James Alexander ("Sandy") Green - From Birth to Marriage

We reproduce below a version of the speech by Alastair Green at the funeral of his father Sandy Green at Botley Cemetery, Oxford, 17 April 2014:

Sandy was born to Scottish parents, in upstate New York, in February 1926. He hit his eighty-eighth anniversary a month or so before his brain and body gave out, last week, here in Botley, at home and at peace, on the seventh of April.

Dad was a research mathematician, an algebraist, a Fellow of the Royal Societies of Edinburgh and of London, who came in his turn also from an academic family.

His mother, Mary Ballairdie Gilchrist, was one of the earliest women graduates, completing her degree in classics at St Andrews before the First World War. She went on to produce translations of French novelists such as Emile Zola, which were published commercially.

She also had five children with her husband, Frederick Charles Green, whom she met at university. [This reflects Margaret's recollection. Dorothy Scott, Sandy's elder sister, reports that they met at their secondary school, the Harris Academy in Dundee.] One, Francis of "Frankie" died before the age of two. The other four were Dorothy, Isobel, Sandy and Christopher or "Crick", all of whom also took degrees at St Andrews.

Only Dorothy, the eldest, now survives: she lives in Guelph, Canada.

In the way of that era, our grandfather's career automatically took precedence over Gran's. He was by all accounts utterly fluent both in German and in French. He made his career in the field of French literary studies, and was Drapers Professor of French Literature at Cambridge (where Sandy attended the Perse School in the 1930s and early 1940s).

Frederick Green finished his working life as a professor at Edinburgh: our paternal grandparents were drawn back to Scotland - that is where we knew them as children, and where they died. They lived at the edge of the Botanical Gardens in Stockbridge, in a handsome terrace house built of pink-red stone, which we visited every August.

From Edinburgh we progressed to rain-drenched, midge-ridden but somehow idyllic holidays on the isles of Bute and Mull, together with the family of Dad's best friend, Jimmy Crighton and his wife Beth. We children participated in wood-fire barbecues on stony beaches: these were called "sausage-sizzles", which the adults washed down with ring-pull tins of Tennant's lager; these grown-ups then somehow managed to slope off for midnight swims - a holiday art quite lost to modern parents.

Dad's father Frederick was a very sophisticated, perceptive and knowledgeable scholar, who published many books on eighteenth- and nineteenth-century authors, their works and French society. Just before the war George Orwell published a very positive review of his biography of Stendhal. He was made a Chevalier of the Légion d'Honneur, possibly by the French Third Republic before the war, perhaps by the Fourth afterwards.

Frederick was also a very patriotic man with politically conservative views. This helped put him at severe odds with Sandy, who did not get on with his father at all.

Sandy was not very vocal politically, but he was very typical of the generation which ousted Churchill by voting in the Labour government of 1945, in the hope of a radically better world and a more decent life for all, a hope exemplified by the achievement of the NHS. He had no respect for unearned authority, and was generally a very accepting and tolerant man.

Despite his father ending up, perhaps in the manner of the Vicar of Bray, as an elder of the Church of Scotland, it is not clear that his parents had any strong religious allegiances: Sandy certainly lacked religious belief.

Sandy's father volunteered for army service in the very first days of the Great War. After leading an artillery unit on the Western Front he was wounded and rose through the ranks of army intelligence, being awarded the Military Cross in 1918, and ending his service career attached to the General HQ of the occupying British Army on the Rhine. While stationed in Cologne he completed studies commenced in Berlin in 1913, to win his Ph.D. in German Philology and Literature in 1920. Yet family legend has it that his hostility to the "beastly Boche" then led him to switch to French studies.

He obtained a second doctorate, from the University of Paris in 1924, but did so at a distance. He and his wife Mary, who had married in 1916, embarked on a whistle-stop tour of Anglosphere universities: first Durham in 1920 where their first child Dorothy was born, then the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg in 1922, where Isobel arrived; next in 1925 to Rochester, New York where Dad was born, and a year later to Toronto, Ontario where Frederick Green first became a full professor.

In a wonderful sketch of their childhood produced just after Sandy died, his sister Dorothy writes:
Little brother Sandy, February 26th
You arrived a day late to be a birthday present for Daddy but Mummy was so happy - a boy at last! She was the adored youngest child of Alexander Gilchrist with three elder brothers, to her, girl babies were well enough, but boys much better. Daddy's father, James, had died when he was only four, more of a myth than a memory.
Dorothy also recalls:
Your first words were French. You were given a bath toy, a rubber dog that squeaked. What is its name, Sandy? "Dis donc" ["You tell me"]. Madame, la femme de ménage, talked constantly and Sandy talked back.
Dad never lost his interest in French, and had a love of language in general. Much of his humour revolved around the play of words. He also taught himself enough German to deliver lectures and to converse, and studied Russian and Portuguese to facilitate his work. In his autobiographical notes for the Royal Society in 2004 he listed French literature from the 16th Century to the 20th as his hobby.

One of the last discernible words that I heard him speak, other than his wife's name, was jambe, as Mum and I sought to manoeuvre a reluctant leg into position after changing his bed-sheets. At this very late point in his final illness he could not wilfully articulate his thoughts: a recognizable word had become rare. He was very pleased when I repeated the word: nodding and grinning slightly in a rather typical way.

