Saturday: London

February 13, 2016 • 1:30 pm

First, here’s Steve Jones introducing me last night. If you’ve heard him you’ll know that he’s quick with a quip and cracks audiences up, which he did yesterday. Steve and I worked together for a long while in the 1980s, studying the movement of fruit flies in Death Valley, California as well as in Maryland. The BHA now has a writeup of my talk that you can see here.


After my talk I finally got a good night’s sleep, and woke up today to a Big British Breakfast Buffet in the Hilton. It included all the usual suspects, including black pudding and baked beans, which I eschewed. (The British penchant for baked beans with breakfast mystifies me.) After a big tuck-in, a shower, and a little more rest, I wandered down to Bedford Square to meet Anthony Grayling for lunch. On the way, as one does in London, you pass buildings that would be considered architectural marvels in the U.S. but are quotidian in this historical town.

Here’s the University College Hospital, which I believe is still a teaching hospital associated with the University of London:


Waterstone’s bookstore on Gower Street, Europe’s largest academic bookshop (it was formerly Dillon’s). It was built in 1908.


The Art Deco entrance of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (built 1905):


The Bonham Carter House, bearing one of the blue oval plaques that denotes a historic site (see photo below). I have no idea whether this is an ancestor of Helena Bonham Carter, but the house is on a site where anesthesia was first used in Britain.



Almost next door on Gower Street is the house of Lady Ottoline Morrell (1873-1938), famous member of the Bloomsbury Group, hostess of a literary salon (Yeats, Eliot, Lytton Strachey, Virginia Woolf etc.), and well known for her many lovers, including Dora Carrington and Bertrand Russell.


Here’s Lady Morrell, who I think looks a lot like her friend Virginia Woolf. They both have that equine insouciance that I find irresistible in British ladies:

Ottoline Morrell



This is Senate House, the administration building of the University of London, which looks very neo-fascistic to me. It was apparently the model for the Ministry of Truth in George Orwell’s 1984. I think of that book every time I see this scary building:


Here’s a Victorian building near Russell Square that’s lovely, but I don’t know what it is. Some reader will surely identify it:


My goal for the afternoon: 19 Bedford Square, home of New College of the Humanities, founded in 2012 and still headed by Anthony Grayling, the well known ethical philosopher and atheist. (The College is quite controversial because, in contrast to other British universities, it charges very high tuition.)  I was there to meet Anthony for lunch:


In the foyer as you enter is a big photo of Anthony’s hero, Bertrand Russell. Anthony admires him, as do I, because Russell was not just an academic philosopher, but believed in public engagement, and lived out his philosophy—including stints in jail for objecting to war.


Grayling took a selfie of the three of us, and of course the biologist’s hair is much more unkempt than that of the philosophers’! In the tonsorial department, Grayling is like the Werewolf of London.


We had a nice two-hour lunch and talked about many things, including free will, whether there is any objective morality, the problem of modern philosophy (postmodernism), and so on. I won’t characterize Anthony’s views, but I did ask him if he could meet one philosopher from history, who would it be? He demurred, saying that there were many, so I rephrased the question, asking him which philosopher he would choose to meet to ask questions clarifying that person’s views. He answered that one immediately: Kant.

After lunch I repaired to the British Museum, almost next door, for my usual wander round my favorite relics. More on that tomorrow if I have time.

55 thoughts on “Saturday: London

  1. Big Victorian building opposite Russell Square is a hotel – the Hotel Russell, in fact. I prefer my hotels to be a bit more modern but I always stay in that neighbourhood when I visit London. Hope you enjoyed your British Museum visit. The Enlightenment Gallery is particularly magnificent, in case you haven’t seen it.

  2. Just to veer off topic almost completely – notice the “upside down 7) shape of Virginia Woolf’s nose. This is a quite common profile for British noses and can be seen repeatedly in British films (TV programs as well – as in the extraordinary “Foyle’s War” series). I might also note that if you haven’t seen the
    Foyle’s War series you are missing what American television is missing – excellence.

    Prof. Ceiling Cat, Emeritus, seems to be have a splendid time despite the horrors of Heathrow.

        1. Foyle’s War was actually not BBC but was made by a commercial company.

          … who didn’t dare to sink into the Sloughs of Despond available to programme makers who have to compete with the BBC.

      1. and to add another irrelevant comment – I once won a pint of Guinness in a Belfast pub quiz for knowing Foyle’s was the largest bookshop in the UK – although clearly not the largest academic one.

  3. Helena Bonham Carter is indeed related to the very prominent Bonham Carter family who have been movers and shakers of Brit society for 3 centuries. Individual relatives of hers have nearly 20 articles about them individually on Wikipedia.

    It is highly probable then that she has some distant connection to Bonham Carter house, but I am unable to verify this.

    1. I think you mean 12 Upper Gower Street – now the Biological Sciences Building of UCL. I remember it well from my time as an MSc student there in the early 90s.

  4. I spend my days in the Institute of Classical Studies Library on the third level of Senate House. It’s quite a place to do your PhD – the second largest collection of books on classics, ancient history, and related subjects in the UK…but not warm. Art Deco architecture evidently doesn’t take comfort into account.

  5. I spend my days in the Institute of Classical Studies Library on the third level of Senate House. It’s quite a place to do your PhD – the second largest collection of books on classics, ancient history, and related subjects in the UK…but not warm. Art Deco architecture evidently doesn’t take comfort into account.

