The diva, the boffin and me.

As time passes, my memory fades on some of the peripheral details. It was sometime in the early 1980s at the Wigmore Hall in London where I was waiting for a concert.

I glanced down at my watch. 7:10 and a steady drizzle was encouraging the concertgoers to file in. The concert in question was sold out many weeks in advance, long before I was aware of it. But fortune smiled on me that day and a friend ducked out, generously passing on his ticket to me via a fellow student. I was still waiting for Aidan, uncharacteristically late for a mathematician who prided himself on precision. When he finally appeared, joyfully waving the tickets at me in a manner that precluded any serious admonishment, I was greatly relieved. Not least because, standing in the rain, I needed to be greatly relieved.

You will perhaps forgive me for dabbling in hyperbole but, in classical music terms, these were the hottest tickets in town. A rare recital of the Wesendonk Lieder [1] by the great Wagnerian soprano Gwyneth Jones – Bayreuth’s celebrated Brunnhilde for much of the 1970s [2] and early 1980s. One of my absolute musical heroes.

After a brief exchange of tickets, money and banter about keeping a lady waiting, we headed for our seats. Or would have done had a taxi not drawn up immediately behind us. A lady’s voice from within the cab called “excuse me, young men…” in a tone that made bystanders look as much at us as the source of the voice. “Yes, you two” she said “you look strong”. Aiden and I exchanged looks of bewildered amusement.

Anyone who knows me at all knows that my physique is not that of an Adonis. I have a barrel where others have a sixpack. And matchsticks for arms. My PE teacher at school once asked me if I would ever consider bodybuilding. I told him body building was unlikely as I would, almost certainly, not get planning permission. In short, I don’t get called strong very often. Or at all. Ever.

Still, the tone of her voice made it clear that we were to assist in such manner as she needed. After a brief ‘discussion’ with the cabdriver over the fare (the cabbie capitulated quickly), she turned her attention to us, the strong men, and outlined our role. Once she had extracted her husband’s wheelchair from the taxi, we were to extract him from said vehicle, make him comfortable in the chair and wheel him to the awaiting disabled seat at the front of the auditorium, brushing aside anyone in our way. Aiden pushed while I cleared a path with more ‘excuse me’s than a tea dance at the Ritz.

“Do introduce yourself dear” she said to her husband. He tried – it was clearly a big effort – and, in stroke-scrambled speech managed to say “I’m Peter M*****”. I didn’t catch his surname, so slurred was his diction. Eventually we made it to the front, the journey interrupted by several “Hello Peter, hello Jean”. Just as we turned to find our own seats Jean said “We are having a little supper with Gwyneth afterwards. Would you gentlemen care to join us for a drink?”

The concert itself was magnificent. Gwyneth Jones had, at that time, a glorious honeyed soprano voice, Effortlessly ranging from the delicate intimacy of lieder to the soaring peaks of the Wagnerian canon. A voice capable of whispering the words of a song as though in your ear or taking on the massive wall of sound that is a Wagnerian orchestra in full charge. A voice of subtlety, emphasis, tenderness and beauty, all capable of being delivered at heroic volume. But of course she was Welsh and all Welsh can sing!

But who was Peter? He looked faintly famous and certainly the greetings from other members of the audience seemed to support that but I couldn’t quite place him. Then I remembered I had seen his picture whilst at school which was doubly confusing. Why would he be featured there? Was he a writer? An artist perhaps? Or a scientist? As the music played, I ran through the mental desk file of famous people who went alphabetically to my school [3] until I reached M and one Peter Medawar. Indeed the science block was named after him. And of course his portrait hung there.

It suddenly dawned on me that I was in the presence of one of the most celebrated biologists of his generation. And this generation included people like JZ Young, JBS Haldane and JD Bernal. Sir Peter, for it was he, had won pretty much every prize in biology there was. Indeed it went further – there are even prizes in biology named after him. In 1960 he was awarded the Nobel prize for his work on tissue grafting, research which provided the groundwork for modern organ transplantation. In short, a genius.

His achievements were breathtaking, his life strewn with academic and civil awards and titles. Indeed he would have been president of the Royal Society had not a stroke rendered that impossible. Medawar was also a prolific writer on science and the philosophy of science. One of my most treasured possessions is a first edition of his book “Advice to a Young Scientist”, still essential reading for anyone starting out on a PhD.

That much was well-known. Less well-known was his passion for cricket, philosophy and opera – especially Wagnerian opera. He was a polymath in every sense. My favourite kind of person.

I still treasure that remarkable chance encounter some 40 years ago, often playing over the details in my mind. After all, it’s not every day you find yourself invited to take a glass of fizz with the greatest Wagnerian soprano of her time and a Nobel Laureate.

[1] I can’t be absolutely certain it was the Wesendonk Lieder. It could just possibly have been Richard Strauss’s Vier Letzte Lieder (Four Last Songs). But they are both magnificent song cycles for a soprano.

[2] Gwyneth Jones sang her first Wagner role at Bayreuth in 1966 and her last in 1982. She was Brunnhilde from 1975 to 1980 and starred in the infamous centenary production under the direction of Pierre Boulez and Patrice Chereau.

[3] I went to Marlborough and, like Medawar, didn’t much enjoy it. Nonetheless it has, in its time, had a few famous pupils – Sir Francis Chichester, Siegfried Sassoon, Capt Mark Phillips, Kate Middleton, John Betjeman, William Morris, Anthony Blunt, James Runcie, Chris de Burgh, Jack Whitehall and John Zachary Young to name a few. I must’ve been quite a letdown.