The friend whose energy and enthusiasm got me into maths writing
02 August 2020
(This blog is the preface to the updated edition of Why Do Buses Come In Threes?, August 2020)
In the autumn of 1996 I was at a reunion party when an old friend of mine, Jeremy Wyndham, approached me with a suggestion: "Why don’t you and I write a book about maths?"
Several years earlier, Jeremy and I had briefly worked together at Deloittes, the management consultancy. His idea was to write a book about the puzzles and maths curiosities that had often featured in our coffee break chats in the office.
I slowly warmed to Jeremy’s idea, encouraged by his infectious enthusiasm and energy. As we wrote up material, we began to realise that what held the book together was the connection of maths to everyday life. Eighteen months later the book was published as Why Do Buses Come in Threes? (a last-minute change from its working title which had been How Fast Should You Run in the Rain?).
The publisher was another Jeremy, Jeremy Robson, a shrewd and charming man who ran a small publishing house with a big reputation. Until Buses came along, Robson’s most successful books had been linked to a cluster of celebrities: Alan Coren, Spike Milligan, Maureen Lipman and, most famously, Mohammad Ali. In deciding to publish a maths book, Robson was taking quite a gamble – he’d never dealt with a subject like this before. On one visit to his office, we overheard the design manager muttering to the printer as he looked at the proofs: ‘Who on Earth will buy a book about maths?’
Who indeed? Our hope was that the book would at least escape being remaindered.
Nothing prepared us for what happened. The Daily Mail ran a full-page article about the book three weeks before our publication date, and the phones began ringing off the hook. Jeremy Wyndham was flown out to do a live TV chat show in Belfast, while I took on the long list of radio interviews. Over the ensuing weeks, I was to make my first appearances on BBC Radio 5 Live, Steve Wright in the Afternoon on Radio 2, Radio 4’s Today programme, and dozens of local radio programmes. It turned out that the public was desperate to discover how maths connects to everyday life, in everything from the National Lottery to the daily frustrations of waiting for a bus.
Our book went into the bestsellers lists, and had the distinction of being the number-one bestseller at the Science Museum for about five years on the trot. In fact it only dropped from their number-one spot when the book went out of print for a couple of months, meaning there were no copies left to display.
In 2002, Jeremy and I wrote a follow-up book to Buses, called How Long is a Piece of String?, which also did well.
Then, in 2003, tragedy struck. Jeremy suffered from a heart condition, and he knew that at some point he would need surgery. In typical Jeremy style, he did the maths and worked out he’d reached the point where the risks of having an operation were lower than the risk of not doing so.
The day before his operation he called to let me know that he was about to head into hospital, and would be back in contact next week. Sadly it was not to be. Maths popularisation had lost one of its most enthusiastic cheerleaders.
It’s a wonderful tribute to Jeremy Wyndham that Why Do Buses Come in Threes? has remained in print ever since it was first published, apart from that brief hiatus in the early 2000s, and I know he would be thrilled at the idea of a new edition - and relieved that most of the book is unchanged from the original. Cheers Jeremy, here's to some happy memories!