Richard Smethurst interviewed by Alan Macfarlane 28th September 2010

0:05:07 Born in Chipping Norton in 1941; my father was General Manager and Chief Engineer of a small electrical firm called Switch Gear and Equipment; my father was an electrical and mechanical engineer; he went to Walsall Grammar School and served an apprenticeship at the Daimler car company in Coventry where his apprentice master was my mother's father; my father had great admiration for him and he was a skilled tool maker; my mother was earlier connected to my father because she had piano lessons from his eldest sister who also lived in Coventry; my mother was born in Hereford.(I did say this, but I have subsequently learned that it is not true: she was born near Handsworth, in Staffordshire – it was her father who was born in Hereford.  In 1901, the Census shows her as 6 weeks old, her father as a “mechanic – cycle maker”.  In the 1911 Census her father has become a “motor trade worker” (her mother has died, but her middle sister, Ida, is still alive, aged 15, at the Census date.) and I don't know why or when her family came to the Coventry area; my father came from a very large family of thirteen children; their father was called Chief Clerk of a large mental hospital outside Lichfield at a place called Burntwood; they were an interesting, somewhat disputatious, family; by the time I was aware of them there was a big rift between the eldest brother who lived in Birmingham and my father, who was the youngest boy; I think the rift was over whether the eldest brother, unlike all the other brothers, had contributed to my grandmother's upkeep since my grandfather’s death; my father was fourteen at the time of his death in about 1915-16; my grandfather was obviously a multi-talented man, at least by the accounts of his family; they recount him playing two or three different musical instruments; more interesting to me as a child were their stories of their childhood together, in particular of an uncle called Dick, whom I never met; for that reason my mother never called me Dick, I was always Richard to her; she was a reasonably simple soul, who had been a book-keeper when employed, who had an idea that I would turn out like my uncle if she called me Dick; he was sent to Canada for some misdeed before World War I; when one of my aunts died about twenty years ago, we found among her possessions a postcard from Liverpool to his mother, with the picture of a White Star liner on the front, saying he was about to embark for a happier life; a few years later when another aunt died we found among her belongings a photograph of a small child; my elder daughter with the sharp eyes of a twelve year old, noted that the handwriting looked the same as on the postcard; we compared them and indeed it was; because all these aunts died intestate we had to try and trace this child to see whether it was entitled to any money; indeed my solicitor did, but unfortunately never divulged to me their names and addresses, so I missed the chance of writing to him or her to ask whether they knew what their grandfather did to be sent to Canada; he was a colourful character so there were lots of lovely stories about him; all the boys went to Queen Mary's Grammar School, Walsall, and there is a story that he was set to write two thousand lines as a punishment, and set his brothers and sisters to do it for him; they were engaged in this line writing factory when in came my grandfather, who saw what was going on and ripped up all the lines; nothing daunted, Dick went to school the following morning and produced the ripped up lines; when asked why the pages were torn he told the schoolmaster that his father did not approve of setting lines; he apparently got away with it, so a man of considerable charm and roguery; I admired my father hugely; six months after I was born he volunteered for the Indian Army, and was in IEME (Indian Electrical and Mechanical Engineers), largely mending tanks for service in Burma; I didn't really know my father but can vividly remember him sending rather nice letters with pictures; an uncompleted model railway engine which he had started to build for me when I was a week or so old stood on a shelf; when he was demobbed I remember desperately pleading with my mother not to kiss him on the station; I can equally remember being picked up by this person wearing a rather smart army uniform, and with great offence to my dignity being put on his shoulders, and walked to the back of the train to the luggage van; I admired him, but we had quite a difficult relationship in many ways; he was immensely competent at anything to do with his hands; he had gone through apprenticeship as a mechanical engineer, and night school, and passed all the examinations for associate membership of the Institute of Mechanical Engineers; he did the same thing for electrical engineers; he was one of that generation who nowadays would have gone to university, but he didn't; as a result he was entirely unimpressed by universities; I vividly remember ringing home after I got my Schools results to tell them I had got a first; my father said that was good and then moved on to something else; it was years later when I actually dared to tackle him about this; it turned out that my elder cousin had been to Cambridge and got a first