One particular point of personal interest was that my dad did wartime scientific research although he was working on the development of airborne radar which helped to keep UK citizens safe from Luftwaffe bombing raids (by helping RAF fighter pilots shoot down bombers). With his work my dad probably helped defend the UK more than the average soldier but dad's work was unrecognised whereas soldiers love their medals. So the idea in this book of the little community of scientists, hidden in the English countryside, working away on critical research and yet somehow isolated from the actual military events, resonated with me.
There is a huge culture clash between the scientists and the politicians. The politicians think in terms of official secrets, betrayals and traitors, of giving comfort to the enemy. The views of the scientists are summarised by Martin: “Martin was a secretive man; but keeping scientific secrets ... was to him a piece of evil, even if a necessary evil. In war you had to do it, but you could not pretend to like it. Science was done in the open, that was a reason why is had conquered; if it dwindled away into little secret groups hoarding their results away from each other, it would become no better than a set of recipes, and within a generation would have lost all its ideals and half its efficacy.” (C 19) The politicians think of winning the war; it is the scientists who are appalled by Hiroshima.
One of the things that C P Snow is particularly good at reflections. The relationship between the two brothers, the civil servant Lewis and the scientist Martin, in which Lewis argues Martin into doing things he doesn't want to do, is reflected in the way Lewis tries to control his younger brother in the matter of Martin's marriage; the instability of the wartime marriages among the scientific community reflects the uncertainties of the moral questions being discussed.
But there are much smaller reflections:
- The two brothers are discussing Martin's proposed wife and Martin admits that he cares for the woman. In the fireplace: “The coals fell suddenly, leaving a bright and fragile hollow in which the sparks stood still as fireflies.” (C 1)
- At yet another discussion between the brothers they walk through a park where a game of cricket is taking place: “At three successive balls the batsman made a scooping shot, and gave a catch which went in a gentle curve, very softly, to point; the first catch was seriously and solemnly missed. So was the second. So was the third.” (C 27) This reflects the way Lewis repeatedly fails to catch on as his brother tries to open up to him.
- “He did not take refuge, as society evened itself out, in a fantastic and comic snobbery.” (C 10)
- “ I used to think scientists were supermen. But they're not supermen, are they? Some of them are brilliant, I grant you that. But between you and me ... a good many of them are like garage hands.” (C 10)
- “Has there ever been a weapon that someone did not want to let off?” (C 10)
- “The engineers ... the people who make the hardware, who used existing knowledge to make something go, were, in nine cases out of ten, conservatives in politics, acceptant of any regime in which they found themselves, interested in making their machine work, indifferent to long-term social guesses. Whereas the physicists, whose whole intellectual life was spent in seeking new truths, found it uncongenial to stop seeking when they had a look at society. They were rebellious, questioning, protestant, curious for the future and unable to resist shaping it.” (C 25)
- “The chief virtue of this promising new age ... is that from here on we needn’t pretend to be better than anyone else.” (C 26)
- “I had not yet seen a woman, or a man either, who had lived a life of sexual adventure, give it up without a bitter pang that the last door have clanged to.” (C 30)
- “In those that I had seen die, the bitterest thought was what they had left undone.” (C 33)
- “ I could not recall of those who had known more than their share of the erotic life, one who, when the end came, did not think that his time had been tolerably well spent.” (C 33)
An enjoyable read. December 2019; 236 pages