A Brush with History


EM Forster


Isaiah Berlin

I was playing ‘ducks and drakes’ on our local pond with two school friends when I felt a shiver of apprehension. A tall man appeared suddenly and stood silently watching us. He didn’t even greet us, just stood there and watched. I felt uneasy, but continued playing. I was winning! My last pebble had skittered over the water surface hitting it five times! I was leading, until the next one from my friend Shelagh hit the water six times, or so she said. I was staring at the tall man, both fascinated and afraid. I had seen him before, just once, but I had heard my mother talk about him many times. She had met his wife and invited her to tea. I remembered her smile, and her hair strangely platted and curled into two bun shapes just above her ears. She was friendly but odd. Mysterious, perhaps, like most adults outside the family. He was Barnes Wallis, the inventor of the ‘bouncing bomb’.
My mother often took my elder sister and me along a path by this pond, probably because it was rarely muddy after a rainfall.  We walked along it to Sunday School where we were given beautiful bibles with red leather covers that turned over at the edges to protect the soft pages of rice paper, or so we were told. On the other side of the lake was a huge thatched ‘cottage’ that went up in fire. Mother commented wryly that the owner had first carried all his bottles of liqueur to safety on the lawn because the fire insurance did not cover those items. Such inconsequential details are like glinting diamonds in a child’s memory.
Universities predictably gather people of renown. Word spread around Cambridge that E.M. Forster, who inhabited a ‘grace and favour’ suite at King’s College, wanted to meet some undergraduates. I suspect it had been hinted that he ought to do something in exchange for his board and lodging. So some of us decided to accept his invitation. There, in one corner of a large room, was a tiny old man who seemed to be sinking into the only comfortable chair to be seen. Ours were hard and more suited to a dining room, except that one sat on benches in those hallowed college dining halls. All I can recall of the words of wisdom that we expected to hear was how heavy books of art tended to be, a comment offered, perhaps, to show sympathy for the weight of knowledge we were supposed to be absorbing.
Princeton University hosted the philosopher Isaiah Berlin who also welcomed student visits. The trouble was that we wanted to hear what he had to say about his eventful life, especially during World War II. Was he an advisor to Winston Churchill? What was it like? Titbits that would reveal the less public side of fame. No, he was much more interested in us, in the hopes and fears of young students and probably bored by retelling his own life experiences over and over again.
It must be tiring to be famous, and most particularly if one is cast as a hero, not a celebrity.

Barnes Wallis plaque photo © Rod Allday (cc-by-sa/2.0)

EM Forster photo © Joop van Bilsen (ANEFO), CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Isaiah Berlin image © NC Mallory

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