Geoffrey Palmer, Scotland’s first black professor

ON the way back from Kelso races on Thursday the bus stopped at the little village of Oxton and our hosts got up an impromptu dominoes tournament in the pleasant little pub there. I was swiftly wiped out in the first round by one Godfrey (''Geoff'') Palmer. He went on to contest the final, in which he was narrowly beaten by a senior Labour local government politician.

There was not much remarkable about this event. It was just a convivial end to a lads’ outing. But there is a great deal that is remarkable about Geoff Palmer. Two weeks ago he was appointed to a personal chair of brewing at Heriot-Watt University. He is the only black professor in Scotland.

Here he fights cheerfully but valiantly against racism and its ugly array of prejudices and slurs, and he believes his life offers hope and inspiration to other immigrants. It certainly has had the stuff of romance in it.

He was born in Jamaica in 1940 and in 1955 sailed to Liverpool on the Cunard ship the Ascania. It was, he said, a banana boat. His family and friends get upset when people use the phrase because of the implied slur: he makes no bones about it.

He went to London where his mother had lived since 1948. Because he was one month short of 15 he had to go to school (the school leaving age was not raised to 16 until the early seventies). In those days, too, the comprehensive had not arrived and pupils were streamed into grammar schools if they had passed the 11-plus and into secondary moderns if they had not.

Geoff’s education, at a Congregational Church School, had been elementary. He could read the Bible but not much more. He had, as I learned to my cost, become a pretty useful dominoes player.

More significantly, he was also an excellent cricketer, an all-rounder, and had played a great deal in Kingston. He was sent to Shelbourne Road Secondary Modern and was rapidly selected for the London Schoolboys’ Cricket Team. Its fixture list included matches against Eton, Harrow and Winchester.

His cricketing ability turned his life. While playing he was spotted by the headmaster of Highbury County Grammar School who decided that, 11-plus or not, he must have this boy for his cricket team. Without any fuss about educational attainment, Geoff was transferred there and, in 1957, left with one A-level and three Os.

He got a job as a technician in the Sir John Atkins laboratory at London University, where he worked under the supervision of the distinguished professor (now emeritus) of zoology, Garth Chapman.

Professor Chapman had a profound influence on him. He said to him there were not too many junior lab. technicians called Godfrey. ”I’ll give you a job if I can call you Geoff,” he said. The name has stuck. Some time later the professor said: ”I don’t think you’re stupid.” And so he gave him a day off a week until 1961 to complete his A-levels.

When he applied to universities, he came up against the Catch 22 then faced by immigrants. For a start he didn’t have a foreign language. An even greater difficulty was that immigrants were not regarded as overseas students unless so specifically designated by their High Commission in London.

Professor Chapman sent him to the Jamaican High Commission. It ruled that he was not an overseas student. The good professor was infuriated and decided to break the rules. He phoned a colleague at Leicester University, Professor T. G. Tutin, and together they contrived Geoff’s matriculation there.

He got his cricket blue and graduated with an honours degree in botany. He went back to London, but could not find an appropriate job and worked in a restaurant for six months. Then he saw a joint advertisement from Heriot-Watt and Edinburgh universities offering a place for a PhD student.

He was accepted and completed a thesis on cereals. Afterwards he got a job with the Brewing Research Foundation in Surrey where he worked on barley, a staple product for the industry. He returned to Heriot-Watt in 1977 as a lecturer in the department of brewing, adding to his degree a science doctorate in 1983.

By now he was becoming an international authority on brewing and problems of barley production. He invented the industrial process of barley abrasion and pioneered the use of the scanning electron microscope for studying barley-malt. In 1991 he became a visiting professor at the University of Kyoto. He has just served a term as chairman of the Scottish section of the Institute of Brewing. He has edited a scholarly book on cereals.

He spends a great deal of time advising farmers, brewers and distillers. The east of Scotland, because of its long, cool summers, produces some of the best barley in the world. The pick of it is much prized by distillers and brewers at home and abroad. It is bought for German beer (there can be no higher compliment). The best of the barley attracts a premium.

But too much of the crop is damaged and has to be sold into intervention, a painful blow to purse and pride and a matter of increasing moment as reforms begin to shrink the common agricultural fund. Most of the damage occurs during the drying process (Scots barley has a high moisture content and needs more drying than the crop from East Anglia, for example).

Very often the problem lies with inexperience or lack of knowledge or a duff drying machine; there are quite a few pups on the market. To dry barley rapidly you increase the air flow: if you increase the heat (as some inadequate machines oblige you to do) you damage the crop.

From his professional life Geoff derives fulfilment. He works hard against racism, on various public bodies at Scottish and regional level. He chaired a Church of Scotland committee which reported on multi-cultural education.

He stands against it too, gracefully but with determination, in his daily life. The only answer to it, he believes, is never to accept it, never to comply with a racial slur or joke, never by silence to be complicit with attitudes that people know deep down are wrong. He meets white South Africans elsewhere than in their own country but he has not yet met one who can look him in the eye: they are ashamed.

Geoff believes that his life provides hope and a model for under-achieving groups who feel excluded from our society’s systems of power and patronage. His mother is 76 now. When he was made a professor she took the announcement round to the Baptist Church in Haringey and asked them to read it out, not in a boastful spirit but because it was a message of hope for others.

He has succeeded not in the usual arenas where black immigrants may rise — football, boxing, athletics, music or (because they by definition discriminate only on grounds of ability and qualification) the professions. He has succeeded in a subject and a sphere with an international context.

He finds advantage even in his own lack of early education because he entered the adult world with a clean mental slate. While at Leicester he found that he could spell complicated scientific terms but could not deal with simple words like ”coming”.

He says: ”I’m not exceptionally bright but I didn’t have a lot of people trying to ensure that I didn’t succeed. For disadvantaged people, black and white, that is very important.”

To put it another way, he adds, his head wasn’t stuffed with nursery rhymes. Middle-class children, when they sit an exam, believe the test is designed to elicit the extent of their knowledge. Disadvantaged groups think the opposite: they think it is their ignorance that is being explored.

Geoff is happily married, with three children. To his various interests he has added Shakespeare. He played the King of Morocco in an amateur production of the Merchant of Venice and has a profound respect for Shakespeare’s perceptive treatment of racism. Despite its theme of anti-Semitism, the play, he believes, is not an expression of prejudice, rather an exposition of it:

Mislike me not for my


The shadow’d livery of

the burnish’d sun,

To whom I am a neighbour

and near bred.

He fights cheerfully but valiantly against racism and its ugly

array of prejudices and slurs