Books interview: Hugh Pennington

Scary puddings, the art of succinctness and First World War myth-making: perspectives from the author of Have Bacteria Won?

November 19, 2015
Professor Hugh Pennington

What books made a strong impression on you as a child?
The first book I remember really gripping me was Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of Samuel Whiskers, or the Roly-Poly Pudding. The notion of being tied up and made into a roly-poly pudding was scary. It linked with personal experience; my grandmother lived in a country cottage with cupboards and wainscots and a grandfather clock just like the one on page nine. And my uncle was an undertaker who made his own coffins, so was a carpenter just like John Joiner. Most memorable book: Charles Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle. I read it on holiday, aged 12. A brilliant travel book. It made me want to be a naturalist.

Was it a challenge to you to make ‘When Food Kills: BSE, E. coli, and Disaster Science’ and ‘Have Bacteria Won?’ – popular-science books on subjects in which you are a world-leading authority – both succinct and comprehensible to the general reader?
Thomas Hood said that “the easiest reading is damned hard writing”, and I agree. Success is not for me to judge. But with respect to succinctness and comprehensibility, the biggest influences for me have been Professor E. P. Sharpey-Schafer (I was his medical house officer at St Thomas’ Hospital), described by his obituarists as “seldom orthodox but invariably precise…laconic…with a genuine hatred of pomposity…who published a great many papers without repeating himself”; Charles Darwin and George Orwell; and electronic media work, where the challenge is to summarise an issue, without notice, in fewer than four concise, understandable and accurate bullet points. Failing the first two tests means that one won’t be asked back. Failing the last induces opprobrium from colleagues.

What was the last book you gave as a gift?
Tony Judt’s When the Facts Change: Essays, 1995-2010 (2015). I gave it to my wife on her birthday so that I can read it myself.

What book, or collection of papers, has had the greatest influence on your own work?
The most influential collection of papers for me is the Cold Spring Harbor Symposium on Quantitative Biology, Vol XXVII, Basic Mechanisms in Animal Virus Biology (1962). Published just before I started virus research, its 535 pages describe the maturation of ‘big’ virology: the application of expensive machines (electron microscopes, analytical ultracentrifuges, scintillation counters – equipment often costing the same as the average house) and the early days of research using radioactive metabolic precursor molecules. It raised lots of questions without answering them. James Watson (who won the Nobel that year) attended; seven other attendees later won the Nobel, either for work they had already done  (Barbara McClintock, Alfred Hershey, Renato Dulbecco, Andre Lwoff), or for work in progress being reported at the meeting (Aaron Klug), or for discoveries that came later but had their roots in what was reported at the meeting (David Baltimore, Howard Martin Temin). For me, this volume is a kind of Old Testament. I used electron microscopy for a while, but then got into high-resolution molecular methods; since 1962 their costs have fallen a lot more than a thousandfold and there has been a massive increase in resolving power.

What books are you reading?
The first is Helen Birkett’s The Saints’ Lives of Jocelin of Furness: Hagiography, Patronage and Ecclesiastical Politics (2010). Jocelin was almost certainly Jocelin de Pennington, the abbot of Furness. A professional hagiographer, he was the first Pennington to write books. His Vita S. Kentigern was commissioned by the Bishop of Glasgow in the 1180s to celebrate the life of the Glasgow patron saint, and to support Glasgow’s case for ecclesiastical independence from York. Nothing changes! This Vita is available as an e-book.

The second is David Reynolds’ The Long Shadow: The Great War and the Twentieth Century (2013), which essentially focuses on the myth-making about 1914-18 that has happened in Britain, with a big emphasis on the Somme. My “John Joiner” uncle fought in Mesopotamia, and it is good to be reminded about that and all the other consequences. Even the rise of the Scottish National Party is discussed!

There are also a few books on my desk waiting to be read. One is Ernest Bevin: Foreign Secretary by Alan Bullock. Although Bevin died in 1951, many of the issues that concerned him (Britain and Europe, Israel, Korea, nuclear weapons) are as important now as they were in his day.

Another is ABZ and Big Oil: 50 Years of Black Gold in the Silver City by Jeremy Cresswell. ABZ is the code for Aberdeen International Airport. It is big book, lavishly illustrated, now becoming historical; Aberdeen house prices and ABZ passenger numbers are falling and the number of redundant oil workers is already more than the total number of steelworkers in the UK.

Hugh Pennington is emeritus professor of bacteriology, University of Aberdeen. He has worked for the UK, Scottish and Welsh governments as a scientific adviser in the fields of microbiology and food safety, and he was a founder member of the World Food Programme’s Technical Advisory Group. His latest book is Have Bacteria Won? (Polity).

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