Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Bondi and the Barrier: how a great eccentric kept us dry in London

If a Frenchman talks about the weather, claimed a pronunciation exercise I had to do when I was studying that glorious language, it means he has nothing else to talk about. But to be a good Englishman, you have to be able to talk about the weather as it is today, as it was in the past and as it might be in the future.

Well, let me tell you, it’s a bit bloody wet in England at the moment. In fact, if you happen to live in the area known as the Somerset levels, your property’s likely to have been under water since 15 December. Which I imagine must be a bit wearing, by now.

Plenty of other areas have been hammered pretty badly. Not just rain but gales. And in coastal areas, tidal surges, which have even swept people to their deaths. The weather isn’t just small talk. For some it has been the cause of pretty big talk too.

Such conditions aren’t unprecedented, however, they just happen more often now that global warming’s getting a real grip. But tidal surges led to terrible flooding back on 31 January 1953, just five days after my birth.

I like to think the two events weren’t related.

As a result of that disaster, which mostly affected the East of England including the Thames Estuary, the government called on Hermann Bondi, Principal Scientific Officer, to draw up a report on how to prevent or mitigate such calamities in future. He proposed the creation of a barrier on the Thames to limit flows up the river.

Hermann Bondi. Brilliant, eccentric, entertaining
And right about the flooding
Seventeen years later I became a student at King’s College London, at which oddly enough Bondi was a visiting lecturer. He was the only lecturer I ever had who stuck religiously to class times, starting at precisely five past the hour and stopping equally exactly at five to, as all teachers were required to do but few did. In fact, at five to he would simply put down his chalk and walk out, without saying goodbye or making any kind of comment to suggest he’d finished.

The following week, he’d walk in at five past, pick up his chalk, walk to the board – which no one else would have touched in the intervening period – and say something like ‘cancelling through by x, we get the following statement’, as though there’d been no interruption.

On one occasion, he turned to the class and asked ‘does anyone know what a vector is?’

I was a little surprised no one answered, as it’s a pretty elementary question, and most of the other students were senior to me. I didn’t stop to think that they had perhaps been to more of his lectures than I had.

‘A vector is something with magnitude and direction,’ I volunteered.

‘Aha!’ he said, in his strong Central European Jewish accent, ‘we have here someone who thinks vectors are arrows.’ He shook his head, sad at the foolishness of the world. ‘Very dangerous to give mathematicians arrows. Someone might lose an eye.’

He fell silent, contemplating this dreadful prospect. Then suddenly he looked up.

‘Does anyone here like the Marx brothers films?’

There were some mumbled replies of ‘yes’.

‘I particularly like the scene in Duck Soup,’ he went on, ‘where Groucho is defending Harpo in front of a court martial and he says, “the man in front of you may look like an idiot, and he may behave like an idiot, but don’t be fooled! He is an idiot.” That is how a vector is. If it looks like a vector, and it behaves like a vector, it is a vector.’

That was the only definition of a vector we ever received.

One day during my time at King’s, conditions conspired to bring us close to disaster in Central London. Exceptionally high tides after a lot of rainfall and wind blowing the wrong way made flooding extremely likely. The embankments of the Thames were piled high with sandbags, but the water was lapping at the tops.

The King’s College canteen was in the basement. So it was quite fun to sit down there, with the straining sandbags not 20 metres away and well above the level of my head, and contemplate the crowds gathered ghoulishly on Waterloo Bridge in the hope of watching me drown as I enjoyed my fish and chips.

But then came 1982 and, 29 years after the flood of ’53, the Thames Barrier came into operation. And Bondi was right: it worked. There’s been no repetition of the disaster. A great monument to a fine, eccentric and highly entertaining man.

The Thames Barrier
A fine monument to Bondi. And highly effective
No consolation to the inhabitants of the Somerset Levels, though.

Afterthought I like writing this kind of post. The start has little to do with the end, and practically nothing to do with the middle. But there’s a linking theme. That amuses me in the writing; I hope it amuses you in the reading.

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