Journey by Bike: Geometry Lessons

Stephen, Eddy and I were migrants, borne from a mix of races thrown into the melting pot of South Wales. Our grandparents had, for the most part, been escaping agricultural poverty. The mines and steelworks provided secure, albeit dangerous, employment; and organised labour gave birth to a political movement which changed the social fabric of our country in a way which still (just) exists today. Although we didn’t appreciate it at the time, the new social settlement fought for and won by our grandparents was their greatest legacy; and a part of that was the golden ticket that all three of us had won . . . passing to the local Grammar School.

After the first year all three of us did well enough to make it into the ‘top form’ where we received a traditional Grammar education. There was the maths teacher who’s iron-fisted reputation for distributing lines and detention preceded her. With gimlet eyes behind horn-rimmed spectacles, tight brown curls cut close to her head and a slight but wiry physique, she presented a formidable image of a teacher not to be messed with . . .

” … tangent = opposite/adjacent

sine = opposite/hypotenuse

cosine = adjacent/hypotenuse . . .”

At the time, when she made us metronomically repeat these basics of mathematics, I had no idea how useful they would become. Maths was not her only speciality. She also coached the girls’ senior hockey team which had remained undefeated for countless years – I can only imagine that this was by applying the laws of trigonometry to the angles of passing and counterattack on the field.

The Headmaster was known, by students and teachers alike, as ‘Dai Chips’, so-called for the fact that his first name was David and his mother had owned a chip shop. Every Friday, Dai Chips would take morning assembly completely in Welsh. None of us could understand a word of this except the Welsh teacher. These assemblies always included a hymn, and a reading from the bible during which Dai Chips would hold forth in the style of Pentecostal Chapel, spit all over the front row, and use at least one word which was absent from everyone’s vocabulary – this included the teachers who, when quizzed in their first class after assembly would have to look it up in the dictionary.

In those days boys did woodwork and the girls did cookery. While we toiled to make a teapot stand, rock cakes were being produced in another part of the school – a part which I would never see. It seems extraordinary now that this segregation existed. In our woodwork class the first lesson was to make that very teapot stand. Actually it was a lesson in using the various measuring and cutting tools necessary to make a cross-halving joint – to this, a flat piece of hexagonally cut and sanded plywood would be attached . . . and hey presto, a wobbly teapot stand resulted. Everything we made was wobbly. It is surprisingly hard to make something that stands firm on a flat surface; there is always one face out of square or a dimension lacking in accuracy – never by much but enough to condemn your proud efforts to as best amateur, and at worst . . . firewood. One of my large projects was to make a bookstand, the sort of thing that could hold a small selection of hardbacks within easy reach on a writing desk (yes, they existed). I made it from some sort of hardwood, stained a garish mahogany, so unlike the actual shade of mahogany that it is possible to get. Two things stood out: it was wobbly; and the curved ends, fashioned with a spokeshave, were . . . well, wobbly. For some unaccountable reason my sister took to it and actually bought it from me. Much later, I asked her what eventually became of it . . . ‘firewood’ was the answer. In my final woodworking year we were tasked by our teacher to design a newspaper rack. But how much designing can you do at the age of fourteen? And to produce a newspaper rack – there didn’t seem to be many variations left to discover. We were given two examples – one wall hanging design of the wallet-file variety, and another which was essentially a rectangular bucket. This immediately exhausted 100% of the possible options open to us, so we had to fall back on more imaginative designs . . . which were eventually ruled out as either: un-functional; impractical to make; or prohibitively expensive in terms of materials. So we all defaulted to something which was strikingly similar to the examples we’d been given at the start. Mine was a minimalist design of pine and string. The most technical parts were the two brass brackets which were used to affix it to the wall . . . which I didn’t make. I still had it until several years ago, but threw it out because it was getting in the way and fulfilling no purpose. There was no reason to keep it really.

Nevertheless, because and despite of all this, the skills which I learned in the woodwork shop have stood the test of time. I can cut and plane wood to the correct dimension using the appropriate tools, use a chisel to make a joint and a rebate. I know which are the correct types of screws and nails to use and drill holes with the correct type of bit. Technical drawing lessons allowed me to draw what I wanted to make; maths enabled me to calculate dimensions at different angles, to add curves and plot graphs. None of these skills can I do very well but they allow me to hang a door and fit a lock without paying someone else to do it. I learned a degree of manual dexterity which has proved transferable. All the elements were there when, later, I would start making bicycles. Equally importantly, my wife maintains, and I agree, that her lessons in short-crust pastry have similarly endured.

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