at St Catherine's, so my father with an observation of two persons going to Oxford or Cambridge, both of whom got firsts, thought that there were lots of firsts; he is still with me whenever I try to do any DIY job; I hear his voice over my shoulder saying never use a nail, always use a screw etc.; he reminds me of a Jack Dee sketch of a cat and a dog watching their master put a shelf up, with the dog praising him, and the cat just saying it is not straight; only when he was dying of liver cancer, and we spent some time together, we talked through some issues we had, and that was good; he had a slow-burning temper and could maintain a grudge for years, and did so with his elder brother; my mother had a much more volcanic temper, like mine, which goes to a pitch in about four minutes and then subsides just as quickly, which leaves other people confused; I have tried to keep it under control in the College; I remember losing my temper about three times in governing body meetings, and each time I have hugely regretted it later

14:20:18 I was an only child but had lots of cousins; at Christmas time, our small semi-detached just outside Banbury, was full of family with numerous beds everywhere; I have a group of early memories; when my father first went into the army my mother moved from a little house in the village of Bloxham to live with my father's unmarried sisters, Barbara and Ruth, who were then living in the house with their widowed mother, in Bodicote, just outside Banbury; fairly soon after I was born my grandmother died; the house had chain-link fencing between it and the next door neighbours; an early memory is of the neighbour on one side, Mr Cross, who kept ferrets, which I was terrified of; I can also remember going down to the village duck pond and feeding the ducks; this must have been in my first three or four years because when the war came to an end, despite the fact that Coventry had been badly blitzed, my mother wanted to go back there to get out of the rather poisonous atmosphere of the two maiden aunts who disliked each other; we moved to Coventry just before I was five, so these memories must have been before that age; my mother had an elder sister in Coventry, the only reasonably rich relative I have ever had; my mother was one of three girls and the middle girl was killed, aged about (in fact about 15, see previous alteration), in a road traffic accident with a runaway horse and cart; this left my mother's elder sister, Violet, and my mother, Nora; their mother died when my mother was about eleven or twelve (in fact earlier.  She had died before the 1911 census), so my mother was really brought up by Violet; Aunty Vi married a man who had a chain of optician's shops in the Coventry area, so we went to Coventry pretty much as soon as it was safe to do so; that is where my father came back to when he came out of the army; my first school was Coventry Preparatory School and the reason that I went there was because my rich aunt had sent her son there; I went at about five; we then moved to Liverpool because during the war my father had met in his IEME unit somebody called Tony Fairrie; he was one of the sugar making families which amalgamated eventually into Tate & Lyle; there were things called 'Fairrie Cubes' at one stage; Tony Fairrie was a Colonel and my father was a Major in the Indian Army, and Fairrie thought highly of my father; when the war ended there was a vacancy for a chief engineer (construction) in the Tate & Lyle sugar refinery in Liverpool; my father was offered the job on his recommendation; I remember that his first task was to design an internal power station, a turbine hall, for the reconstruction of the Tate & Lyle refinery in Love Lane, Liverpool; after just two terms at Coventry Preparatory School we went to Liverpool, and I went to Rudston Road County Primary School

21:20:24 Possibly because of the unfinished railway engine, I became passionately interested in model railways - Hornby OO electric, with a three rail system; I think I spent more time planning a model railway than actually doing it; I used to like making model trees; I did have a big model railway set; it looked quite pretty but never worked very well; I don't remember any of the preparatory school teachers; I do remember playing a game of football there in which I got confused about which goal I was kicking the ball into, and seem to remember scoring at both ends; I can remember most of my teachers at Rudston Road - Miss  Peele, the first teacher in the first form, and later Miss Cowley, who had to deal with a class of forty-nine, she lost her temper very regularly and was terrifying when she did so; I must have left when I was about ten in the year before people took 11+; I remember we had form orders and I was usually top of the boys, but there were seven girls who were ahead of me; almost all of those won Margaret Bryce Scholarships which were offered by the Liverpool education authority to go to the grammar schools in the city; I went to a place called Liverpool College, a minor public school; I went for a variety of reasons; my father was a strong Conservative supporter, and a phrase of Aneurin Bevan's where he had called Conservatives 'vermin', encouraged him to think of himself as part of the vermin club; probably it was because he was earning