Meeting the Barefoot Contessa – Ava Gardner – in Harrods 1975

When my wife and I came to live permanently in London in 1973, we took teaching positions at the American Community School (ACS). We were in separate divisions of the same institution, she as principal in the small elementary school in Hampstead, and myself as the science head of the high school branch, which was located in Knightsbridge. I often would tell the story with much glee of how I would shop for pencils for my students in Harrods, perhaps the most glamorous department store in the world. 

One day as I was walking along the main street of Knightsbridge (famously called simply, Knightsbridge), I noticed a woman who was walking right next to me and instantly recognised her as one of the great enigmatic figures of the cinema world, the former Hollywood star Ava Gardner. She was walking along in bright sunlight holding a small dog in her arms. And she was certainly not dressed as a Hollywood star, in fact, she had her hair tucked under a scarf and if I remember correctly, pinned up in curlers !  

Ava Gardner with her dog about the time I met her in Knightsbridge

Not surprisingly, I began to doubt slightly my rather remarkable ability to recognise celebrities by merely facial characteristics such as eyes and mouth. I have written about this ability in previous posts, most notably in the case of the French writer Jean Genet who I identified from a postage stamp-sized photo of him on the back of a paperback book I had purchased years before.

I continued to walk nonchalantly along the  sidewalk and noticed that this glamorous woman was also heading for Harrods, as I was. I followed her into the department store, wondering if my ability to recognise celebrities was still sharp. I noticed that she was heading for the pharmacy department and followed a few steps behind, making myself as invisible as I could. While she walked up to the counter to engage the attendant, I waited until I heard the ensuing conversation. Indeed, she was known to the person behind the counter and was addressed as Miss Gardner, confirming my identification. She apparently was asking if the prescription for her dog was ready to be picked up. It was. After receiving the small parcel, she continued to wander through the shop for a bit and then walked out the front door back onto the street. 

I was building up my nerve to say hello and finally addressed her with a cheerful Good Morning, Miss Gardner. She immediately stopped in the street and gave me a big smile, surprised that anyone had recognised her. She said something like . . . How did you recognise me in this getup? 

I remember this particular conversation very well because with her large sunglasses, bandana around her head and dog in her arms,  she seemed a parody of a Hollywood star. It appeared that she was not irritated by my intrusion, asking me again how I recognised her and where I was from, hearing my American accent. I told her that I didn’t quite know where this strange ability to recognise certain people came from and that I was from the great state of New Jersey. She smiled and continued walking in a rather relaxed manner, not at all trying to escape me or my probing questions. 

Although I don’t recall all that was said in the two or three minutes that we walked along the street, I do remember that I asked her if she was still in touch with one of my heroes in the entertainment world, Frank Sinatra, her former husband. She responded with most outrageous and surprising remark I think I’ve ever heard . . .

Sinatra with Ava smiling and smoking

Oh yes ! . . . that crazy fucker sends me a dozen roses every year on my birthday. 

To say that I was shocked by her colourful language doesn’t quite sum up my reaction. I don’t recall what else was said during that short time but I do know that it was a thrill for me to meet her strolling along the street in the city which I now took to be my home. 

Probably the most well-known femme fatale in the modern age, I will always remember what Ernest Hemingway told his assistants after she took a nude swim in his pool in Cuba . . .

Don’t ever change the water in that pool . . . 

Later, I was to discover that she had been living in a flat near ACS and Harrods for several years and was very happy there.

Ennismore Gardens near Harrods and ACS

She wrote of her life in London in her autobiography . . . 

I’ve always loved London. So it rains sometimes. It rains everywhere sometimes. And I happen to like the rain. More important, the British leave you alone. They take three or four photographs when you arrive and then they forget you exist. It’s a very civilized town. I do have a lot of friends in London… really good friends, so I’m far from lonely. We have dinner at our homes or, if we go out, it’s to places where we won’t be disturbed….Actually, my apartment in Ennismore Gardens in Knightsbridge suits me so well I hate to leave it, even for a park bench. 

After a lifetime of smoking, Ava suffered from emphysema  and an unidentified autoimmune disorder. Two strokes in 1986 left her partially paralyzed and bedridden. She suffered a bad fall a week before she died, and she lay on the floor, alone and unable to move, until her housekeeper returned. Her last words were reportedly “I’m so tired.” She died of pneumonia at the age of 67, at her London home in Ennismore Gardens where she had lived since 1968.


I have always been excited by the opportunity I have had to live my adult life in the vibrant city of London. As a fan of theatre and movies and blessed with an ability to recognise faces in a crowd, meeting Ava Gardner in the street is an example of what I mean. From the time my wife and I first arrived in 1964, I have  . . . 

  • picked Cornel Wilde (remember him ?) out of a crowd in a street market in Islington N1;
  • received a letter from Laurence Olivier thanking me for a poem I wrote praising his portrayal of Othello; (now in National Theatre Archive SE1);
  • had several lively conversations with my neighbour in West Hampstead NW6, Emma Thompson;
  • hosted Stephen Hawking for lunch in our villa in Tuscany after writing a book on his life and work. Later, I introduced him to 6000 science fans at a book launch at the Albert Hall;
  • had tea with John Gielgud, Ralph Richardson and Harold Pinter in the National Theatre canteen SE1;
  • met Paul McCartney in the street in St. Johns Wood NW8 (amazing how relaxed and friendly he was considering what happened to his song-writing partner John Lennon in New York). Sadly, I forgot to give Sir Paul the phone number of my musician son Michael;

It’s most likely I would not have met all these celebs if we had stayed in New Jersey, certainly not the Barefoot Contessa, Ava Gardner !

My Greatest Prank Ever – West Palm Beach 2001

My Greatest Prank Ever

This story begins at Christmas 2001 when I was seriously trying to become a science writer. I had completed three books which had some degree of success:  one on Stephen Hawking, one on quantum theory and a third on solar eclipses. But this time I was engaged in something much more ambitious. I was tackling a review of the discovery of the physical universe. I was trying to describe the important historical breakthroughs in physics and cosmology and the personalities who made them, mostly in the 19th and 20th century. However, at the time I was in a funky unproductive period – much to the dismay of my publisher, my editor and of course, my wife. But it was Christmas time when everybody takes a break and I thought I would disappear into the woodwork, really buckle down and finish  this important volume which was to be called:

 A Brief History of the Universe.

Just about then, with my reasons for procrastinating staring me in the face, a remarkable situation arose. Our good friends Harland and Ann Riker sent  us an exciting email. They owned a large, lovely flat on the beach front in West Palm Beach Florida which they graciously offered to our family for the Christmas holidays. It turns out they were planning to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary by taking their entire family on an ocean cruise – leaving the property in Florida empty. The idea was that they would go off on their cruise and our family would be free to stay in the seaside property during the entire Christmas period. Needless to say, the McEvoys were excited about the prospect.

Somehow, I was convinced by my wife that I should stay behind to finish off the book – an ideal time, she said. My son Joe, who was not interested in going to Florida, offered to stay with me in London to provide some company. So, there I was – out of excuses, with half of the book finished . . . on the subject I most loved writing about, the discovery of the Universe.

On Christmas Eve – Immediately after everybody had left with sunglasses, wide-brim hats, paperbacks and lotions – a strange mood came over me – and I mean a strange mood. I suddenly wanted to be in West Palm Beach with my wife, my son Michael, my daughter-in-law Tracey and my grand daughter Emily. The next day, Christmas, this mood got even worse. The Brief History of the Universe was rapidly losing its allure. After all, it was the first Christmas in forty years that I would not be with my wife !

I spoke to them all by phone on Christmas Day but by this time I had already hatched my secret plan. I would travel to the Sunshine State incognito and join them. Furthermore, I would try to surprise them by turning up unannounced. By this point, the wild side of my imagination had taken hold and I began to think of other ways to make the idea more bizarre . . . like ‘how could I disguise myself’ ?

The beard, I’ll shave it off. What a great idea. Since we first arrived in London in 1964, I had worn a bushy beard and no one in the family had even seen me cleanly shaven for over 30 years . . .

Virgin Atlantic

So, I phoned my son Michael who would be my co-conspirator in the ruse. As a practicing musician, he often has meetings with producers in large cities, so he had no trouble convincing his wife, his mother and his daughter that he had to go to Miami. We arranged to meet in the Miami Airport, only a short distance from West Palm Beach. Things really fell into place when I discovered that Virgin Atlantic had vacancies on their flight from London to Miami at a very reasonable price. After all, it was Boxing Day when everyone relaxes at home. So, I took my electric shaver and a razor and made myself clean shaven ! I knew I was on to something from the reaction of my son Joe who was astounded by my new appearance.

When I arrived at the Miami Airport, I spotted Michael straight away but he didn’t even recognise me as I walked right  by him in the arrivals lounge. I smiled to myself and thought . . . this is going to be fun.

