Charlie Higson

It’s not just ducks and overweight people who waddle. As Charlie  Higson – 5ft 10in of solid but unfleshy television personality – heads towards me across the floor of an Indian restaurant in Soho, I see he does it, too: feet splayed, hips forward as though bearing the weight of a pot belly, arms flat against sides. The 41-year-old comedian, producer, novelist and one-time pop star is wearing an open-neck shirt, moleskin suit and black, Michael Caine glasses.
If this is a disguise, it works: you would never recognise the face. Yet the shuffling gait reminds you of someone: Ralph, the tragi-comic landowner that Higson plays in the catchphrase-based comedy programme The Fast Show (the awkward one who is unable to express his feelings toward his Irish gamekeeper and odd job man, Ted, played by Paul Whitehouse).
‘Unlike Paul, I never get recognised in the street,’ Higson says in a thin, neutral voice as he sits down and studies the menu. ‘It’s because I like hiding behind wigs and false beards. I wear a different one for each character I play. Maybe I’ve just got bland features.’ But there’s more to his anonymity than that. His presence evokes Arthur C Clarke’s description of the monolithic slab at the beginning of 2001: A Space Odyssey.
It’s as if Higson, too, is made of some transparent material which is not easy to see except when the rising sun glints on its edges. He absorbs light and has a cold, hard surface. Not only do you not recognise him from the various characters he plays in The Fast Show – among them Colin Hunt the office joker, and Swiss Toni the boastful car salesman – you don’t recognise him in any of them either. This doesn’t apply to other comic actors, I point out. You always know instantly when it is Paul Whitehouse or Harry Enfield beneath the make-up.
‘That’s because they have star quality,’ Higson says softly. ‘Like Peter Sellers. They are always recognisable however clever the character. I hide behind my characters. The people I do tend to put on a big front to cover up a deep-seated inadequacy and an inability to cope with things. I’m a very shy person. I’m probably quite close to Colin Hunt – shy and lonely. Colin has invented this persona for himself in an attempt to be accepted and make friends. And underneath it you know he has no friends and no life. Swiss Toni is actually having a nervous breakdown underneath the bravado about cars and women. He’s trying to cling on to things by being a “character”.’
At first this seems an odd analogy. Charlie Higson has got a life. As we order a mixed starter for two and a bottle of wine, for instance, he tells me that he has to be careful not to drink too much because he never knows what his parental duties in the evening will entail.
He met his wife, Vicky, a freelance graphic designer, through university friends, but he can’t quite remember when they got married – ‘Going on 15 years now.’ They have three sons – Frank, Jim and Sid. The youngest is one, the oldest seven. ‘I love playing with them,’ he says. ‘Any excuse to play with soldiers and guns, really. On one level I was dreading the third child coming because there was such a gap – the middle one is five – and we’d just got our lives sorted out. But actually it’s been fun.’
As he goes on to talk about his own childhood – most of which was spent on his own, in his bedroom, fantasising and writing stories – it becomes apparent what Higson means when he says he’s a bit of a Colin Hunt. He and his three brothers (two older, one younger) grew up near Sevenoaks in Kent, where they were also educated (privately). Their father was an accountant who commuted into London every day.
Charlie Higson remembers feeling embarrassed when he watched that Monty Python sketch about the accountant who wants to be a lion tamer. ‘That totally did for accountants,’ he says. ‘And I shared the view that accountants were dull and what they did was boring. My father was part of this middle-class establishment that everyone takes the piss out of. Occasionally there was that feeling of hating your parents for giving you a comfortable upbringing. Finding your parents embarrassing is an important part of growing up, though, and I hope I shall prove to be an embarrassment to my children.’
But this alone does not explain why he sees himself as a shy and lonely Colin Hunt; why he hints at an emptiness inside himself. Something frozen. Like his character Ralph – the one he says he finds easiest to play – he is emotionally repressed and introverted. And after he has spoken for a few minutes more about his embarrassingly comfortable and dull upbringing, he reveals a more obvious cause of emotional atrophy. His mother died, of cancer, when he was 18. ‘But if I’d been a young teenager the loss would have been much worse,’ he adds matter-of-factly. ‘My youngest brother was certainly hit much harder than the rest of us. I was sort of at that age when I was about to leave home anyway. Then again, when you are 18 you can start treating your parents as human beings and so I regret not getting to know my mother as a friend. And I do sometimes catch myself wishing she was still around to see what became of me.’
