Dream of being reunited with your first love?

One woman's tale of staying friends with an ex At a lovely summer party given by a schoolfriend in our old hometown of Huntingdon, I became aware of a tall, elderly, white-haired gentleman striding purposefully towards me. Now, it’s many years since men of any age strode eagerly in my direction, so I wondered who he was and what he wanted.
As he got near, he said, ‘Liz?’ ‘Yes?’ I replied to this complete stranger. ‘It’s Alex, Alex Williams.’ ‘No! I don’t believe it!’ Reunited: Liz Hodgkinson and Alex Williams were lovers 47 years ago. Now they are just good friends, but their reunion was a poignant moment for both Alex had been my first ‘real’ boyfriend when I met him as a 17-year-old schoolgirl in Cambridgeshire; the first young man who had ever made my heart beat faster. It was thrilling to see him again unexpectedly after so many years. Once I recovered from my shock, he uttered the mischievous words: ‘We never really split up, did we?’ Indeed, we did not. We just drifted away from each other in the way one did in those days, without ever saying goodbye or realising that we might never meet again. Even though I had not seen him for 47 years and would never have recognised him, we instantly bonded once more. A rapturous reunion and floods of shared memories followed, accompanied by generous amounts of wine. More... 'I love my sugar daddy lifestyle!' Student, 21, who finds rich older man on controversial dating site gives up nursing dreams to pursue lucrative life as a 'sugar babe' One enjoyed privilege, the other hardship... The sisters raised 30 miles apart but in cruelly different worlds Sixty the new forty? Don't kid yourselves, ladies... Why trying to be a sex siren in your seventh decade is downright deluded
We both realised that we couldn’t just drift out of each other’s lives again — particularly as it turned out we lived so near each other, with me in Oxford and Alex in Cheltenham, an hour’s drive away. Now and then, Alex had flashed into my mind over the years, but not with a strong enough impetus to try to make contact. But now, having met him again, it became clear he’d made a strong impression all those years ago — and was reinforcing that now. There is possibly even more risk involved when one of you is single and the other is married (I’ve been single since my partner died in 2004 and Alex is happily married). There’s always an inherent danger in reconnecting with old flames, especially those from your very distant past. Either you wonder what on earth you saw in each other in the first place, or, even more dangerously, there may be a remaining little spark, not quite extinguished, which threatens to re-ignite itself against all the odds. Perhaps most threatening of all is the fact that however many years have passed, if you knew someone when they were young, to you they always are young. The minute I met Alex again, all those years and decades rolled away as we saw ourselves as 18-year-olds again. Back in 1961, Alex Williams had been one of the most glamorous young men I had ever encountered. He was an art student at St Martin’s School of Art, rake-thin, dark, handsome, brooding and talented. I was a raw sixth-former, longing for sophistication and decadence, and he seemed to provide it. He was that little bit older and had already escaped to London. Bright young thing: Liz in her youth We had met as aspiring young intellectuals at the Huntingdon Music and Arts Society (a regular gathering for those interested in the arts) And for those who imagine that teenagers in those far-off days were innocent, demure young creatures who never did anything wrong, I have news. Alex and I — and our friends — were no strangers to falling out of nightclubs at 3am, or binge-drinking, come to that. Alex and I were instantly attracted to each other, but as he was away at St Martin’s, we could only meet up in the holidays. We fancied ourselves as the fashionable young things of Huntingdonshire, gilded youths who could get away with anything. We would stagger drunkenly into the meadows of Godmanchester, the pretty village where Alex’s parents lived, and wonder how on earth we would ever get home. We went on pub crawls, driving our parents’ cars while well under the influence and, one night, painted the village white with huge ban-the-bomb signs. It all felt so daring and exciting. Alex was a young bohemian, up to all sorts of mischief, and I was a besotted schoolgirl, ready to follow his lead. But underneath the teenage rebellion, he was ambitious, dedicated and completely obsessed with art. I was ambitious, too, with a secret yearning to be a writer. It all felt so daring and exciting. Alex was a young bohemian, up to all sorts of mischief, and I was a besotted schoolgirl, ready to follow his lead Alex and I last met in Paris in 1962. I had gone with two girlfriends, just before we all parted for university, and Alex and two of his friends joined us, somewhat secretly, later — our parents were not to know. But I think Alex had already moved on; meeting girls at art school who were far more exotic and experienced. And I was about to embark on a new life as a university student and wanted to feel free of Huntingdon. The oomph, if such it was, had already gone out of the relationship, and we faded out of each other’s lives, with no contact of any kind, until three years ago. Brooding: Alex as a young art student After parting, we both soon fell in love with other people, made very early first marriages, both aged 21, had families, children (a boy and girl for him; two boys for me), got divorced, buried our parents and were fortunate enough to find fulfilling new relationships in later life. By the time we met again, Alex was happily married to his second wife Celia, a maternity nurse. I had been single since my partner, the writer John Sandilands, died suddenly of a heart attack in 2004. Friendship, on the other hand, was on the cards. The next time we saw each other was when Alex invited