Hamburger Haven, West Palm Beach

He had arranged to meet the other family members back in West Palm Beach for lunch at a popular restaurant called Hamburger Haven which I also knew. Michael and I arrived there somewhat early and had to wait over a half hour for them. During that time, I got to chatting with the owners of the restaurant and told them of our plans to surprise the unsuspecting family members. The owners were of a somewhat flamboyant nature and immediately got into the spirit of the joke. In fact, they offered me an apron and an order book, encouraging me to pose as a waiter when our relatives arrived.

By this time, all the patrons of the restaurant were in on the gag and the tension was growing as we waited for them to arrive. Finally, in they came and were escorted to the booth which was reserved in their name. After they got settled, I approached to take their order.

No one recognised me ! Not my daughter-in-law Tracey, not my grand-daughter Emily and not even my wife of 40 years. Feeling devilish, whilst taking their order, I leaned forward to kiss my wife and an amazing thing happened. Nervous and laughing hysterically, she put her finger to my forehead to keep me away. Just at that exact instant, Tracey snapped a photo of this absurd scene and the six-year-old Emily screamed . . .

The Unwelcome Waiter


So, I had pulled it off . . .

With the help of the proprietors of the restaurant, my eldest son Michael, Virgin Atlantic and our good friends Ann and Harland Riker, I had successfully carried out my greatest prank ever. My own wife of 40 years did not know me and it was left to my six-year-old grand-daughter to identify this old guy who was waiting on their table. My wife later admitted that she thought the owners had invited the authorities of the local care home to send some of their residents to help in the restaurant. This I did not find humorous at all. In the end. we all had a good laugh and a delicious hamburger.

It’s Pappy !

(dedicated to my dear friend Harland Riker, recently deceased)

The Night We Discovered London – 1965

I am writing a short preface to this blog post to warn readers that this piece quite long and was written back in 1965. In my enthusiasm for our new home – shortly after arriving in London from the USA – I recorded my first impressions of what was to be our main area of cultural activity. It is completely unedited since then and thus might seem somewhat naive and dry as it is my first attempt at a blog ! However, it might have value as an historical document.  Consider this preface to be an apology in advance.

Every word is true.


Written 50 years ago and never published or edited

Except that my wife appeared slightly more radiant than usual, it seemed like a rather ordinary Saturday night as a 1949 Ford Prefect chugged across the Waterloo Bridge towards our private parking spot on a building site behind The Aldwych.  True, suffering from a severe case of ‘balletomania’ since arriving in London nine months ago, we were somewhat excited about the amphitheatre tickets for the Royal Ballet which I had carefully tucked into my waistcoat (‘vest’ to my American friends).

It was quite a while since I had teased Pat about her teenage crush on Rudolph Nureyev, probably because I was secretly in love myself with Svetlana Beriosova since her performance as the Sugar Plum Fairy at this year’s Royal Ballet gala. Scanning the Thames from Westminster to Saint Pauls, I remarked (for what seemed like the tenth time), “This is the view that will haunt me after we return to the States.” “Mmmmmm!”, she agreed inflecting her voice like a native Briton, as she gazed at the inspiring Gothic silhouette on our left.

After parking and racing down Long Acre Street (a habit acquired after we missed the curtain one night and watched Symphonic Variations on closed-circuit television) to Covent Garden, we received the first surprise of the evening. In what must have been a last-minute change, makeshift posters announced that the scheduled performance of Ashton’s revised version of Sylvia had been cancelled and that the same principals, Margot Fonteyn and Paris Opera’s Attilo Labis would dance a performance of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. The footnote stating that refunds would be given was dismissed as folly by the balletomanes streaming into the side door. In fact, most were elated. After all the critics had agreed that reviving Sylvia was somewhat of a faux pas de deux by Sir Frederick and the Royal Ballet. In addition, Dame Margot was, as one critic wrote after her recent homecoming performance, “the unchallenged champ of the Lake”.  Nevertheless, we were disappointed. First of all, I was anxious to hear the complete version of the lush Delibes’ score and Pat was naughtily looking forward to seeing Labis as that half-naked Aminta. But the real reason for returning the tickets was the fact that we had seen this new Swan Lake with the same artists only 10 days earlier and the lyrical beauty of Odette’s adagio in Act II and Odile’s breath-taking display of virtuosity in Act III (I counted the thirty-two fouettes) was still fresh and clear in our minds.

So, as I received the refund for the ten shilling seats from the box office a funny kind of excitement came over me. We were now smack in the middle of the West End on a Saturday night with no definite place to go and a pound note burning a hole in my pocket. Anyone who attends the old Vic, the Aldwych, or Covent Garden regularly and has learned to live with booking far in advance will appreciate how refreshing this feeling was. Like a kid in a sweet shop with a thrupence in his pocket, we scanned the entertainment guide in the evening newspaper.

“How about Spike Milligan?”, asked Pat excitedly. “It’s an 8.45 curtain.” “Nah, you can’t get near the place since Princess Margaret took her sister there”, I said smugly, as we strolled out of the Aldwych and onto the Strand. Hayfever was on at the Old Vic, and tickets were probably available for this lightweight of the National Theatre. Although this was the only item in the current repertoire we hadn’t seen, it was also the only one we didn’t care to. Noel Coward bores me to death. “I wonder if there were any last-minute ticket returns for Boeing-Boeing”, quoth I, as we passed the Duchess Theatre. I stepped into the lobby and saw that the window marked ‘This Performance’ was closed and that there was a queue (‘line’ to my American friends) at the advance booking window.

“Could we stoop so low as to take in a film?”, Pat said facetiously, “I’d love to see The Knack or Roman Polanski’s latest.”  “Do you know the London press never mentions the fact that Dick Lester, who directed that film, is an American”, I said, once more manifesting my inferiority complex about our country’s artistic achievements. “Cannes Grand Prix, quite an accomplishment.”

By now fully confused and unable to make a definite choice, we decided to take the underground (‘subway’ to my American friends) to Piccadilly Circus and follow our noses from there. As one rides the underground from the Strand station to Piccadilly Circus, he walks up and down so many stairs, on and off lifts (‘elevators’ to you know who!), changes trains, up more stairs, escalators, through passage-ways etc., that he is convinced had he walked the distance he would have arrived sooner and, most assuredly, in a better frame of mind.

Before we had fully emerged from the sub-Eros pandemonium, we could see the great marquee of the London Pavilion which immediately convinced us The Knack should be our choice. Approaching the box office however, it became immediately evident that London’s movie-going public was giving this film a fantastic response. The queue for the 9.00 p.m. show stretched across the lobby, around the corner and along the entire length of the theatre and disappeared on to Shaftesbury Avenue. There they stood, mostly young couples, slouched over, leaning against each other, smoking and making conversation. The girls, pushing their long straight hair from their eyes and catching it behind their ears: the carelessly dressed boys with their thick wild hair growing down their neck were hanging onto their dates and occasionally kissing them on the cheek and neck.

We continued to stroll up Coventry Street and after getting pushed or stepped on at least a dozen times (always followed by the proverbial “sorry”), we came upon another enormous queue for Polanski’s new sex-shocker Repulsion. Seeing these phalanxes of humanity and the usual evening crowds all around us, we were easily reminded that there are more people in London any other city in the world.

Being forced to a cataclysmic decision after reaching the relative tranquillity of Leicester Square (pronounced ‘Lester’ – this isn’t half as bad as the way the English say the lovely French name ‘Beauchamp’, viz. ‘Beecham’; and they correct me for saying the ‘t’ in ‘Dupont’, we agreed that this would be our night to just walk through the streets, squares and parks of London. Strange as it may seem, though we had lived in London for almost a year, being so busy with the superb theatre, opera and ballet here, we had never spent an evening thus. In one week in Paris we walked all over the city and surely we knew the streets of New York very well, though never there for more than a weekend at a time.

In a few minutes we found ourselves staring into the famous bookshop windows on Charing Cross Road. The contrast from shop to shop is unbelievable. In one window, books displaying a revived posthumous interest in Eliot; a centenary tribute to Yeats; criticisms, explanations, translations of Brecht; a copy of Pinter’s The Homecoming already in print; a beautiful photographic study of the Royal Ballet; a biographical work on Donizetti; Jan Kott’s radical and vivid book on the Bard; a collection of Modigliani prints and hundreds more on art, poetry, drama, music and the dance for London’s discerning patrons whose scholarly appreciation of the arts never ceases to amaze me.

In the next window, a selection of books unabashedly set on appealing to a completely different group of people. Sex and the Single Girl; Sex and the Single Man; books by Harold Robbins, Mandy Rice-Davies, Marquis de Sade; books on homosexuality and lesbianism; Nymphomania – A Study of the Oversexed Woman; Ancient Sex Practices – Illustrated; nudes, nudes and more nudes.

In considering this contrast, this incompatibility of pornography and art, the vulgar and the spiritual, of enlightenment and decadence, one realizes what London is. She is all things to all men. The book shop windows reflect a great cultural divide which I have sensed between two major factions of the populace. It is much less subtle than say, in New York. These are the very cultured and, for lack of better language, the un-cultured; an intellectual class system. This division is catered to by the merchants, book publishers and press; manifested by the radio and television; and intensified by the country’s archaic educational system.

