A tension between my father and Mr Badger

Go back 55 years. Eccleston Square. The room filled with nine-year-old boys, 6 of whose fathers were in the cabinet not far away – possibly in committee rooms or the House of Commons.

At the front on a table is a pristine pile of squared paper, cut accurately and sitting immaculately in a cube, about a foot tall. The tea lady, Mrs Grice walks in with trembling hand – a green cup and saucer – 2 biscuits. Badger thanks Mrs Grice.

“CENTRIFUGAL FORCE!” he shouts – swinging the teacup and saucer, inches from our faces in a balletic flourish. Mrs Grice, the tea lady had left the room. This is mathematics. Now, ushering another boy up from the rows of desks in the classroom (Petty A) – putting his finger on the pile of neat squared paper, he is told to make a little circle with his finger. The paper starts moving at the top, transferring some of the force to the paper below. The cube gradually transforms itself into a twisted spiral. We sit in silence, fully engaged. “The Commonwealth Institute roof is similar… “Mr Badger explains, no, not far from our house in Kensington. I remember the roof spans all, straight, making up the beautifully curved lines of the roof. Now stand here, at the front. Halve the distance from you and the door. Move to that point. Halve it again. Move. You will never reach the door.

Badger had a nickname for me.


I would drift off and look at the leaves being burnt outside in the square – the smell of the 1963 Autumn in SW1. “COMPUTER! What is 6 squared?” I would have to stand up and shout the answer. I never forget how he avoided the chalk and the endless soporific drone all my other maths teachers put me through. Mr Routh, Mrs Behets, and finally, when I ran out a few years later during a lesson in calculus as the windowpane acid really kicked in, Mrs Jacobson.

My father – a man of many contradictions – a major in royal corps of signals during the war, heading up a section of men his job in ciphers was to encrypt messages in the 8th army. After the war, he took over his uncle’s gallery in Leicester square (which he hated)… and told me of how he could determine if the number on the tube train carriage (usually a long number, I am not sure!) if it was a prime or not from when he boarded the train at Gloucester Road to  by the time it got to Hyde Park Corner. Hugh, a disappointed man, he often beat me and forbade me from motorcycles and art schools. He failed the motorcycles, for I then rode them for the next 46 years, the art seeped in and out over the years until now, when I have given it time doing an MFA.

One afternoon my father surprised me with a little demonstration of computational art without a computer. He took a a page from that Sunday’s paper, a photo of the Queen. He drew a grid in pencil over the photo, lining up the dots to measure it out accurately.

Then, taking a fresh sheet of paper out of the Queen Anne desk next to me, he took a compass and drew the edges of the same grid, the same carefully arranged dots, with the compass, transferring the straight grid lines of the photo into a series of curved lines. Each tiny square of the grid was transposed into the curve grid, as to distort the queen’s face.

I wish he had done more of that and beat me less.

The spirit of Mr Badger lives on as I rediscover the joys of mathematics without the boredom. My father – who also told me to go to the ICA and see a wonderful exhibition, Cybernetic serendipity at age 14.