On fisheries technology, herring and Tonka toys
I was sad to hear this week of the death of ‘Dave’, a former colleague. He’d enjoyed a long and productive retirement and had neatly summarised his career through a ‘Food for Thought’ article in a fisheries journal just a couple of years ago when he was in his mid seventies. I first read it shortly after its publication and although it was a very technical paper, it brought to mind some less-than-technical reminiscences. (Just skip to the end if all you want is the limerick!)
One of the more stressful parts of my work as a fisheries scientist at Aberdeen’s Marine Laboratory, was the regular meetings with our fishing industry; stressful because we so often were the harbingers of doom such was the poor state of fish stocks at the time and our prognoses were usually received poorly. Over the years we tried several ways to improve our communication with the industry and one early format was to host a day-long meeting with leaders from both the fish catching sector and the processing sector. We presented a ‘state of the stocks’ summary in the morning and a post-lunch ‘question time’ session with a panel of senior staff to respond. The panel was chaired by a former Director of the lab, Alasdair McIntyre. Those of us that were not on the panel sat in the audience to provide any specific comments if required.
As a government department, we could provide only the minimum of lunchtime hospitality and after the first such meeting, the industry decided it would fund the lunches at any future meeting. That included ‘liquid’ provisions that the industry deemed essential given how warm the Marine Lab Lecture Theatre became as the temperature rose both literally and, at times, figuratively. Thus it was after one such lunchtime that the panel was asked about uncertainties in a specific method of fish stock assessment for herring, Clupea harengus; namely, on acoustic surveys undertaken at sea.
No-one on the panel was an acoustic survey specialist, so Alasdair referred the question to Dave, sitting on the back row of the Lecture Theatre. Thus it was that the leaders of various Scottish fish producer organisation, their equivalents in the fish processing sector, and a number of Fish Team scientists, turned towards the rear, only to see Dave dozing quietly with chin on chest – he’d had a ‘good’ lunch. The circumstances were such that would have fazed most people, but after a gentle nudge from a colleague and a hastily whispered exchange, Dave, provided a model answer, seemingly oblivious to the fact that he had slept through the bulk of the Q&A session.
On other occasions he used to go jogging at lunchtimes, not with the rest of us because he was conscious of being a slow and unwieldy runner, so he ran in a direction counter to ours. Being tall and well-built, almost top heavy, he also had a unique running style. He seemed to lean forward until his legs had to move in order to stop him from falling over. To watch him was to fear for him as ran on the cusp of the gravitational constant. Too little a lean forward and gravity would not prevail and there’d be no forward motion. Too great a lean forward and you were looking at a spectacular face-plant from a rolling start. Fortunately, he always got round the course in one piece, but such was his momentum and forward lean that I suspect he only managed to stop by running into a wall! I’m also pretty sure that his background as a physicist would have enabled him to define his running style mathematically. It certainly helped him understand the outcome of a road traffic accident in which he was once involved, as he explained to us that the disproportionate damage caused when going only slightly too fast was due to the dispersal of kinetic energy that increases in proportion to the square of velocity. I don’t know if that knowledge is covered in today’s ‘theory’ part of the UK driving test. If it isn’t it should be.
You may gather, then, that Dave was a big bloke and, like all large masses, when he got going he attained significant momentum. In his case it applied verbally as well as mechanically and in conversation he had a habit of jumping in with a comment (and sometimes a brain-dump!) when you were in mid-sentence. I won’t say that he talked over you, because that has the negative connotation of wanting to impose views and to deprecate any other perspectives – that would be unfair in Dave’s case because his ‘jumping in’ was merely an unconscious by-product of his enthusiasm to engage. Nevertheless, at times, he raised the ire of my then boss.
As I shared a very large room with another junior scientist, we used to host a daily tea-break that comprised the two of us, our boss and a pair of the Fish Team’s ‘good old guys’. At that time Dave was the Marine Lab’s Deputy Director and a regular, if infrequent, attendee at our tea breaks. When he came along it was often to discuss some fisheries matter that had discomfited a Minister, hit the press headlines or required an answer to a Parliamentary Question. On such occasions, Dave would jump in half way through our boss’s explanation of the matter until, one day, he decided he would not stop talking even if Dave interrupted him. And so it transpired. Our boss did not stop talking, but much to his surprise, neither did Dave and the two of them continued to talk in parallel, our boss getting evermore hot under the collar whilst Dave remained cool, calm and, once more, oblivious to what the rest of us were witnessing.
As a consequence of Dave’s relentless and indefatigable forward progress (physical or verbal), I affectionately christened him ‘Tonka’ in homage to the adverts for the Tonka toys of the day, in which nothing seemed capable of halting them in their tracks. For several years I assumed this was a nickname known only to the tea-room cabal (excepting Dave, of course). I found out just how naïve was that assumption when, some years later, my boss came back from a meeting held at the English fisheries lab in Lowestoft and told us that after being greeted by John Pope, one of the UK’s fisheries gurus, John had ask after Dave or, as he apparently put it at the time: “How’s Tonka?”!
Shortly after, and during the early to mid 1990s, the Marine Laboratory held a couple of contracts that linked us to the Instituto Nacional de Pesca in Guayaquil, Ecuador. Towards the end of the second contract, Dave and I travelled to Ecuador each to present a paper at the end-of-contract symposium. Neither of us could speak Spanish and we depended on our local rep, Deidre, to facilitate things for us. Deidre was an Irish woman married to an Ecuadorian and she very ably interpreted for me as I gave my presentation (she had already translated my paper into Spanish so the audience could take away a hard copy in their own language). But that was not Dave’s way of doing things. In his case, Deidre translated his paper into Spanish as she had done for mine, but rather than depend upon her to interpret when he gave his talk, Dave had annoted it phonetically in parts and read it aloud in the most Scottish of Spanish accents and, as with his spoken English, each sentence was punctuated somewhere with a very Scottish “ehh”. His talk went down very well and his approach to giving it was massively appreciated. I could never have done that and I was genuinely in awe of him doing so himself.
So, to return to his height. As a tall man, Dave used always to look down on most of his colleagues; literally, but not figuratively. One could say that at times he ‘loomed’. Now, as someone that is protective of my personal space, I’m not a great fan of being loomed over however much I like the other person. So I generally take a step back if I’m ever in that position, which is why I once sashayed backwards for the entire length of one of Aberdeen’s longest bars. Dave and I had started to chat at a colleague’s retirement do and when we started to speak we were standing at one end of the bar. As we talked, he loomed. As he loomed, I stepped back. As I stepped back, he stepped forward and loomed again. I think it took about ten minutes to traverse the full length of the bar. Dave remained completely unaware of the unfolding pas de deux and that was due entirely to the enthusiasm in which he engaged with you.
Former colleagues with whom I am still in touch have also commented on Dave’s enthusiasm and on his fundamental decency. He was world renowned in his field and attained a senior management position without any resort to guile or artifice and he maintained that position with a genuine interest in his staff and concern for their development and welfare. When obliged some years ago to complete a personal profile on the Marine Scotland intranet, I listed my likes, dislikes and values. For the latter, I stated that I valued decency over achievement (and I still do). Fortunately in life you sometimes come across someone that has bucketfuls of both and Dave was certainly one of them.
Here’s the limerick.
A physicist once took on a notion
To acoustically sound out the ocean,
But to count all the Clupea
It seemed, t’would appear,
To require a lifetime’s devotion.