I see half a dozen daily newspapers that I wouldn’t even allow in my house and yet I meet music lovers who, when they ask me about American composers, mean Samuel Barber and Aaron Copland, not Rodgers and Hammerstein.

Passing through Cambridge Circus we were reminded of one of our first visits to a London theatre, the lively and gay Half a Sixpence, with Tommy Steele, now an established hit in New York. Little Me was now packing them in the same theatre. “A fair trade”, I remarked. Though Sid Caesar hadn’t crossed the Atlantic, Swen Swenson had and his “I’ve Got Your Number” dance in the second act was worth the price of the ticket. The Little Me tickets, for balcony seats at a Philadelphia try-out, cost us $4.80 each: the same location here for Half A Sixpence set us back ten shillings ($1.40). This ticket price differential is even more startling if New York prices are compared with London productions by companies subsidized by the British Arts Council. Ironically, these are the companies who rarely have an empty seat in the house, e.g. National Theatre, Royal Shakespeare Company, English Stage Society, Covent Garden and Sadlers Wells. Even further savings can be had by joining clubs which support these organisations and attending dress rehearsals. For instance, next week we will see Maximillian Schell in John Osborne’s new play A Patriot For Me at the Royal Court the night before it officially opens; fifth row stalls (‘orchestra’) at twelve and six ($l.75). If you do get in to see it when it comes to New York, think of me when you buy your $6.90 or maybe $7.50 orchestra seat. As the coup de grace, contrast the new high of $11.90 that over-anxious theatre-goers are sending to the Mark Hellinger box office for orchestra seats to Alan Jay Lerner’s new untried musical, with the fifty-six cents I paid for the greatest theatrical experience of my life; four shilling gallery seats for Laurence Olivier’s Othello at the Old Vic this past January.

Passing the tiny Ambassador Theatre, sold out again for Agatha Christie’s mystery The Mousetrap, now in its 13th year, Pat suggested enthusiastically, “Let’s stop for a drink, there’s a charming little pub over there.” Being an obliging husband, though not as keen on English beer as she, I was quick to agree and we settled down in the corner of the Scot’s Hoose for “two halves of bitter” and some cozy conversation about how great it is to be together in such a city and how lucky I was to win that fellowship to go abroad to study for my Ph.D. We were convinced these two dreams were gone forever when we were “lumbered” with our second child in 1963. The Scottish (‘Scotch’ is whiskey, I’m constantly reminded!) plaids and coats-of-arms on the wall were reminders that before returning to the United States we hoped to visit the regions from which our ancestors emigrated in the nineteenth century, mine in Ireland and Pat’s in Italy.

It’s great fun to watch English girls relaxing in a pub or in the park. I find them strangely more attractive than the short-haired, bermuda-clad co-eds I had known in Fort Lauderdale and Ocean City or the continental types we had seen on the Paris metro. So many of them are tall and willowy with milk-white skin. They wear long straight hair, gobs of eye shadow, little lipstick and clinging wool knit dresses which stop about an inch above the knee. Their legs are straight and slim and covered with every kind of hosiery imaginable. I’m sold on the ‘London Look’; the English girls are justly proud of their new independence of the fashion trends in Paris and New York … and I don’t mean the “kookie” stuff on Carnaby Street.

Leaving here, our unguided tour led us past the strip-houses and international restaurants of Frith Street into Soho Square where I joyously reminded Pat in “’enry ‘iggins” style how “h’s” are dropped everywhere in this part of London. Suddenly we were on Oxford Street, window shopping as we had done on Rue du Faubourg St. Honore and Fifth Avenue. We saw the modern façade of the Academy Cinema whose arty posters in the subways are enough to convince one that these must be great films. This avant garde cinema house with its prosperous new look, was another sign of the large numbers of serious theatre-goers in this city.

Reaching Oxford Circus, I suggested to Pat that we might enjoy a drink in the rooftop cocktail lounge of the London Hilton as we had done in Manhattan’s Rainbow Room overlooking Central Park. She rather rudely stated that it would be like spending your only night in Paris at Harry’s New York Bar! After a few minutes of silence, I agreed and we took the underground to Trafalgar Square.

Quite by chance, we strolled through Admiralty Arch and down the Mall towards Buckingham Palace. We noticed a large crowd gathered across the Mall near the entrance to the park. Could it be the Beatles were celebrating their appointment today as Members of the Order of the British Empire with an impromptu concert in the park? Was it a fire – or a fight? As we slipped neatly into the crowd to get a closer look, we realized that we had stumbled upon the greatest show in London. All the pageantry and color of this country’s military tradition in one fell swoop. As a climax to the Queen’s Official Birthday celebration earlier in the afternoon, fourteen bands, the Life Guards, the Royal Horse Guards, The Royal Dragoons and the Royal Scots were marching on Horse Guards Parade in an impressive ceremony to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo. The bands filled the air with patriotic music (including the French National Anthem which, appropriately always reminders me of Napoleon I), battle sound effects were provided by the guns of the King’s Troop and the Royal Horse Artillery, and the sky was filled with beautiful fireworks. The scene was poetic, as Big Ben, hovering majestically in the background, struck ten o’clock; the notes producing a strange dissonance with the rousing music below. The crowd, as still as the audiences at Covent Garden and Sadlers Wells, was unperturbed by the nervous prancing of the well-groomed steeds of the mounted police. The warm dry air, the clear star-studded sky and the ivy-covered buildings were a perfect setting for this fitting tribute to one of England’s greatest military victories.

When the ceremony was over, the gathering gradually started to disperse and we walked back out onto the Mall. Before the police had a chance to direct us to a neutral corner, a ripple of excitement went through the crowd as a huge gorgeous Rolls Royce slowly turned out from the Horse Guards Parade onto the Mall. “It’s the Queen”, someone shrieked. Believe it or not, there she was, only fifteen feet away as she nodded and waved to us, seeming to say, “Glad you could come.”  Recalling the recent news photographs showing the thousands of Germans who stood for hours to catch a glimpse of her passing entourage, I couldn’t help feeling over-privileged as the light inside the car revealed her lovely white beaded gown and cape and Prince Philip’s dashing red and black uniform. They were dressed for the formal military dinner in Whitehall earlier that evening. The tiny sparkling tiara in her hair was the only reminder of the great seat of history and tradition she represents.

After the Queen’s car had slowly passed by, a sexagenarian woman standing near us ecstatically announced the occupant of the second, equally splendid, Rolls. “It’s the Queen Mother”, she cried revealing by her sudden enthusiasm that this gracious lady in the chic white ermine wrap was still the “Queen” in her eyes. The celebrities in the third car were not immediately identifiable to us, not being concerned with the personalities and activities of the court. A young girl within hearing distance, as if on cue, sighed, “Look at Princess Alexandra, her complexion is so creamy!”

The crowd drifted apart now, some smiling and talking excitedly, others gazing down the Mall as the three shiny automobiles, accelerating ever so slightly, took a tired Queen back to her palace. Her day had begun about twelve hours ago when she rode up this same thoroughfare astride a beautiful mare for the annual Trooping the Colour.

Deeply moved by the ceremony of the hour, I grasped my wife’s hand and set out to show her the bronze equestrian statue of Wellington near Hyde Park Corner. Before we were halfway down the Mall, however, I had changed my mind. The moon was reflecting off the lake in St. James’s Park and the snow-white swans gliding to and fro looked like the most beautiful scenery for Swan Lake Act II that one could imagine (this is the only act Mr. Balanchine will let us see in New York). I was sure I saw Von Rothbart hiding in the trees, and as we sat down on one of the large wooden benches, I was trying to guess which cygne would become the prima ballerina. Silent for several minutes, this romantic setting overwhelmed me. I felt a warm glow that immediately recalled our first night in Paris when we sat on the banks of the Seine and stared at Notre Dame after wandering through the narrow streets of St. Germain des Pres.

I spoke my thoughts and found that Pat had the same reaction. She went on to say how unfair it was for writers and poets to romanticize Paris more than London and New York.  Each of these great cities, we could now judge, had its own personality and charm that must be captured as we had done tonight.

We would have stayed and talked for hours had not someone remembered that our neighbours, who listen for our children, usually expect us back from Covent Garden about 11.00pm. Since it was already past that hour and our car was still in back of the Aldwych, we were soon on our way down Birdcage Walk toward the Westminster tube station. As we reached Great George Street, walking toward Westminster Bridge, the steeples of Westminster Abbey came into view. Despite the many historical events that have taken place in this great hall, Sir Winston’s lying in state earlier this year had eclipsed them all for me. I thought of those endless queues of sad people, shivering in the cold, damp London air, approaching the Abbey at a snail’s pace to pay their last respects. I recalled that bleak and cold Saturday morning as I stood with a lump in my throat watching the gun carriage move up Fleet Street. The ceremony, not surprisingly, had stirred my memories of Washington, November 1963. But the feelings I had on these two occasions were worlds apart.  Churchill’s death was peaceful, ending a long life of victories, achievement; a great sense of fulfilment; Kennedy’s had been violent and senseless, frustrating; and thus so much more difficult for me to accept.

