The kindness of Beryl

A personal appreciation from a much younger friend.

At a Christmas party in north London some years ago I found myself on a sofa alongside Tom Robinson and Beryl Bainbridge, and in the middle of a long and, for their part, knowledgeable, discussion about the relative merits of Coronation Street and EastEnders. That the songwriter and former gay rights activist should have found himself tackled on this subject by Beryl was not a surprise. She was such a keen follower of soaps that if ever she missed an episode, she would call her friend and fellow-novelist, Bernice Rubens, at her home in Belsize Park, up the hill from Beryl's Camden house, to catch up -- and vice versa. I haven't seen any mention of this particular enthusiasm of hers in the notices since Beryl's death last Friday, however, and although the tributes have been generous -- AN Wilson wrote an especially perceptive piece in the Observer on Sunday -- I wonder how much of the life of this most treasured of novelists will appear in the recollections, or how fully the picture of her character will be painted.

The rackety side will be there, naturally; and this was not without truth. I can vividly remember the Whitbread Prize dinner in 1997 where Beryl, who had won the Novel category, was in contention for the overall prize. From the moment the waiters attempted to fill our glasses, strict instructions were issued: wine would do fine for me and for her publisher, Robin Baird-Smith. But for Beryl, her daughter JoJo and the former "Fat Lady" Jennifer Patterson, large whiskies would be required, and at regular intervals throughout the evening. It was, as one of us later observed, perhaps just as well that Beryl did not end up taking the evening's laurels, as her speech might have been recorded in the annals of exuberance, or quite possibly incomprehension, rather than in those of great oratory.

On other occasions, this appetite for good company, drink and nicotine manifested itself in many a long and joyous evening. At the party for her next novel, Master Georgie, I told Beryl how much I'd liked it. "How many times have you read it?" she asked. "Once," I replied, thinking I'd done rather well in actually managing to finish a book before going to its launch (and, since it was Beryl, I had made a special effort). "You have to read it at least twice to understand it," she told me, although not harshly. The gathering at Hatchard's, Piccadilly, moved on to a pub round the corner, and several hours later a diminished group of us carried on at the home of one of her children in Kentish Town. I have a vague memory of dancing to "The Return of the Space Cowboy" by Jamiroquai at about 3am, but when I left, the party and Beryl, were still going strong.

To that aspect of Beryl, many can testify. And it is for others, more qualified than I, to appraise, and doubtless praise, her writing and analyse her influences. I would like to add something about her extraordinary personal consideration, one instance of which I will never forget. In 1996 her novel about the Titanic, Every Man for Himself, came out to such acclaim that it marked a renaissance in her already glittering career. Shortly before, a mutual friend, the journalist Robert Tewdwr Moss had been murdered in the Little Venice flat I had previously lived in, too. Robert was beloved of Beryl -- she had a framed photo of him in her house -- and was like an older brother to me. As I walked up the cramped, steep stairs of 2 Brydges Place, the club where Beryl's new novel was being celebrated, a stream of literary luminaries waited in line to greet the author. Among the likes of, as I remember it, Antony Beevor and Antonia Fraser, I felt deeply insignificant. But as soon as she saw me, Beryl rushed over and took me aside. "You poor boy," she said, giving me a big hug, "are you all right?" Other grandees of the book world were ignored as she took the time (quite a lot of time), on the evening of her greatest triumph, to talk to a 24-year-old who was of practically no consequence at all in the world of journalism, let alone the realm of letters. It was an act of such kindness I still find myself moved whenever I remember it.

But it was typical of Beryl. Nearly a decade later, I had a weekly interview slot at a newspaper and was under pressure to find subjects famous enough for the section editor's satisfaction. So I rang Beryl. Now most novelists are only willing to be interviewed when they have a new book to publicise, and Beryl was very much between novels at the time. There was really nothing in it for her at all, and she'd also have to put up with a photographer asking her to pose all over her house for 40 minutes. "Well, Sholto," she said, "since we're friends..."

I would have been enormously proud to have called Beryl my friend (although I was immensely fond of her, the presumption implied meant I always hesitated to describe myself as such). I'm still more honoured that she should have chosen to use that word for me. If the coverage of her life carries the respect owed to a very considerable novelist, and the warmth due to a woman who long ago became a "national treasure", it is no less than she deserves -- and those of us lucky enough to have experienced the kindness of Beryl know that behind the puckish, Bohemian exterior that made her so loved, there was also a great heart.


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Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman
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Has this physicist found the key to reality?

Whenever we have ventured into new experimental territory, we’ve discovered that our previous “knowledge” was woefully incomplete. So what to make of Italian physicist Carlo Rovelli?

Albert Einstein knew the truth. “As far as the laws of mathematics refer to reality, they are not certain; and as far as they are certain, they do not refer to reality.” However good we are at maths – or theoretical physics – our efforts to apply it to the real world are always going to mislead. So perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that reality is not what it seems – even when, like the Italian physicist Carlo Rovelli, you’ve done the maths.

It is a lesson we could certainly learn from the history of science. Whenever we have ventured into new experimental territory, we’ve discovered that our previous “knowledge” was woefully incomplete. With the invention of the telescope, for instance, we found new structures in space; Jupiter’s moons and sunspots were just the beginning. The microscope took us the other way and showed us the fine structure of the biological world – creatures that looked uninteresting to the naked eye turned out to be intricate and delicate, with scales and hooks and other minute features. We also once thought that the atom lacked structure; today’s technology, such as the particle colliders at the Cern research centre in Geneva and Fermilab in the United States, have allowed us to prove just how wrong that idea was. At every technological turn, we have redefined the nature of reality.