He now thinks that he didn’t mourn enough at the time of her death. ‘But am I like this because I’m shutting emotions down and being deliberately hard-hearted and cold, or is it that I just don’t care enough? I don’t know. I cry at the drop of a hat in cinemas but I don’t find it easy to cry in real life. I didn’t cry much when my mother died. I guess I live in a fictional world. I’m far too unemotional.’
Not long after his mother’s death, his father met an Englishwoman who had been married to a Hawaiian, and moved first to Hawaii, then to Seattle. ‘As a teenager I’d think, “Wouldn’t it be great if my parents disappeared and I could just do what I like?” But when it actually happens it doesn’t seem so exciting. My father just wanted to get away, change his life. Everything he had assumed would happen in his life just sort of stopped. I suppose he was disillusioned.’
Higson blocked out his mother’s death, he says, and with his father gone he was cut adrift. ‘It meant I could reinvent myself. I felt there were no pressures on me. Did it make me harder? I don’t think so. I think your personality is fixed from an early age. It must have affected me on a number of levels, but I’m not sure how. I’m more aware of my own mortality, I guess, and I probably feel more protective toward my children, but I’m not bitter about it. I’ve never felt the need to analyse it or see a psychiatrist.’ The comedian grins, reads something written on the back of his hand, and crunches on a popadum before adding: ‘But if my life falls apart and I do have a breakdown, then that is the time to look into it.’
Higson is often accused of being arrogant. Certainly this is how he comes across when interviewed on television. Yet having met him I now suspect that this is more an over-compensation for his natural shyness.  It’s almost as if, conscious that he will present himself as conceited, he does so unconsciously as a self-fulfilling prophecy. Away from the cameras he seems reserved, intelligent and self-deprecating. And so far he hasn’t played the monster of ego.
And he couldn’t have been less like a former singer in an Indie band. I notice his ear has a hole in it – but no earring – a legacy, perhaps, of the days when he wore a blue mohican and went by the name of Switch. He formed his first band, The Right-Handed Lovers, when he went to the University of East Anglia in 1977 to study English and American literature. It was there that he met Paul Whitehouse, who became the band’s guitarist before being sent down for not doing any course work.  After UEA, Higson formed a new band – sans Whitehouse – and called it, rather vaingloriously, the Higsons. In 1981 their first single, ‘I Don’t Want To Live With the Monkeys’, went to number one in the Indie charts, but this turned out to be a peak. The band did three tours of America, made two albums, drifted for a few years and split up in 1987.
‘I knew I wasn’t 100 per cent committed to being a rock star,’ Higson now reflects sheepishly. ‘Sadly, to be a successful one you have to believe you are this amazing person. It’s an ego trip. You have to be unembarrassable. You have to feel important, feel you deserve to be worshipped by the audience. We were too self-conscious. Trying to be too ironic.’ I ask if, while it lasted, the rock life was all cocaine, groupies and throwing television sets out of windows?  ‘No, I was a bit stupid on that front. During the whole period I was in a steady relationship. But it would have been difficult anyway because there was a strange gang mentality with the rest of the band, the amount of stick you got for going off with someone was so bad it just wasn’t worth it.’
The band split up for the usual reasons. ‘We slipped into petty jealousies and rivalries. It was awful. I’m not a good singer. I’m a terrible singer. But I was a reasonably good front man, good at entertaining the crowd. And the resentment I got from the drummer was quite ferocious really. Drums take a lot of skill to play so the drummer would ask, “Why are they always talking to Charlie in interviews? Why don’t they want to talk to me?”‘
Throughout his flirtation with the world of pop, Charlie Higson remained friends with Paul Whitehouse, who had moved to London and taken a job as a clerk for the Environmental Health Department in Hackney. In the early Eighties Whitehouse had met Harry Enfield through an old school friend. Higson and Enfield (a milkman at the time) moved into a squat around the corner from Whitehouse. During the day, as the band wound down, Whitehouse and Higson earned a living as a plasterer and decorator team. At night, in the pub, they helped Enfield develop comedy characters, two of which became Stavros the kebab shop owner and Loadsamoney the plasterer.
