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The surprise of England


Professor Dawkins and Quest for Corvo
Sydney Brenner Scientist
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So I spent two years at Oxford, and of course being A, a scientist; B, a colonial, never really participated in the Oxford scene except for one rather interesting man that I met and my… Humphrey Raikes said to me I must go and meet Professor Dawkins, whom he remembered as an undergraduate. Now, one of the books that I became… I was very impressed with reading, was a book called Quest for Corvo by AJA Symons, and this is about a complete sort of, strange man who... I mean, the book has to be read really. Corvo was his pen name; I've forgotten his…

[Q] CH Rolfe.

Rolfe, yes. F Rolfe, not CH Rolfe.

[Q] Yes, sorry, you're right.

Yes, and he believed he was destined for greater things and should be a cardinal. He became famous in the seventies; he wrote a book called Hadrian the Seventh, one of his novels. But one of the people that sheltered him was Dawkins, who was then Head of the British School in Rome [sic] and he had later become professor of Medieval Greek at Oxford, and when I came to meet him he was very old and retired and I used to go and have tea with Dawkins every now and then. In fact, we once had him to dinner, and I still have in my... my possession a letter that he wrote to me. He had a typewriter with half the keys missing so that the letter would be typed and all the missing letters then filled in by hand. He… he was very interesting because I listened for hours to the stories of these strange... this strange sort of literary activities of... of this… because, as you know, they formed a Corvo Society where they read papers. AJA Symons, who had written about this man was also another strange man; who was the founder of the Food and Wine Society, collected music boxes which he left, and a brilliant biography of AJA Symons who was equally a phoney as was Corvo, was written by his brother, Julian Symons, the detective novelist. So this had the thing. And of course, when I got to King's College and our... one of our old provosts, Sheppard – Sheppard was an old crony of Dawkins – and so, again, I got… re-turned the wheel and listened to these wonderful stories of going to Monte Carlo, you know, in the '20s to gamble, where you actually went on the Blue train and left your boots outside to be polished, but the concept of wearing boots to Monte Carlo just seems today so bizarre in the extreme. However, this is so… you know, because I love these connections, you know, that start from nowhere and sort of bring these two worlds that you only read about in books together. So Quest for Corvo is worthwhile reading because it's a literary thing.

South African Sydney Brenner (1927-2019) was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2002. His joint discovery of messenger RNA, and, in more recent years, his development of gene cloning, sequencing and manipulation techniques along with his work for the Human Genome Project have led to his standing as a pioneer in the field of genetics and molecular biology.

Listeners: Lewis Wolpert

Lewis Wolpert is Professor of Biology as Applied to Medicine in the Department of Anatomy and Developmental Biology of University College, London. His research interests are in the mechanisms involved in the development of the embryo. He was originally trained as a civil engineer in South Africa but changed to research in cell biology at King's College, London in 1955. He was made a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1980 and awarded the CBE in 1990. He was made a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1999. He has presented science on both radio and TV and for five years was Chairman of the Committee for the Public Understanding of Science.



Listen to Lewis Wolpert at Web of Stories



Tags: Oxford University, Quest for Corvo, Hadrian the Seventh, Bywater and Sotheby Professor of Byzantine and Modern Greek Language and Literature, British School at Athens, King's College, Monte Carlo, 1920s, Humphrey Raikes, RM Dawkins, AJA Symons, Frederick Rolfe, Baron Corvo, Julian Symons, John Tresidder Sheppard

Duration: 3 minutes, 55 seconds

Date story recorded: April-May 1994

Date story went live: 24 January 2008