Sunday 31 August 2014

More Ford

I wrote recently about E.B. Ford, 'the Kenneth Williams of Zoology', the decidedly eccentric author of Butterflies, the first in the classic New Naturalist series. Browsing in The Aurelian Legacy (a book I have surely mentioned before), I came across another anecdote about 'Henry', as he was called in ironic reference to his deep distaste for the modern world. Among the things he disapproved of were the radio, newspapers and fish-and-chips, and for him it was invariably a 'photographic camera' and a 'cinematic projector', while any complex piece of machinery required for the laboratory was 'the engine'. But to the anecdote.
 Miriam Rothschild, the great entomologist who became one of the few women Ford was prepared to regard as a thinking organism, first came across 'Henry' in the Zoology Department at Oxford. Meaning to introduce herself, she knocked on the door of his office and waited..
'After a moment's silence there was a rather plaintive long drawn out cry: "Come in!" I opened the door and found an empty room. I looked round nervously - not a soul to be seen, but an almost frightening neatness pervaded everything. Each single object, from paper knife to Medical Genetics was in its right place. Each curtain hung in a predestined fold... the sight of this distilled essence of neatness and order took my breath away. I stood there, probably with my mouth open, trying to reconcile this vacant room with that ghostly cry - had I dreamed it? - when suddenly Professor Ford appeared from underneath his desk like a graceful fakir emerging from a grave. Apparently he had been sitting crosslegged on the floor in the well of his writing table, lost in thought, but he held out his hand to me in a most affable manner... "My dear Mrs Lane [her married name] - I didn't know it was you."' Miriam Rothschild concluded 'you never have to ask a great man for an explanation.'
Not E.B. Ford anyway.

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