It was Harry Enfield who hit the big time first and, in 1988, when he began to enjoy huge success on television, Whitehouse and Higson gave up plastering and, with the help of an an Enterprise Allowance Scheme, launched themselves as comedy writers. With Enfield, they co-wrote Harry Enfield’s Television Programme from 1990 to 1992. But while Whitehouse and Enfield are still friends, relations between Higson and Enfield became pretty frosty. ‘That was an interesting time,’ Higson says through a wintry smile.
‘Harry is an incredibly talented person and you could see he was always going to do well because he was so driven. I was grateful to be a leech on his back for a while but then that became difficult because I wanted to do things more on my own. Tension grew between us because I like quite a degree of control and so does he. Things came to a head, a clash of egos and we both went our separate ways. You don’t end up doing what I do for a living unless you have a big ego.’
Or unless you are truly consumed by ambition. Higson plays computer games to shut out his thoughts sometimes, that or gardening. Is it because he’s a worrier? Does he sleep well at night? ‘When you have young children you don’t normally have the luxury of not being able to sleep,’ he answers. ‘I don’t worry but I do go to bed with all these thoughts and ideas churning round my head so I do have to work out ways to block them.’ In his profession there is no long-term security, he says. And comedy is a young person’s game.  This is why he divides his time between television work and writing novels. He has published four so far, detective thrillers that are dark, violent and pornographic.
‘When I’m writing I’m in a different world,’ he says.  ‘I get stick from my wife for it because I get so distracted thinking about something I’m working on I become very bad about talking to people at dinner-parties. I listen but I don’t speak much. And she is constantly telling me off. I get lost in my thoughts, filtering everything in terms of how I can use it creatively. And that can be a bit sad sometimes because you think, “I should be participating in life more. I shouldn’t be ignoring people.”‘
Charlie Higson describes himself as being ‘happy to the point of smugness’. But he adds that he is at his happiest when he is on his own. He finds it difficult to relax. When he’s on holiday he feels twitchy. And if for some reason he was ever prevented from working he thinks he would have a nervous breakdown.
One of his older brothers is a professor in humanities at UEA, the other runs an engineering firm in Somerset. In light of these worthy career options, I ask Higson if he ever questions whether writing comedy is a proper job for a grown man. Does he wonder whether his father, the middle-class accountant whom he still sees a couple of times a year, approves of what he does for a living?  ‘Is it trivial you mean? Well…’ Pause. Laugh. ‘At the risk of sounding pompous and arrogant, you are giving pleasure to a lot of people… But I know what you mean. At the moment I’m in post-production with something and I’ve had to spend a lot of time in the dubbing stage designing the perfect fart and working out exactly where to place it. And I sometimes stand back and think, “What the hell am I doing? Is this a job for a grown man?”‘
The something he is working on is a remake of the Seventies series Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased), six hour-long films to be screened on BBC1 later this year, starring Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer – and Hopkirk’s one power is that he can blow things. In one of the episodes he discovers he can also affect things through the power of flatulence. When he has finished producing this, Higson is planning a reunion of The Fast Show team for a one-off special. After we’ve been talking for a few minutes more, Higson confides, with a note of sadness in his voice, that The Fast Show is the first thing he’s done which his father has felt proud of.
‘Finally, finally!’ he says, hunching his shoulders. ‘I mean, my father hated everything I did before. He hated the fact that I was in the band, that his son was up there being embarrassing. Caterwauling. He won’t let anyone else read my books, he finds them pornographic and too black. He appreciates the fact I’ve written them and that they do quite well, you know, but he won’t recommend them to anyone. And he found the Harry Enfield show coarse and embarrassing, things like the Old Gits and the Slobs. He just thought it ugly and unpleasant. He would switch over and say, “I don’t think we want to watch this.”‘ He pauses and chuckles to himself. ‘My dad’s not as bad as Harry’s, though. Harry’s dad is an appalling man. Scary. He has the gall to re-invent himself and get a whole new career on television purely as “Harry’s Dad”, and then spend his whole time slagging Harry off! I just think, “You two-faced git!” That said, Harry’s dad is responsible for 90 per cent of Harry’s humour.’
