RIP a great Diracian

‘He was probably the most influential person of my life’, Graham said during his remarks at the funeral of the quantum mechanic John Bendall this week (Order of Service (PDF)). Bendall was the mathematical physicist who first introduced the fourteen-year-old Graham to the work of Paul Dirac, as Graham described in The Strangest Man (page 420).

‘If I had to pick one event that changed the course of my life’, Graham said, ‘it was when John opened the door of his house and we began to talk.’

Bendall did not just enthuse about Dirac but also shared many of his enthusiasms – Chopin, the piano playing of Vladimir Ashkenazy, modern American literature (including Heller’s Catch 22 and Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye), movies (In the Heat of the Night) and London’s art galleries. ‘I can trace quite a few of my passions today to those Sunday-morning conversations with John’, Graham said.

Bendall was quirky, oddly engaging man with a remarkable generosity of spirit. Graham recalls going with his friends round to Bendall’s house to talk about everything under the sun. ‘He was an exotic figure – the only person we knew with a PhD. He wore his learning lightly and was extremely helpful in helping my friend Ken Batchelor and I with a design project to design a chair for hemiplegic patients.’ It was, in a sense, our introduction to research.

Graham was invited to speak at the funeral by John’s daughters Anna and Paula, whom Graham remembers the bright young children he baby-sat years ago. As Graham relates in The Strangest Man, Paula was named after Paul Dirac. At the reception, Paula showed Graham a copy of the letter (PDF) Dirac wrote to her mother, who did not like the name and wrote to him to ask if he any other name that she and John could use to name their new baby girl.

When Graham was writing The Strangest Man, he telephoned John to check a few details. ‘I had not called him for twenty years, but still remembered his telephone number from my teenage years’. Subsequently, John and Graham met occasionally. ‘John, his wife Doreen, my late mother and I went out for lunch on my birthday a few years ago’, Graham said. ‘I shall always treasure that memory’.

John and Doreen
John and Doreen