We paused momentarily at the base of Big Ben, noting with alarm that the giant hands were approaching midnight. I took Pat’s arm and we raced to the middle of Westminster Bridge to survey the Thames panorama once more before calling it a night. As the man said in 1802: *

“Earth has not anything to show more fair: Dull would he be of soul who could pass by A sight so touching in its majesty…”

As we drove back across the Waterloo Bridge to our home in south-east London I laughed when I realized that the pound note was still in my waistcoat pocket (‘vest’ to my American friends).

*From the poem, “Composed Upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802”, by William Wordsworth.

Tea With the Knights

Way back in 1974, when we were still getting settled in our family’s new home – i.e. the great metropolis of London – I was contacted by a former colleague of mine when I was on the faculty at Clark University. His name was Gil Markle, a larger-than-life character who was in the Philosophy Department during the years I taught physics at Clark.

The Rolling Stones

Gil was an amazing individual. Besides being a real intellectual (he earned a PhD from Yale), he owned and operated a student travel company in the US called The American Leadership Study Group, ALSG, which rumour had it made him a millionaire in his spare time. Yet, this was but one of the strings to his bow. His most recent venture in the years after we arrived at Clark in 1968 had been to install an ultra-modern recording studio in a large farmhouse he owned outside Worcester, MA where Clark was located. He would host famous bands on the farm, feed them well and allow them to record in the private, salubrious atmosphere of the New England countryside. The Rolling Stones completed one of their early albums at Gil’s farm. Even more sensational was what happened on the day the studio opened . . . the surprise performer was none other than the fabulous Stevie Wonder who made his entrance by helicopter. Landing at the farm, the great R & B singer found a white grand piano waiting for him  on the lush lawn. I think it is fair to say that Gil had a keen sense of the theatrical !

To return to my story . . .

Gil and I left Clark during the same year, 1973. At the graduation exercises that Spring – upon hearing that I was returning to London – Gil mentioned that he might ask me to help him with his student travel company. And so it came to pass. A year later, in the Spring of ’74, I received a telegram . . . yes, a telegram . . . asking if I could handle a group of American students and teachers on a tour through the National Portrait Gallery. The NPG is a very popular museum located near Trafalgar Square which is full of paintings and photographs of important British people, especially the Kings and Queens of England. At the time, I had not even had a chance to visit the gallery. However, with my usual pluck and confidence I agreed to do it. Needless to say, I spent the next week cramming my brain with the history of the English throne. I still remember to this day, over 40 years later, the helpful acronym I learned to recall the Royal Dynasties . . .



I recall the anxiety I felt walking around the NPG as if I were an expert on the British Monarchy. Yet, it must have worked! The evaluations were good enough that Gil soon offered me the position of London Academic Director of his company and THAT changed my future life.

As Academic Director, my duties included a lecture each week on what it was like to be an American family in London during the late 70s-post Vietnam years, including the everyday problems of shopping, eating, learning and entertaining ourselves etc. Generally, mine was a positive report on life in Britain.  I had the advantage of teaming up with another ex-pat: a talented, young woman from Massachusetts who taught at an international school in Europe during term time. She charmed the students with her guitar playing and singing of ‘The Streets of London’ while I showed slides of life in the capital.

Oxford Street at Christmas

Later, the format changed and I took on another role . . . introducing certain British celebrities to the young visitors at a large auditorium in Bloomsbury. Regular speakers were Douglas Hurd, Foreign Secretary in Margaret Thatcher’s cabinet; an English eccentric who told the exact same stories each week and a third speaker who I got to choose myself. I had a budget of £150 for a fee – generous for those days – and decided to invite actors from the London stage. I wanted them to speak about themselves, how they became actors, that sort of thing. It went very well as some of the guests, like Glenda Jackson and Albert Finney were known to the students from films. I even was able to convince the Guardian’s esteemed theatre critic Michael Billington to share his insights with these youngsters.

Colin Blakely with Peter Ustinov

One speaker who intrigued me was the Colin Blakely,a respected British actor who we once saw at the Old Vic as the sole character in a play titled Judgement. In that play, he delivered a 27,000 word monologue about the atrocities of war, yet he was terrified by the prospect of speaking extemporaneously about himself to a group of American high school kids. Strange . . .

After a while, I was having difficulty meeting actors and decided to contact the National Theatre for some help. Sure enough, with such an attractive stipend to offer, I was invited to hang out in the cafeteria at the NT and speak to whoever I pleased. On my very first visit there, I had an exciting experience which still resonates with me today after almost 40 years. Sitting nonchalantly alone at a table having a cup of tea in the crowded, simple eatery, I was soon joined by a gentleman who politely asked to join me. I recognised the voice immediately as that of the classical actor John Gielgud. Within minutes, we were joined by another rather distinguished-looking older man, who I also recognised at once . . . the actor Ralph Richardson.
Well, I certainly had come to the right place!

Ralph Richardson and John Gielgud

I recall only fragments of our conversation. My wife and I had recently seen Gielgud in a successful production of Chekov’s Ivanov in the West End and I nervously mentioned how we had enjoyed the play. With Richardson, I drew a blank. I had never seen him live on stage though I did know of his reputation amongst the giants of the English stage going back to the early days of Lillian Baylis at the Old Vic. I didn’t mention why I was at the National because I wouldn’t dare ask these actors to accept my proposal to speak to students. But the place was buzzing, with actors everywhere.

Just then, a swarthy, middle-aged man took the last seat at our table. He seemed rather presumptuous, as if he was expected . . . which indeed he was. Again, I didn’t need an introduction. It was the playwright, Harold Pinter, who took his seat without saying a word . . . as Pinter does. So, there I was, sipping tea with three greats of the British Theatre: John Gielgud, Ralph Richardson and Harold Pinter. It was unreal.

Gielgud as Spooner the poet and Richardson as the upper class alcoholic in No Man’s Land

I suppose one needs to ask why these actors were all together in such an unpretentious setting. It turns out to be not so unusual – as Gielgud explained to me. They were about to start rehearsals for a revival of No Man’s Land to be staged at the National in a few week’s time. Gielgud and Richardson had the principal roles and Pinter (who wrote the play) was to direct. However, in spite of the excitement of meeting these accomplished men on this day, there was a certain uncomfortable irony to the moment for me.

Harold Pinter, playwright and Nobel Laureate

First of all, my wife and I had seen the original production of No Man’s Land just a few years before and hated it ! Gielgud and Richardson had created the same roles and Peter Hall directed. However, the play baffled us, as Pinter’s work often does. We came away wondering what it was all about. Naturally, I didn’t bring this up in conversation. Further, I harboured a deep dislike for Pinter for his assumed role as a political pundit – always criticising America – blaming the US for seemingly everything negative that ever happened throughout history. So, I kept my mouth shut ! (Don’t forget, this was in the 70s, long before the era of Donald Trump.)

Nevertheless, this was an unusual incident in my life and deserves to be listed in my Reflections. In retrospect, I have learned to acknowledge the writing of Pinter, his Knighthood (as well as Gielgud and Richardson) and even his Nobel Prize. Yet, I still have not come to grips with his scathing attacks on the United States . . .  as if Britain has a clear conscience in the history of international politics, remembering Ireland in 1845 and India in 1919 !

To finish where I started, I would have to admit that my experience with ALSG and the legendary Gil Markle had much to do with my decision to quit teaching in the early 80s.  I started my own travel company for ex-pat Americans with an emphasis on . . . you guessed it  . . . the London Theatre.

A Walk To Vinca in Northern Italy – and Near Death in the Mountains

One morning in the summer of  2006 I went for a hike with my son Mark and  my grandson Joel, toward Vinca – a town in the mountainous Lunigiana region of northern Italy where we have a home.  It was a bright sunny day as we started to walk up through the beautiful valley at the foothills of the Apennines.  As we started to gain elevation and began to enjoy the lovely atmosphere, we soon came across a large wooden barrier across the path which I took to be designed to stop cows going any further. Being the optimistic, hard-headed person I am, I decided to circumvent the barrier if at all possible.
However, just about that time, my grandson reported that he wasn’t feeling well and didn’t want to go any further. He asked his father to take him back and continue to Vinca in the car. Without any hesitation, I announced that  I would push on alone towards the town and would meet them there.  I had wanted to visit Vinca for some time because of its reputation as a charming village which produces great bread and at the same time, an historic place dating to WW II. In 1944, barbaric and aggressive Nazi-Fascist soldiers slaughtered 20 young people there in an attempt to break the spirit of the Italian people.

