Simon Schaffer interviewed by Alan Macfarlane 27th June 2008

0:09:07 Born in Southampton in 1955; the first and only child; in less than ten months we had left for Australia; father was teaching in Political Science at Southampton University and my mother was working as a trainee librarian; got an assisted passage, passing through the Suez Canal just before the Suez crisis; father had got a post in Political Science at the University of Queensland, Brisbane; I spent the next decade there; my mother became a librarian at the University and my father, a Professor in Political Science and the nascent discipline of Development Studies; he did a lot of work in New Guinea; remember my father coming back with objects, maps and pictures of an extraordinary other world; PNG was administered by Australia in this period; remember cricket, swimming and Christmas pudding; parents built their own house on the outskirts of Brisbane; grew papyrus in the septic tank and remember trying to make paper; a halcyon period for a child; but complete blindness to Aboriginal society; there was a Salvation Army school next to my primary school with some Aboriginal children who came to our school, but very tightly controlled; travel anywhere was restricted at that time; when we travelled back to England it was by boat again, just before the Six Day War; we couldn't land in Aden but able to spend time in Egypt and to see the pyramids; went to Sydney by train which changed gauge between Queensland and New South Wales; a blissful childhood except for mosquitoes; primary education was entirely nineteenth century - copperplate handwriting, mental arithmetic, colonial history with Australian history beginning with the arrival of the first fleet in 1788; school divided in to houses with each house named after an heroic Australian explorer; Thursday night radio broadcast 'Window on the West', reporting the Anglo-American world; a Commonwealth world view

11:58:23 I only knew my mother's parents; both my father's parents died while we were in Australia; he had two sisters who were my closest relatives when we returned and were very important to me; they were solid, London, lower middle class, Jewish, originally from Lithuania, arriving about 1905; I was told very little about this; there had been family in the Netherlands,  most of whom were murdered by the Nazis; there was an extended family in North London who looked after us when we came back; my sense was that my father was treated as the delightful, eccentric intellectual, which every Jewish family should produce; my mother's father was a shoe salesman from South London; an adorable, benevolent man; my grandmother was also delightful; they had been evacuated to Torquay which is where my mother grew up and went to Torquay Grammar School for Girls; they retired to Bournemouth

17:17:04 Being Jewish, there is the sense of observing things from the side; of being absolutely assimilated without being a member; of thinking from a slightly different perspective and noticing a little more quickly what is being taken for granted; a culture that can be entirely observant in religious terms without having belief; family life absolutely absorbed by the Synagogue and rituals without it ever seeming to have any theological or spiritual aspect; maintaining the culture of Judaism is maintaining the faith; there was an expectation that I was to be the incompetent but clever member of the family; literary and scientific life is seen as indispensable to the culture and the family; strange mixture of pride and resigned tolerance; not a culture that heroizes the intellectual and learning; much humour dwells on the complete uselessness of such persons; but also an acceptance that it is potentially a way up and out of the ghetto; historically Jews were limited by what they could do; could not go into the army etc.; tensions around Zionism; parents were always ambivalent even when the support for Israel by Jewish intellectuals was unquestioned; I went to Israel, to the Hebrew University, in my gap year; eye-opening both in terms of becoming better informed about what was going on in the Middle East but also permanently disillusioned about the Zionist project; Zionists wanted to break a certain stereotype of the Jew and replace it with a more physical, athletic, militant, virile image; the idea of working on a Kibbutz never appealed to me, but not for ideological reasons; many non-Jews did work there in the early seventies, but now all that has gone

27:57:04 My parents are the most important people in my life; my father, who died in 1984, was very careful not to actively direct me yet always provide any resources that I needed; I was a ridiculously spoilt child; the assumption was the good life consisted of music, books, long walks, and serious conversation; I was always treated like a grownup; my mother treats everybody in the same way and I think I learnt from that; deeply principled egalitarianisms; snobbism was loathed by my parents; I liked my teachers and they were very good at their job; remember them all pretty well but they were anything but inspirational; rigid, robust curriculum at primary school; came back in 1965 to Britain to a very different school; Robbins Report and the expansion of British universities led to the return of a remarkable cohort of expatriates one new university was Sussex which set up an Institute of Development Studies and offered a job to my father; we moved to Brighton and my parents stayed there from then on; it was unrecognisably different from Brisbane starting with the fact that the beach had no sand; lived in a rather chilly house opposite the secondary school; came back when I was ten when there was still the 11+ regime; came back in Summer 1965 and wondered whether I should go to primary school and take the exam or go directly to secondary school; taken to an educational psychologist and sent straight to Varndean Grammar School for Boys; it was a very good school, ridiculously selective, single-sex, school uniform, prefects, houses, gowns for teachers, Latin; realize that the teaching was of a very high order; as we lived opposite the school I could go home for lunch; accelerated through the school and missed out the fifth form; took 'O' levels at fourteen and 'A' levels at sixteen; several of the teachers were inspirational, especially the teacher of mathematics, Ron Woolner, a descendant of the artist Thomas Woolner, who absolutely inspired me; I thought myself very bad at arithmetic and he sat me down one day and said that mathematics was not arithmetic; the English teacher, Mr Cunningham, was also very good, letting people work at their own pace, spotting people who could read quite fast; encouraged us to start our own drama club independent of the school drama club; alongside the usual school play, normally Shakespeare, we could do our own production of modern playwrights, eg. John Arden; all this happening in an institution out of time, in late 1960's Brighton; with my father's rather special and enthusiastic support I did science 'A' levels; he was delighted as an unquestioning admirer of the sciences

41:05:00 I did play hockey for the school until I got a hockey stick between the eyes which damaged my confidence; also, with my Australian background, did a lot of swimming; played chess and the flute; music has meant a lot to me emotionally, but also as a way of getting together with others; also found it interesting to think with - a source of metaphor, collaboration, collective playing, to follow a score, think about how composition works - things to reflect on when thinking about creativity and discovery; listen to music all the time when writing or reading; I find silence very disturbing; my taste is eclectic; now find I favour the autobiographical which remind me of my past; jazz and the classics that my parents liked; as a student I liked early music but have gone back to my father's loves - Mahler etc.; writing is the moment that I have ideas, so while I am at a keyboard, listening to music, rather than in quiet repose; the auditory is blanking out other sound but giving something  rhythmic for concentrated reflection; not uncommon for people to use that sort of environment both as a resource and as insulation; I have very few flashes of insight but rely on 99% perspiration; technique when writing is that I never perfectly finish a piece in the evening as the next morning restarting will be very difficult; remember that as a science undergraduate it was much the same; I am obsessive re-writer and very bad cutter

53:53:24 I was never a scientist at a high level; I suspect that processes of creativity don't respect disciplinary boundaries; there are things that one can generally say about how people create which are not significantly different between making a poem and making a theory or experiment; there are some systematic and institutional differences, ones to do with the tools of the trade; now, at a superficial level, all use computers, despite disciplines marking out increasingly separate spheres; military entertainment complex where skills at pattern recognition on a screen with a keyboard move from Gameboy to nuclear war; now the manual, practical, work that people did when being creative have converged; ironically, reflection on creativity across disciplinary boundaries might have become easier because one is dealing with bits of practical behaviour which have got more similar over the last fifty to sixty years; ought to be robust principles to deal with what it is like to have smart new thoughts that work when you are a "typist at the cinema", the standard situation of almost all workers and intellectuals now

59:07:12 If you were thinking of applying to Oxbridge you stayed on for an extra term; in Autumn 1971 went into the "upper bench" and did entrance exam in December; got an Exhibition to Trinity, Cambridge; had from then until October 1972 to do what I wanted