me to his arty home for dinner. There I met Celia, his wife. She had been at the party but I had been too drunk, or too surprised, to notice anybody much but Alex. Celia was brilliant from the start. So what now? Alex and I were no longer bright young things, but grandparents, hurtling towards our threescore years and ten. Even our children were middle-aged. We agreed at this party that we would stay in touch but we understood that in our case, the youthful romance had long burned itself out and there was nothing left to ignite. A very attractive, warm and friendly woman, about ten years younger than Alex, she encouraged the friendship and we soon bonded. It became clear to me Alex and Celia were very much in love and really only had eyes for each other. Celia expressed regret that she’d never known Alex as a very slim young man with jet-black hair, as I had. Thankfully, over time, Alex and I slotted into an easy, mature friendship that included Celia, our children and their partners. As I learned more of Alex’s life, I began to appreciate what a desperate struggle he’d endured to follow his dream, go to art school and become an artist. He had been opposed at every turn by his strict father, a RAF squadron leader, decorated war hero and ultimate man’s man. As I learned more of Alex’s life, I began to appreciate what a desperate struggle he’d endured Mr Williams senior wanted his elder son to have a proper job with nice guaranteed pension. Artists were, in his view, poncy layabouts, and his wayward, untamed son seemed to be fulfilling all his worst fears. There were mighty family battles behind closed curtains, something I had not known at the time. Alex’s life had been full of thrills and spills, success and failure, acceptance and rejection, huge elation and deep despair. While his college friends David Hockney and Peter Blake enjoyed international fame and success at an early age, Alex took longer to find his unique style, and establish himself as a significant modern artist. But he got there in the end. Celia, bless her, was very supportive of our project. She was generous with hospitality and time, in spite of having her own busy career. Meanwhile, I got to know Alex better than ever before. In the mature man, I found a restless but warm-hearted, witty and kind but still ferociously ambitious, person. I was so intrigued I suggested we collaborate on his biography, and Alex agreed. It meant delving deep into his psyche and dishing it up for the general public to read, but also spending months in close contact — as it turned out, ringing or emailing each other almost daily and meeting frequently. I also learned that art came first. Anybody who embarked on a relationship with him had to accept that — a sacrifice that would have been too much for me. As much as I enjoyed our time together, we could never have been life-time partners. Our teenage fling was just that — a fling. Two years after our reunion, our book is almost out. What’s more, we’ve disproved all those who say you can’t be friends with an ex — particularly your childhood sweetheart. And now we have the best kind of relationship there is: close, affectionate, productive — and platonic.

Gravity's Engines: The Other Side of Black Holes

Like an electric dynamo, this black hole spins and pumps energy out through cable-like magnetic field lines into the chaotic gas whipping around it. Photograph: EPA A black hole is creation's end point, a one-way exit from the universe, an enclosed region of spacetime from which nothing can escape. Gravity's Engines: The Other Side of Black Holes
In that sense, black holes are neither here nor there. In practical terms, however, these death stars are everywhere and may mean everything to us. There is even a tiny one – a piffling four million times as massive as the Sun – at the heart of the Milky Way, the galaxy we call home. Cambridge scientists announced in October that they had peered through cosmic clouds of dust in the very early universe to identify a new population of supermassive black holes – one of them is 10 billion times more massive than the Sun – at a distance of 11 billion light years. The paradox is that, while the forces within the invisible enclosure of a black hole are so fierce that nothing, not even light, can get out, these dark stars are also the most radiant things in the universe. Karl Schwarzschild, a German mathematician and, in 1915, a gunner on the Russian front, worked out the way space and time would be distorted around a massive spherical object. The event horizon, the point beyond which light cannot escape, is now formally called the Schwarzschild radius. This was more than 70 years before a single black hole had been identified. A spinning, supermassive black hole is a kind of cosmic-scale battery, says Caleb Scharf: it can produce a pole-to-equator difference of a thousand trillion volts, it can propel the tenuous matter swirling around its devouring maw to relativistic speeds and deliver what is still called a quasar – an electromagnetic outpouring equivalent to the light from 1000 billion Suns. It is the most efficient converter of energy in the cosmos. It can also puff slow, pulsating bubbles of inaudible sound through the vast galactic cloud around it, "57 octaves below B flat above middle C in case you were curious. That's approximately 300,000 trillion times lower in frequency than the human voice … Supermassive black holes can make you a very, very nice sound system." Scharf heads an astrobiology research team at Columbia University in New York, and his thesis is that the biggest black holes serve as cosmic regulators: that they control the production of stars in the great clouds of gas and dust from which, ultimately, all stars and planets must condense. It could also be the wild card, the joker, the blind, haphazard agency that decides whether a galaxy has any future for photochemistry, organic chemistry, and ultimately, sustained biochemistry on some randomly ordered rocky planet with running