The Nobel prize-winner working in the garden

Thanks to the EFF, everyone’s talking about university degrees this week.

The EFF are like a gang of Beagle Boys being caught in the act of robbing Scrooge McDuck’s bank, fleeing down the street throwing things over their shoulders in the not unreasonable hope that those pursuing them will be distracted long enough to let them make their escape: Steinhoff! Indians! Pravin Gordhan has a secret bank account in Canada! (A lie so threadbare and feeble that even local newspapers took barely half a day to fact-check it and discredit it.)

I’ve written before about how the EFF and Donald Trump read from the same page of the same cheaply printed and misspelled political playbook, how left populism and right populism aren’t at the far ends of a straight line but rather curve towards each other like a horseshoe. The only surprise in the latest shabby chapter of the EFF’s vicious-minded shitshow is how shocked – shocked, I say! – so many sober and respected political commentators are that the EFF have turned out this way. Honestly, if you’re still surprised at what the EFF is, you’re lying to yourself or to us.

But my favourite distraction tactic squirted out from behind the fleeing EFFmobile like an oil slick or a handful of thumbtacks is the fact that John Steenhuisen doesn’t have a university degree. This was a smart move, because everyone either does or doesn’t have a university degree of their own, so everyone feels suitably qualified to stop the pursuit and air their opinion on the matter.

What is especially smart it is that lurking beneath the layers of blather and waffle and false equivalencies and accusations of white privilege that people will throw at each other in response to this distraction is yet another division: the idea that having a degree or not having a degree are two fundamentally different and necessarily opposed states of being. We may be surprised at the angle the EFF is choosing on the issue, but only if we still expect the EFF to be consistent and principled. The EFF doesn’t care about the substance of the division – the EFF, like Donald Trump, thrives on the brute fact of division, on abolishing the grey zone of ambiguity and nuance and overlap, and enforcing a choice of “us” or “them”.

It all made me think of one of my favourite Nobel Prize winners. William Lawrence Bragg was originally Australian, but no less smart for that. He won the Nobel for Physics at the age of 25, becoming the youngest ever winner until Malala Yousafzai was given the Peace Prize in 2014. I assume you know what I mean when I say he was recognised for his work in the development of x-ray crystallography. I have read a very patient and painstaking explanation of his work, including an overview of Bragg’s Law of X-Ray Diffraction, designed to be understood even by people like John Steenhuisen who do not have university degrees, and all I can tell you is the final sentence, which is that somehow it played a role in helping Watson and Crick determine the structure of DNA. How did it do that? Buggered if I know, but then I’m no Floyd Shivambu and have no superior logic.

The thing about Lawrence Bragg is that as much as he enjoyed being brainy and academic, he also enjoyed working with his hands. He did woodwork and built models and carved boomerangs that actually worked and told his daughters that if he hadn’t been a scientist he would have been a toymaker. He could talk fluently and wonderfully about every topic except politics, but his true passion was gardening. When asked about religion, he declared himself “a blue-sky worshipper”, by which he meant that when the rest of his family went to church, he worked in the garden. In between bouts of X-ray diffraction or whatever, he’d be out among the camelias, weeding and hoeing and pruning and fetching and carrying. One of the great heartaches of his life was when he moved from his Cambridge to become Resident Professor of the Royal Institute in London, occupying a suite of apartments at the top of the institute without access to a garden.

Lawrence Bragg didn’t see an essential difference between working with your hands and working with your head, and he didn’t just say that in the way most eggheads would say that – as a slightly patronizing gesture towards the dignity of all work, composed from the cool of his comfy desk. In his memoir, Francis Crick writes about a society lady who resided at number 9, The Boltons, a swish and swanky address in Chelsea. The lady was renowned for her hospitality and for the splendour of her gardens. Visitors at tea would marvel at her dahlias and roses and foxgloves (I am just saying the names of flowers now, to make it seem as though I know something about gardens), and she would graciously attribute it all to her gardener, Willy, who came three times a week in the afternoons and could usually be seen with his trowel and graip and tatty straw hat, hunched over the pelargoniums, occasionally stretching his back and wiping the sweat from his grimy brow. Willy had been working there for several years, she said, and had performed wonders with the place, simply wonders. He was reasonably priced and a trifle uncommunicative but never late for work.

Which was all very well, said one of her guests one afternoon, squinting out of the bay windows, pausing with his tea-cup almost at his lips, and he would certainly like to meet Willy one day and shake his hand for a job well done, but in the meantime, what was Nobel Prize winner Sir William Lawrence Bragg doing in her garden in that peculiar straw hat, raking the leaves?

The Times, 29 November 2018