Saturday, March 24, 2012

Down House

Well it is nearly that time of year again, when we all troop off to the World Atheist Conference, and indulge in an orgy of feeling (and being) morally and intellectually superior. Nothing of course, could make up for the absence of Christopher Hitchens, although in that regard, as Humphrey Bogart said in Casablanca, "We'll always have YouTube, kid" We will however be entertained by the remaining superstars of the movement, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris, and my personal favourites, AC Grayling and Ayaan Hirst Ali.
I was trying, the other day, to account for the great popular success that Richard Dawkins has enjoyed recently, and have come to the conclusion that a key reason is the clear, precise, accessible and non technical language in which he expresses himself. In this he resembles his idol Charles Darwin himself. Of Dawkins popular works, all of which I have, my favourite is "Climbing Mount Improbable" Like Stephen Jay Gould, Dawkins has shown himself to be a Darwinophile, not just interested in propagating, explaining and expanding Darwin's theories , but also fascinated by the minutiae of Darwin's personal life and his times. I can identify with that idea - I went to the Galapagos, followed Darwin's footsteps in South America, and the Falklands, and recently walked the Hobart foreshore, where Darwin's presence during the voyage of the Beagle is commemorated. In pursuit of that Darwin groupie experiences, I may in fact have gone one better than Richard Dawkins himself. I have visited Down House, Darwin's house in Kent on many occasions, and have walked the famous Sandwalk dozens of times. Darwin often referred to Down House, which ironically was a former vicarage, as "My ugly house" but to my eyes, it is magnificent, and its setting the acme of gracious living, a la Mr D'arcy. It was my first visit however which was the most memorable. I had obtained a guide book which noted the closing time of Down House to be 5.30pm , and armed with that information, arrived in the afternoon, with the intention of exploring the house for a couple of hours. The garden was obviously going to be out of bounds, as it was snowing heavily. I had failed to read the pamphlet properly, and shortly after gaining access, was interrupted by a young fellow who was wandering around the house, asking all visitors to make their way to the exit. When I remonstrated with him, he pointed out that Winter opening hours extended only to 4 O'clock. As the other guests departed, I explained to him that I was a certified Darwinophile, I had come all the way from Melbourne just to look at this sacred site, etc.. I am afraid that I laid it on a bit thick. He responded by saying that my ticket was valid for another visit, but I countered by explaining that I was flying out to Australia the following day. (That bit at least was true) He looked gratifyingly concerned, and once the door closed behind the last of the other visitors, gestured for me to follow him. We walked along the corridor, and then into Darwin's study. There was a rope barrier which allowed only limited access to the room, and this he removed. "Take a seat in that chair" he said, and I did as I was told, and settled into a battered leather chair which had prominent arms. He picked up a broad plank of wood from the floor next to the chair and settled it across the arms, enclosing me, and forming a type of desk. He said quietly, presumably in order not to be overheard by the other employees, "Although he had many tables and desks, Darwin wrote while sitting in that chair using that plank to rest his paper on. He sat where you are, when he wrote the Origin of Species." Has Dawkins bum enjoyed such historical propinquity, I wonder ?

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