12 January 2011

A student of the universe

The following is an account which my colleague Dr Charles McCreery has sent to the prospective biographer of his father, the late General Sir Richard McCreery, which describes two further episodes concerning my interactions with his family.
I attach a copy of a piece which Dr Green blogged recently which refers to her first (and virtually only) meeting with my mother.

This occasion dates to a time when, as I have already mentioned, far from cutting myself off from my family, I was attempting to include them in my chosen line of work, and before I had realized that these attempts were futile, indeed counter-productive, inasmuch as they were used by my family to generate fresh canards of a destructive kind.

In this instance my mother emerged from the meeting (I had left them alone together) looking triumphant, and saying: ‘I sized her up immediately: completely humourless’.

In fact it might be argued that it was my mother who had displayed the sense of humour failure on this occasion. During the interview she had asked my colleague where she went for her holidays. Dr Green had not been able to afford a holiday for years; or perhaps I should say that, having been driven out from Somerville without a research grant, she had chosen to save every possible pound from her small salary from the Society for Psychical Research towards being able to buy a house in Oxford.

To avoid making my mother appear tactless, Celia had replied to the effect that her idea of a holiday was to curl up with a book on theoretical physics.

My mother reported this exchange to me with apparent glee, as if it supported her ‘humourless’ assessment.

My family apparently suffered a similar sense of humour failure following my sister Sarah's first (and, again, virtually only) meeting with Dr Green. The latter is given to making layered or provocative remarks of a would-be humorous nature to people she considers open to such things, and on seeing my sister for the first time she felt, rightly or wrongly, that my sister fell into this category. Accordingly, she introduced herself to my sister by saying, ‘I am a student of the universe from Oxford.’ Both elements of this statement were true on a literal level, since my colleague specialized in theoretical physics during her first (maths) degree. It could, of course, also be taken on a more philosophical level, if someone was so minded.

This utterance became transmuted by my family into something not at all humorous, and seriously damaging, namely ‘I am Celia of the universe’. This slanderous version proved to have much more staying power than the real one. Decades later (in 1987), I met Norman St. John-Stevas (as he then was) while he and the then Secretary of State for Education and Science, Kenneth Baker (now Lord Baker of Dorking), were queueing outside the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford to vote in the election for Vice-Chancellor of the university. Norman came out with: ‘And how is Celia of the universe?’ This was despite the fact that Dr Green and I had met Norman on more than one occasion in the intervening years and we had both corrected him in person as to what Celia had actually said. Clearly the risible and slanderous implications of the distorted version had far greater appeal.

As my colleague remarks in another of her published aphorisms: ‘The mature person never tells the truth when a lie will do.’(1)

(1) Green, C., The Decline and Fall of Science, Hamish Hamilton, 1976, p. 169.