In an interview for Cambridge University’s This Cambridge Life website, the maths wizard whose rivalry with Wolfson’s Eric Monkman enthralled TV viewers, has spoken about his childhood, academic background – and unusual name.
Here’s an extract from the interview:
The second of four brothers, Bobby grew up in the London borough of Newham and after university entered the City as a trader.
He said: “I’d never watched an episode of University Challenge until my team, Emmanuel College, won a place in the 2016-17 series. When I was a kid, my dad would be flicking through the channels, University Challenge would come on, and I’d only know one or two answers. I’d hide behind the sofa in awe of the students who seemed to know everything.
“Becoming a bit of a celebrity doesn’t worry me. My family make sure I’m keeping my feet on the ground. It’s not the attention that’s important, but what I can do with it for positive social value. I want to use my spell in the limelight as a platform for inspiring kids to get involved in maths. Since being on University Challenge I’ve had some exciting offers for books and television series – all to promote maths. It’s going to be a juggling act to do it all.
“On the first day of the postgraduate teaching course (PGCE) at Cambridge we were asked to come up with nicknames for each other. Mine was Bobby Energy. At school I was sometimes called Tigger after the bouncy tiger in Winnie-the-Pooh. I’ve got so much to do and not enough time. I survive with a nap on Sundays. I put some music on – Aled Jones or Jamie Cullum – and fall asleep for an hour or so.
“I’ve always been someone who absorbs information. I’m the second of four brothers, and each Saturday we’d go to East Ham Library and lie on the floor for hours reading books. There were loads of books at home too – on every kind of topic. I’d read bits almost at random. Little did I know that it would one day come in useful to know the name of the French tennis player known as the Crocodile.
“Yes, my name is pretty unusual. My dad was very taken by the book Jonathan Livingstone Seagull – it came out in the 1970s and had a big following. My mum wanted Seagull to be a middle name, rather than our surname but he got his way. Two of us are Seagull and two of us are Seagull Jose. The dinner ladies at school knew me right away.
“All of us have Jay as a first name. It’s a south Indian tradition of sorts to share the same first name and to be known by your middle name. My parents came to the UK from Kerala in India which has historic links with Portugal. That’s why my dad’s surname is Jose. He’s an entrepreneur at heart who’s full of ideas and always starting new projects. He made us believe we could do anything.
“At primary school I was mad about football – and numbers. I managed to combine them by creating Excel spreadsheets that captured information about dozens of players. I could then work out which players should be on which team.
“The decision to make a career change into teaching came when I was working for PricewaterhouseCoopers. After my time in banking, I qualified as a chartered accountant at PwC. I was given the job of training their new graduates and I enjoyed it so much I decided to apply to do a PGCE. Two of my brothers had been at Cambridge – one at Trinity and one at St Catharine’s – and the third one at St Peter’s, Oxford. I decided on Cambridge.
“I did my teaching practise in state schools in London and Cambridge.
“In September I’m starting a PhD in maths and education at Cambridge. I’m doing it over five years while teaching maths at a local state school, Chesterton Community College. I’ve been teaching there already and being on University Challenge has given me a bit of kudos with the kids. I’m especially enjoying teaching the younger groups – they’re really alive to ideas.”
The full interview will be posted here