A Sonnet for Sir Laurence

It’s not every day that you get a note from Laurence Olivier thanking you for attending a performance of his with compliments on the way you expressed appreciation for the work. Yet, that happened to me exactly 50 years ago today. (See letter at the end).

Of course, there’s more to the story. It began in 1964 when my wife and I arrived on a TWA flight from Philadelphia to London with our two young sons, both toddlers. I was on a doctoral fellowship to study physics at Imperial College and we were living in the heart of the great city near Russell Square, WC1.twa_style_britain_vintage_airway_advert_print_poster-rd136c158df7a45eebc5f7e99083de2ed_z6w3r_8byvr_324 With a generous tax-free grant and a rather flexible schedule, we were thrilled by the opportunity to attend performances of the best in theatre, ballet and opera which we could only dream about in New Jersey.

Luckily, our accommodation was in a block of flats provided by the British government for graduate students from around the world, i.e. the Commonwealth and the United States. We all wanted to take advantage of this special cultural opportunity so there were always reliable baby-sitters available. Everyone knew it would be only a matter of months before we would be back in Melbourne, Auckland, Toronto or, God forbid, New Jersey. We inter-connected the flats with wires and speakers so that on some evenings one couple would be responsible for 2 or 3 families of young children.

I have always been a rather meticulous character when comes to obtaining tickets to sold-out theatrical performances and concerts. Now, I had a real opportunity to shine. I became an expert in using the intricate, albeit fair, procedures used by the British subsidised theatres for distributing tickets. The first step was to get on the priority mailing lists of the Royal Ballet and the Royal Opera House Covent Garden, the Royal Court Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company. (Everything was Royal in those days!) Of course, one must include the acting company at the Old Vic, started by Laurence Olivier and which had become the Royal National Theatre.

Fonteyn & Nureyev in Prokofiev’s Romeo & Juliet

The secret was to do everything exactly as the instructions specified, that is, be sure to include a self-addressed envelope, leave the amount on the cheque open to allow for adjustments by the box-office personnel and mail the form precisely when required to be received on the day the booking opened. Well, it worked a treat. We got tickets to everything. First of all, the exciting performances of Margot Fonteyn and Rudolph Nureyev in Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet. In fact, we saw this production a number of times. This made me the most popular husband in Christendom as my wife was such a fan of the ballet and particularly, of the dashing Nureyev. I even became a balletomane, following the schedule of the tall, elegant prima ballerina Svetlana Beriosova.

We were even able to get tickets for the now legendary production of Tosca mounted by Franco Zeffirelli at Covent Garden with Maria Callas in the title role and Tito Gobbi as Scarpia.

Maria Callas and Tito Gobbi at Covent Garden

I recall that 20 years later when I gave the program for that performance to a gay friend who adored Callas, he knelt down and kissed my feet! I understand the program now has pride of place on a shrine to Callas which he set up in his apartment.

You know, I’m not making this up.

Another famous production from that era which we attended was Robert Merrill’s London debut as Germont in La Traviata with Mirelli Freni under the baton of Carlo Maria Giulini. In the great tradition of  American students’ enthusiasm for such events, I spent a night sleeping on Floral Street next to a Fulbright scholar friend from New York in order to have a top place in the ticket queue next morning. We continued the craziness after the performance by waiting at the stage door with a group of aficionados. Giulini didn’t disappoint, exiting in a flourish from the door to limo wearing a wide-brimmed fedora and a cape.

The Blogger and his wife, London 1965

Meanwhile, Olivier’s first seasons as Director of the National Theatre at the Old Vic were all the rage. Actors like Albert Finney, Maggie Smith, Michael Redgrave, Anthony Hopkins and Olivier himself captivating audiences night after night. A Feydeau farce, a new play by Peter Shaffer, Noël Coward directing his own Hay Fever, and many of the American classics we had missed in our youth: Arthur Miler, Eugene O’Neil, Tennessee Williams . .  it was heaven.

However, there was one production for which I could not secure any tickets, even with my sure-fire techniques. Shakespeare’s Othello with Olivier himself in the title role was so popular that several booking periods went by without success and my applications were all returned with a polite apology. I fretted as the newspapers were full of articles about the production, e.g. describing how Olivier had painstakingly lowered the timbre of his voice by an octave to give his portrayal more authenticity, the two hour make up sessions for each performance and glowing testimonials about this ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ tour de force, etc.

