SOLLY ZUCKERMAN was a unique phenomenon, writes Lord Jenkins of Hillhead. Born in South Africa in relatively humble circumstances, he came to England in 1928 as a young doctor specialising in anatomy. Over the next 40 years, up to, say, his 1968 OM, he proceeded both to storm every bastion of British establishment life and so to broaden his intellectual base that he became almost universally accepted as the best man to explain any corner of science from the sex habits of monkeys to nuclear weaponry to innumerate classicists who had to make decisions on such grave matters.
But although he conquered the Establishment he never allowed it to conquer him. For another 25 years after that official peak in the late 1960s he maintained a critical iconoclasm, a 'radical chic' I suppose his detractors might call it, which made him the best-informed sceptic of nuclear nonsense and put him firmly on the liberal side on every issue of interest and controversy.
Above all, however, this last quarter-century of his life was remarkable as an example of how to enjoy old age. Until the last year or so, when he began to find that there were no new windows to open and that too many old ones were closing, his mixture of intellectual curiosity, social interest and civilised hedonism provided the best recipe for troisieme age satisfaction which I have ever encountered. In earlier days he could be a rough Whitehall warrior, although I always found him a very good ally. But in those later days, with ambition fulfilled and most passion spent, he became more generally benign, although happily never losing his intolerance of pomposity or stupidity.
Everything to do with Solly was of the highest quality, but had an element of paradox about it. His wife was a marquess's daughter, but provided him with a crucial element of domestic stability rather than an unnecessary fashionable entree. Only he could produce both Chateau Cheval Blanc 1961 and the Queen for a small country dinner party in his Norfolk house with his collection of early Sheffield plate upon the table and his conversational style which combined omniscient reminiscence with an optimist's interest in the future.
He was determinedly internationalist, a European who had many links with the United States, as much at home in Paris as in Washington. He was not much bounded by his origins. He showed flickers of interest in South Africa, but not a great deal more. And he was at most a cool Zionist. 'What have you ever done for Israel, Solly?' he was said once to have been asked. and to have replied: 'At least I have not changed my name.'
Solly Zuckerman's taste was sharp and astringent, 'Caviar for the general' (on the whole he liked generals in spite of his scepticism for conventional military wisdom), but once acquired it never palled. For me he leaves a very big gap.
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