Tales of won­der

Cel­e­brated bi­og­ra­pher Richard Holmes tells Dar­leen Bungey about the joys of sci­ence, ro­mance and red socks

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Feature -

THE words of Lu­cretius hung above the head of young arts un­der­grad­u­ate Richard Holmes when he walked un­der the gate­way of Churchill Col­lege, Cam­bridge: Felix qui po­tuit re­rum cognoscere causas : ‘‘ Happy the man who knows the causes ( the ori­gins) of things.’’ In the 1960s, Churchill was a new and rad­i­cal col­lege with a strong sci­en­tific bent, and it was here Holmes be­gan forg­ing the qual­i­ties that would make him one of Bri­tain’s lead­ing bi­og­ra­phers.

But while he stud­ied the heat of the ro­man­tic poets, he also gazed through an enor­mous re­flec­tor tele­scope at the cool, blue moun­tains of the moon. He could not have sus­pected that th­ese two dis­ci­plines would merge in his sev­enth decade in The Age of Won­der ( Harper Press, $ 59.99), an ac­count of the ‘‘ ro­man­tic sci­ence’’ that cap­tured the Bri­tish imagination at the end of the 18th cen­tury.

Holmes is con­duct­ing a se­ries of lec­tures in Aus­tralia and will also ap­pear at the Bris­bane Writ­ers Fes­ti­val this week. His first jour­ney here, in Fe­bru­ary 1992, had a mo­men­tous ef­fect on his life, pro­vid­ing the open­ing scene in the en­dur­ing ro­mance be­tween Holmes and Bri­tish nov­el­ist Rose Tre­main. On the day of our in­ter­view, two days af­ter Tre­main was awarded the re­spected Or­ange lit­er­ary prize for her lat­est novel, The Road Home, they were still wait­ing to open the mag­num of cham­pagne that came with the win. She is his ‘‘ beloved nov­el­ist’’, the ‘‘ fic­tion­esta’’ with whom he shares his life in Lon­don, Nor­folk and France.

They keep their gen­res sep­a­rate, usu­ally work­ing all day and meet­ing for can­dlelit din­ner. Al­though he says he is per­fect­ing a bolog­nese sauce, she does the cook­ing and he clears up. ‘‘ I deal with ev­ery­thing so that when she comes down in the morn­ing ev­ery­thing is ship­shape.’’

He may stay up work­ing into the early hours when he is ‘‘ on a jag’’, such as in the fi­nal edit­ing stages of a book. How­ever, the rit­ual of ris­ing early to­gether is never bro­ken and even­tu­ally cures his in­som­nia.

They met on the tele­phone. Dur­ing that first con­ver­sa­tion he made her laugh by recit­ing a hu­mor­ous rhyme he had com­posed about the Ade­laide Fes­ti­val, out­lin­ing the or­gan­i­sa­tional prat­falls that had ne­ces­si­tated the phone call. Po­lite English­man that Holmes is, I can­not per­suade him to re­veal even one of those mock­ing lines, al­though his laugh­ing eyes say he re­mem­bers them. Af­ter the tan­gled travel ar­range­ments had been sorted, they agreed to meet at Heathrow and fly on to Ade­laide to­gether. When Tre­main asked, ‘‘ How will I recog­nise you?’’, the re­ply came: ‘‘ I’ll be bald, be­spec­ta­cled and fool­ishly smil­ing.’’ She says she fell in love on the tele­phone but he al­lows that it took him a lit­tle longer: ‘‘ I have to ad­mit I did need to clamp eyes on her in­ter­est­ing dif­fer­ence in male and fe­male psy­chol­ogy.’’ He re­calls fall­ing in love from a great height, some hours later, some­where over the Black Sea. ‘‘ We were lucky we met when we did. We both had quite a bit of liv­ing and writ­ing un­der our belts.’’