Higson and Whitehouse write 70 per cent of The Fast Show’s material, the other cast members come up with the rest. Although Higson describes Whitehouse as his ‘best mate’, he adds that they could not be more different in terms of personality. ‘What I admire about Paul is his instant popularity. He’s friendly and gregarious. He improvises and sings constantly. I’m not a funny man. I’m the quiet one in the backroom. But I’m less of a worrier than him. And he’s not desperately ambitious. He lacks confidence in going into areas he hasn’t tried before, like film. He doesn’t want any more fame or money than he’s already got. He thinks he’ll never come up with anything better than The Fast Show. I’m a bit more restless.’
Although Higson may indeed be the opposite of many of the qualities he ascribes to Whitehouse – he may, in other words, be overly ambitious and acquisitive – I suspect he is just as much of a worrier. Just as insecure, in that he suffers from a professional ennui that probably stems from a lack of parental approval – and though Higson cuts quite a languid and amiable figure, he becomes visibly exercised on the subject of Christians whose ‘ludicrous’ belief in an afterlife he holds in contempt. Lately though he has found himself ‘wondering what it is all for’.
He doesn’t think he has necessarily been driven by a secret need to please his father. ‘But since turning 40 I have become conscious of being here for a finite period and having to leave my mark.  What I plan to do next is make a film but that can take three or four years and people are only interested in young film-makers these days, not in middle-aged ones. And I keep thinking, “What will future generations make of me?” Perhaps that is why my children are so important to me. You live on through them. That’s the afterlife. I just hope I don’t fuck up. And I might. Because when you start making films it can take you away from home. Not a nice thought. Yet the other side thinks, “I won’t feel fulfilled if I don’t do it and I’ll just resent the children for holding me back.”‘
The comedian, novelist and producer has been brooding upon how easy it would be to slip into a mid-life crisis – he and Paul Whitehouse have even based a comedy character on someone who does just this. ‘I thought, “What if we become one of those men who in mid-life ditch their family and start dressing like a young person? Fuck!” And then I thought, “Yeah, but you might end up banging a gorgeous 19-year-old girl, so who cares!” Every bloke has to address that one sooner or later because there is such a strong onus on sex and youth and desirability. I’m 41 now and it’s that thing of asking yourself, “Will I never again have sex with a gorgeous 19-year-old girl?” Half of you thinks that and the other half thinks, “Thank God I don’t have the pressure to do that any more.” In the end you just hope you don’t make a fool of yourself. Don’t fuck everything up. That you can keep a shred of dignity. That would be nice, wouldn’t it?’      With this, our Renaissance man checks his watch, pulls a mock-worried face and scrapes back his chair. He apologises if he has been a bore, asks me not to read too much into the father thing and waddles trimly out of the restaurant to merge anonymously with the human traffic of Soho.


Stephen Hawking

Possibly the greatest, certainly the most famous scientific thinker since Einstein is sitting in his motorised wheelchair grinning at me. ‘Look behind the door,’ Professor Stephen Hawking says in his computer-generated, Dalek-like voice. I look. There’s a framed black-and-white photograph hanging there, which shows him in the foreground and Marilyn Monroe leaning against a Cadillac in the background. I smile. The superimposition is funny and subtle. Perhaps the professor has just had it done and wants to show everyone. But I suspect he doesn’t want to get drawn into a long conversation about it; it’s just his way of saying hello and breaking the ice.
All Hawking’s conversations are long, even his short ones. He raises his eyebrows for ‘yes’, winks his left eye for ‘no’, but for the most part communicates via a voice synthesiser at the rate of 15 to 20 words a minute. He suffers from motor neurone disease, a rare condition which degenerates the central nervous system and leads to a wasting of the muscles. It does not affect the brain or the senses. Hawking was first diagnosed with it when he was 21, at which age he was told he had a life expectancy of two to three years. He is now 57.
