An afternoon encounter with Jonathan Miller
10 January, 2020 — By John Gulliver
I RANG Alan Bennett a few days after the death of Jonathan Miller and before I could really get into the conversation he told me that he did not “do tributes”, meaning, as he had guessed, that if I were seeking one for Mr Miller I was wasting my time.
He was, as usual, very polite and is whenever we meet and chat in the street.
But on this occasion he had made it clear that he could not, perhaps would not, pen a few words as a tribute.
I was slightly taken aback as I had expected a slightly more curious reaction to my call. That is, until I read Alan Bennett’s annually published diary in the current edition of the London Review of Books where he makes his frosty views of Mr Miller quite clear. He sums it up, perhaps, by writing: “It was always difficult to tell Jonathan anything, only to remind him of it…” Alan Bennett and Jonathan Miller must have never got on from the very first time they and Peter Cook worked together on the stage and TV. All a great pity.
I had several long conversations with Jonathan Miller over the years, perhaps the first was when he found himself – in the audience – debating with the then Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks at a Jewish Book Festival as to what is and who is a Jew? Jonathan insisted that at the most he was what could be called a “cultural Jew”and after the lively debate ended a crowd soon gathered around Jonathan who was arguing fiercely with the Chief Rabbi.
I joined in, and could see what Jonathan was driving at. He wasn’t observant naturally as an atheist but he had certain characteristics that marked him out as the Jew he could not deny he was. He settled for describing himself as a “cultural Jew” and the crowd clearly enjoyed the whole verbal contest. He might have been at home recently at a meeting on Jewish rebels held by the leftish Jewish organisation, Meretz, held in West Hampstead where a large crowd of “cultural Jews” met to hear the writer Lawrence Joffe, a Kentish Towner.
Some years ago Jonathan came to the New Journal office and during our chat I discussed with him some paintings on the wall but he made it clear that he was a great follower of “constructivism” in art, and as I knew little about this genre I withdrew.
Finally, and here I come to a confessional moment, I had returned to the office a few days after the death of my brother, Jeffrey, a “Mr Chips” at Holloway Boys School in the 70s and 80s, and I was terribly distraught.
Jeffrey had sunk into a coma after a short illness in hospital and as Jonathan was a qualified neurologist I thought what better thing than to see him so he could shed some light on my brother’s coma in general terms.
I wanted to know Jonathan’s views on the meaning of consciousness and whether Jeffrey may have been able to hear me when I stood by his bed and talked to him about the family though he had shown no signs of hearing me.
Off I went to Jonathan’s home, half a mile from the office, in Gloucester Crescent, Camden Town, and, I admit I was still in a distraught state, knocked on the door where I had been before.
He opened it quite quickly and – God knows how distraught I must have looked! – I told him what was on my mind. It was all very profound stuff, looking back, because I was asking him about the meaning of consciousness which I believe science has not yet unravelled. His eyes widened when he saw me and he very coldly, but not sharply, told me he could not help me.
It was an unhappy episode and one for which I was responsible, certainly not Jonathan, but I left feeling a little hurt and baffled.
Perhaps Jonathan found some relationships difficult, I don’t know. But whatever happened that afternoon, I thought of it after I had rung Alan Bennett.