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Diary: Paul Johnson

Of all the popes I have known

A major academic event this spring will be Jerry Fodor’s lecture “What Darwin Got Wrong”, at 5pm on 12 May at University College London. Fodor, a professor at Rutgers, is America’s leading philosopher on the physical sciences. His theme, adumbrated in a memorable TLS article two years ago, is a rebuke to the maniacs who spoiled the centenary earlier this year by portraying Darwin as God. It takes place at the Darwin Lecture Theatre and is free and open to all, with no reserved seats. So it will be packed. The Darwin fundamentalists will be there in strength, but I and others will ensure Fodor gets a fair hearing. The question is: will Richard Dawkins dare to turn up? My guess is that he will funk it.

Another notable scientific occasion will be when Professor Arthur I Miller launches his book Deciphering the Cosmic Number, published by W W Norton on 10 June. It describes the friendship between Carl Jung and Wolfgang Pauli, who won the Nobel Prize for discovering the Exclusion Principle. They shared an interest in numbers, dreams (Jung analysed more than 400 of Pauli’s) and floozies. Pauli, fat and round, frequented sleazy nightclubs and may have been the model for the besotted professor in the Dietrich film The Blue Angel. But Bertrand Russell told me Pauli was the cleverest man he ever met.

Jung and Pauli finally agreed 137 was the magic number. This is the “DNA of light” and the sum of the Hebrew letters in the word Kabbalah. The weird thing about Pauli was that, the moment he stepped into a lab, all the equipment went wrong. This was known as “the Pauli effect”.

It infuriated fellow scientists but never harmed him until, in 1958, he went into hospital with stomach trouble. Feeling a presentiment, he asked the number of his room. The nurse said: “137.” He said: “Then I will never get out alive.” He was right. Oddly enough, my psephologist friend calculates that 137 is the number of seats New Labour will lose at the election if Gordon Brown remains PM.

Later this month I am escorting Margaret Thatcher to a private audience with the Pope. Of all the popes I’ve known since Pius XII (who died in 1958), Benedict XVI is the most difficult to see. He is a hands-on boss, running an enormous machine, and only sees visitors when there is real business to be done. But my friend Carla Powell has been working hard on this one. Her villa in the Sabine Hills is a favourite resort of cardinals, who enjoy her swimming pool and the superb meals she cooks.

The Pope has been much criticised for his stand against the mass distribution of condoms to reduce the spread of Aids in Africa. In fact, his view accords with the best scientific evidence. Dr Edward Green, head of Harvard’s Aids Prevention Research Project, backs the Pope: he says their findings show that free condoms lead to an increase in the infection rate. Benedict’s strength is that he is a phenomenal worker, who reads everything of importance. But, the day’s work done, he sits down to play a piano sonata, usually by Schubert, Schumann or Brahms. I hope to hear him.

I have been reading the fine volume on Federico Barocci just published by Yale. It is by the US scholar Stuart Lingo and finally gives Barocci his true status as the greatest of late Renaissance painters. He has been undervalued because his work is largely confined to altarpieces and no authentic painting by him has ever left Europe. His colouring is sumptuous, and the intensity of the emotions he conveys reflects the fact that he suffered from a chronic stomach ulcer. I became interested in him ten years ago when I acquired a superb drawing he made for his Madonna del Popolo in Rome. I admit that Francis Russell, the grand authority at Christie’s, told me he thinks it is studio work. But I am sure it is by the Master, just as I believe in my painting by Guido Reni, of St Michael expelling Satan. This is now in the studio at the bottom of my London garden, but for six years hung behind my chair when I edited the NS.

The show of Cecil Beaton photos at the newly enlarged Chris Beetles Gallery in Ryder Street in St James’s was a joy, as Beaton, though a nasty piece of work, had a touch of genius. There is an exquisite shot of a young Princess Elizabeth, and a masterpiece of Evelyn Waugh at his most ferocious. But who actually sticks photos up on their walls? No one I know.

Beaton was a sneak. At one of George Weidenfeld’s evening parties, I noticed him eavesdropping on a conversation I was holding. Sure enough, a spiteful item duly appeared in Private Eye, giving a grotesquely embellished version of something I said. I tackled him about it and got a shifty admission. I said: “Beaton, if ever you play a trick like that on me again, I will kick your arse so hard you will never enjoy being buggered again.” Later I regretted this crude remark. But it worked.

I spent Easter at Henry Keswick’s beautiful house on the Wiltshire Downs, painted between the wars by one of my favourite watercolourists, Eric Ravilious. He immortalised the kitchen garden, which is famous. One of its products is sea kale, the perfect spring dish. Jane Austen loved what she called “seacale”, and when Carême came to cook for the Prince Regent, “sikel”, as he called it, came as a delightful surprise. I never get it now, except at Henry’s, as it is not grown commercially and no restaurant I know serves it. It must be picked early and eaten the same day. My friend Tamasin Day-Lewis, the best cook in England, recommends a simple steaming. It was Henry James’s favourite “starter”.

Paul Johnson was editor of the New Statesman from 1965-70. His latest book, “Heroes”, is published by in paperback by Phoenix (£8.99)

This article first appeared in the 04 May 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Flu: Everything you need to know