Monument to Massacre in Vinca

I carried on up the mountain towards Vinca and soon came across another barrier. Again I went round it, convinced that I would come back to the path taking me in the right direction. Sure enough, I soon found a trail which had been partly washed away and covered by scree, but clearly  a former path. I negotiated this pretty well and finally reached a ridge pretty high up. I could see a very steep descent down the other side of the mountain with some semblance of a path which I concluded must lead to Vinca.
Surprisingly, just then I came across a wire which looked to me like an aid for walkers. Somewhat encouraged, I used this to guide me down the steep stretch on the other side of the mountain. I picked up a piece of cardboard to help protect my hand sliding on the wire. At this time I was descending at a pretty rapid rate, not realising that the path back up to the ridge would now be pretty treacherous, in fact almost impossible. Just then I saw a road below and recognised my son driving my car along this road. In a rather childish way I called out, but he could never hear me because it was so far down into the valley. 
Realising that I had no water, no sunglasses, no mobile phone and my clothing was grey and blending into the colour of the mountain, I began to question the wisdom of going any further. Also, I was getting very tired in the hot sun, so I took a rest to try to regain some energy. However, the sun continued to heat me up and I began to feel rather exhausted and depressed. The only protection I had from the blazing sun was my much beloved Philadelphia Eagles’ cap. photo-10
By now, it was late in the afternoon and I found a comfortable position on the side of the mountain and thought I’d take a short nap. I fell asleep almost immediately and in order to keep myself from sliding down the mountain, I wedged my legs around a small tree to keep me secure. I must have slept for some time and when I woke it was already afternoon.  I looked behind me and realised it would be a monumental task to go back up to the ridge where the wire began, so I continued to make my way further down the mountain convinced that the wire would lead me to Vinca.
But suddenly,  I received a massive shock when I found the wire abruptly disappeared into space and would thus no longer assist  me with my descent. I realised then it was probably a supply wire, rather than an aid for walkers. I also became aware that I was very thirsty and there wasn’t a single source of liquid available. So I made the radical decision to urinate into a container and drink my own urine. The only thing available was my bumbag (which the Italians call a ‘marsupial’). I managed to fill the pouch with my urine and swallow as much as I could. Strangely it did not seem so terribly bitter, I was happy to have some liquid in my body and thought it was probably a good decision.
I realised there was no way I could make it back to the ridge before nightfall and I began to look for a comfortable and safe, i.e. level, spot where I could spend the night and perhaps recoup my energy. I secured myself to a small bush using the belt on the bum bag and felt quite secure. Realising that I would be causing a great deal of stress to my wife and family by not returning, I nevertheless thought the best solution was to sleep under the stars. 

I used to teach courses in astronomy and during that night I was reminded of the wonder of the sky – full of stars with no light pollution. I was thrilled by the vision of the clear sky which was as black as you can imagine. I could recognise certain constellations which I had seen before only in textbooks. I quickly fell asleep in the cool, clean air.

The night sky

I had no fear of any animals on the mountain and surprisingly had a very good night’s sleep. I woke up just as dawn was breaking. It was chilly and I felt refreshed – beginning to think of retracing my steps. However, I soon realised the idea of climbing up these intimidating rocks to the ridge was nearly impossible. The slope of the mountain was too steep. On my descent using the wire I had covered quite a lot of ground at high speed without realising how treacherous it would be to return the same way. It was also impossible to continue downwards with no wire and such a steep incline.

Slowly, I started to go back up and navigated two enormous boulders. The task seemed overwhelming. That was when I first began to feel that I was doomed and realised that without help I would not be able to save myself. While the overhanging edge of the boulders gave me some relief from the sun, I realised they were less than helpful, as they hid me from anyone on the lookout. 
After what seemed an eternity crawling on the mountain, I noticed a helicopter overhead and thought perhaps they were looking for me. Sure enough it was, circling around the whole area. However, as I was trapped under the overhangs of the enormous boulders I  gave no target because my clothes blended into the colour of the rock. I became rather fatalistic and really thought I was going to die right there on the side of the mountain. I soldiered on for another hour or so and two or three times saw the helicopter around the area, but not at a good angle to see me. I honestly thought I was finished. Then a miracle happened . . . 
The helicopter came around again – but this time much lower – and one of the crew spotted me, pointing excitingly in my direction. I felt euphoric.
Finally, the helicopter got into a position directly overhead and a ladder was lowered with a member of the rescue team. I remember the extremely strong air current from the blades. As the ‘copter drew closer, the wind from the blades was so intense I lost my head covering.  I was appalled that I lost my treasured Eagles cap which flew off onto the mountain. However, I was relieved, realising I was not going to die on the mountain. This was my first realisation that my family would not have to go through the horrible pain of my death knowing I had put myself into such stupid and dangerous situation. 
The rescuer put me in a harness and tied me securely to the ladder.  Then,  the cable was hoisted up and finally I fell inside the helicopter with my face and hands onto the floor with a sigh of relief. In just a few seconds we descended down off the mountain into the town of Monzone and I was taken to a cafe. I drank 5-6 cups of coffee and ate about four croissants in minutes. It was great to be alive and safe.
I had been rescued by a most fantastic team of locals who often make searches like this in the Lunigiana area which is considered very dangerous. However, the rescues don’t always end as happily as this one. Later, I asked how long they would have searched for me on the mountain and they said about 30 days. I reflected that I would not look like much by then.
In the following days, I became quite a celebrity in our area of Northern Italy and was recognized in our village and in restaurants as the ‘professor who almost perished on the side of a mountain’. An article appeared in the local paper with the sensational headline . . .
Una notte sotto choc aggrappato alle rocce sulla cresta del monte
(A night in shock, clinging to the rocks on the crest of a mountain)
After a rather long nap and some good food from my wife’s kitchen, I began to feel that life is worth living after all. In the days that followed, I had severe dreams – maybe better described as nightmares – and often awoke in the middle of the night sliding down the side of the mountain. Yet, I consider this an illuminating experience since I saw myself face death, if only briefly, without crying and without praying. At least that is something salutary.

An Afternoon at Fenway Park, 1970

The recent decision by the Boston Red Sox and several other major league baseball teams to increase the netting at their baseball stadiums to protect the fans in attendance, reminds me of an afternoon at Fenway Park back in the summer of 1970 when I decided to take my two sons to their first baseball game. At the time, we were living in Worcester, Massachusetts – less than an hours’ drive from Boston – so it was not such a major undertaking to take in a Red Sox game. I was on the faculty at Clark University in Worcester and we had recently moved from New Jersey after three years in London.

Easter Sunday, 1970

They were about to grow up in America, (or so I thought, not knowing we would return to London a few years later), so it seemed to me about time the boys, Michael and Joe – age nine and seven- should  be introduced to the National Pastime in the country of their birth. I wanted them to understand how exciting a baseball game could be – more than just hot dogs and crowds. I myself had been an avid fan since I was about ten years old, following the hapless Philadelphia Phillies who for so many years never won the National League pennant (except the Whiz Kids of 1950).

So off we went in our family car – a VW Beetle –  onto the Massachusetts Turnpike,  the quickest route to the metropolis of Boston. At the famous stadium, we were directed to the parking lot and then and made our way through the turnstiles into our excellent seats along the first base line at Fenway.

As soon as we were seated, I began my treatise on how baseball was played and how lucky they were to root for a home team like the Red Sox. The boys were quite attentive and seemed to be very interested in the rules of the game. The colourful uniforms of the Red Sox and the opposing team – the Cleveland Indians – were the first big attraction. Then came the inevitable question . . .

Why are they called the Red Sox . . . Do they always wear red socks ?

Finally, the game began and the Red Sox took the field. Yet, almost before I could finish reviewing the rules of running the baselines and the importance of the pitcher and catcher, a very unfortunate thing happened. I believe it was only the second or third inning when a line drive foul ball hit a woman right in the face. This is a real blow to me because I was trying to explain to the boys what a fun and relaxing afternoon it would be sitting comfortably in such great seats watching a game in Boston’s famous baseball field.

Note the woman in the Red Sox shirt holding her head

So, when attendants came down into the stands very close to where we were seated and carried the woman away on a stretcher, I tried to explain in the disarray what an unusual circumstance this was.

 However, they seemed rather stunned by the fact that someone could get injured in a baseball game. But, rather than trying to emphasise how surprising this was, I regained  my composure and enthusiasm, explaining how the Red Sox were a very good team and would probably win the game against the Cleveland Indians, their arch enemies. I mentioned some of the players I remembered from years gone by – like Red Sox’ Ted Williams

Red Sox slugger, Ted Williams

(the last player to achieve an average above .400 for a whole season) who I had seen playing against the Philadelphia Athletics at Shibe Park when I was a kid. Another favourite from the past was Lou Boudreau, a star infielder for the Cleveland Indians for many years. So, as the afternoon progressed to the middle of the game I tried to explain how important it was for the teams to get runners on the bases and hopefully around second and third to home. (When my younger son heard the word home, I believe he was thinking of his mother making him a nice sandwich and a glass of iced tea.)

 Strangely,  just then it happened that another foul ball was hit along the first base line. This time, two rather rambunctious fans started a bitter fistfight over who should have the ball, which of course is entitled to whoever catches it. In the melee, neither actually got the ball, rather they seemed intent on killing each other.

Fans fight for foul ball at Fenway Park

This created another trauma for my two sons who who were appalled by the violence as shown by the two men fighting over the baseball. The free-for-all was finally resolved and we moved on to the next phase of the game.

