Remembering George and Margaret Whiterod

Remembering George and Margaret Whiterod

A friend I hadn’t heard from a long time recently contacted me to let me know that a mutual friend of ours, a lecturer I had met when I was student in Manchester, was quite seriously ill. Whilst I was on holiday with Marie-Laure, surrounded by the glittering Ionian seas, I heard that he had died. George and his wife Margaret were two of the most important people in my life in the decade or so after I left Ireland, before I discovered really where I was supposed to be going. At the time, I viewed them as almost a second set of parents. The last I heard from George was in 2012, when he told me the rather shocking news that Margaret had died of cancer a few years previously. George, in telling me this, was as rational and dispassionate and ever I had known him to be. During his illness, I heard that he viewed his own approaching death without fear, which did not surprise me. I don’t think, in his own unselfish manner, he would have wanted us to overdramatise things. However, I found myself on the beautiful Vriki beach on Antipaxos reflecting on George and Margaret and realised that now both my sets of parents are gone, and that my only link with them is what I remember. These are the words I wrote for him.

When I was in Manchester, from 1988 to 1991, George was my Particle Physics lecturer. (Later on Margaret. his wife, was my careers officer). I was immediately drawn to George by his wit, knowledge, intellectual clarity and honesty. I had arrived in Manchester from the wilds of rural N. Ireland and although I had read a lot of books, they were not the right books, and I was a bit lost. It was fun to talk with George about all kinds of topics many of which I soon realised that I had preconceived ideas without even knowing it! I remember in particular one long discussion we had about the origins of consciousness: George was convinced it was all just the product of complexity and chemicals in the brain: I realised for the first time that I had never thought about it that way before and that perhaps he could be right.

I was deeply impressed by his unsentimental rational attitude. I was always curious, but talking to George I slowly began to realise that there could almost be no limits to where rational inquiry could go. After I finished my degree, I travelled a lot and during that time I always felt George and Margaret’s house in Manchester was a place I could visit and stay at when I wanted to. Looking back now, I see that George (together with my Uncle John) are probably the two people who most shaped my view of the world. It was very helpful in combatting everything which a Catholic boys’ grammar school can do to you.

During my travels, George and Margaret offered to look after all the books I had accumulated during my time in Manchester. I spent almost every weekend in Manchester going to second-hand bookshops and had bought many books. Although, George and Margaret assured me, the best thing to do with all these books would be to simply give them away, as they did (every time visited there house I was always impressed as how uncluttered it was). When I left the UK for good in 1998 this was precisely what I did myself, and it was exactly as liberating as George assured me that it would be.

I started work as staff astronomer at the IAP in 2003. A year or so after I arrived in Paris, George came to visit me. Modestly, he slept on the couch in the tiny apartment I was living in at the time. We visited the city and ate a nice meal together at the Coupole. This visit, sadly, would be the last time I would see him. When I heard that he was ill, my first thought was to go down towards the Seine and have my picture taken on the Rue Descartes and send it to him. I wanted to say to him: George, you put me here on this street, you helped me get here. Alas, it was already too late. George showed me the value of that kind of thinking and both he and Margaret had such an unselfish attitude to life and how to behave to others which I still find inspiring today.

George on the Pont des arts, 15 August 2004. Looking at the photograph, I can hear his voice…

10 thoughts on “Remembering George and Margaret Whiterod

  1. I just stumbled across this post. I was thinking about Drs G&M, having lost touch with them, and was SO sorry to learn that they have both died. My experience was very similar to yours. They were a big part of my life at UMIST and during the years after. Wonderful people; wise, smart, caring and such good fun. I will always be very grateful to them both for taking me under their wings and for their influence on my life. A very special couple.

    1. Thank you for the message Rachael. I still think about them often. I am sure George would have had a reassuringly (or not, depending on your outlook) rationalist outlook on the coronavirus…

      1. Is this the George Whiterod who entered The University of Birmingham Physics Department as an undergraduate in 1958? If so, then his death is the worst news I have had for some time. We were great friends for the first two years of the course but then I withdrew to do my National Service and, when I returned, I transferred to the Dental School. Hence I lost touch with George. He had a great influence on my life as I arrived at Birmingham under the impression that I was clever. Life with George quite soon revealed to me that, on the Whiterod scale of intellect, I pretty much failed to register with the end of year applied maths exam representing some sort of climax in this respect. It was this , rather depressing discovery that caused me to take my brains into a less challenging environment. But in every other respect we got on famously sharing a chaotic, Spring hitch-hiking holiday to Scotland at one hour’s notice and a week-end to London in my newly purchased car that ended in a mighty prang just north of St Albans and the end of my car. His sister was with us at the time. I was prosecuted for Dangerous Driving meaning that George had to make a number of Court appearances as my defence witness. So I like to think I left him slightly altered by our friendship, if only in the form of a sprained ankle. I was so looking forward to meeting him again one day. Bugger!