He has cheated death, but his body is paralysed – apart from a little movement in his twisted fingers. He doesn’t type with these so much as apply pressure to two pads, one in each hand, in order to select letters, words and phrases from an index on his computer monitor. He scrolls up and down the screen constantly, at great speed. But, inevitably, the writing process is agonisingly slow. Only when he has constructed the whole sentence or paragraph on screen does he activate his robotic voice to speak it. As a definition of Hell, it would be hard to improve upon the perversity of this predicament: a man with a freakishly quick, brilliant and creative mind condemned forever to articulate his thoughts at the speed of an imbecile.
We’ve no time for small talk then. I have come here – to Cambridge University’s Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics, where Hawking holds the professorial chair once held by Isaac Newton – on the turn of the millennium to ask him what he thinks the future has in store for the human race.
If the world’s population continues to grow at its present rate – doubling every 40 years – there isn’t going to be enough room for us all on Earth by the year 2600. So will we, I ask, be able to spread out to other planets? His hands go into action. The only sounds in the room are the clicking of the pressure pads and the whirring of the computer. The electronic voice delivers the answer five minutes later. ‘We shall probably manage a manned or, should I say, personned, flight to Mars in the next century,’ Hawking says. ‘But Earth is by far the most favoured planet in the solar system. Mars is small, cold and without much atmosphere, and the other planets are quite unsuitable for human beings. We either have to learn to live in space stations or travel to the next star. We won’t do that in the next century.’
I ask Hawking how fast we will be able to travel on our journey to the next star. Pause. Answer: ‘I’m afraid that however clever we may become we will never be able to travel faster than light. If we could travel faster than light we could go back in time. We have not seen any tourists from the future. That means that travel to other stars is going to be a slow and tedious business, using rockets rather than warp drives. A 100,000-year round trip to the centre of the galaxy. In that time the human race will have changed beyond all recognition, if it hasn’t wiped itself out.’
Even though there is ice on the ground outside and a bitingly cold wind blowing in over the Fens, Hawking has his window open; his assistant, Chris, has explained to me that this is because the professor thinks better when he’s cold. I try to stop my teeth from chattering as I ask whether we humans will keep on changing, or will we eventually reach an ultimate level of development and knowledge? Click click click. ‘In the next 100 years, or even in the next 20, we may discover a complete theory of the basic laws of the universe (the so-called Theory of Everything in which quantum theory is unified with Einstein’s theory of general relativity), but there will be no limit to the complexity of the biological or electronic systems we can build under these laws.’
I’m just about to ask a supplementary question when the hands start up again. A few minutes pass before Hawking adds: ‘By far the most complex systems we have are our own bodies. There haven’t been any significant changes in human DNA in the past 10,000 years. But soon we will be able to increase the complexity of our internal record, our DNA, without having to wait for the slow process of biological evolution.’
The professor’s predictions – especially his thoughts on improving the human body – seem all the more poignant when you listen to him deliver them in person. Time is even more relative than usual in his company; it actually seems to slow down during those long pauses between my questions and his answers. My interview lasts for four hours, with breaks when a nurse comes in and I’m asked to leave the room. Since the professor had an operation on his oesophagus early last year, the problem he had with food getting into his lungs has been reduced, but he still needs regular suction.
I don’t, however, have to leave his room when the nurse comes in to spoon-feed him with an assortment of pills. These are taken with sips of tea which is mostly spilled onto the bib that the nurse ties around his neck. Hawking has thick lips, parchment-smooth skin and a schoolboy fringe, which his nurse parts to one side for him. While all this is going on, the professor patiently continues working the pressure-pads in his hands to compose sentences and paragraphs on his computer screen.
I ask if developing improved humans won’t cause great social and political problems with respect to unimproved humans? ‘I’m not advocating human genetic engineering,’ Hawking replies metallically. ‘I’m just saying it’s likely to happen and we should consider how to deal with it.’
When engaged in conversation with Stephen Hawking none of the usual laws of social interaction apply. After the first few minutes of being with him, however, the long pauses no longer seem awkward. Apart from his big, disarming smile and his expressive eyes – ‘twinkling’ seems the most apt, if hackneyed, description of them – there is no body language to help interpret his words. But the monotone voice does give his utterances an amused, deadpan quality (the voice goes up and down in tone quite musically, but the emphasis it gives to certain words is not necessarily a reflection of their importance in the sentence). Thus, when asked if electronic complexity will go on for ever, or whether there will be a natural limit, his eyes twinkle, his hands do their frenetic work, and 10 minutes later the voice delivers what sounds like a dry comeback.