  6. The Cruciform Building in Jerry’s photo used to be the site of the Univeristy Colllege hospital, but now it’s the site of various UCL medical schools, while the hospital is located next door in a modern, rather attractive greenish glass skyscraper.

  7. ‘Bertie’ (Bertrand Russell) was also very famous for his bad breath and his womanising – the former seems not to have made the latter difficult, for some reason (perhaps those equine noses are less sensitive to odours?); one of his many affairs was with Old Possum’s wife (I can’t remember what her nose was like).

      1. Well, Bertie didn’t have an affair with Virginia Woolf, so perhaps it’s not a question of those equine noses being insensitive – but then there was a long affair with Ottoline Morrell and her equine nose (I think there must be an evolutionary explanation for those noses – upper-class people often spent their youth riding horses, which were regarded as noble-looking, so that for centuries. generation after generation, male Englishmen tended to choose female partners whose noses resembled those of the horses they were so fond of – and voila!): it was after the affair with Ottoline finally ended that Bertie was at last justly accused of having no morrells.

        1. “…male Englishmen…”

          I was gonna tease you about female Englishmen, but in this day of every possible gender/bio-morph combo, that’s probably not PC…

          1. Yeah but female Englishmen weren’t gonna mate and pass on a taste for horsey noses in their genes. 😉


              1. “Where’s the foetus gonna gestate? You gonna keep it in a box?”

                I love that scene!


          2. Yes, Diane, you should have teased me about it, mercilessly – and, I’m sorry, I was reading too quickly so didn’t get what what you were pointing out – until all of a sudden, out of the blue, it occurred to me. So forgive me – yes, ‘male Englishmen’ – well one wouldn’t call it an oxymoron – what would one call it?!!! Mea culpa!

        2. Oh, he was a great man. There’s a splendid brief portrait of him in Elias Canetti’s ‘Party in the Blitz’ – Russell was one of the of the few English intellectuals Canetti liked and admired, and he observed him at – among other venues – a Mayfair reception, where (from the Guardian) ‘the octogenarian Bertrand Russell walks off with one such beauty a quarter of his age moments after he had finished a public conversation and, laughing with joy, clapped eyes on her for the first time: “As if they had arranged to meet, the 80-year-old and the 20-year-old, he left the party with her as if it were the most natural thing to do. He carried on laughing as he made his departure and she seemed more beautiful with every step.”‘ he is very funny about the extraordinary arrogance of English intellectuals, amongst whom he included Old Possum, whom he eviscerated with gleeful savagery: he spoke of TSE’s “impotence, which he communicates to the whole country, surrenders itself to every order which is old enough, seeks to prevent every enthusiasm, a debauchee of nothingness, pale imitator of Hegel, desecrator of Dante (to which region of Hell would Dante have consigned him?), thin-lipped, cold-hearted, old before his time”. Canetti, by the way, was the Bulgarian-born Jewish author of the famous novel ‘Auto-da-Fe’ (‘Die Blendung’ in the original German) and won the Nobel Prize for literature – well-worth reading.

          I have no problem about being teased Diane! I’ve always found French cartoons of horse-faced English governesses with huge and terrible teeth very funny.

          Talking of smells, H.G. Wells was also famous for his affairs, but unlike Russell is reported to have exuded a wonderful warm odour that attracted women like bees to nectar…

          I’d better shut up.

      1. Ha! Steve Jones recounted the story of how he was mistaken for Richard Dawkins on two occasions, one when he was asked to sign The Selfish Gene. He obliged but added ‘I did not write this book’!

    1. Grayling does write well: except for The Good Book, which was so embarrassingly boring and bad,(with everything – extracts from Cicero, Confucius et al – carefully rewritten into a bland pastiche of bad 18th or 19th-century consolatory writing), that I wondered how so intelligent a man could have misjudged things so badly. It only took a few dips into it to persuade me to get rid of it as quickly as possible.

      1. I was thinking about buying The Good Book. Maybe better check at the library first… Thanks for the thoughts.

        1. I should check it in a library first. What made me angry was that he had taken good translations – I think he used David Hawkes’s splendid translations of Qu Yuan’s poetry, for example – and recast them into that leaden, prosy pastiche. Why not simply make a good and various anthology by printing others’ translations instead of forcing a spurious stylistic unity on them in order to make it resemble the sort of idea of what a ‘Sacred Book’ should be that informs the style, if you can call it that, of The Book of Mormon?

  8. Regarding the Victorian building near Russell Square: despite being a student at UCL and Birkbeck (in the Ministry of Truth building) I couldn’t remember the building at all. I can only think it hadn’t been built when I left in 2001 !

  9. “We had a nice two-hour lunch and talked about many things, including free will, whether there is any objective morality, the problem of modern philosophy (postmodernism), and so on.”
    What I would give to have been a fly on the wall for that conversation.

  10. Great talk by Prof Coyne on Darwin day, He and I had a joint picture taken showing off my provocative tee shirt sayin “Evolution is true, Get over it!”, The Proff said he would not mind a copy but I have no idea where to email a .jpg file, can anyone help? Thanks.

    1. I see in the Warren Zevon song you link to, the Chinese restaurant Lee Ho Fook in Soho gets a mention and a photo. I spent many good hours there more than forty years ago with Chinese, Japanese & Korean musician friends. It was worth visiting then, and almost certainly still is.

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