more money and decided to put it into his son's education; I think they were partly influenced by the nephew of a next door neighbour who went to Liverpool College, who seemed a nicely mannered, charming young boy; there was a boarding house but it was three-quarters day school; you had to take an entrance exam at ten rather than thirteen; I stayed there until I came to Oxford; there were teachers who were extremely important to me; the Vice-Master of the school, who was Headmaster of the junior school, was a man called Harold Lickes; he was a formidable disciplinarian but also a formidable grammarian; he taught us English grammar in the most precise way, so by the age of eleven or so we were doing the analysis of compound complex sentences; one of the ploys he used was to take letters that parents had written him and write them up on the board; they were usually letters where parents were trying to excuse their boys from games; it had the wonderful effect of improving one's grammar, but also of dissuading one's parents from ever writing such a letter; he was a major influence, and if my wife was here she would tell you that I am a formidable proof reader of her articles; there was also an extraordinary man who has only recently died, called Roxborough, who had won the George Medal during the war, not on active service but when training a group of soldiers; one of them had thrown a grenade and it had rolled back into the trench they were practising from; he had picked it up in order to throw it away and it had blown both his arms off; he had two tin arms which he nevertheless contrived to manoeuvre in the most extraordinary way; he had really beautiful handwriting on a blackboard with chalk; he was very kind, an inspirational teacher, but also a pretty harsh disciplinarian; I can remember fooling around in the lunch queue one day and suddenly seeing stars because he had thumped me on the back of my head with one of his tin arms; he was a modern linguist but he taught geography and English; the school was pretty weak on science; I was never very much good at mathematics which irritated my father because he was; I am an economist purely by accident; I suppose writing English came relatively easily to me, and remembering chunks of poetry; I liked English, History, Latin, the humanities, and I did well; it was a single-sex school so I was at the top; I enjoyed games, so had an entirely happy and successful time at school; in the kind of school I went to if you are fortunate enough to mature at the rate that you are supposed to, you enjoy it; one of my great friends who sometimes beat me - we had fortnightly orders, all the marks added up from all the things you did, and you changed places in the classroom; if you were top of the class you were in the back left-hand corner looking from the teacher's desk; you then shuffled round every fortnight in accordance with the order; I was usually sitting next to one of two people, one of whom became Professor of Marine Biology at Exeter University; he didn't mature at the right rate, but too fast, and consequently really didn't like the school; there was somebody else who was a very fine mathematician who got a scholarship to Brasenose the same year that I came here to Worcester, who became senior maths master eventually at Lancaster Royal Grammar School; thinking of him now, I think he was certainly dyslexic because although his maths was wonderful, he couldn't make any headway in anything that required him to write English; he didn't have a happy time in the school either; by maturity, I am thinking of whether you were irritated by silly rules and regulations; I blush when I think of enforcing them, but I did as a prefect

34:31:13 I joined in everything; I played all sport; in Rugby, I began by being able to run faster than anybody in my year, started on the wing and as I got slower I moved inwards; I broke my ankle playing for the probables against the possibles in the final trial for the first fifteen, which wrecked my chances and I greatly regretted it; the same break in the ankle took me through into the first term of serious hockey; I played occasionally in the first eleven; in cricket I never made it into the first eleven but I was a regular second eleven player; I ended up captaining all three second teams, and had my house colours; I acted, and broke another bone by falling off a stage; I also sang; we had a choral society which I was very keen on, and I also played the piano; I still occasionally play when nobody else is listening; music has been a strong theme in my life; in later life I have been a trustee of the European Community Baroque Orchestra; I am a university appointed trustee of the Oxford Philomusica, which is the top professional orchestra in Oxford; I am keen on encouraging the College music activities and I think they would recognise that; I don't like music on when I am studying or doing something serious; when I do listen to music, I either listen to it properly in a concert, or alternatively the time that I have it on as background is when cooking, which is something I have developed over the last twenty years and greatly enjoy doing; we did have a Combined Cadet Force and we did have field days, and I was very good at it; I was best cadet and ended up as Senior Company Sergeant-Major; we