking world) needs to have its own version. No doubt much of the present Cambridge system should continue, but I can foresee changes.

Kenneth J Evans (Emmanuel 1967)