 Later, it was finally time for the seventh-inning stretch, i.e. a pause. I ordered a couple of hot dogs with mustard and ice-cold Coca-Colas. The boys really enjoyed that part of the afternoon. While they munched on the hot dogs, I decided to take a breather and walk up the stands to the back to take another view of the famous emporium where the Sox played their home games. My sons assured me they would be okay sitting by themselves. Upon reaching the top of the grandstand however,  I came upon  a fight which had broken out between a group of customers. Two of three ‘hoodlums’ were picking on a forlorn individual who was being plummeted by these rather rough-looking locals. This included kicking this seemingly gentle fellow whilst he was on the ground.  I later determined that they were picking on him because he was a homosexual . . . at least that’s what I remember about the incident.


All I could do was scream! So that’s what I did – at the top of my lungs. But it worked. I managed to startle the assailants who finally stopped their attack on the poor fellow who was by this time laying on the ground holding his head. The men were surrounded by many spectators who did absolutely nothing to stop the violence. That is not to say, I would have taken on the obnoxious attackers who were indeed very violent and dangerous looking. But I did manage to scream at the top of my lungs and halt the onslaught.

All I could think of was thank goodness the boys not with me, it would have been incident number three for the afternoon.  I took a deep breath and made my way back to our seats in the grandstand and decided not to mention what I had seen.

The Red Sox scored a few runs and took the lead as I remember, so it was going to turn out rather successfully in the long run.  However, before the game finished, a woman sitting just a few rows in front of us had an epileptic seizure. She was writhing around on the ground in the grandstand and was eventually attended by the overworked medical staff of Fenway Park.

You know, I’m not making this up  . . . 

Finally, the game was over. I told boys to get their things and we made our way to the exits, fighting the crowd. Slowly we made our way through the turnstiles again to the parking lot to reconnect with our VW Beetle. Back on the Mass Turnpike again, my mind  was racing as I reviewed the afternoon’s actions. I was trying to assess how my boys would feel about their first major league baseball game.  I was a physical wreck thinking of the things that happened during the game, the likes of which I had never seen before in the dozens of games I watched as a kid.

Perhaps the most poignant memory I have of the day out was a remark made by our youngest son Joe which has become a part of our family folklore. On the way to the parking lot, he looked up at me and said in a forlorn manner . . .

Dad, I don’t think I like baseball.

Perhaps this is an unfair tale to tell about my years of watching major-league baseball teams in America. I had a great time with the sport from the time I was about 10 years old, getting autographs, collecting picture cards and following the Phillies . I saw Jackie Robinson steal home against my favourite pitcher, Robin Roberts in the 50s and I survived the shooting by some crazed fan in 1949 of my idol Eddie Waitkus, the Phillies’ first baseman. Looking back now on that afternoon at Fenway Park, it is not hard to realise why our boys never really got enthusiastic about the game of baseball.

Stephen Hawking and Me, Revisited

With the death yesterday of Stephen Hawking – the world’s favourite physicist – I was reminded of an extraordinary period in my life when I wrote a book about him. I decided to re-publish a blog I wrote about the experience a few years ago.

To start at the beginning, I must go back to 1973 when I returned from the USA to London with my wife and three boys and took a position teaching physics at the American School in London. There, each morning I found bright students – mostly American – anxious to hear me elucidate on the most fundamental of all the sciences.

I was fortunate to be able to teach two very different courses – one, an exam course called Advanced Placement for students who already knew they were going to study physical science at university and another course designed by Harvard University titled Project Physics. The latter focused on the most important discoveries from the time of the Greeks to the present day and was clearly something new. The syllabus consisted of topics which would appeal to anyone interested in the physical ideas which have shaped our world. These included astronomy as well as the usual concepts such as motion, heat, electricity, magnetism, light and the atom.

The course materials were rich and varied and allowed the instructor to improvise a great deal, in many cases using unique methods of the original investigators, such as Galileo’s use of a water clock water clockin his experiments on motion. This was a great opportunity for me to indulge my interest in the history of physics and astronomy, elaborating on the exciting work of some of my heroes such as Johannes Kepler, Albert Einstein and Enrico Fermi. During that time I developed a reputation as being quite a good teacher: stimulating, interesting and committed to my students.

Teaching Astronomy at The American School
Teaching Astronomy at The American School, 1975






As a result of the success of teaching this course, I was inspired to prepare a lecture on a certain aspect of Einstein’s work and visit the United States to commemorate his 100th birthday in March 1979. I was particularly interested in developing a multimedia presentation about the somewhat surprising fact that Einstein’s Nobel Prize was awarded, not for his revolutionary work in Relativity but, for the work he did on light – describing it as radiation formed of corpuscular bits of energy which was absorbed and emitted only in well-defined units which later became known as photons.

Einstein Receives Nobel Prize from Max Planck
Einstein Receives Nobel
Prize from Max Planck

My lecture, which included recordings and photographs of Einstein and his colleagues, was very well received at the University of Pennsylvania, Amherst, MIT, Chicago, and Stanford.  At the end of the trip, I returned to Europe via Switzerland to visit certain places associated with Einstein’s early life.  Whilst there I discovered that a ceremony was about to be held in Berne as part of the centenary celebrations at which the very prestigious Albert Einstein Medal was being awarded. Naturally, I had to attend.

Arriving at the venue in Berne, I realised I was in a somewhat special audience and celebrating a special scientist. As I read the program notes, I soon realised the famous award was being given to an unusual physicist. The 1979 recipient of the Albert Einstein Award for ‘outstanding work in fundamental physics’ was a Cambridge University Professor named Stephen William Hawking.

This was the first time I had ever seen or even heard of Hawking and I was somewhat shocked to see that he was bound to a wheelchair. As he was wheeled across the stage to accept the award, I was quite moved that a man so severely disabled could have achieved so much. I was not the only one so moved. As I scanned the auditorium that evening, I noticed that dozens of grown men and women: physicists, astronomers, journalists and other dignitaries, had tears in their eyes as Hawking mumbled his acceptance speech into a microphone.

15 Years Later . . .  

Quite out of the blue fifteen years later, in the spring of 1994, I received a phone call from Richard Appignanesi of Icon Books. He had authored the first books (Freud and Lenin) in the popular series of Beginners Guides published by Icon and was now the commissioning Freudeditor of the series. He asked if I would meet him for a beer the next day at a pub in Highgate, North London to discuss the possibility of  writing something for the series. I accepted the invitation with great enthusiasm and met Appignanesi the next day to find out that he wished me to write a book on the Big Bang for Beginners. I agreed at once and my head was spinning with enthusiasm.

However, the very next day he rang again to ask if I would consider a slight change in the topic of the book. Rather than write about the Big Bang theory, he wished to know if I could handle a book about Stephen Hawking instead. Hiding my skepticism rather carefully, I again agreed enthusiastically and began to wonder if I could count on the Hawking’s cooperation since by this time he had become a celebrity.  I started to get slightly nervous since I knew little of the details of Hawking’s work and nearly nothing of his life, except that he had a serious medical problem known to me as Lou Gehrig’s Disease, a progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain.  Without much thinking, I decided to go right to the man and see whether he appreciated the idea of a book in this series about his life and work. I looked up the details of his address at Cambridge University and send him a fax.

Professor Stephen W. Hawking
Dept of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics
Cambridge University

Dear Professor Hawking,
I have recently been asked to write a book about yourself and your work in the popular ‘Beginners’ series published by Icon Books. I would like to know what you think of the idea and whether I could count on your cooperation on this project.

Yours Faithfully,

J.P.McEvoy PhD

Two days later I received a reply from Hawking’s administrative assistant Sue Masey instructing me to contact Professor Dennis Sciama at Oxford to talk about the book. Ms. Masey sent me Sciama’s contact details and after a congenial phone call, I was on my way to meet him in Oxford.

Professor Dennis Sciama
Professor Dennis Sciama

I was able to look up something about Sciama quite quickly. He had done his PhD at Cambridge just after the war where he was a student of the legendary Paul Dirac, one of the founders of Quantum Theory. He became active in work on cosmology and was  very much interested in a fundamental concept involving motion, called Mach’s Principle. He was also an early proponent of the Steady State Theory of the Universe which he later rejected when the evidence from radio astronomy was known. He spent some time in the US at Harvard and Cornell and for a short time held a position at the very prestigious Institute of Advanced Study in Princeton where he met Einstein, who had also been concerned with Mach’s Principle.

As professor in his own right at Cambridge before coming to Oxford, Sciama had developed a reputation there for being an unselfish and helpful thesis advisor. For example, he never insisted on co-authoring the important papers that his students wrote as is common practice. His students included such outstanding PhD candidates as George Ellis, who became a professor of Physics in South  Africa; Brandon Carter who became Director of Research at Paris Observatory; Martin Rees who went on to be the Astronomer Royal; and, none other than Stephen Hawking, the subject of our meeting. At the time I met him Sciama was himself an important researcher in the field of Relativistic Cosmology.

