Photograph by Mike Peel (www.mikepeel.net)
Way back in 2015 I wrote a short blog post entitled Celebrating the UK: No. 1 in an occasional series – the El Salvadorean guerilla, the first of what was intended to be a series of articles ‘setting out what we should value and celebrate about the UK’.
As a series it faltered – no let’s be honest – stopped. Not because, as nationalists might claim, there was nothing to celebrate, but because I allowed myself to be diverted into other aspects of political life. And when I did look at positive aspects of the UK I did it through other lenses, for example In praise of my country on a special anniversary (the anniversary was two years to the day after the 2014 referendum).
Listening to BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs yesterday, I was struck by the fact that I had just heard another Latin American, cosmologist Professor Carlos Frenk, provide reason for celebration of things that were good about the UK.
Frenk was born in Mexico in 1951. His father was a German Jewish immigrant who fled persecution by the Nazis in the 1930s with his parents. His mother was a Mexican Catholic of Spanish origin. After he completed a physics degree in Mexico he procured a British Council fellowship to study for a PhD in Cambridge and, apart from a few years at Berkeley, has been an academic at Durham University ever since.
The BBC describes Frenk as ‘one of the originators of the Cold Dark Matter theory for the formation of galaxies and the structure of the universe’. If you’re interested in cosmology (it’s deep stuff) his biography on the Royal Society website will give you a flavour of what he does. If I hear it correctly (and he was very modest about this on Desert Island Discs) his work is world-class.
Frenk came over as a sympathetic character with many interesting aspects to his life: his Desert Island Discs programme is well worth a listen. He has been married to a Scottish woman for the last forty years and chose as one of his eight pieces of music a Scottish Chamber Orchestra recording of Mendelssohn’s ‘Scottish’ symphony:
Scotland is a country very close to my heart because [it]’s given me the greatest gift I’ve ever had, my wife Susan.
He also said he was an Anglophile and added:
[the university] is a wonderful place and the city is very beautiful and the people are so great – friendly, hospitable open. I’ve nothing bad to say about Durham except the weather…
The same qualities that Frenk sees in Durham (including alas the weather) we can see in Edinburgh or Glasgow or in many other places across the UK.
For a modest but wise investment by the British Council we have had a lifetime of work by a leading scientist.
It can take someone who was a stranger once to remind us of the things that we share and can celebrate in common across the UK.
Footnote: if you like Latin American music, you may find one of Frenk’s musical choiuces as moving as I did, Chilean Violetta Parra singing her own song Gracias a la Vida.