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The Kettering Group

Tyneside, UK
2017 Mar 29
Wednesday, Day 88

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Richard Jahn

As I get nearer to the ripe old age of 60, I find that quite small events can trigger memories of the past. This happened to me recently when I drove along Windmill Avenue for the first time for probably years. I expected to see what used to be the Kettering Grammar School buildings and - especially - the ground floor physics lab where I had spent so much time. But I was astonished to find no building. It has gone completely with no trace that it had ever existed. In its place was a large car park for the brand new college that had been built behind my old school.

I spent most of the 60's at Kettering Grammar School - starting in 1960 when I was 11 and leaving in the summer of 1967 at the age of 18. The 60's - as some of you will remember - was the decade of 'sex, drugs, & rock 'n roll', and (if you count alcohol and tobacco as drugs), then I'm delighted to admit that I lived up to the decade's reputation!

I cannot remember when I first became aware of Mr Perry's Satellite Tracking Group but I do remember that he had a project involving visually observing Echo 2. He got pupils to note the exact time when the satellite crossed their east-west on every occasion that it was visible. There was some sort of 'League Table' of pupils who had made the most observations and I remember being usually within the top 3 places.

Membership of the Satellite Tracking Group was by 'invitation only'. It was in Mr Perry's sole power to invite a pupil to join and - as I was later to find out - also his decision to expel one.

My memory cannot pinpoint when I was asked to join the Group, but I suspect it was around 1964-65. I do remember the visit by Ken Owen of Flight International to put together his article and take photos in 1965, so I must have joined before then.

At that time, the Group included Michael Sinnett, David Hall, Philip Gregory and Bob Beaumont. My apologies if I've missed anyone out. From what I remember, Graham Coleman and Bob Christy joined a few months later and Bob Beaumont decided to leave the group to concentrate on his A-level studies.

The group took up quite a bit of my time with lunchtimes, breaks, and after-school hours being spent listening to the radio waiting for the familiar beeps of some new Russian satellite. And there were the late-night plus early morning sessions during term-time, holidays and weekends when some of us would be asked to come in (and entrusted with the keys to the main Physics Lab) to log and record any signals.

Richard Jahn letter to Flight International

The work of the group from those years is very well documented so I will concentrate my recollections on some of the more 'unusual' aspects of being a member of the group.

I remember that Geoff Perry was never one to give up any chance of a bit of publicity for the group. During one of the long summer holidays, he contacted me to see if I would man a stand in the foyer of (what was then) Kettering's main town centre cinema - the Gaumont.

The main item on the stand was a reel-to-reel tape recorder playing (loudly!) a typical Cosmos satellite signal. This was to entertain patrons who were entering the cinema during the afternoon and evening film performances. In return for spending a few hours on the stand, I received a free snack from the snack bar plus free admission to watch the film.

And what was the cinematic masterpiece that the cinema owners felt would be enhanced by a display of the Kettering Group's work? It was 'Dr Who and the Daleks'! The one with Peter Cushing playing the role of Doctor Who. Little did I know then that it would be a further 40 years before we all discovered how Daleks manage to get up stairs!

I also remember another event - this time held in London - that involved Mr Perry and Mr Slater plus all of the members of the Group meeting Patrick Moore. This happened in early 1967 after the worlwide publicity regarding the Plesetsk launch site. For this function, we were all expected to wear school uniform. Mr Perry was well aware that most of us planned to make a 'night of it'(as only 17-year-old adolescents let loose in London know how) following the event. Mr Perry made it clear that we were to wear jackets over our school blazers so that - should we make total drunken idiots of ourselves - Kettering Grammar School would not be identified in any way!

What he hadn't counted on was the fact that the event included staff passing amongst the guests with trays of free alcoholic drinks and snacks on little sticks! I still have one of the official souvenir photographs of the event which shows Messrs Perry and Slater with Patrick Moore surrounding by us schoolboys. Some of us have rather glazed expressions that I suspect were the result of downing far too many free drinks, far too quickly.

One of my final recollections of my time with the Kettering Group concerned another event to which Mr Perry and Mr Slater had been invited. This was a Royal Society evening event (I think - or it may have been an Institute of Physics event) being held at the Savoy Hotel in London and must have been in 1967. Prior to a small exhibition of various physics projects - one of which was for the Kettering Group - there was a formal dinner that involved dressing in dinner jacket and bow tie!

Apart from Messrs Perry, Slater and myself, I think only Michael Sinnett was the other person to go. We departed for London in Derek's car after school, having changed into our dj's. I left my school blazer hanging on a peg near the 6th form Common Room.

I recall Mr Slater's car stalling in the Haymarket and we all had to get out and push start it to the amusement of onlookers! I'm sure that the sight of Geoff Perry plus a couple of schoolboys dressed in dinner jackets and pushing a car was not a sight that they saw everyday.

The evening passed uneventfully but we did not get back to Kettering until the early hours of the morning - and it was still a school day. Before leaving for London, Mr Perry had made it clear to Michael and myself that we must turn up at school in the morning. Unfortunately, my mother decided to let me sleep in so I did not turn up at school until lunchtime.

As soon as I arrived at school, one of my friends immediately informed me that Mr Perry wanted to see me. Oh dear - someone had snitched and Mr Perry had spotted my blazer still hanging up where I had left it. He was not happy (to put it mildly) and he made it quite clear to me that I was no longer a member of the Satellite Tracking Group and would not be welcome in the Physics Lab.

With the bloody-mindedness that only cheeky adolescents possess, I was tempted to enquire whether the lab ban also applied to physics lessons (!) - but I could see that Mr Perry was not just simmering gently but was dangerously approaching boiling point.

So that is how I ended up as (probably) the only member of the Kettering Group to actually be thrown out of it. I still regard what he did as a very petty act.

Geoff and I met a few times after I left the grammar school in the summer of 1967. In 1970(?), I invited him to talk to the Astronomical Society at the college where I was doing my physics degree. As part of my degree course, I spent one year working with a research group at the Atomic Energy Research Establishment's laboratories at Harwell that was doing research on some lunar samples from the Apollo 12 and 14 missions. I was allowed to take some of the samples to Kettering Grammar to show to Mr Perry and one of his classes.

After getting my degree, I did an M.Sc in Geophysics at Newcastle University and then went to do research in the Antarctic Marine Geophysics Group at Birminham University. This work involved collecting data on research ships in the Antarctic for a few months every year.

Geoff did me the honour of inviting me to give a talk to the school about my work - I believe I was the second person to give a talk in an annual event that was essentially "Vaguely interesting things that ex-pupils of Kettering Grammar School have done".

The last time I saw Geoff was a few years later after I had left academic research and started a career in sales of scientific equipment. I was able to get the company for which I then worked to provide Geoff with an XY plotter that he could use for his physics teaching and satellite work.

I never met him again although my mother kept me updated with cuttings from the Kettering Evening Telegraph, and I saw him on TV when he was the ITN space expert.

So those are some of my recollections of my time at Kettering Grammar School with the Satellite Tracking Group.
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