Be­fore that phone call, nei­ther had read the other’s books, but both made won­der­ful starts: he with her Restora­tion , and she with his first vol­ume of Co­leridge: Early Vi­sions . When Tre­main flew back to Lon­don, Holmes stayed on for a time in Aus­tralia. End­less let­ters ( a tan­ta­lis­ing pack­age for fu­ture bi­og­ra­phers) were ex­changed. In his, Holmes wrote po­etry. He can still re­call a line: ‘‘ And fes­ti­val your heart with thoughts / Of sail­ing into for­eign ports’’.

Holmes sets The Age of Won­der ‘‘ roughly and cer­tainly sym­bol­i­cally’’ be­tween two sea voy­ages: James Cook’s first round- the- world ex­pe­di­tion on the En­deav­our and Charles Dar­win’s jour­ney to the Gala­pa­gos aboard the Bea­gle . Holmes ex­plores a sci­en­tific blos­som­ing that occurred be­tween 1768 and 1831, a pe­riod of such imag­in­ings and dis­cov­er­ies it moved Sa­muel Tay­lor Co­leridge to vow, with char­ac­ter­is­tic in­ten­sity, that he would ‘‘ at­tack chem­istry like a shark’’.

It was a time when the math­e­mat­i­cal world of New­to­nian physics, the ‘‘ hard ma­te­rial world of ob­jects and im­pacts’’, gave way to a sci­ence of ‘‘ in­vis­i­ble pow­ers and mys­te­ri­ous en­er­gies, of flu­id­ity and trans­for­ma­tions, of growth and or­ganic change’’.

Th­ese no­tions widened the New­to­nian com­pass that had in­cluded only the scholar or sa­vant. The pub­lic was made privy to the lat­est dis­cov­er­ies in as­tron­omy, ex­plo­ration and chem­istry. It be­came the age of pub­lic sci­en­tific lec­tures and de­bate, lab­o­ra­tory demon­stra­tion and in­tro­duc­tory text­books ( of­ten writ­ten by women), as sci­ence be­gan to be taught to chil­dren.

William Her­schel, the dis­cov­erer of plan­ets, and Humphry Davy, a pi­o­neer of elec­tro­chem­istry, pro­vide the axis around which oth­ers, such as ex­plorer Mungo Park and the emerg­ing great chemist Michael Fara­day, re­volve. Joseph Banks, the brave young botanist who re­turned to Eng­land with spec­i­mens from the South Seas and Aus­tralia like an as­tro­naut re­turn­ing with moon rocks, is the com­mon link.

Painter Joseph Wright of Derby fixed the ro­mance and mys­tery on to can­vas, show­ing the drama to be found in ex­per­i­ments with flu­ids and gases, flight in air bal­loons or John Keats’s ‘‘ watcher of the skies’’, the as­tronomers piec­ing to­gether the heav­ens with rev­o­lu­tion­ary tele­scopes. The idea that sci­ence could be com­mu­ni­cated and ded­i­cated to all mankind caught the imagination of poet and prag­ma­tist alike.

Yet shad­ow­ing the won­der came the fear of man’s in­ter­fer­ing hand, the prospect of sci­en­tific hubris, the over­throw of re­li­gious be­liefs and the loss of moral con­science. Mary Shel­ley, al­lud­ing to vi­tal­ism and dis­sec­tion, in­tro­duces th­ese no­tions in Franken­stein , while Percy Shel­ley uses Her­schel’s idea of an open- ended so­lar sys­tem as sup­port­ing ev­i­dence for his athe­ism. Holmes of­fers fas­ci­nat­ing read­ings on the re­sponses of Lord By­ron, Co­leridge, Keats, William Wordsworth and Robert Southey to th­ese sub­jects and, no doubt, will in­vite en­thu­si­as­tic de­bate by his dec­la­ra­tion that the ro­man­tic poets did not har­bour ‘‘ per­ma­nent, in­stinc­tive, deep- seated an­tag­o­nism’’ to sci­ence.

