On a late September day in 1956, John Horton Conway left home with a trunk on his back. He was a skinny 18-year-old, with long, unkempt hair – a sort of proto-hippie – and although he generally preferred to go barefoot, on this occasion he wore strappy Jesus sandals. He travelled by steam train from Liverpool to Cambridge, where he was to start life as an undergraduate. During the five-hour journey, via Crewe with a connection in Bletchley, something dawned on him: this was a chance to reinvent himself.
In junior school, one of Conway’s teachers had nicknamed him “Mary”. He was a delicate, effeminate creature. Being Mary made his life absolute hell until he moved on to secondary school, at Liverpool’s Holt High School for Boys. Soon after term began, the headmaster called each boy into his office and asked what he planned to do with his life. John said he wanted to read mathematics at Cambridge. Instead of “Mary” he became known as “The Prof”. These nicknames confirmed Conway as a terribly introverted adolescent, painfully aware of his own suffering.
After loitering for a time with the teenage reprobates at the back of the classroom, Conway ultimately did well enough on the university entrance exams to receive a minor scholarship and get his name published in the Liverpool Daily Post. As he sat on the train to Cambridge, it dawned on him that since none of his classmates would be joining him at university, he would be able to transform himself into a new person: an extrovert! He wasn’t sure it would work. He worried that his introversion might be too entrenched, but he decided to try. He would be boisterous and witty, he would tell funny stories at parties, he would laugh at himself – that was key.