‘On the biological side, the limit of human intelligence up to now has been set by the size of the human brain that will pass through the birth canal,’ Hawking says. ‘Having watched my three children being born, I know how difficult it is to get the head out. But in the next 100 years I expect we will learn how to grow babies outside the human body so this limitation will be removed. But ultimately, increases in the size of the human brain through genetic engineering will come up against the problem that the chemical messages responsible for our mental activity are relatively slow-moving – so further increases in the complexity of the brain will be at the expense of speed. We can be quick-witted or very intelligent, but not both.’
It’s time to ask the big one: will we make contact with aliens in the next millennium? Hawking smiles. His fingers click the pressure-pads. The answer comes seven minutes later. ‘The human race has been in its present form for only the past two million years out of the 15 billion or so since the Big Bang. So even if life developed in other stellar systems, the chances of catching it at a recognisably human stage are very small. Any alien life we encounter will be much more primitive or much more advanced than us. And if it’s more advanced, why hasn’t it spread through the galaxy and visited Earth? It could be that there is an advanced race out there which is aware of our existence but is leaving us to stew in our own primitive juices. However, I doubt they would be so considerate to a lower life form. There is a sick joke that the reason we have not been contacted by extra-terrestrials is that when a civilisation reaches our stage of development it becomes unstable and destroys itself.’
Stephen Hawking has 10 nurses who each do three 10-hour shifts a week. He rises at 7.45am, has physiotherapy, arrives for work at his department at about 11.30am, goes home – five minutes away in the grounds of an all-female college – at about 7pm and is bathed and put to bed by midnight. A nurse turns him over during the night. According to one of the nurses I met, he is a pussycat to work for, always puts people at their ease, rarely complains and hates to be pitied or patronised. One of his friends, the physicist David Schramm, says that he is also an incorrigible flirt: a party animal who likes to dance in his wheelchair. His daughter Lucy says he has an amazing capacity to push those around him to the very edge of physical and mental collapse, while smiling to himself.
Hawking is well known for his sense of humour – he likes joking about the American accent his voice synthesiser has given him and about his appearances as himself in his two favourite American (‘which isn’t saying much’) programmes, Star Trek and The Simpsons. His intolerance towards fools is also well documented. There are stories of how he runs over the feet of people who annoy him – and he once went to full throttle and rammed a car that was blocking his ramp. When asked if it is true that he uses his wheelchair as a weapon he will reply: ‘That’s a malicious rumour. I’ll run over anyone who repeats it.’
The intermittent nature of our conversation gives me a good chance to study his room. There is a karaoke machine on the floor and a Marilyn Monroe calendar by the door. There’s a Homer Simpson clock on the wall and, next to a row of Russian dolls on a shelf, a Homer Simpson card that says: ‘Every time I learn something new it pushes some old stuff out of my brain.’ There is a sticker on the door saying: ‘Quiet Please The Boss is Asleep’ – it’s all junior common room humour, c. 1973; the professor frozen in time. Also on the shelves there are photographs of Hawking’s children and grandchild. He has said that the thing he regretted most about being paralysed was not being able to play with his children when they were young. His daughter tells a rather touching story of how, as a treat at meal-times, he used to make her laugh by wiggling his ears.
There are also scores of books on the shelves with titles such as The Left Hand of Creation, Quantum Gravity, Black Holes in Two Dimensions and Particle Cosmology. But I can’t see a copy of the phenomenally successful A Brief History of Time, which Hawking wrote in 1988. In it he attempted to explain to a general readership his theory of how the universe began. And even though few people have been able to get beyond the first dozen or so pages, it was translated into 65 languages and became one of the biggest selling non-fiction books of all time.
It must have made him very rich indeed. Certainly it has made him famous enough to command fees of about £50,000 for a single public lecture in America and the Far East, and £100,000 for appearing in television advertisements for Specsavers. In all, his commercial endeavours are thought to be worth more than £1 million a year.