        1. Dear Philip, thank you for the great story! I am not able to answer your question, but to me it sounds very like George !

          1. Agreed-it sounds very much like George. How lovely to hear about his earlier life and adventures. Thank you!

  2. My George came from Norfolk and, I think, went to Norwich Grammar School. He was about 5ft 7in, slim, straight dark hair swept back. He spoke with a sort of drawl and slowly. He smoked. He always strolled and never hurried. He had done very well at school, particularly maths, where he passed A level , Schol. level, Further Maths and Schol Further Maths. in two years. He told me he’d done no new Maths in our first two years at University. He had a very dry sense of humour. Do you think this is he?

    1. Dear Philip, this sounds so very much like George! I appreciated very much his dry sense of humour, everyone did. Actually I have a photograph here of him, I will add it to the post.

  3. That’s George. Rats! I was so hoping it would turn out not to be. I came across this blog as I was searching for him with hopes of a reunion. I stayed in the Army after National Service and so spent most of my subsequent life abroad. Hence my failure to keep in touch with him. I mentioned a particular exam earlier that became my Damascene moment. I decided I loved Physics when I was fourteen and worked hard to get to into the Birmingham Physics Department. I was orphaned early and my Guardian disowned me when I was sixteen. So it was quite a struggle sometimes. But I arrived at the Department with respectable results at A level and Scholarship level. I became friendly with George straight away and, since we got on so well, I assumed we were well-matched in every way. We socialised together and I certainly worked no less hard than he did. Then we had the end of year exams. The Applied Maths paper will stay with me for ever. The instructions at the top read, “ There are fifteen questions on this paper. Candidates are advised that they are not limited to any fixed number of questions but that it is possible to obtain full marks with perfect answers to four questions.” I read the questions and my heart sank. The rule at Birmingham was that no one could leave an exam before an hour had elapsed but I was clearly going to need every moment of the three hours allotted to make any headway. After an hour and a half George stood up and handed his paper in. As he walked past my desk, we grimaced at each other. I stayed to the bitter end and answered halves of two questions. Afterwards I walked over to the coffee bar and sat down next to George. “ What a paper! “ I said. George agreed. I continued, “ But at least I stayed to the end. Why did you leave so early?” “ I’d finished.” said George. I stared at him and said in disbelief, “ You finished four questions?”. “ No”, said George, “ Fifteen ! “.
    And, in that one moment, I realised what a huge gulf existed between the competent and the really bright and that my hopes of a career as a physicist had just been dashed by one of by best friends.
    We were a group of five originally and then I made friends with one of the girls on the course and she, fatally, joined us. She was engaged to a research student in London who drove up every weekend to see her in a TR2, so it all seemed safe although Wendy and I had some surprisingly intimate moments. Then things all went wrong with my life and I left towards the end of the second year. But I kept in touch. Shortly after I left, Wendy became romantically attached with another member of the group which created considerable surprise and some angst. This ended most unhappily and then, tragically, she move on to have an affair with George, of all people! By now, Finals were on the horizon and this distraction was something unlikely to assist the preparation of someone confidently expected to get a first. But then, not long before the exams, she abruptly ended the affair. George, I was told, was completely distraught and dislocated by this most unexpected rupture and, entirely as a result, failed to achieve the success that he deserved. This left the Department, who had no wish to lose one of its brightest students in such disarray, in something of a quandary. Nor could they ignore the results. So their cunning plan was to offer George a fast track MSc, in which he did brilliantly in record time, and then get him back where he belonged on a PhD course in particle physics.
    So, indirectly and completely unwittingly, I turned out to have had as great an effect on George’s career as he had had on mine.
    His influence has lasted as i discovered early on that he was amazingly well read. So I asked his advice on where to turn and, as a result, and to the detriment of my studies, became hooked on Steinbeck, then Faulkner, then Hemingway and finally Beckett. I’m reading Earnest even as I write.
    So his influence on my life continues and I very much regret that I’ll never be able to tell him that.

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