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

A Recollection by Gwyn Thomas

JACOB BRONOWSKI is one of the marvels of the contemporary mind, a distinguished polymath and a rich legend. Without strain he could give you the weight of the moon and the proportion of turpentine poured by your father into his second tin of paint for his second try at interior decoration. He is almost total intelligence. One's eyes tend to concentrate on his head, convinced that the rest of him will not dare to match the splendour of that temple. He came to Britain from Poland at the age of nine, a refugee from pogroms and speaking only Polish. He read his way through the large library of the bright and literate London slum where he settled. In the shortest possible time he was at Cambridge confounding the older sages with his cool and sure insights. He is the classic product of twentieth-century Europe and it is logical that, at a certain point of ripeness, he should move to America, to Dr Salk's omnivalent clinic on the West Coast, where a lot of life's more acute mysteries are being made blunter and more amenable. The best minds, like the most ruthless bodies, have a westward bent.
Gwyn Thomas

Gwyn Thomas was born on 6 July 1913 and was educated at Porth Grammar School and at St Edmund Hall, Oxford where he received a BA in 1934. He was a schoolteacher (modern languages) from 1940 until 1962 whereupon he also began to appear on television. He wrote his first novel in 1946, The Dark Philosophers and fourteen more. He also wrote three plays and the autobiography from which this extract is drawn.

...the Doctor's skill as a dialectician will always stay high on my list of admirations. Watching his eyes you could see behind them the processes of analysis, selection and exposition operating like the tumblers of a great safe. The miracle was almost audible... The average harum-scarum panellist played the game according to simple rules. The circulating ball would land at his feet and he would kick it. Not so the Doctor. His posture of elevation was so extreme you would not have been surprised if his nose bled. He often nodded his head in serene withdrawal when his turn came around to further the joust. He reminded me of a very self-centred sage back in my valley of whom it was said that he only ceased to be agnostic when he found that he himself was God. The Doctor would wait until the rest of us had, in full mental disarray, yammered out our footling opinions. He would smile and watch us dripping with disgrace. Then he would lay a gigantic wreath of logic on our shallow graves, enumerating our fallacies and his own truths. His thoughts glittered like Cartier's window. He held his hands in front of him, the finger-tips touching as if guarding a shrine of golden perceptions.

Source: A Few Selected Exits, Hutchinson, 1968.

The Ascent of Jacob Bronowski

Copyright © 1998 by Stephen Moss. All rights reserved.