Unfortunately, we don’t yet have the technology to take the next step. The present challenge to physicists seeking to discover how things really are is to investigate our environment on a scale known as the “Planck length”. Rovelli tries to convey just how small this is. Imagine, he says, a walnut magnified until it is the size of the universe. If we were to magnify the Planck length by that much, we still couldn’t see it. “Even after having been enormously magnified thus, it would still be a million times smaller than the actual walnut shell was before magnification,” he tells us.

We simply cannot probe the universe at these scales using current methods, because it would require a particle accelerator the size of a small galaxy. So – for now, at least – our search for the nature of reality is in the hands of the mathematicians and theorists. And, as Einstein would tell us, that is far from ideal.

That is also doubly true when theoretical physicists are working with two highly successful, but entirely incompatible, theories of how the universe works. The first is general relativity, developed by Einstein over 100 years ago. This describes the universe on cosmic scales, and utterly undermines our intuition. Rovelli describes Einstein’s work as providing “a phantasmagorical succession of predictions that resemble the delirious ravings of a madman but which have all turned out to be true”.

In relativity, time is a mischievous sprite: there is no such thing as a universe-wide “now”, and movement through space makes once-reliable measures such as length and time intervals stretch and squeeze like putty in Einstein’s hands. Space and time are no longer the plain stage on which our lives play out: they are curved, with a geometry that depends on the mass and energy in any particular region. Worse, this curvature determines our movements. Falling because of gravity is in fact falling because of curves in space and time. Gravity is not so much a force as a geometric state of the universe.

The other troublesome theory is quantum mechanics, which describes the subatomic world. It, too, is a century old, and it has proved just as disorienting as relativity. As Rovelli puts it, quantum mechanics “reveals to us that, the more we look at the detail of the world, the less constant it is. The world is not made up of tiny pebbles, it is a world of vibrations, a continuous fluctuation, a microscopic swarming of fleeting micro-events.”

But here is the most disturbing point. Both of these theories are right, in the sense that their predictions have been borne out in countless experiments. And both must be wrong, too. We know that because they contradict one another, and because each fails to take the other into account when trying to explain how the universe works. “The two pillars of 20th-century physics – general relativity and quantum mechanics – could not be more different from each other,” Rovelli writes. “A university student attending lectures on general relativity in the morning, and others on quantum mechanics in the afternoon, might be forgiven for concluding that his professors are fools, or that they haven’t talked to each other for at least a century.”

Physicists are aware of the embarrassment here. Hence the effort to unite relativity and quantum mechanics in a theory of “quantum gravity” that describes reality at the Planck scale. It is a daunting task that was the undoing of both Einstein and his quantum counterpart Erwin Schrödinger. The two men spent the last years of their working lives trying to solve this problem, but failed to make any headway. Today’s physicists have some new ideas and mathematical intuitions, but they may also be heading towards a dead end. Not that we’ll find out for sure any time soon. If the history of science offers us a second lesson, it is that scientific progress is unbearably slow.

In the first third of his book, Rovelli presents a fascinating dissection of the history of our search for reality. The mathematical cosmology of Ptolemy, in which the Earth stood at the centre of the universe and the other heavenly bodies revolved around it, ruled for a thousand years. It was unfairly deposed: the calculations based on Copernicus’s sun-centred model “did not work much better than those of Ptolemy; in fact, in the end, they turned out to work less well”, the author observes.

It was the telescope that pushed us forward. Johannes Kepler’s painstaking obser­vations opened the door to the novel laws that accurately and succinctly described the planets’ orbits around the sun. “We are now in 1600,” Rovelli tells his readers, “and for the first time, humanity finds out how to do something better than what was done in Alexandria more than a thousand years earlier.”

Not that his version of history is perfect. “Experimental science begins with Galileo,” Rovelli declares – but there are any number of Renaissance and pre-Renaissance figures who would baulk at that claim. In the 12th century the Islamic scholar al-Khazini published a book full of experiments that he had used to test the theories of mechanics. The man who helped Galileo achieve his first academic position, Guidobaldo del Monte, also carried out many experiments, and possibly taught Galileo the craft.

It’s a small misjudgement. More ­irritating is Rovelli’s dismissal of any path towards quantum gravity but his own, a theory known as “loop quantum gravity”. He spends the last third of the book on explaining this idea, which he considers the “most promising” of all the assaults on the true ­nature of reality. He does not mention that he is in a minority here.

Most physicists pursuing quantum gravity give a different approach – string theory – greater chance of success, or at least of bearing useful fruit. String theory suggests that all the forces and particles in nature are the result of strings of energy vibrating in different ways. It is an unproven (and perhaps unprovable) hypothesis, but its mathematical innovations are nonetheless seeding interesting developments in many different areas of physics.

However, Rovelli is not impressed. He summarily dismisses the whole idea, characterising its objectives as “premature, given
current knowledge”. It’s a somewhat unbecoming attitude, especially when we have just spent so many pages celebrating millennia of ambitious attempts to make sense of the universe. He also strikes a jarring note when he seems to revel in the Large Hadron Collider at Cern having found no evidence for “supersymmetry”, an important scaffold for string theory.

As readers of his bestselling Seven Brief Lessons on Physics will know, Rovelli writes with elegance, clarity and charm. This new book, too, is a joy to read, as well as being an intellectual feast. For all its laudable ambition, however, you and I are unlikely ever to learn the truth about quantum gravity. Future generations of scientists and writers will have the privilege of writing the history of this particular subject. With theory ranging so far ahead of experimental support, neither strings nor loops, nor any of our other attempts to define quantum gravity, are likely to be correct. Reality is far more elusive than it seems.

Michael Brooks’s books include “At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise” (Profile)

Reality Is Not What It Seems: the Journey to Quantum Gravity by Carlo Rovelli. Translated by Simon Carnell and Erica Segre is published by Allen Lane (255pp, £16.99)

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood