The Boffin and the Aesthete

Report on meeting held on 6th March 2017

They say it is not what you know, but who you know. For some though what you know counts for more. Michael Mortimer’s talk “The Boffin and the Aesthete” illustrated this. He told the story of two of Bridlington School’s old boys from the interwar years, Ronald Duncan and Norman Feather, whose progress through life could not have been more different.

Michael explained that from the start they were different.  Norman Feather was the son of a schoolmaster from Holme-on-Spalding-Moor and excelled at science under the guidance of headmaster Arthur Thornton. Ronald Duncan’s German father alleged he was the illegitimate son of the Crown Prince of Bavaria. Ronald though was an unhappy misfit and rather rebellious at school and was given the salacious nickname “Lord Limehouse” before being asked to leave in somewhat unfair circumstances.

Norman Feather gained a first class honours degree from Trinity College Cambridge and researched in Nuclear Physics at the Cavendish Laboratory.  Meanwhile Ronald Duncan travelled widely including in Africa and was receiving his education in the university of life. Through his actress aunty and her lover, an Indian prince, he made friendships with influential people in the theatre and arts.

Michael discovered that later in life Ronald studied English at Cambridge and amazingly crossed paths with Norman again. Ronald was making a documentary film about psychology and borrowed the lights from Norman’s lab and Norman actually operated them. They also cooperated on a little film about smashing the atom.

Michael told that Norman was the first person to observe a neutron splitting an atom. Norman later took over the nuclear physics department at Cambridge when Rutherford died. At the end of the war he was made a Fellow of the Royal Society and moved to Edinburgh University where he taught and experimented for the next 30 years.

Ronald meanwhile was a declared pacifist and spent much of the war in Devon in a commune with film actress Rose Marie who he later married. By this time he had visited India at the invitation of Ghandi and had founded a magazine with encouragement from Ezra Pound.  At the end of the war he wrote the libretto for his friend and fellow pacifist Benjamin Britten’s opera “The Rape of Lucretia”. He also wrote film scripts and short stories and helped set up an influential stage company.

Our speaker Michael Mortimore considers that when Norman Feather died in 1978 his advancement of knowledge in nuclear physics became his memorial. Ronald Duncan died in 1982 and is remembered through his many friends in the theatre. A sculpture of him by Jacob Epstein is a fitting memorial.

The Prior Rick Hudson asked Bro Peter Ryalls to give the vote of thanks.  He thanked Michael for his entertaining talk about two amazing and diverse characters with local connections. His words brought them to life.