Chapter One

There isn't a Snake in the Cupboard

A review of the life of J H Fremlin


Family holiday in France, 1988

In 1988, my father turned seventy-five. Over the last year he had become increasingly worried about the way his memory was failing him. Mostly this was a problem of short-term memory, but longer-term knowledge, such as the Latin name of a particular wild flower, was occasionally being lost as well.

I had for some time toyed with the notion of writing his biography but the idea of trying to find out all the facts by myself was daunting. But this year, my mother and father had joined my family on a summer holiday in France, and my father's frequent references to his memory loss brought home to me how much it was bothering him. As the two of us strolled along a French country lane one afternoon, it suddenly occurred to me that we could both benefit from a co-operative venture: if he could spend odd moments of the next few years writing down some of his early memories, he could keep his brain stimulated, and perhaps spend less time worrying about the present while he immersed himself in the past. Then I could shape what he had written and add any extra material I could obtain from other sources.

The idea was accepted (and remembered) immediately. That night, before going to bed, he asked if he could have some paper, just in case he was awake during the night. By breakfast time the next morning, the first few paragraphs about his own father's life and career had been committed to paper.

When he got home at the end of the holiday, he and my mother did some hunting round and found numerous old diaries, letters and other documents. My father said that he had not kept these; he had simply not thrown them away. Many of these were sent to me, and for the next few months, we each got on with our separate tasks. He wrote down everything he could remember about his early life, and, knowing that someone else was going to edit it, he wrote quickly, not worrying if he remembered something out of order, and so got an enormous amount of enjoyment out of it. My mother helped to look up dates in the files and then nobly translated his extraordinary scrawl into neat typescripts which she posted to me, while finding time to write out her own reminiscences to supplement his. In the meantime, I was getting just as much pleasure, completely fascinated as I read the hundreds of old letters and other papers.

What was it about this man which made him stand out in so many fields? Could his special future have been predicted while he was still at school? Was there anything in his upbringing that the rest of us could copy for our children to give them a chance of his career? Up to an including the time when he took his degree, a cursory examination of his life shows it to have been nothing out of the ordinary, nothing, that is, that could not be achieved by any one of the thousands of boys and girls who get good 'A'-level results each year. He was recognised as a very clever boy at school, but he frequently had difficulty in settling down to work hard, being easily distracted by his hobbies of catching butterflies and rearing caterpillars.

And yet, out of this mild-mannered schoolboy, who put more effort into staying out of both trouble and the limelight than into actually shining at anything, came the man who achieved so much. To read the papers he produced (about two hundred, not including letters to journals and newspapers) does not describe him at all, because surely his inventiveness was of more continuous importance? In fact, even his more important discoveries (listed in Appendix 1) were not at the level that made him a famous scientist but nevertheless, people who worked with him knew him as a prolific producer of new ideas. There must be hundreds of people who have been stimulated by his fertile mind: in ordinary conversation he never ceased to generate ideas. Perhaps this inventiveness combined with both practical skills and an ability to manipulate complex facts and figures in his head produced just the mixture needed to make a good physicist. It must be noted that he did have the advantage of being in the right place at an exciting time for physics.

Then there was the other side of him his socialism and compassion. With a brain finely tuned to the higher branches of physics, he could also listen for hours to other people's problems, constantly looking for ways to help them while also working to try to save whole nations from self-inflicted catastrophe.

This work then, is partly a quest to find out how this multi-faceted person was created and also an attempt to prevent the many interesting twists and turns in his well-filled life from being lost.

I have tried to keep the amount of advanced physics well down for the sake of readers without scientific training but with only limited success: John's achievements could not be documented without fairly detailed descriptions of the physics involved. I hope that some readers will find the glossary useful and others will just skip the bits they don't understand. However, I would suggest that if a reader can pick up some degree of understanding of nuclear physics by reading about John's work up to the 1950's, he or she should then be able to understand the later work fairly easily without too much help!

I do have a worry about accuracy. I went back to original papers to add to my understanding of most of the experimental work I have described and I read hundreds of letters which brought many events to life, but many more uncheckable details came straight out of my father's memory and he was already at the very earliest stages of his Alzheimer's disease by the time he started his part in the writing. Nevertheless, I believe it to be a good record of my father's life as he saw it.

As I revised one of the later drafts of the book, I came across a difficulty that must regularly hit memoir writers and biographers and that is how to treat various social and linguistic changes that happen over one person's lifespan. Acronyms for example: for the last 20 years of John's life, full stops between the various letters of an acronym were being dropped and began to look silly, but writing them without before that time would have looked uneducated. Continuity within the book would have been disrupted by following the changing custom, so I have stuck to the modern method throughout. However, in people's names, I have allowed a change to take place in the way I have written them to mirror the social changes. Before the 1960's, John would have called very few people by their Christian names and so it seemed disrespectful for me to do so. Mostly he would have used the surname without a title as in "Oliphant said this" or "Peierls did that" when talking about people. Later, he changed with the rest of us to referring to colleagues by Christian names and I felt that it would be over-formal to re-introduce their surnames when I had never heard him taking about them like that.

This leads on to another point about John's thoughts and opinions. As a child he would have seen and absorbed attitudes to class that we would find odd these days but this way of looking at the people round him, arising from his own pride in belonging to a so-called middle class, stayed with him all his life. This added to the difficulties of writing about other named individuals. However, the people he worked with were of the utmost importance in his own development and so their contributions must be included, so I hope that no one will be too hurt by comments which are to do with how he felt about interacting with them rather than absolute statements of their own personal attributes. He also made certain decisions about what he did and didnít believe about politics in both Britain and other countries, some of which, with historical hindsight, can now be demonstrated to be misguided. For instance, he dug his heels in and continued to accept all that Stalin stood for even as increasingly worrying information emerged from Russia. This book is about John and I have stated his views about what was happening around him without re-writing history, which has already been done far better by others.

Margaret Fremlin
January 2004

The information contained in this book came from a wide variety of sources: all the family have recounted memories in conversations and in letters. Reinet was especially helpful in keeping family memories alive, typing John's notes and in helping to provide the physics behind the glossary. I should also like to acknowledge helpful letters from Wallis Chapman, Anne Adams, Georgy Flerov, Michael Chamberlain, David Chettle, John and Christine Dony and contributions from Nancy Robertshaw, Celia Rossington and Janet Dockerill.

Chapter 1


This page updated 1st March 2013