Month: January 2015

Graham Farmelo on Churchill’s Bomb


Graham Farmelo

I thought this might be an appropriate time to re-post my interview with Graham Farmelo from December 2013 about Winston Churchill’s interest in science and in particular nuclear weapons. Click on the player above to listen to the interview. Here’s what I said about the book in my introduction:

Graham Farmelo Churchill's BombI first became aware of Graham’s work a decade ago at Granta, where he had that rarest of things, a bestseller about equations, called It Must Be Beautiful. I interviewed him a few years ago for the Faber podcast when his biography of fellow physicist Paul Dirac came out; that book, entitled The Strangest Man, won the 2009 Costa Biography Award and the 2010 Los Angeles Times Science Book Prize. Graham and I met up again recently at Faber’s offices in Bloomsbury to talk about his new book, Churchill’s Bomb, a fascinating and pacy story of how Britain became a nuclear power, seen through the lens of Winston Churchill’s career.

Graham shows that Churchill’s interest in science – especially as it applied to the changing nature of warfare – ran all the way through his career. He was a devoted reader and sometime friend of that great speculator on the future, H.G. Wells. And Churchill himself pondered the nuclear question in his writing. In 1937, He contemplated the destructive potential that science’s mastery of nature held out – at a time when many scientists still doubted a nuclear bomb was achievable – and asked “Are we fit for it?”

Churchill’s Bomb provides an absorbing exploration of what happens when scientists encounter the pragmatic world of politics, and of whether politicians can cope with the power that scientists were increasingly able to place in their hands. As Graham says in this interview: ‘the availability of nuclear energy at the time when the world was plunged into its biggest conflict was one of the cruellest tricks that fate played on the human race in the twentieth century’. The book is also the story of how the centre of nuclear physics shifted from Britain to the United States, and the coming into being of post-war geopolitics in which nuclear capability would loom so large.

David Harsent on his T.S. Eliot Prize-winning collection, Fire Songs

David HarsentOne of the most enjoyable interviews I recorded last year was with poet David Harsent. I’ve long been an admirer of David’s work; since I first encountered in the early 1990s, in fact, when David was on the long-departed Oxford Poets list and I was the junior editor, whose duties were mainly putting things in envelopes. Around the same time, I saw a TV production of Birtwistle’s Gawain, for which David wrote the libretto, which also made a deep impression on me. So I was delighted by the news a couple of weeks ago that David had won this year’s T.S. Eliot prize for his latest collection, Fire Songs.

Click on the link above to listen to the first part of our conversation. Here’s what I said about the book in the introduction to the podcast:

Reviewing his previous collection, Night, in the Independent, Fiona Sampson said: ‘Truly significant poets write like no one else, and David Harsent is both sui generis and unsurpassed.’ If anything, I would say that this new collection attains even greater heights – heights of linguistic concentration, haunting imagery – by turn dreamlike and nightmarish – thematic complexity in the interweaving of the book’s recurring preoccupations, and sheer visceral power.

In recent years, we have grown increasingly familiar with the destructive force of water, the nightmare of a world slowly drowning more common than an overheating world consumed by flames. But, although water and fire sometimes coexist in this book, it is the power of the latter which runs insistently through it: Fires manmade and natural; fires that erase and destroy and transform.

If fire is inescapable, the recurrent figure of the rat in Fire Songs is ineradicable  – ‘survivor of fire and flood’, as Harsent says. It’s a creature that occupies the margin of our dreams, and emerges unscathed after the apocalypse with designs on inheriting the earth.

Harsent writes:

 Rapacious like us prolific like us omnivorous like us prodigal like us

            Unremitting like us like us a killer of its own kind

In this first part of the interview, we talk about fire, war and its aftermath, and the rat. In the second part, we go on to discuss three poems David wrote in response to his experience of living with tinnitus, and conclude with a discussion of religion – in particular the disquieting figure of the Trickster Christ – and a complete reading of the first of the Fire Songs.