JB: I wrote a book called the Identity of Man. I never saw the cover of the English edition until the book reached me in print. And yet the artist had understood exactly what was in my mind, by putting on the cover a drawing of the brain and the Mona Lisa, one on top of the other

Time of Life

16 December 1973, Radio 4

The first poet whom I got to know at all well at Cambridge was a young man called William Empson. I got to know him well because he and I were doing the mathematics tripos together. He was a year senior to me, and he was not quite as good a mathematician as I, but a better poet. He and I edited a magazine called Experiment, you know that initially that is in itself a rather remarkable name for a literary magazine, and nobody had the thought of calling a literary magazine Experiment at that time. It’s true that a rival poet called Michael Redgrave was running a magazine called the venture, but we thought that a rather Georgian title, you know, a ship with sails. It was a time at which it was the most natural thing in the world to be visited by great and distinguished literary figures. For instance, when we brought out the first issue of Experiment I sold my first copy at the first meeting of the Heretics society to Rose Macauley, who was, even at that age, a marvellous old lady looking exactly like an elderly crane, and speaking much the same tones.

Our heroes were James Joyce and D.H. Lawrence. There was a considerable division between the James Joyce faction and the D.H. Lawrence faction because the James Joyce faction thought that sex was ‘wonderful but private’ and the D.H. Lawrence faction thought sex was ‘pretty good but public’. I belonged to the James Joyce faction and have only slowly through the rest of my life moved to the other. I remember that Empson and I organised a debate one evening about James Joyce’s Ulysees and I hadn’t been able to get a copy but finally I borrowed Empson’s copy on a Wednesday morning and I spent all day Wednesday and all Wednesday night and all day Thursday reading Ulysees and I had just finished reading the great soliloquy when I rushed into the debate late on Thursday evening. The soliloquy stays in my mind as a result, with a particular poignancy to this day.

James Joyce I liked very much, I met him in Paris [...] when he was being shepherded by a man only a little older than we, Samuel Beckett, who was his secretary at the time, who gave some promise of out-distancing his master as an eccentric because James Joyce generally didn’t get up until the afternoon but Samuel Beckett didn’t get up until after tea. The magazine that Empson and I edited had a number of editors [...] Humphrey Jennings was somewhat older than we were and he was married - that was a very strange thing to be in Cambridge in those days - and he was perhaps the most formative influence of the people I had met in Cambridge.

The Ascent of Jacob Bronowski

Copyright © 2000 by Stephen Moss. All rights reserved.