He had read Marcel Proust in the original, and cited that author in an interview in 1998 for a Portuguese mathematical bulletin. In the interview he expressed surprise at the thought that one would cease mathematical research just because of retirement. (After all, I suppose, what better lot for an academic than to lose the students?).

Proust in a letter referred to a verse of the New Testament Book of St John, in which Jesus tells the crowd: "Walk while ye have the light", which Proust paraphrased as "Travaillez pendant que vous avez encore la lumière".
[Note: Sandy omitted the word "encore" in quoting this sentence from a letter to Proust to Lauris, c.1908. Proust in fact said "Travaillez pendant que vous avez encore la lumière. Comme je ne l'ai plus, je me mets au travail. [As I have none left, I'm getting down to work]". Leo Tolstoy published a book whose title was translated, contemporaneously as "Work while ye have the light: a tale of early Christians". It was published in English as early as 1895. But the French translation of 1891 uses the literal words of the biblical verse "Marchez [Walk] pendant que vous avez la lumière". I only wish I could have discussed this conundrum with Sandy. He'd have been curious.]
In other words: "Work while ye have the light". Dad took this as his retirement motto. His last publication was in 2007, when he was eighty or over.

In the same interview he also observed, proudly and I think slightly fearfully, that he had a wife who refused to grow old. She still refuses to, I'm very glad to say!

Back to the beginning - to Dorothy's account of life in Rochester, New York:
That first year ... monthly nurse who cooked beets, never before eaten, and combed out my hair . "Oops! That was a grandfather snarl"...
I believe a monthly nurse is what is nowadays called a maternity nurse, who attends night and day in the first weeks to the care of the new baby and mother - otherwise known as Paradise Incarnate: the family was clearly very comfortably off.

Dorothy continues:
... pre-kindergarten and saluting the Flag, visits with Mummy to the lilac gardens and the lakeside, Isobel and me in wool bathing suits of a horrible mustard colour and the baby in his pram with the picnic. Then, in the autumn a move to Toronto, a brand new house and me in kindergarten and going to Yerres again in the summertime.
Each year the family took the long steamer trip across the Atlantic to France, to enable Frederick's studies in the libraries of Paris: one of the earliest photographs we have of Dad is with his two sisters (probably taken in summer 1928) in a house in Yerres, a small town on a suburban rail line close to Paris, and to an old royal forest.

Like Isobel the two younger boys, Frankie and Christopher, came into the world in Canada. In Dorothy's words:
And then there was another boy baby, Frankie, with his precocious charm. Sandy had to toddle through the woodland paths at Yerres holding on to the pushcart. "You are the big boy now" ... and I remembered my mixed feelings of pride and resentment when Isobel sat in the sleigh while I struggled along the snowy sidewalks of Winnipeg. When Frankie died ... blackness. Mother overwhelmed. "He was the best of all".

The front door slamming on your little finger and cutting off the top. Rare laughter when we rubbed the cat and drew sparks from the radiator. And we never went to Yerres again.

Christopher, five years younger than you. Not really a playmate, for you were now at school and teachers were already recognising something special.
Sandy lived in Canada until 1935. [Note: In Dorothy's original sketch of the family's childhood she dated arrival at Cambridge in 1934. Other records including the St Andrews class record for Sandy, and Sandy's own autobiographical notes, give the date of commencement at the Perse School as 1935. The definitive date would be given by independent confirmation of the date of appointment of F C Green as Drapers Professor of French Literature. I have given preference to Sandy's own date, but this may be mistaken.] In 1935 the family moved to England, and he never lost a certain Canadian intonation, which was imperceptible to we, his children, but often noted by those meeting him for the first time.

Dorothy describes leaving for England:
That last summer in Canada we went to a summer hotel in Muskoka like proper people and did not have to leave school in May to go to France. All the way by taxi. Pine forests, clear lakes, canoes and the pure smell of the North. Came that summer when we left Canada in May for good. Rain lashing down the dark windows as we waited for the taxi to take us to the train to Quebec for the steamer. The last time the wires swooped by as we lay in the Pullman bunks. The last time we played on the canvas hatch with the other travelling children.
Cambridge. 1934. The house rented from a wealthy brewer with a passion for Madame de Sevigne, a copy of hers, stucco with embedded sea shells and an inaccessible turret with red glass. The sweet smell of the eglantine hedge. Street gas lamps with a gas lighter man. People who would not buy pasteurised milk "because they only pasteurise dirty milk". Bicycles everywhere. Schools kept on until mid-July. Enrolled in the Perse Schools, separate one for boys for you. The overloud English voices telling Mother that we shall put the children in lower forms because, of course, standards aren't so high in the colonies. By the autumn term the sisters were moved up to their age and Sandy skipped two grades. Luckily, academic snobbery spared us some of the hazards of adjustment. After all, we were professor's children in a place where there was only one per faculty.