had a centenary parade while I was there to celebrate the centenary foundation of Liverpool College Cadet Force; I got great delight out of training a squad to do drill without commands; there was a Royal Air Force regiment squad which did drill without commands; it is quite difficult to do because people have to count, but I trained a squad of boys to do it; I look back on my school and I did pretty well at everything; I was not a rebel; I don't think I had any political views; there was a debating society which I enjoyed; it is curious when you think about it, but I remember being on a CCF camp at Thetford in Norfolk in August 1956; we were sent home early because the troops were mustering to go and invade Suez, and I remember while we were there, green tanks were being repainted in sand-coloured livery; the notion that we were being secret about the intended invasion was really ridiculous; I was only indirectly engaged with the popular music revolution of the late fifties; Richard Stilgoe was at my school and was a year behind me, but we acted together in a couple of plays, so I was aware of skiffle and pop groups; the Beatles don't really emerge in Liverpool until the early sixties; Richard Stilgoe had a group called Tony Snow and something, I can't remember, which was a kind of rival at one stage to the nascent Beatles; it was classical music that I was interested in; for a couple of years with a friend from school, we had season tickets for the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra; rather than pop music I was trying to educate myself into liking modern music; John Pritchard was the chief conductor of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic and there was a series of concerts called Musica Viva which were concerned with modern music; there would be an explanation of the piece either before or after it was played, so I was experimenting with music but not in the pop direction; I still don't greatly like pop music

43:12:06 In school we went to chapel every morning; Nigel McCulloch, now the Bishop of Manchester, was in my class, usually one of the organists; chapel was a regular part of my life; I had not been christened; my father, according to my mother, had had a period of great religious intensity in the 1920s; my parents were engaged for thirteen or fourteen years before they got married, neither of them feeling they had enough money to do so, and each of them looking after a lone parent; my mother was quite keen on religion, not very active, but went to church sometimes; my father never did; although I had not been christened I did confirmation classes at school, and was christened the night before I was confirmed; my first wife, Joan, ended up as chief social worker for the Diocese of Oxford, and Sue is Fellow and Tutor in Theology here, and is a licensed lay reader; the house I am going to retire to in nine months’ time is about 30 metres from St Barnabas Church, and I strongly suspect I am going to be swept up by the Vicar to be the Parish Treasurer, although it is not a church that is absolutely to my taste, being much too high church for my liking; I am a straight-forward Anglican, believe in the parish church system, so will go to my parish church until it really infuriates me; it may infuriate Sue because she obviously feels very strongly about the ordination of women and there being women bishops, and the current incumbent of the church is not really a supporter; of course, I have doubts all the time; Sue will hear me saying different bits of the Creed every week because I can't believe in one bit one week, one bit another; I am terrified of death; when my children were young, my elder son had a penchant for a pop group called The Smiths; I seem to remember the lyrics of one of their songs - I know that when I die I shall find that God has a sick sense of humour -  and I think that that is probably right; on Dawkins’ ideas, I am interested in such things; when Alec Graham was Chaplain here there was a thing called the Woodroffe Society where I gave a paper about whether we can speak meaningfully about religion, the logical-positivist and subsequent philosophers view that metaphysical language was literally contentless because you can't falsify it; I was very impressed when I read 'The Selfish Gene', and thought it was also a superb excuse for all kinds of selfish male behaviour; I think if you were to interview Dawkins I suspect that his more shrill attack on religion in recent years is either quite a good publicity stunt, or alternatively, and possibly more likely, Dawkins fighting against his father whom I think was a priest; I don't have those kinds of doubts; it seems to me there are so many doubts about the whole thing, and of course Sue's specialism the Hebrew Bible, and one of the things she very much stresses in her own Anglicanism is the continuity with Judaism; I enjoy teasing her about it too, I don't take it all that seriously; we have wonderful debates on whether the Garden of Eden was the most appalling confidence trick; you can say to any child "Don't touch that", and what is absolutely certain when you go out of the room is that it will touch it; in College, the more I go on I feel I am a Benedictine Abbot

