Blackett and Beckett lived here

48 Paultons Square, Chelsea, London, was home to the experimental physicist Patrick Blackett and to the playwright Samuel Blackett, albeit at different times. Recently, English Heritage agreed that their residency should be marked by blue plaques, and Graham was invited to speak at the unveiling on the life of Blackett, though he also could not resist praising the achievement of Beckett, one of his favourite playwrights.

Blackett and Beckett plaques
Astronomer Sir Arnold Wolfendale and actress Penelope Wilton unveil the Blackett and Beckett blue plaques

Graham briefly summarised the life and achievement of Blackett, who features in both The Strangest Man and Churchill’s Bomb. There is no doubt, Graham said in his remarks, that ‘Blackett was one the very last great desk-top experimenters in sub-atomic physics and he can be counted among the pioneers of the Standard Model, for his role in detecting anti-matter and in the discovery of so-called ‘strange particles’ ‘.

Graham speaking

There were other aspects of Blackett’s career, too. He was a first-rate scientific adviser to the military and he helped to pioneer modern operational research in World War II, notably in the Battle of the Atlantic, where he made an especially effective contribution. Afterwards, he advised the British government on various scientific matters. Although a firm supporter of Clement Attlee, Blackett did not fit well in the first Labour government after World War II, mainly because he was a ‘nuclear heretic’, as he described himself. Later, however, he became Harold Wilson’s favourite scientist and was at his side when he gave the ‘white heat of technology’ speech in May 1963. In the following year, Wilson offered Blackett a ministerial post but he turned it down and it was given to CP Snow, whose novel published that year ‘Corridors of Power’ featured a character closely modelled on Blackett, Francis Getliffe. Blackett lived at the Chelsea address from 1953 to 1969.

Graham with historian Ralph Desmarais (centre) and physicist Sir Peter Knight (right)
Graham with historian Ralph Desmarais (centre) and physicist Sir Peter Knight (right)

There were also speeches by several of Beckett’s acquaintances and his biographer James Knowlson, who noted that Beckett’s novel More Pricks Than Kicks was published in 1934, when he was resident in Chelsea. Graham enjoyed talking with the guests, including the historian and writer Lady Antonia Fraser (wife of Beckett’s friend Harold Pinter) and the actress Penelope Wilton, who was directed by Beckett at the Royal Court Theatre in 1976.

all speakers

After the event, news of the unveiling was featured on the BBC news website, and the historian Rebekah Higgit, a guest at the event, wrote this thoughtful piece in The Guardian on the blue-plaque scheme.