melv writes…

Hello and a Happy New Year from the first newsletter of mine in 2009. I didn’t think that I needed to write newsletters about Darwin, partly
because with four programmes there seemed not a lot else to say. Except that the experience of visiting the actual places in which the
man lived and worked was remarkably – I hesitate to use the word
‘inspiring’ but I can’t quite think of another. It was extraordinary to go
out into that bleak little patch of ground on the edge of Cambridge,
just a few hundred yards from the centre of the city, and look at it
through the eyes of Steve Jones who noticed different types of
grasses and different types of plants, etc, and imagine oneself back,
without a great deal of effort, to the time when Henslow walked and
began what became an extraordinary journey of classification and
discovery of variation which led to a great generalisation. They have
reconstructed his study in Christ’s College, as we said on the
programme, and it’s the sort of place any of you would want to read in
for the rest of your lives. And that’s without much furniture! The
furniture is to follow as, I assume, Darwin’s furniture followed after he
came up to the college.

Curiously enough, although Radio 4 was very happy for us to go on
location to Cambridge and to Down House and to the Linnean
Society in Piccadilly, London, they didn’t offer us a trip to the
Galapagos Islands, truly to follow in the footsteps of the great man. Nevertheless, what we had was much of the original booty brought
back and stored meticulously in these extraordinary natural history
museums in London and Cambridge, a couple of which Steve Jones
said are the sort of museums that ought to be in museums.

There’s a link with Thoreau who read The Voyage of the Beagle very
closely and also lived long enough to read The Origin of the Species
(Thoreau died in 1862) and, I’m told by Stephen Fender, responded
to it. Thoreau collected samples for a local naturalist who began by
being anti-Darwin and then became converted. I didn’t allow the
others to stress enough how careful and extraordinary he was as a
naturalist. His library, I was told, was packed with all the latest state
papers on the minutiae of the district. He was also an extremely
competent surveyor – again I didn’t provoke that answer – and that
combined with his farming – he specialised in the niche market of
huckleberries – enabled him to rub along. And there was the pencil
factory to fall back on whenever he needed to earn some of his keep
or the exigent amount he was used to living on.

I’m always astonished by the range of these great Victorian men. Thoreau had 28 volumes of Oriental philosophy on his shelves – a
present from an admirer in England – and the evidence seems to be
that he read them all.

Off now to take advantage of a dry day and get into St James’s Park
before moving on.

Best wishes

Melvyn Bragg

Visit the In Our Time website:
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