We met in the garden of Sciama’s house in the university town and spoke for over two hours as I remember. We talked about basic ideas in physics and some of the great discoveries of the 20th century. At that time I didn’t know a great deal about Hawking’s work but did know quite a bit from my teaching experience about the fundamentals of our field and how the great break throughs in physics and astronomy came about. I was very impressed with the polite manner and kind demeanour of Sciama and felt confident that he appreciated my ability to handle the assignment, that is, the Beginners book. Fortunately, he is one of those advanced thinkers who believes theoretical physicists should be able to explain their ideas in a simple straight-forward way. Thus, he was somewhat sympathetic to the idea of a popular book about such esoteric concepts as black holes.

As I left Oxford that day, speeding along the M40 back to London, I couldn’t help hearing in my head the immortal words of John Lennon after the Beatles last public performance on the rooftop of Apple Records . . .

I hope I passed the audition.

Only a few days later, I received a fax from Hawking’s office stating that he would be willing to cooperate with me on the book and I should make an appointment to come to Cambridge to see him. The rest, as the saying goes, is history.

scan, jpm+SWH_edited-1

Stephen Hawking for Beginners has sold thousands of copies around the world and has been translated into a dozen languages. The same book (unedited) is now sold under a new title as Introducing Stephen Hawking A Graphic Guide and is available from Amazon at as a paperback and a Kindle Edition.

                         SHBcover.eng                  ISH.Grahic Guide

My Part in the History of the National Theatre

Regular readers of this blog may recall that in January 2015, I wrote a piece in this space titled A Sonnet for Sir Laurence. (See archive of this blog Jan 2015  There I described how I was inspired to write a fan letter – my only one ever – to Laurence Olivier after witnessing his thrilling portrayal of Shakespeare’s Othello at Britain’s National Theatre in 1965, exactly fifty years earlier. Then, the  NT company was  playing at the Old Vic before moving to its historic venue on London’s South Bank. The letter I wrote included a short poem of fourteen lines, so I called it a sonnet. I have since discovered that there are additional rules to be observed to be officially a sonnet. But, never mind.

The front page of the miniature folio of Othello.

Shortly after sending the letter, I was pleased to receive a note from the great actor thanking me for expressing my feelings about his performance ‘so charmingly’. So impressed with his sentiments and not really sure what to do with it, I had kept Olivier’s note in a small Midget Classic copy of the play in a drawer for over fifty years. A friend even copied my sonnet on the first page of the tiny folio. (2 x 3 in).

Recently, something very exciting happened. The National Theatre  – somewhat short on material from the early days of the NT – after reading my blog asked me to submit the letter from Olivier and the miniature folio of the play to be placed in the NT archive. So, I visited the office this past week and contributed the items as well as the original ticket stubs which I had also kept.

Examining the artefacts of Othello with archivist Erin at the National Theatre

It was quite an experience. I was treated like some writer from the past . . . like Mark Twain or perhaps, Samuel Pepys. My items were carefully placed in the same container with the original annotated script that Olivier and Maggie Smith worked from under the direction of John Dexter those many years ago. I was also shown  the original poster and program of the production – which incredibly,  I still remembered – dating from 1965. Black and white stage photos of Derek Jacobi (Cassio) and Frank Finlay (Iago) brought back more memories. One photo I particularly liked was of Olivier and Smith taking a break from what must have been a dress rehearsal. They were in their 16th century Shakespearean costumes set in Venice, but each was smoking a cigarette!

The note from Olivier placed in the archive

These artefacts, including my modest contributions,  will be available to researchers and scholars for many years long after I’m gone (I’ll be 80 in April of this year). So in my nostalgia, I thought the present description would be a nice addendum to my blog of 2015, reminding subscribers of the original story and showing a few pictures taken by the NT photographer of myself depositing the items in the archive.

Interestingly, I was not even aware of the fact that the NT had an archive. But there it is in the street called The Cut, right next door to the Old Vic Theatre where we saw the legendary performance and which was the site of the NT when it began its existence under Olivier’s directorship in 1963. After holding on to these mementos for so many years, I  have now finally found a place where they will be safe. They are now a part of the history of the National Theatre which my family and so many of my friends have enjoyed over the years.

I often tell my three sons – half jokingly I think – that when I pass away, I want to be cremated and my ashes secretly spread between the seats at the National.  Now, I needn’t worry. I have become in a small way, a part of the history of this great institution.

Our Search for A Sandy Beach: Nine Out of Ten

We first discovered Broadstairs just after the Millennium celebrations, sometime in 2001. As empty-nesters in a London flat, we were interested in finding a seaside town in which we could purchase a second home as an investment – hopefully a town that had sandy beaches like those we were accustomed to in the United States. As transplanted Americans from New Jersey living in London since 1973, we were used to with wide sandy beaches like the cities along the Atlantic Coast. My wife took holidays in Atlantic City where her family had properties and I worked as a teenager in Wildwood, NJ.

Beach at Atlantic City, NJ USA

We had searched many locations in the British Isles in an attempt to find beaches we liked. Much to our disappointment, we were not able to do so. Cornwall and Devon were too far away from London. Even though we were attracted to the charm of such lovely areas as Whitstable in Kent and Eastbourne in Sussex, these beaches had stones or shingles, not inspiring to us transplanted Yanks.  We had never even heard of Broadstairs.

The suggestion to look here came strangely from our bank manager who mentioned that Broadstairs was a town where people bought investment properties and many services and facilities of the town catered for holiday lets.

Beach Huts
Beach Huts on the Broadstairs Seafront

So sometime around 2001, we visited the town and walked along the coast taking a close look at the Seven Bays of the area from Botany Bay to Dumpton Gap. We were astonished. Not only were the beaches sandy, they were empty! I recall asking my wife Pat at the end of the day what she thought of Broadstairs on a scale of 1 to 10. Her answer was a very emphatic ‘Nine’.

Shortly thereafter we purchased a small flat on the seafront at Victoria Parade and became familiar with the delights of the town . . . ice cream at Morelli’s, the unusual films on Tuesday evenings at the quaint Palace Cinema and the excellent seafood to be enjoyed all along the coast from Margate to Ramsgate. In no time, we became interested in a larger property and began to look for a house.

Immediately, we were taken aback when we overheard a conversation by someone from down under complaining that there were no seaside properties left in Broadstairs. In a panic, we noticed a ‘For Sale’ sign in Rectory Road and soon we were the proud owners of a terraced house on that street. We sold the sea front flat in no time.

Crabbing Baskets at Viking Bay on the Broadstairs Seafront

We have been surprised over and over again about how little Broadstairs is known. That is, except for the cognoscenti, many of whom were brought here as children with their bucket ’n spade. Maybe it’s because the locals like to keep a little quiet about how salubrious it is being here. A few years ago when one of the national newspapers published a piece touting Broadstairs as second only to St. Ives in Cornwall for a seaside destination, one could hear a collective groan from the residents fearing even larger crowds of visitors.

In 2007 my wife decided that she would take an assignment with VSO, an organisation for individuals of all ages to volunteer in places like Africa and further afield. She chose Ethiopia and started on a two-year program as a teacher trainer in the the small town of Asella about 175 kilometres south of Addis Ababa.

Pat in Ethiopia
Pat in Ethiopia


The question was . . . what was I to do? I had recently sold my travel business and was looking forward to developing a new career as a writer, mainly in the history of science. I had a good start with books about Stephen Hawking (1995) and another on Quantum Theory (2007) published in the popular Beginners series by Icon Books. They both became best sellers and were translated into a dozen languages.

Now I had a new commission which was more ambitious: A Brief History of the Universe as a part of the Brief History Series by the publisher Constable & Robinson. This was to be a review of the great discoveries – from Stonehenge to the Big Bang – which has led to the present day understanding of the nature of the Universe. So, we decided to rent the London flat and I would live in Broadstairs full time and write while my wife was away.

The first activity of the day, after the morning paper from Victory News and coffee on the terrace of the Albion Hotel, would be to look at the tide tables published on the internet. From these tables, one is able to predict the high and low variations of the sea level before scheduling any long walks along the beach. This I did frequently during my sabbatical from marriage and walked to as far afield as Ramsgate and beyond.

I was particularly intrigued on one of my walks by discovering the disused Hoverport landing site at Pegwell, just beyond Ramsgate. In the late 70s, the Hovercraft was our family’s favourite mode of travel to the continent and our youngest son thought that inventor Christopher Cockerell was the most clever man in the world. How sad now to see the eerie, vacant parking lot where we waited for the technological marvel of the day to skim across the surf, descend on the beach and load up with automobiles.

The Hovercraft Arriving at Ramsgate circa 1975

Many locals have noticed me on the way to Ramsgate traipsing along on the firm sand washed by the channel, frequently with my walking sticks. I think I became known as ‘the man without a dog’.

