Friday, July 31, 2015


I have taken a long time to get around to writing this up, partly I think out of reluctance to contemplate the whole question but also partly because it's much more troublesome to write a blog post with lots of links than to paste in simple text! But it is overdue, I need to send the link to a few people and here goes: these are some of the words I said for my father at the memorial we held at Penn in April.

First, some words a few friends of his sent via email.

Co-worker Chris Mustazza:
I used to stop by his office once per week or so just to chat about the wide range of topics that he knew about, from chemistry through technology through the history of sound recording. I respect him very much as a model of what a person can strive to be: massively knowledgeable, while also being so kind and humble.
Longtime friend and correspondent Paul Gould:
He would come to stay with us on many of his UK trips, tolerating the various futons and sofa beds we had to offer and the varying standards of accommodation, from the cold rooms we rented on the ground floor of a Victorian house in Liverpool (you had to put on additional layers of clothing when going inside in the Summer) to our current house in Halifax. When I was leaving my job at the University of Liverpool and mentioned feeling rather sad as I handed back my office keys, ID card, etc. his response was to send a cheque and tell us to go out and have a really good meal to cheer me up.

As time progressed, the gaps between our emails grew longer for reasons I can’t fathom. Looking back, I don't think we've been in touch since he came over in October 2013. We used to discuss the opera performances we’d attended (I do remember smiling when he dismissed a season at the Met one year as “too Italian”) and I was thinking of him recently when considering whether to book tickets to the Opera North Ring Cycle concert performances next year. Shelley flatly refused to accompany me, and I thought that asking him to make the trip over every Saturday for a month would have been a bit too much! I’m sure he would have enjoyed the idea, though. Coincidentally, Shelley and I were watching a TV programme this morning from the Jodrell Bank radio observatory in Cheshire, which we visited with him one time he was over while we were still living in Liverpool. We were laughing about the fact that he would always zip around museums and exhibitions in what seemed like 5 minutes, and yet still take away everything he wanted from them.
For me, my father was most of all an intellectual interlocutor, a person with whom I shared a great many sensibilities and interests. We were both in some sense more than is usually true "people of the internet": my father had a good deal of early involvement in the world of computing (he worked at HP in the late 1960s), but he really came into his own, I think, in the last ten or fifteen years (think about how Netflix lets you obtain obscure German films...).

For as long as I can remember, my father had captivating ideas and things: the gigantic spool with a mile of thread on it; the stint working on the neutrino detection project at the Homestake Gold Mine (I remember a conversation that must have happened when I was about eight in which my father sketched out the tank and explained why it was filled with dry-cleaning fluid!).

In high school, when I was obsessed with the works of Anthony Burgess and had read every book of his I could get my hands on, my father brought me with him into the stacks at the Penn library (my eyes were like saucers!) so that I could check out the other ones (ever the completist). He was not a great expresser of affection, but during a spell of working near a Pepperidge Farm outlet store, he used to bring home huge hauls of slightly damaged goods (cakes with a nub bitten out of the side, catering-size cartons of goldfish), and I also remember his purchase on the grocery run of the occasional box of Froot Loops as falling under the heading of affection as well!

When I was writing my undergraduate senior thesis on the electric telegraph and theories of language, he explored all sorts of archives and museums in the UK. Ditto when I was researching the life and work of Alfred Nobel for my second novel.

One way to convey something of the relationship is to search my Light Reading blog for all the links my father sent me over the years. It is an amazing catalog! He sent things that fell at the intersection of his interests and my own; he had a keen an eye for what I would find amusing or delightful.

Here are a few of them.

Under the heading of "recreational zoology":

“The faster, fiercer and always surprising sloth”

Urban falconry

A video clip of fisherman in West Flanders riding horses into the ocean to catch shrimp

An amazing Orion Magazine piece about the “deep intellect” of the octopus


Newly digitized images from Scott’s Antarctic expedition

Journalist Ben Fenton’s account of how he exposed a set of forged letters smuggled into the Public Records Office at Kew in an attempt to prove that Winston Churchill commissioned a British intelligence officer to murder Heinrich Himmler

What the Sampson archives revealed about life in the corridors of power


A Wall Street Journal spring stunt in which college presidents were invited to submit college application essays in response to a question their own institution offered to prospective students

Computing and the history of science:

A correspondent’s letter noting that a rebuild of the “Colossus” can now be seen in the museum at Bletchley Park (I was later able to go and see the museum of computing there with my own eyes!)