water, reasonably near its parent star in some quiet galactic suburb. The Milky Way, says Scharf, is "smack-dab in the sweet-spot of massive supermassive black hole activity. It is possible that this is not mere coincidence." And once again, this heady story of astronomical endeavour and cosmic conjecture prompts a happy mix of marvels. Consider, for example, the gravitational forces acting on a neutron star, an ultradense object one step from total collapse into a singularity or black hole. To escape from Earth's gravitational field, you need a rocket speed of about eight miles a second. To get away from a neutron star, the rocket must accelerate to 62,000 miles a second. If you dived from a springboard one metre above its surface, you would hit the ground at 1,200 miles a second. Drop into a black hole, however, and you'd slam through the point of no return at virtually the speed of light. The other paradox of these unimaginable objects is that somebody first had to imagine them. John Michell, a British pioneer of earthquake science in 1783 followed the logic of Newton's theory of gravity and proposed a dark star, a star so massive its own light would return to it. The French mathematician Pierre-Simon Laplace separately arrived at the same reasoning a decade later. Albert Einstein began to explore the way a massive star might distort the fabric of the universe around it.
There are 100 billion galaxies out there in the farthest cosmos, each containing at least 100 billion stars. Some of these are spiral galaxies, and the only life we know about exists on the outer limb of one spiral galaxy with a relatively quiet black hole at its heart. So the argument is tentative: with a sample of one, what else could it be? But that's the allure of cosmology. It offers the ghost of a possibility of an answer to the eternal question: how did we get here?
And that's the other delight of this book, and all such accounts of discovery. They offer a reminder that, given an understanding of mathematical logic and some lenses with which to make a telescope, one accidental species on one inconsequential speck of matter in the 14 billionth year of the universe has been able to identify a few testable laws that govern matter and energy, and from these, and with an arsenal of ever more ingenious telescopes, build up a picture of things that happened far away and long ago, and from that begin to construct a story of everything. The story is provisional. The next generation of space-based and earth-bound telescopes will almost certainly reveal ever more amazing things, with ever greater precision. Who needs another series of Star Wars movies, when the universal studios can go on delivering excitement on this scale? Рlease write comment on my blog!

Jonathan Miller:

In Two Minds: A Biography of Jonathan Miller by Kate Bassett – review Andrew Dickson on an unquestioning life of a much-lampooned polymath Jonathan Miller: famously sharp-tongued. Photograph: Eamonn McCabe for the Guardian In Jonathan Miller's brilliant, bubblegum-pink 2010 reimagining of L'elisir d'amore for English National Opera, there was a moment that caused bel canto purists to clutch for their heart pills. It came – from memory – early on. Adina, the heroine, was reading aloud from the story of Tristan when the orchestra abruptly abandoned Donizetti's delicate oom-pah-pah and lobbed in 19th-century music's most notorious hand grenade: Wagner's Tristan chord. It was a joke, but a serious one: half schoolboy prank, half learned footnote. If you could enjoy a gag this highbrow, it was also shamelessly funny. In Two Minds: a Biography of Jonathan Miller by Kate Bassett
Miller adores the element of surprise, and not only on stage. Impressionist and satirist; raconteur and chatshow darling; director and producer of opera, theatre and TV; quondam boss of the Old Vic; presenter, author and scriptwriter; lecturer, curator, artist – a dizzying life, and that's putting to one side his training as a doctor, which has impelled projects as varied as a BBC series on the history of medicine, The Body in Question (1978), and medically exact productions of Così fan tutte. A zealous non-believer, he has produced a shattering version of the Matthew Passion; riffed casually on his own Jewishness ("not really a Jew … Jew-ish") yet also staged one of the most thoughtful examinations of that faith in living theatrical memory – his 1970 Merchant of Venice with Laurence Olivier, performed as Miller's own father, a devout Jew, lay dying. As Kate Bassett's thorough, well-upholstered new biography makes plain, Miller contains multitudes. More than perhaps even he is aware of. He was born into, if not quite greatness, then the heavy expectation that he would achieve it. His father Emanuel was a well-regarded child psychiatrist; his mother, Betty, a novelist and biographer. Miller fils, somehow appropriately, didn't wait until birth to make his literary debut – making a cameo, Bassett suggests, as an unborn child in one of his mother's stories. The cultured milieu of his north London childhood is hinted at by the fact that Stevie Smith once wrote a satirical piece about his family (Bassett calls Smith's accompanying poem "vile"). It was to science that the young Miller was drawn: first at St Paul's school – pals included Oliver Sacks and book-dealer Eric Korn – then at Cambridge. But almost as soon as he began his medical studies, the "cocaine-like" addiction of performing was working away: skits at school and university, then, after graduation, the astonishing success of Beyond the Fringe – a quartet, it's pleasing to be reminded, that was assembled by a young theatre producer, as coldly manufactured as any boyband. Miller's later claims that his career has been largely happenstance are cast into relief by a letter he wrote at the age of 18 to the BBC requesting a TV audition, explaining that he and a friend "specialise in parodies of Radio, films and theatre and also 'REAL LIFE'" (the request was turned down).