A definite feature of this little town is the variety of eateries here. Deciding on lunch was always a pleasurable chore for me. Often I would opt for fish ’n chips at The Charles Dickens or an Italian pasta dish at the wonderful Posillipo right on Albion Street. In the evening, the charming Thai for Two or the Broadstairs Tandoori tempted me away from another stir-fry at home (my specialty). On Wednesday evenings I would carry my Baritone Ukulele down to The Tartar Frigate and join in on the session of folk songs. In short, I was very content and didn’t miss London very much.

Dickens Week in Broadstairs


One negative aspect of our success in renting our property has been that we have still have not experienced the excitement of Broadstairs Folk Week. Although Dickens Week has delighted us several times, we have been able to rent our house so easily during the month of August that we give up the dates of Folk Week to some regular clients. This will soon change though as we intend to keep that week open one of these summers for our own use.

Yes, my bank manager was right, Broadstairs was indeed a discovery and a gem of the Kent coast.

By the way, I should mention that I did finish the book, and almost on schedule.      J.P.McEvoy

A Brief History of the Universe, written in Broadstairs




What I Did After High School

I am dedicating this blog to my dear sister Mary who passed away on Valentine’s Day, this year.   In one of our last marathon trans-Atlantic telephone conversations, she implored me to return to my blogging, especially those about my personal experiences.  She particularly enjoyed references to Camden Catholic, the high school which we both attended. 

And I thought no one was listening !                                                                                                                                                       


In September 1955, after graduating from Camden Catholic High School (NJ), I was fortunate to be accepted for a work-study degree course in physics at St. Joseph’s College in Philadelphia. The idea had come from a remark by a radical nun, Sister Mary Claver, who simply said . . .’you’re good in math Joseph, why don’t you study physics’? This was the first in a series of shifts in my life, which can only be attributed to serendipity.                                                                       Physics has been good to me.

At St. Joseph’s, after two tough years catching up with the students from Philadelphia’s best prep schools and passionately following the beloved Hawks basketball team under their new coach Jack Ramsey, I started an apprenticeship at RCA in Camden images-1as part of the work-study program – another good break. There I learned about the world of business and science and earned some decent money while continuing to complete my degree at St. Joseph’s, graduating in 1959. By this time I had fallen in love with Pat Miller, a Class of ’57 CCHS grad who I met whilst attending  a mixer at Georgian Court College in Lakewood, NJ. (Remember the scene in Mike Nichols’ film Carnal Knowledge when Jack Nicolson and Art Garfunkel walked into a room full of lovelies standing around the punch bowl ? Well, that’s where I found her.) We married in 1960 as John Kennedy began his short-lived presidency and have recently celebrated our 55th !

imagesThe generosity of RCA was responsible for the next steps in my education, funding my graduate program at the University of Pennsylvania (M.S. in Physics, 1962) and awarding me the David Sarnoff Fellowship two years later. I chose the University of London for my doctoral studies and this became a crucial move in the development of my family. As Pat and I boarded the TWA jet in Philadelphia in September 1964 with our two young sons, Michael (3 yrs) and Joe (1 yr), we already sensed that something profound was about to happen.

The influence which three years in London in the mid-60s had on us as a family was indeed profound and when we returned in November 1967 with a third son, Mark, and a PhD presented to me by the Queen Mother, we were ‘different’. (See blogpost A Sonnet for Sir Laurence, 21 Jan 2015)

I went back to RCA, but this time at their research lab in Princeton. Then, when Robert Kennedy was killed a few months later and I was shocked by some of my colleagues indifference to the tragedy, I asked to be released to take a faculty position at Clark University in Massachusetts. We headed to what was to become our beloved New England where we stayed for six years while I pined for the exciting life we had enjoyed in London. (A future blogpost , Hide the Daddy, set in our big house in Worcester gives a sense of our happy life in Worcester, MA during those years).

11 MonroeAve-1-2
Our home in Worcester, MA during the years 1968-1973 with the VW Beetle parked in front



In 1973, as the Watergate scandal unravelled, I somehow managed to convince my wife and the boys (now 12, 10 and 6 years) that our life in London was not yet played out. After selling two cars and giving away the dog, cat and the pet rabbit ‘Flopsy’, we sailed from New York with 22 trunks on board the QE II while our loyal and supportive families wiped away tears amid the confetti and the streamers at dockside in Manhatten’s harbour.


Arriving in Southampton on the QEII 1973

During the next  years to the present, we all have found a niche in London, the cosmopolitan capital of the English-speaking world. After seven years teaching physics at the American School in London (ASL), I founded a travel company for ex-pat Americans and ran it for twenty-five years before selling the enterprise in 2007. I have also been able to develop as a writer of popular science with several books published based on the history of physics.

Pat taught at ASL before developing her career as a counsellor and psychotherapist, obtaining the M.A. degree and other credentials in the British system of psychotherapy. She retired from ASL as the lower school counsellor after 25 years but continues her private work with families. Although everyone who has ever sat at her table tries to convince her to open her own restaurant, she has resisted. She concentrates on fantastic family feasts and is a passionate reader of contemporary fiction. Lately, she has developed as a competent watercolourist in a very short time much to the amazement of the rest of the family.

New Eltham, London 1974

Our boys completed their studies in English schools and were drawn to further training in the arts. Michael has had a challenging career in music as a performer, arranger and composer, and is now a part-time faculty member of the Royal College of Music; Joe is a somewhat disaffected journeyman, political activist and poet living in Northern Ireland; Mark is an accomplished musician and artist but earns his living as a media designer and film maker. All three chose clever, delightful women as partners (a BBC producer, a school counsellor and an NHS psychiatrist)  and we are blessed with five interesting grandchildren. But that’s another story . . . ______________________________________________________________________

A few years ago, I visited CCHS for the first time in 50 years to talk about the discovery of the universe from the Babylonians to thee Big Bang. They gave me a good slot and let the whole school get out of class to hear from the old grad. My sister was there and she loved the occasion. I even got coverage in the local press . . .

Writer shares his love of physics at alma mater      

April, 2011          By Carl Peters

CHERRY HILL, N.J. — Science writer Joe McEvoy graduated from Camden Catholic in 1955, when the high school was in Camden, and he had never been to its current location in Cherry Hill. As he faced the students in the auditorium, he said, “This building is 50 years old, but to me it looks new.”

Of course, time is relative, as people like to say since Einstein revolutionized physics a century ago.

McEvoy likes to talk about Einstein and others who have shaped the world of science. He gave the Camden Catholic students a synopsis of the history of cosmology, from the ancient Greeks to the Big Bang — all before second period on April 7. He also spent time in classrooms during the day.

McEvoy describes himself as a “champion of science education.” He left research years ago to devote his time to popularizing science, to describing scientific discoveries and those who made them in an accessible way to a broad audience. He is the author of four books, the first of which, “Introducing Stephen Hawking,” was published in 1991.

A lifetime member of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, Hawking is a theoretical physicist and cosmologist who has made important contributions to the fields of cosmology and quantum gravity, especially in the context of black holes. But Hawking, who is almost completely paralyzed and speaks through a voice synthesizer, also has become widely known to the general public through his best-selling book, “A Brief History of Time,” as well as by playing himself in several episodes of “The Simpsons.”

McEvoy spent two weeks in Cambridge, England with the scientist and persuaded him to come to the Royal Albert Hall in London for the publisher’s launch of “Introducing Stephen Hawking.” At one point Hawking tried to back out of the appearance, worrying that no one would show up. The event drew 6,000 people.

McEvoy, who makes his home in England, went on to write “Introducing Quantum Theory” (1996) and “Eclipse” (1999). His most recent book, “A Brief History of the Universe,” was published last year.

Before he ever thought about explaining quantum theory, black holes or the history of the universe, McEvoy was a teenager living in the Cramer Hill section of Camden, helping his fellow students with their math. In his junior year, his friends began talking about going to college. Should he go to college as well? He still remembers asking one of his teachers, Sister Mary Claver, who told him, “Joe, you are very good at math. Why don’t you study physics?”

And that’s what he did, at St. Joseph’s College (now University) in Philadelphia. McEvoy went on to earn a master’s degree in physics from the University of Pennsylvania and a doctorate from the University of London.

He returned to St. Joseph’s to speak to science students on April 6, the day before he spoke at Camden Catholic. It was his 74th birthday, and he was doing what he likes to do.  McEvoy still sounds like a young man in love when he talks about the surprising work of astronomer Henrietta Swan Leavitt or Sir Arthur Eddington’s experiment that confirmed Einstein’s theory of general relativity.

Someone McEvoy admires is Philip Morrison, a distinguished physicist who reached a popular audience through his numerous books and television programs, including “Powers of Ten” (1977) and the 1987 PBS series “The Ring of Truth: An Inquiry into How We Know What We Know.”

For McEvoy, explaining how we know what we know — and separating knowledge from superstition and unfounded ideas — has become his life’s work.

“If anyone tells you the Big Bang is not correct, give them my phone number,” he told his Camden Catholic audience.


Joe McEvoy, a science writer and graduate of Camden Catholic in 1955, when the high school was in Camden, speaks to a class at his alma mater April 7. This was his first visit to the school’s current location in Cherry Hill.