We normally associate being rich and successful with living a life of luxury – but what, I ask him, does wealth and success mean to him? ‘I may be successful in my work,’ he says through his machine. ‘But I’m hardly rich on the scale of people in the City. To lead a reasonably normal life, I need a lot of nursing care – and I won’t get that on the NHS. I would be stuck in a home without a computer or much individual attention and I probably wouldn’t survive long. So it has been very important to earn enough to pay for my care both now and in the future.’
In 1995 Stephen Hawking married his nurse, Elaine, the former wife of the man who invented his voice synthesiser. It was the same year he divorced Jane, his first wife and the mother of his three children. Stephen had met Jane at a New Year’s Eve party in 1962, just as his illness was beginning to take its toll, and he married her three years later. Last year she wrote an autobiography, a damning account of her life with Hawking. In it she alludes rather cruelly to the complicated nature of the couple’s sex life; she also describes herself as a ‘drudge’ and her husband as ‘a masterly puppeteer’ sometimes made despotic by the combination of public adulation and an illness that left him as helpless as an infant.
She received little thanks for devoting her life to caring for him, she wrote, and often came close to suicide. In the early 1990s when it was obvious their marriage had broken down, she had a discreet affair with a Cambridge choir-master who eventually moved into the Hawking household, apparently with Stephen’s tacit understanding. But a 24-hour nursing team also moved in and Jane accused them of dressing provocatively and trying to manipulate her husband emotionally.
Although Professor Hawking does not comment on his first marriage, claiming never to have read Jane’s book, he does reflect that: ‘There are aspects of my celebrity I don’t like, but it would be hypocritical to complain. I can generally ignore it by going off to think in 11 dimensions.’
Stephen Hawking was born on January 8, 1942, 300 years to the day after the death of his hero, Galileo. He was brought up in St Albans and was in many ways a normal, clumsy, inky-fingered child – except that he used to make fireworks and cannibalise television and radio sets to build computers, before computers had really been invented. He also had handwriting that was so bad it was unreadable and a stutter that he inherited from his father, a medical researcher described by one family friend as a disconcerting eccentric with below-average charm.
At Oxford, Stephen Hawking never attended lectures, soon realised he was intellectually superior to his tutors and grew bored with life. He took a first in Physics, but only after a viva revealed his genius for problem-solving and his contempt for course work. It has sometimes been suggested that had it not been for his illness Hawking might not have focused his mind and gone on to make the contribution to science that he did. It galvanised him and forced him to solve problems not on a blackboard but geometrically and pictorially in his head – in 11 dimensions.
It is tempting to read much into the paradox of his condition: a pure mind wandering the universe while trapped in a wasted body. Like Milton’s blindness or Beethoven’s deafness, it seems at once heroic, tragic and romantic. But Hawking dismisses the description. ‘I have never felt myself as a perfect soul living in an imperfect body. Although I may take pride in my intelligence, I have to accept that the disability is also part of me.’
Yet if we have souls, his is surely a romantic one. He loves listening to Wagner. And he refers to his longing to discover, through physics and cosmology, the mind of God. His friends say he sometimes feels a crushing sense of loneliness – even though he rarely experiences the luxury of being on his own. I ask him if he has any recurring dreams. ‘I think I dream a lot, but normally I don’t remember what I dream. One dream I do remember is being in a hot-air balloon. For me the balloon is a symbol of hope. I first had the dream at my lowest point when I caught pneumonia and had to have a tracheotomy operation that removed my power of speech.’
That was in 1985. His condition then was so bad that his first wife was asked to give her permission to switch off his life support machine. She refused. Presumably Hawking didn’t expect that he would still be around to see in the new millennium? ‘No.’ he says. ‘But now I would be disappointed if I didn’t live long enough to be sure that there was indeed a picture into which everything fitted.’
I’ve heard Professor Hawking described as many things: a bloody-minded genius, a witty manipulator, a prima donna. But what three words would he use to describe himself? There is a long pause before that unemotional computerised voice penetrates the icy Cambridge air: ‘Determined, optimistic and . . . I can’t think of a third. My wife would say stubborn and out of touch with reality.’ I leave as I came in four hours earlier, with a smile on my face.