50:49:22 Came to Oxford in 1960 to read PPE, but I had failed ignominiously the previous year to get into Corpus to read classics; that was what I wanted to read; after 'O' level I had roughly similar marks in Latin, Greek, History and English so it was an interesting question what to do at 'A' level; I think I made the wrong choice and should have read either English or History, probably History; it is interesting that both my sons have done History; I went into the sixth classical I suppose because the kudos on the arts side was to do Latin, Greek and Ancient History; the kudos on the science side was to do maths, further maths, and physics, so if you did physics, chemistry and biology you were regarded as a slightly inferior kind of scientist; I think some of that still sticks; the mathematicians and physicists around the place really regard pure maths as being the highest form of life; so I did Latin, Greek and Ancient History and was extremely well taught by a very contrasting pair of teachers, one of whom had a double first from Cambridge, notorious for getting the sixth form to do the wrong set books, but who taught me about scholarship in a curious way; he was a very scholarly man and I can remember there was some crux in the text we were doing, Aeschylus 'Agamemnon', and he said he didn't agree with the notes and wrote his own; he gave to the classical sixth, which included Nigel McCulloch, three pages of notes whereas all you needed for 'A' level was only about a couple of lines; my other teacher who taught ancient history had been at Corpus and had been viva'd for a first in Greats and hadn't got one; I think he thought that I would relive his dream, but unfortunately I failed him at the very first hurdle; I was completely floored by the entrance interview by W.F.R. Hardy, then the President of Corpus; he asked the most simple questions about English word derivations from Latin and Greek, but I was utterly tongue-tied; I had a second interview on my classical general paper; I had done a question on would you rather have been a Greek or a Roman, and I said I would rather have been a Roman because if I had picked the time correctly it could have been quite peaceful, with a reasonable police force, I could have lived in a centrally heated villa, and as an educated Roman I would have had access to all Greek literature anyway; overplaying my hand, I ended by suggesting that the Greeks were rather tiresome, and was interviewed on my evidence for this; I did not get in to read classics and so had to rethink my tactics; I could do general papers, and they had just introduced the new entrance exam for PPE which included three general papers, one précis, one general essay, and a kind of puzzle paper; I had to do two other papers, a Latin unseen which was reasonably easy, and the other was a paper on politics; I did one term of intensive coaching from the master who taught politics; I was interested, and always read the newspapers, and was up to date on current affairs; I got in and was offered an Exhibition;  Worcester insulted my school in the report sent to it by suggesting that I was very promising but gravely under-taught; the other thing was that straight away they wrote to me asking if I would like to read classics; they didn't think I could do  honour Mods but thought I could do  Greats, and there was a new thing called the classical prelim which I could do; by that stage I had decided that classics was not for me so I declined; as a result I had always assumed that it would be philosophy that I would be good at, and in the prelims year that was absolutely true; I was good at philosophy, reasonably good at politics, and I scraped through prelims on economics; it really wasn't until some time in my second year doing economics that it all suddenly clicked; I have no idea to this day why and I have always regarded myself as an accidental economist, I am not really an economist at all; Dick  Sargent, the Tutor here, suggested I went in for the George Webb Medley Economics prize which was the thing that was offered at the end of the second year; you had to do a general paper, an applied economics paper, and an Economics theory paper; to my intense astonishment I won it, so there I was allegedly the best economist in my generation; then I was virtually programmed to go to Nuffield and onwards, but I hadn't intended to do that at all; in my first long vacation I did an 'Understanding British Industry' course through the careers service with the Dunlop Rubber Company which had two plants in Merseyside, one in Walton which made moulded rubber footwear, and the other one in Speke, which turned out tyres; I really enjoyed it, so at the beginning of my second year I wrote to them saying I would like to do something with them; they very kindly offered another set of internships, at the end of which they offered me a job, so I was expecting to go into Dunlop to train as a cost and works accountant and to go into industry, like my father; it never occurred to me to be an academic; when I won the West Medley prize I asked my father what I should do; he suggested I write to Dunlop and tell them I had won the university economics prize and that they would offer me more money; I wrote, and they wrote back congratulating me, but assuming that as a result I would no longer wish to join them; that was not my intention at all, but I didn't join them