Blogging live from the Conway Memorial Lecture at Conway Hall, Red Lion Square.
Lisa Jardine’s subject is her father Jacob Bronowski, public intellectual and humanist responsible for inspiring a generation, myself included. When I blogged about my “Bronowski Moment” some years ago, I discovered it was a moment shared with many, including Lisa herself. The impassioned Cromwellian plea grasping a sod plucked from the pond of human ash at the gates of Auschwitz from The Ascent of Man. The first time I became aware of Lisa as Bronowski’s daughter was when I followed- up a piece by her on the Auchinleck Manuscript. After that, Bronowski’s A Man Without a Mask (William Blake) and Science and Human Values followed naturally.
In his introduction, host Laurie Taylor recalled Michael Frayn on the difficulties of writing on the inheritance of a parent, anticipating what we might expect from Lisa’s title. Not even Laurie I suspect actually anticipated what we were about to receive. I’m not certain what I was expecting – surely something on science and humanism or the history thereof or maybe, as Laurie suggested, the third culture blurring of science with art and the humanities. Well no.
Lisa’s title “Jacob Bronowksi – Things I Never Knew About My Father” is the working title of the biography she’s currently writing and the subject of the lecture was the draft of a single chapter, one of two devoted to the MI5 file on Bruno collated from the 1930’s to 1954. The same year 60 years ago when he had given the Conway Memorial Lecture.
The irony for Lisa is that examining fragmentary one-sided unreliable archives is her day job, as director of the Centre for Editing of Lives and Letters (above) and as professor of 16th & 17th century history at UCL. All writing about archive material is simply fragments filled in with creative fiction. Her main objective, other than exposing what having a secret MI5 surveillance file can mean to a person in general – think Stasi, think Lives of Others, think NSA, think Edward Snowden – is to shed light on the thing she and we never knew – the fact that despite an illustrious public career, Bruno never had the life or career he actually sought.
Following Lisa’s lead this blog post can only be fragmentary – there was just too much fascinating revelation to be typing and not listening. Just two bookending thoughts:
Lisa can of course bring her own family memories and access to her father’s contemporary diaries to supplement what she finds in the MI5 file(s) – of course they’re notoriously unreliable too, but they do lend corroboration of time and place and subjects. After introducing us to initial informant reports – during the 1939/40 phoney war prelude to the real WW2 when Bruno was a maths lecturer at that hotbed of leftie intellectuals and agitators – the newly created Hull University, she also gave us glimpses of the files and the diary pages. On the 20th January 1950 the same week Bruno records Klaus Fuchs being sentenced for his treasonable wartime spying, Bruno also records a conversation with Tesla on Einstein’s Unified Field Theory ideas.
She concluded with another sad irony. So often the natural German, Russian and Eastern European passion of Jewish emigres for the allied cause against the Nazis was exploited, but with such suspicion that when the war was won they could be dumped by the allies. This contrasted with German brains that continued to work for the Nazi cause during the war and were welcomed by British and American teams afterwards(*). Bruno was one of those under constant suspicion whilst working for the allies during the war, he was turned down for the important science posts that were the natural aspirations of his academic and writing career. Instead he carved out a career in BBC radio and TV, where it was probably only the fact that he was taken to heart by the British public, that counteracted MI5 pressure on the BBC to pull any number of his media projects.
And that was just the one chapter. Even there, much left out above on British class-based culture and British vs US differences and so much more on the machinations of secret surveillance and petty internal politics, the C. P. Snow connection – Nick Humphreys “sabotaging” the BBC Bronowski Memorial Lectures after just one year – and not for the first time is academe seen as a hotbed of cruel personal competition compared to commercial business. All utterly fascinating and important if not entirely surprising. Look out for the book in the new year.
[Note – Conway Hall home of The Ethical Society had its origins South Place Chapel in Finsbury Square as the congregation led by William Fox rebelled against key dogmas and was inherited by Moncure Conway an American. The connections – Ethical Society / Bertrand Russell / Reith Lectures / BBC.]
[(*) See earlier operation paperclip references to Werner von Braun / Ernst Stuhlinger.]