Stephen Hawking (1942-2018)

Ian McKellen recalls the renowned physicist Stephen Hawking

Stephen Hawking at the Paralympics, London 2012


"One advantage of being a public figure, is being asked to do special things," was Stephen Hawking’s reaction to the invitation to be centre-stage at the Opening Ceremony (or show) for the London Paralympic Games in 2012. "It will be an honour."

The huge stadium went totally black; not a single selfie spoiling the effect. A cluster of brilliant spotlights suddenly aimed down, onto the familiar, complicated wheelchair. Its occupant, half-slumped, spoke through his computer to the athletes, whom his condition symbolised. 50,000 of us gasped out loud and cheered.

In the wings, I was one of the many fully-abled performers, waiting to present a tale of travel, the future, the possible. I was a Prospero wizard in a robe of gold, leading his daughter Miranda toward the unknown. Beneath the robe, temporarily easing my prostate, I was wearing a catheter. So perhaps I wasn’t a total cheat, in the company of the sportsfolk, achieving against the physical odds, whose privates were maybe similarly encumbered.

It was the totality of Hawking’s condition which was so moving: the mental vigour that was so exciting, even when he was joking, which he seemed to have been often. Eddie Redmayne captured the humour so well in his impersonation.

Backstage (even SH had to rehearse all day) I was introduced by his nurse/carer and told that the computer wasn’t working and that, while the IT lad fiddled below his chair, he could only communicate through his eyes. "Ask him a yes/no question. If he means "yes" he’ll blink the right eye: if "no", the left".

So: "Are you enjoying yourself?" SH blinked "yes" and then blinked with the other eye, "no". And he ever so slightly smiled.

Conversation being tricky, I retired to learn my words. When I came back into the holding area, his computer was working again, so now with his eye, he could write words on the screen lodged in front of him. An impressively buxom young women leant over him, full frontal, solicitous. He was clearly alert inside.

On the screen was his most recent message: "Are you married?"

Ian McKellen, London, 14 March 2018


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