Steve Jones, an award-winning writer and broadcaster on evolution, talks to Rebecca Willis about the seven wonders of his world ...
From INTELLIGENT LIFE Magazine, Summer 2010
A professor of genetics at University College London, Steve Jones, 66, is known for his highly evolved sense of humour. His seven wonders reveal a deep affection for Wales and snails. He is one of the judges of the Art Fund prize for museums and galleries, which awarded £100,000 to the Ulster Museum in Belfast on June 30th.
BUILDING: The Royal Institution
It’s like a Greek temple with wonderful pillars outside, but it’s a fraud, made from a mainly Georgian townhouse that was begun in 1708. What many people don’t realise is that the entire logic of every Georgian house in London is based on classical architecture. The ground floor (which is often plastered) is the equivalent of the pediment. Some of the grand houses, for example in Bedford Square, have actually got Doric columns between the windows, but most people couldn’t afford that, so they just built them with the same proportions, the windows being the spaces between the columns. The narrow windows at the top are the same proportions as the frieze in the Parthenon. It is extraordinary and bizarre to have a major scientific research centre in the middle of Mayfair, but it’s the actual fabric of the building itself and its proportions that I love.
It may no longer be the largest city in the world, but I think it’s still the greatest. We are very fortunate to live in a huge city which is actually a very successful collection of villages. Islington is my favourite: I lived there for 20 years and very foolishly moved away, but I go back to it every weekend. There’s a phenomenon in philosophy called “the myth of the undistributed middle”—that if you hate black and you hate white, you’ll love grey. I moved because my wife lived in Primrose Hill and I lived in Islington so we compromised by moving to Camden Town. But Islington is the centre of my mental universe.
WORK OF ART: Del Cossa's Annunciation
This annunciation is by an Italian artist of the early Renaissance, Francesco del Cossa, and it shows a snail crawling across in front of the Virgin Mary. Francis of Retz wrote in 1400: “If the dew of the clear air can make the snail pregnant, then God in virtue can make His mother pregnant.” In the Middle Ages they believed that snails, because of their shells, don’t have sex. So the snail was an image of purity, and here of the Immaculate Conception. We know now that they were completely wrong—snails have sex in the most gothic and complicated ways you can imagine.
VIEW: The Eastern Pyrenees
If you look south from the plain north of the Pyrenees in spring, you see a magnificent snow-covered range of mountains. In them are millions and millions of snails, which I’ve wasted much of my life collecting, going back every summer for the last 40 years. So I know the Pyrenees very well and always get a lifting of the spirits as soon as I see them begin to push themselves above the horizon. I’m a population geneticist: I look at what causes diversity within populations and what causes genes to change from place to place. When I started in the mid-1960s there were very few creatures you could look at, snails among them, because they had genetically variable patterns and colours and stripes on the shell so you could literally count the genes. Now with DNA you can look at anything, but that’s new—it’s happened within the last 20 years. I once wrote a book called “The Single Helix”, which is a complicated joke because the Latin for snail is helix. I said in the preface this book isn’t half as good as “The Double Helix”! Also it didn’t sell half as many copies.
HOTEL: Llangoed Hall, Wales
Llangoed Hall is an extraordinarily handsome building in the most beautiful place, near Hay-on-Wye, where the literary festival takes place. Occasionally, when the festival is feeling affluent, it puts us up here. It was beautifully restored by Clough Williams-Ellis, the architect who did Portmeirion, and it used to be owned by the founder of Laura Ashley [Sir Bernard Ashley]. The hotel has the feeling of a private house: it has a magnificent view, an excellent menu and you can even swim in the Wye if you are not frightened of freezing to death. And it’s in Wales—what more could you want?
JOURNEY: St Pancras to the South of France
I often do the journey by Eurostar from London St Pancras to a little town in the south of France called Beziers, or farther to the smaller town of Bédarieux. I have a house near there where I do nearly all my work. In fact I do a lot of my work on the train itself—what’s really transformed my ability to write is the long-lasting laptop battery. It’s a very pretty journey. St Pancras is a great pleasure to be in, and in Paris they make you leave an hour to transfer between the Gare du Nord and the Gare de Lyon; it takes an hour to walk along the Canal Saint Martin, so the middle of the journey is this beautiful walk through the streets of Paris.
BEACH: New Quay, Wales
I hate beaches, with one exception—New Quay in west Wales where my father came from and we spent all our holidays. It was an idyllic place to be a child. It had a pier and a beach and when you are ten that seems to encompass the entire universe. Every other beach I’ve been on I’ve been instantly bored. I did a huge amount of work on snails on sand dunes, which are inland from beaches, and that’s where I’d rather be.
(Rebecca Willis is associate editor of Intelligent Life.)