A history lesson

Observation on Lorna Arnold, Britain's official nuclear historian

Not many authors publish a book at the age of 90, and fewer still do so when they are already halfway through another book. Can there be more than one in that position, and who is also virtually blind?

Lorna Arnold, official British nuclear historian since the 1960s, passed another milestone in a remarkable career this past week with the launch in Oxford of Britain, Australia and the Bomb, an account of British nuclear tests in the 1950s. And, with six chapters of her autobiography written, the next milestone is not far off. Arnold works with pen and paper, even though she cannot read the words. "I just about know that I'm writing on the paper and not the table top, though I sometimes stray. If anything interrupts me it's very hard to find the sequence again, so I never write in short spells, only when I can find a few hours when I won't be disturbed."

The scripts are typed by a friend in Hampshire and edited by another in Warwickshire before they return to Arnold in Oxford, where she has a scanner that converts them into speech. "The results are sometimes funny. It read one sentence as: 'This is a revel a tory book.'"

The nuclear book, a thorough revision of one she first published in 1987, was commissioned by the Ministry of Defence and co-written with the academic Mark Smith. It contains new, previously classified information that focuses in particular on the progress of weapon design, and incorporates research and ideas from before she went blind four or five years ago.

Arnold's autobiography will tell of a varied and surprising life. In her early twenties at Cambridge, she was befriended by F R Leavis and was a member of his literary salon. But with the Second World War she began a very successful career as a civil servant, first at the War Office, then helping to plan the occupation of Germany.

A three-week visit to Washington in 1946 turned into a three-year posting with the Foreign Office. Donald Maclean was a colleague at the embassy. "I think I was the only woman diplomat in the British foreign service at that time, and the only woman diplomat in Washington."

Back in London, she worked for the Family Planning Association in what were still pioneering years. She brought up two children on her own after her American musician husband returned to the US.

It was 1959 before she joined the Atomic Energy Authority, and ten years later she began writing official histories, first with Margaret Gowing and later on her own. Though she has no scientific qualifications, she is the author of the histories of the 1957 Windscale nuclear reactor accident and of the British hydrogen bomb project.

Now very small, frail and white-haired, and about to turn 91, she says of writing books: "I didn't really want to do it in the beginning, but they said 'Have a go', and so I did." And so she did . . . and still does.

Brian Cathcart is Director of Hacked Off. He tweets as @BrianCathcart.

This article first appeared in the 11 December 2006 issue of the New Statesman, Trident: not too late