In my experience Sandy didn't go in for academic snobbery. He wasn't impressed by the self-importance of Oxford and Cambridge or the disdain so often shown for those who didn't go to what the Americans call a "top school" ... or indeed, any school at all. He probably didn't think I had it in me, but I never felt pressured about academic performance or my choices of subject, university or career. It wasn't even there as an unspoken background radiation. He and Mum wanted to help us, not tell us.

But back to Dorothy's tale:
We survived the ill-bred mimicry of our "American accents", their appalling lack of knowledge of anywhere outside England, outside academic England. We survived being told our writing, so carefully slanted, was illegible. We survived the weather. We even survived compulsory games.
Another house, rented from Girton College. You were helpful working out the chalk lines for the tennis court and no worse than your sisters at playing the game. "You're"... and the bird obligingly filling in "Cuckoo". A garden to dream in. Apple trees, plum trees, greengages, nectarines. "Sandy doesn't like pears". (Which of course he did - he loved them, at least in later life.) And a cat that ate asparagus. Friends. We were accepted. You became truly English, a hope of future glory for the Perse Boys with its extraordinary rebus motto "Qui facit per alium, facit per se." [By doing for others, you do for yourself]

Sandy matriculated at St Andrews at the age of only sixteen, in 1942. Dorothy notes the perception that he was an outstanding pupil and student:
- astonishment from a Polish fellow student at St Andrews "You can't be Sandy's sister - he's brilliant".
He had won a residential scholarship, originally to study Chemistry, but switched to maths before he started at university.

Not so long ago he discussed chemistry as a subject choice with one of his granddaughters Clara, and told the story of his "Gunpowder Plot": apparently he almost blew up his parents' garden shed in Cambridge.

I think this incendiary instinct was never wholly subdued: I recall together mixing gunpowder in the garden of our house in Warwick, probably soon before he had his major stroke in 1966: I would have been just under eight years old, therefore.

The house had cellars lined with ancient, fine coal dust. Dad took me down the High Street to the local branch of Boots. In those days chemists' shops were not just for prescriptions, painkillers and haemorrhoid suppositories. I believe that we discovered that saltpetre (potassium nitrate) was off-limits but you could buy sodium nitrate by the pound, and we returned home, to search for a feather.

Breaking bad, we mixed: in proportions that he knew by heart and which today I could be imprisoned for revealing, creating very satisfactory snakes of powder on the stone terrace, which I happily lit. After that - autres temps, autres moeurs - he left me to it. I think I was told not to confine the powder in a box. No damage was suffered by our small greenhouse.

At St Andrews Sandy met his lifelong best friend Jimmy Crighton. They shared an interest in poetry, and read and discussed the Four Quartets of T S Eliot, the last of which was published in 1942. Some lines from Burnt Norton, the first quartet, that Dad recalled when Jimmy died, are reproduced in your programme.

Two years after starting at St Andrews Sandy graduated with an ordinary BSc: there was an accelerated programme for two-year degrees in the war. He was immediately conscripted for national scientific service, and sent straight to Bletchley Park to work in the codebreaking department known as the "Newmanry" or Hut F, which was led by one Max Newman. There he met Margaret, who was in the WRNS. She also worked in the Newmanry as an operator of the early Colossus computing machines. Winston Churchill ordered their destruction after the war, but you can today see a painstaking reconstruction of a Colossus at the Bletchley Park museum. Dad's first words to Margaret were a quiet offer of help with loading a paper tape onto one of these machines.

Sandy was a Temporary Junior Scientific Officer at Bletchley from summer 1944 to autumn 1945. Apparently he then spent some months at the Royal Aircraft Establishment at Farnborough before leaving national service in 1946. This latter assignment is still dark matter. I think none of us ever asked what he did there.

My parents refused to reveal anything about their war work until GCHQ began to let the cat out of the bag in 1973, but when Margaret and Sandy did start to talk, Dad was adamant that he was too junior to have had anything to contribute theoretically to cryptanalysis: he described his role to me as that of a human "computer", a performer of calculations using "well-established routines".

In 1946 Sandy resumed his studies at St Andrews, graduating in 1947 with a first-class BSc Honours degree. He then went to Cambridge, again with a scholarship, to do his Ph.D., which he completed in 1950, and was awarded in 1951. Margaret worked most of this time as a PE teacher in Eastern England.

Dorothy tells us that we she was asked during this period:
"Try to find out if Sandy has proposed to that nice Margaret. He probably just assumes."
She adds:
I did and he had - not that unworldly.
On August 2, 1950 they were married, at Girton. In the same year our parents moved to Manchester where Sandy took up a research and teaching position as an assistant lecturer.

His wartime boss Max Newman, was now his first Head of Department. Newman, an outstanding topologist, is probably best known now for his role in the war, and then for organizing a very large, special Royal Society grant, which enabled Alan Turing to work in a section of his department building the first general-purpose digital computer in Britain. Turing, before his suicide, was therefore a contemporary of Sandy's at Manchester, but they never worked together.

Newman was obviously a superlative academic politician and publicist: an all-round smart guy.

He had the funding and the insight to employ promising young mathematicians and to keep their teaching load light: he gave them three years to produce useful research. It seems with Sandy that the bet paid off.

Last Updated November 2014