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On Jonathan MillerNeal Ascherson
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Ifirst met​ Jonathan’s knees. This was because Cambridge sofas in the 1950s had broken springs. Once they had buoyed up culture heroes like Rupert Brooke, John Cornford or Guy Burgess. Now, as we trudged across the great Gromboolian plain of the 1950s, they had given up the struggle. Modish undergraduates perched on the arms. Jonathan, new to the place, tried to sit down and slid backwards into the depths. All I could see was these twin gatepost knees towering up. And then, peering over them, I saw the head of red curls and two urgent eyes searching – as they always did – for information.

I knew nothing of London and its special North London culture at that time. I thought at first that Jonathan was just a sixth-former grown up too fast. I knew nothing about medicine beyond elderly GPs asking: ‘Have the “buls” moved? Imbibe freely.’ But within months of meeting Jonathan’s knees, I was shown that medical science was not a cubicle of knowledge but an unexplored continent of fantastic possibilities, aesthetic epiphanies, political possibilities that might be dazzling or demonic.

Waving his arms slightly, he said to me: ‘The main function of the central nervous system is to exclude the majority of impulses coming into it.’ That sentence dominated my thinking for twenty years. Now, I’m not even sure that it’s true. At the time, though, it seemed to me to explode the whole rather sickly cult of hypersensitivity, of exaggerated personal relationships, which still hung around as a desiccated Bloomsbury relic.

Jonathan, it became clear, was at heart a ‘demonstrator’ – an old term for somebody who gathers the public to witness an experiment. Even at Cambridge, he wanted his friends – everybody – to share his excitement at what he was finding out (not original discoveries but facts and procedures that thrilled and astonished him). He had trouble keeping his excitements to himself throughout his life. Back then, he mesmerised me with a grisly harangue about constipation seen as a mere bourgeois superstition and, another time, with an outburst of enthusiasm about opening the abdomen of a corpse, ‘the grey lifeless body suddenly illuminated with this eruption of brilliant colours as the internal organs emerge’. Once – I don’t know how he arranged this – he invited his friends to watch him perform a classic demonstration of brain function in a dissection theatre: an unconscious cat made to kick or mew as electrodes were introduced to different areas of its brain. Looking back now, I suspect that our own reactions were as interesting to Jonathan as those of the poor cat.

I was much more engaged with Jonathan’s scientific side than with his main life-work in theatre and opera. Of course they connect. But he was an Enlightenment person, not a Renaissance man. I don’t think he ever quite grasped that there could be genuinely evil people immune to rational persuasion, or that lies and corruption could be the deliberate choice of an educated politician. Not an ounce of superstition in Jonathan: instead, a marvellous incredulity that so many other people couldn’t see the bleeding obvious in science or politics once it was demonstrated. He was dead lucky to grow up and find himself in the 1960s surrounded by a British ruling class which had grown absurd and sort of knew it, an outworn Establishment begging to be laughed away.

Fast forward to the last few years. Jonathan and I formed the habit of a weekly supper at the Côte restaurant round the corner from his home. Always with minute steak, frites and Béarnaise sauce, they were like tutorials. Why do humans swing their arms when walking? Not for balance, but a pointless hangover from our all-fours past. Why have we failed to identify consciousness in the waves emitted by the brain? Freud was wrong about the subconscious, in reality a continuous layer of awareness in which impressions swim at varying depths. Why can a portrait’s eyes follow you round the room, when a sculpture’s eyes can’t? Once we argued about genotypes and phenotypes, and Jonathan rang me two days later to tell me that Richard Dawkins had defined the ‘extended phenotype’ as an artefact that can only be created by a given species incapable of modifying it whereas humans can vary phenotypes endlessly.

Sometimes, as his mind began to fade, he would repeat a familiar rant. My favourite was the rant against fancy poetic diction, followed by a demonstration of Hamlet puffing, sighing, scratching, mumbling over whether to be or not to be. But one thing recurred in almost all the ideas and discoveries he wanted to share: an astonished optimism about the human species. He loved talking about the advances in medicine and surgery unimaginable when he and his wife, Rachel, qualified: dialysis, transplants, Medawar’s discovery of how to suppress immune-system rejection. In his last years, he was thrilled by the work of pioneering German biologists and chemists of the 19th century, and as his own memory failed, talked compulsively about fresh research into brain pathology.

In one of our last dinners, we discussed Rudolf Virchow, the 19th-century pathologist and liberal politician who proclaimed that ‘cells are the basic unit of the body.’ Jonathan wondered if that cellular faith was connected to his passionate belief in the individual against the mystical racial collective? Bismarck challenged him to a duel, but Virchow’s choice of weapon was two sausages, one infected with Trichinella: ‘a viviparous nematode parasite occurring in pigs, hyenas and humans’. How Jonathan would have enjoyed that! But by the time I found it out, he was beyond conversation.

In Glasgow, they say about a dazzling performer – can be a footballer, can be a politician – ‘ya dancer!’ In old Lithuania, where Jonathan’s family came from, some of the Hasidic courts prayed by dancing in order to reunite all the hidden sparks of the divine into one flame. Jonathan, you have been a dancer.

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