Bassett's thesis is encapsulated in her title, and she spends much time examining, then re-examining, Miller's bursts of spirited indecision about what to do with his talents – no sooner promising to knuckle down to medicine before scarpering towards the footlights; no sooner triumphing in theatre before announcing a penitential progress back towards science. Bassett makes the fine point that doctoring and directing aren't perhaps so different, over and above simply requiring theatres. Ibsen, Chekhov, Goldsmith, Strindberg and Schiller all received medical training, and you could argue that both disciplines involve careful performance rituals and a degree of flamboyant mystification. Both also call for deep involvement in human problems; and practitioners of both kinds sometimes fancy they have the god-like ability to transcend them (even if, as Miller discovered, the West End proved more tempting than ward rounds at UCH).
This, alas, is the frustration of In Two Minds, which gives the recurring impression of leading its subject towards the psychologist's couch without ever eliciting sustained or meaningful analysis. Miller's relationship with his sister Sarah receives minimal treatment, his children feature largely as a support act; give or take the odd hint, the realities of his 56-year marriage are placed discreetly behind a curtain (his wife Rachel is a GP, and some of the professional challenges she's had to face sound a good deal tougher than her husband's). We are halfway through the book before we discover that Miller has suffered from depression: the discussion of how that illness has manifested, or coloured his work, lasts less than a page. Although Miller seems to have realised he is ill-equipped for the slog of medical research (something it apparently took a £88,00 grant in the 1980s at Sussex University to demonstrate), his dividedness persists, as evidenced by numerous declarations that his directing career is over – he has enjoyed more curtain calls than the most prima of prima donnas. It is typical – also somehow heartbreaking – that, not content with being a hobbying sculptor, Miller rather fancies installing what is described as a "large-scale work" outside Waterloo station. This isn't common-or-garden hypercompetitiveness; it seems to be a kind of mania, on a literally architectural scale.
Being in two minds about one's career is one thing; the more interesting question, surely, is how the schisms in Miller's own mind fit – or don't fit – together. Which of his personalities does one believe? The kindly friend who helps a colleague move house, or the man who cuts former acquaintances dead for daring to contradict him? The workaholic professional, or the one who abandons rehearsals when they aren't going his way? Vice-president of the Campaign for Homosexual Equality, or the man who cracks jokes about "opera queens"? The nuclear-powered controversialist? The penseur and philosophe? The licensed fool?&&&&&&& Bassett's acknowledgments say that Miller himself has not read or edited any of the manuscript; he hardly needed to, such is the flood of his talk that courses through it. Hefty verbatim quotes form its substance, and even ostensibly independent opinions (that telling "vile"; leitmotifs on his parents' lack of affection, an odd tic to do with never having earned enough) have the tang of indirect speech. Sometimes this is innocuous enough – and often it's entertaining, Miller's tongue being famously sharp – but despite Bassett's attempts at balance, the suspicion grows that we are being drip-fed the subject's own insights into himself. Richard Holmes once compared the biographer's task to snooping on a dinner party where the guests are permanently out of earshot; Bassett brings us right to the table, but seems anxious about offending the host.
Bassett is herself a fine, fierce theatre critic – her write-ups of Miller's productions have verve and perceptive grace – so it is a shame that, when it comes to the great man, she too often abandons her critical distance, notably in a final section that marshals witnesses for the defence (John Fortune: "If he'd been born French, there would be streets named after him"; the historian Michael Wood: "the most scintillating and inspiring teacher … bollocks to those who think otherwise"). Alan Bennett, a long-term neighbour as well as family friend, is more wary: "We've always gone on the assumption that the less I said about him and the less he said about me the better."
In the end, perhaps one of the most revealing character sketches here is a short section on Private Eye, which for some years ran a column called "The Life of Dr Jonathan", casting Miller ("the Great Doctor") as a latterday Johnson, dilating at length to "importunate savants" on "topics too awful and profound to bear thinking of". In the backhanded way of British satire, it's as close as Lord Gnome's organ has ever come to unadorned compliment. Miller, naturally, cannot see the funny side.