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Holland Park Press

A Nobel Prize for Ricky Gervais

22 October 2012 Zie Nederlandse versie
by Arnold Jansen op de Haar

Can you name the person who was recently awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics? You probably can’t. I too would have to look it up. And who won the Nobel Prize for Peace? ‘The EU,’ both of us answer, and we fleetingly think of previous laureates such as Yasser Arafat and Barack Obama.

I grudgingly have to admit that for the physical sciences I can only name a handful of Nobel laureates: Einstein obviously, Dutchmen such as Kamerlingh Onnes and Lorentz, and the Frenchwoman Marie Curie.

Why is it that most people know who Jennifer Lopez is but can’t name anyone who has won the Nobel Prize?

Last week, my publisher spotted Hilary Mantel getting into a taxi in front of the Hilton Paddington on her way, as it later transpired, to collect the Booker Prize. Quite a few people were passing by.

Hilary Mantel’s hairdo featured a liberal quantity of hairspray, something my family would call a ‘bullet-proof helmet’, a sure sign she was ‘going to win’, but with the exception of my publisher no one noticed her.

In the case of the Nobel Prize for Literature I often know the winner before he gets the prize, but not this year. I even need a mnemonic to recall his name: Yo man! This sounds like a song by The Village People but it gets me to Mo Yan.

Yet this year there was one person who stood out among the Nobel Laureates: Sir John B Gurdon. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Medicine to honour his work on stem cell research.

Sir John B Gurdon is a friendlier version of Michael Heseltine, aka Tarzan. With his luxuriant hairstyle, John Gurdon might have just escaped from Brideshead Revisited.

He didn’t do too well at school, Eton. At fifteen he was, according to his teacher, the worst ever pupil in biology, and it was suggested he should study classics.

He was destined to go into the army, but his family’s GP diagnosed a slight cold as being bronchitis, and he was declared unfit for the military.

At Oxford, he switched from classics to zoology, and he was only accepted because the department had difficulty in recruiting enough students just after the war.

He was asked how he managed to achieve so much. ‘Perseverance,’ Gurdon answered. And the ability to be astonished, I would add. You can still see the boy in Gurdon, something most men lose as they age.

At one time I was convinced I could be a scientist, which set me back a year in secondary school. I shouldn’t think about secondary school too much because, before you know it, your dreams are filled with teachers such as Mr Berndsen, who always shortened my name. So I did the same, and addressed him as Mr Bern, ‘like the capital of Switzerland’. ‘You’re dismissed!’ shouted the Swiss capital.

I had already lost a year because I couldn’t read anything on the blackboard. In my first year I was too vain to wear glasses and was regularly knocked down because I was rather short and as blind as a bat.

My life is just the reverse of Sir John B Gurdon’s. After eight years in secondary school I was, to the consternation of my entire family, admitted to the Royal Military Academy in Breda. It was only thirteen years later that I switched to become a writer. So I’m waiting for the Nobel Prize – actually, any prize will do.

As long as it isn’t a peace prize. In December, Barroso, Van Rompuy and Schultz will collect the Nobel Prize. It’s not yet clear who will give the speech. On previous occasions when the EU sent out a troika it started a war, in the former Yugoslavia, or riots, in Greece. And government leaders haven’t yet made up their minds about attending the ceremony. David Cameron butted in to suggest that each country should be represented by a child.

Let each country nominate a comic. I suggest Roberto Benigni to represent Italy and Ricky Gervais for the UK. So they can argue on stage about which of them is going to address the audience.

Sir John B Gurdon will collect his own Nobel Prize and he won’t be recognised in the street.

© Arnold Jansen op de Haar
© Translation Holland Park Press

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