Holmes be­gan writ­ing po­etry at uni­ver­sity and still does: ‘‘ If you love lan­guage, it’s the most de­mand­ing way of writ­ing a sen­tence, that’s where you keep an eye on your skills.’’ Like F. Scott Fitzger­ald’s Gatsby, Holmes has a ro­man­tic readi­ness and an ex­traor­di­nary gift of hope. It en­velops his writ­ing, as does his pas­sion to set the world to rights. The green light that lures him holds the prom­ise that there is still a truth to be told, a de­fence to be made for the mis­judged, mis­un­der­stood fig­ures of the past.

Holmes is for­giv­ing of his sub­ject what­ever the trans­gres­sion, yet he has a habit of speak­ing se­verely to him­self. At var­i­ous dif­fi­cult times in his life his in­ner voice has re­mon­strated, ‘‘ get over it’’. As el­dest son he was sent to a Bene­dic­tine board­ing school at the age of eight, and in his lone­li­ness was ter­ri­fied by vis­it­ing Je­suits. ‘‘ Why should small chil­dren be made mis­er­able?’’ he still won­ders. But even then, in the grip of his be­wil­der­ment, he got on with it by de­vel­op­ing an imag­i­nary world, draw­ing in the other un­happy boys and turn­ing their prison into a launch­ing pad to free­dom.

‘‘ We treated school like a World War II prison camp,’’ he re­calls. In­spired by Paul Brick­hill’s The Great Es­cape , at night they would clam­ber out the school win­dows and over the rooftops, at one point al­most suc­ceed­ing in build­ing a tun­nel un­der the as­sem­bly hall.

One of Holmes’s ear­li­est mem­o­ries is the sound of the keys from his mother’s Tri­umph type­writer pound­ing out her chil­dren’s sto­ries. While she read lots of Steven­son’s po­ems to her son, Holmes re­calls his lawyer fa­ther with his

very good clear log­i­cal mind’’ be­ing ‘‘ quite strict’’. In dif­fi­cult times, the only help his fa­ther would of­fer was the ad­vice to put it down in writ­ing: ‘‘ Richard, very good copy.’’

If it weren’t for the ras­cal grin, in his con­ser­va­tive black at­tire Holmes would ap­pear per­fectly suited to the job of civil ser­vant that he held with West­min­ster City Coun­cil af­ter grad­u­at­ing from Cam­bridge. Af­ter many dis­ap­point­ing knock­backs and while still lead­ing a dou­ble life with the city coun­cil, he was com­mis­sioned by Lon­don news­pa­per The Times to write a re­view of a J. D. Bal­lard novel. He has not for­got­ten the thrill of his by­line. One of the many mea­sures of his suc­cess came at the end of the 1990s when he was in­vited to speak at the Royal In­sti­tu­tion in May­fair, the stage for much of the cast in The Age of Won­der .

As Holmes sits pa­tiently for the pho­tog­ra­pher in the in­sti­tute’s lec­ture room, sur­rounded by the ghosts of Fara­day, Davy and Co­leridge, his raised trousers re­veal a sur­pris­ing pair of flam­ing red socks. Later, I men­tion the socks. In ear­lier days, he ex­plains, when he had no money to spend on clothes, he dis­cov­ered that the sar­to­ri­ally el­e­gant Charles Baude­laire, who dressed in se­vere English style, al­ways wore red socks. Holmes could af­ford the socks. He adds that if he is go­ing to lec­ture ( or be in­ter­viewed, I as­sume), he will al­ways wear red socks. ‘‘ You should ap­pear sober to the point of dull­ness, but there is this lit­tle bit of out­rage and only you know.’’ At this small rev­e­la­tion it oc­curs to me that Holmes doesn’t truly be­lieve in keep­ing things hid­den. Like the great bi­og­ra­pher he is, he wants us all to un­der­stand each other, to con­nect, all the way from our heads to our hearts to our toes.

Mo­men­tous: Richard Holmes, above, and an il­lus­tra­tion from his new book, The Age of Won­der

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