Frank Findlay as Iago poisons the mind of Othello

The play had run for a full season and was now into its into a second year. Yet, I was still attempting to secure a pair of tickets. This was a sell-out like no other and I was beside myself with envy of those theatre-goers strolling into the famous theatre just off the Waterloo Road. I was shattered. What was I to do with the letter outlined in my head which I was going to send home to friends and relatives to tell them that we had seen the famous production of Othello with Laurence Olivier. But no tickets came. I did not give up and continued to apply with all the proper regulations well into the second season. I was becoming quite neurotic because I was worried that the production would end its run or go on tour in somewhere like Australia or Russia.

At this point in the story I must introduce a couple who were not graduate students from abroad, our rare genuine English friends, Margaret and John Chalker. The Chalkers shared our interest in theatre and opera and were also skilled in the art of ticket buying. We often compared notes on the idiosyncrasies of the all-important postal applications. During our first summer in England, we went with them in our 1939 Ford Prefect to the posh ‘opera in the countryside’ at Glyndebourne in Sussex. Here customers dress up in black tie and bring a picnic basket to imbibe during the interval.

One day a knock came on the door and Margaret appeared with a smile on her face. She had just received her response from the National: two tickets in the upper balcony for Othello. She then proceeded to tell us that because they had already seen the production and knew of our frustration, they felt obliged to offer us the tickets as a gift. After much false arm twisting and lamenting ( . . . but Margaret, we couldn’t . . . ), we accepted the tickets for the evening of January 13, 1965. We were finally going to see this historic performance.


A few weeks later on Christmas Day my wife gave me a most appropriate gift: a miniature – only 5 x 8 cm – beautifully produced folio of the play with gilded edges, the type of thing you would find in the tourist shop at Stratford-Upon-Avon. It was called a ‘midget classic’, but was a proper copy of the text. I was able to read the play in its entirety on the underground in the days leading up to the performance. I think I read it four or five times during the weeks before January 13. When the day arrived I could have been an understudy for most of the parts.

At last, we took our seats in the upper balcony (the gods) of the Old Vic to watch Sir Laurence tackle the role of the tortured Moor.

Othello confronts Desdemona played by Maggie Smith

To say that the performance was great is a gross understatement. To those who knew the play well – by this time that included me – each scene was a complete surprise. I was overwhelmed by the pathos that Olivier managed to put into his portrayal of the regal general made crazy by jealousy. As the innocent Desdemona pathetically pleaded on behalf of Cassio, she was made to look like a slut by the clever ruses of the deceitful Iago. Olivier paced the stage like a caged lion, his visceral body language saying more even than the bard’s text.

Then in the last scene, Othello – completely undone – throttles Desdemona whispering. . .

one that loved not wisely but too well  . . .

He falls on his sword next to her. The play is over.

When the curtain came down I was ready to tear up the program in my hand and eat it! The audience clapped and shouted Bravo, Bravo, stomping their feet so vigorously that I honestly thought the Old Vic would come loose from its foundations. The cast took about ten curtain calls and could have taken more. Finally, Olivier slipped between the curtains alone for an encore dressed in a floor length white robe and holding a long stem red rose in his hand. It was all too much. I was weeping like a baby.

A few days later I felt inspired to write a fan letter, the only one I ever wrote in my life. I would send it to the National Theatre. Scratching words on the back of an envelope whilst looking at my little folio with the gold trim, I soon realised that I had written a poem, a sonnet. At least it had fourteen lines . . .


This Christmas gift from my beloved wife

Will be cherished throughout my natural life

For in January, the thirteenth day

With this book didst I peruse the play

And at the sacred Old Vic that same night

Didst we together feel Iago’s bite

And we heard poetic discourse soar

For Sir Laurence was the valiant Moor.

In the four hundred years since Shakespeare’s birth

It seems improbable that on this earth

A more fitting tribute was ever paid

To the greatest poet God hath made.


A week later I received the following note in the post  . . .

Olivier's Note_edited-1

My midget classic, in a drawer for 50 years.

Stephen Hawking and Me

With the recent release of the feature film The Theory of Everything I was reminded of an extraordinary period in my life when I wrote a book about Stephen Hawking.


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


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 of 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 http://www.amazon.co.uk/Introducing-Stephen-Hawking-Graphic-Guide/dp/1848310943 as a paperback and a Kindle Edition.

                         SHBcover.eng                  ISH.Grahic Guide