Douglas Hofstadter’s quest to build computational models of human intelligence

Random things he knew I would like:

A record-breaking chocolate bar (6 tons, if you are interested, manufactured by Thornton’s with dimension of 4m x 4m)

The amazing cakes featured on the website of Philadelphia’s “Night Kitchen” bakery (he’d been to a birthday party featuring one)


Wardrobe choices of Lee Child’s Jack Reacher character

Morbid things:

The exhumation of the remains of Cardinal Newman

A rather fantastic Wikipedia biography of British doctor and mass-murderer John Bodkin Adams (convicted, among other things, of the wonderfully named offense "lying on cremation forms"!) (this came to his eyes as a consequence of reading D. R. Thorpe's Harold Macmillan biography and delighting in the way Macmillan's life seemed to intersect with all sorts of unexpected figures)

Kebabs made as corpse lay nearby:
Flies were landing on food in the shop and there was an "awful smell."
A fast food shop owner was found preparing food while an employee's corpse lay nearby.
Police called to the Pappu Sweet Centre in Wolverhampton in August discovered the man's body on a sofa near the kitchen, magistrates in the city heard.
The business, owned by Jaswinder Singh, 45, was shut down immediately.
The council said it was one of the worst cases environmental health officers had seen. Mr Singh has been banned from running any food business.
The man's death was not suspicious, police said.

A promotional video for a fundraising 5K race organized by a public library that combined 2 of my favorite things (as I noted on my blog) – libraries and the Vibram five-finger “toe shoes”

The private lives of public bathrooms

The difficulty of building a full-scale replica of Noah’s Ark in modern-day Netherlands in compliance with EU fire safety standards

Madeleine Albright's fondness for "symbolic brooches":
A poem appeared in the papers in Baghdad comparing me to many things but, among them, “an unparalleled serpent”. So I decided to wear an antique snake brooch when I talked about Iraq. Some camera zeroed in, and the press asked, “Why are you wearing that snake brooch?” I said, “Because Saddam Hussein compared me to an unparalleled serpent.”
A first-person account of a Portuguese citizen who bought a small island and founded his own country:
I have both a Portuguese passport and a passport for Pontinha (where my passport number is 0001). There are four citizens: me, my wife, my son and my daughter. I am the police, the gardener, everything. I am whatever I want to be – that’s the dream, isn’t it? If I decide I want to have a national song, I can choose it, and I can change it any time. The same with my flag – it could be blue today, red tomorrow. Of course, my power is only absolute here, where I am the true sovereign.

The Portuguese gastronomic speciality is bacalhau. But we are running out of cod in our oceans now, and we buy it from another country. So my gastronomy, my country’s speciality, is takeaway.
We both particularly enjoyed the Lunch with the FT feature, most of all when there is also some sort of drama concerning the food! (Gideon Rachman Here's a good example, in which Gideon Rachman interviewed the Prime Minister of Thailand in a "jollied-up" basement room at the Davos resort where the World Economic Forum is held: "Abhisit, immaculately dressed in a grey suit and waistcoat, with a pale blue shirt and black tie with white stripes, looks slightly doubtful at the array of lurid pastries and curled sandwiches placed before him. I explain that our conversation is meant to take place against a background of eating and drinking. “OK. I will comply,” he says. But he makes no movement towards the food.")

Things my father liked: sushi, oysters, rare beef. Wagner! Cars.

He followed very closely all sorts of things I was involved with: the artist Tino Seghal’s “situations” (this was another link he sent me), my friend and former student Nico Muhly’s career as a composer.

We often saw a film together: the last one we saw before he died was the Russian film Leviathan; other memorable excursions featured Werner Herzog's Encounters at the End of the World, the Jackie Stewart documentary Weekend of a Champion and the Robert Downey, Jr. Iron Man.

He had a stint in hospital last spring, and it was a great relief to me and to him that he was able to regain enough mobility to get back to work, and even to get to New York earlier this year for food and culture.

Work was his lifeline. He died unexpectedly of a heart attack at home, and though I miss him acutely, I am glad for his sake that he didn't live a diminished life in his final years. Let us now eat and drink in his memory!

1 comment:

  1. WOW Jen - pretty powerful stuff, your Dad must have been an amazing person, as you are!
    Fay (Cayman)