6 FEBRUARY 1988, Page 7


PETER LEVI In the heady, idiotic days of the 1960s, a foolish boy I once taught was demonstrat- ing outside the door of All Souls. An old don shambled in. 'Why,' he was rudely asked, 'are there no scientists in All Souls?' It was the President of the Royal Society. `Why,' my pupil asked another one, 'don't you ever publish a book?' It was A. L. Rowse, who thank heavens is still pub- lishing books as brilliant as ever, and whose old books are still being proved right. The scientist was Henry Ford, Pro- fessor E. B. Ford, who died last week. He was tall and bald and old and beaming, and his hat looked nearly as old as he was. He discovered that butterflies could alter their wing patterns to make themselves more like their beloved. He knew every small footpath and remote church in Oxford- shire, and had beaten the bounds wherever they were beaten. His conversation was enchanting, polished and dangerous. He was particularly adept with that shepherd's crook they use to whisk away the grapes from under your nose. Old Ford was one of the three scientists I have most liked in my life.

One of the others, W. G. Hoskins, was also in All Souls when I knew him, or at least sat at his feet. He could slice through the history of a landscape like a layer cake. Just the other day I noticed his observation that the systematic shooting of hawks and the planting of enclosure hedges in the early 19th century produced an Increase of millions of small singing birds in the next human generation. Small wonder that Victorian views of nature are unlike ours. Chervil has been sprouting for two or three weeks, which is an early sign of spring. Hopkins calls it `fretty chervil': who but a Victorian could liken those delicate carrot-like leaves to fretwork? W. G. Hoskins has a more sober style, as effective in its way as Geoffrey Grigson's, which it slightly resembles. The late Victorian view of nature, crammed with minute details in a sauce of pervasive sweetness, appears to be international, whether because of the fag-end of the Romantic movement or the influence of Ruskin I am not clear. Prince Kropotkin praises it in Lermontov, but then Lermontov had Gaelic blood, being descended from the poet and prophet called Thomas the Rhymer through a mercenary soldier called Learmonth.

The third scientist, the one I loved and admired most, was Professor Motz of my own college. His inaugural lecture was a plea for an alcoholic universe, in which uneatable vegetation grown on land that supported nothing eatable could be con- verted to alcohol and solve the fuel prob- lem. Surely that was practical? It was he who devised an experiment to change the speed of light, which might possibly have disintegrated the universe altogether, but fortunately it was too expensive to be permitted. It had to do with two perfect globes of gas emitting intense light and swiftly expanding at the same pace, reflect- ing one another's light at increasing speeds. You needed two exactly regulated atom bombs. I have seen the Battle of Jutland enacted in the good old days after dinner at Balliol, with five admirals and some damage to furniture, but Motz's experiment has a certain saintly simplicity. He was a warm, very witty Austrian, interested in more things than even Profes- sor Ford. When he retired as a Professor of Engineering, he took up a new subject, making important contributions to neuro- surgery. Considering these three masters, I do not think science is utilitarian, though it has its uses. The trouble with it is that the A level and early undergraduate stages are so boring, like the schoolboy stages of Greek and Latin.

The world beyond Oxford and the pleasing decay of its ivory towers is getting harder to reach. So is Oxford, if one lives in the country. The trains go on getting worse: out of 20 journeys to London I was between one and three hours late five or

`You'll have to withdraw your labour.'

six times last year. The best excuse was that our train was on fire in Worcester station and the one they sent instead had broken down. The roads are almost more hazardous. A pothole near Banbury pro- duced a line of nine cars changing their wheels at one time, on a day about three weeks ago. Some were punctured, some were broken, some were talking of suing the council. Some of the potholes in lanes and minor roads are unavoidable even when they are old acquaintances: you simply brace yourself for the jolt. One ought to be grateful that cars are so well built. Ours is small, cheap and rust- spotted, and we may never afford another, but for the gallantry of its metal-work I recommend the smallest Renault.

0 f course one would sooner live in the age of the horse and the steam-train, when main roads were virtually empty. In those days when children were driven to Charl- bury station, they were allowed to gallop if they spotted a smudge of train-smoke up in the valley. I regret having missed a stage of evolution, because, never having learned to type, I am unable to experiment with a word-processor, and never having driven cars I find it hard to learn to fly. Yet I recall with curiosity if not nostalgia the size and weight and ferocious battering noise of typewriters that were old in 1940. The newspapers recently reported that Lloyd- George's secretary, who was the champion typist of Britain in 1911 and is now 98, is banging out his memoirs on a 70-year-old typewriter. If you were used to them, old typewriters made a companionable sort of noise, like insistent birds. In the war, when there was no traffic and no petrol for lawn-mowers, in summer when windows were open you could hear a typewriter far across gardens. The woodpecker noise of Mr Albert Sylvester typing ought surely to be recorded.

The only brush I have had recently with the modern world came by sitting on a committee about English in schools with P.J. Kavanagh. The ministry is so desper- ate that we should keep mum about our discussions that we have now been given Xeroxes of a bit of the Official Secrets Act, on the ground that when we hand in our report it will be filed, and until the minister publishes it the act of filing makes it an official secret. The idea of official secrets of education is a strange one, is it not? I am all for confidentiality, and for thwarting the sillier kind of journalists, but I would prefer a confidentiality that was a gentleman's agreement.