Michael Joseph. 1974.


8vo. Original cloth and wrapper; pp. 192, illustrations throughout; very good. Provenance: signed by Stephen Hawking to dedication page. With letter of provenance, unpublished photograph of Hawking with friends c. 2000 and order of service for the funeral of the previous owner.

First edition. This copy of Spike Milligan's wartime memoir carries one of the very few verified autographs of Stephen Hawking. It was signed in 1974, the year before he became confined to a wheelchair by amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. The shakiness of the signature is a testament to the physical difficulty he had in holding a pen and forming letters.

The book actually belonged to James Hawkins (1928-2003), a poet and author who befriended Hawking through Trinity College Cambridge. Hawkins was also a good friend of Somerset Maugham, who called him the "new Rupert Brooke", and of Yehudi Menuhin. A copy of his selected poems Lamps in the Darkness (1976) was presented to Hawking. The occasion of this signing was extremely light-hearted. Hawkins was reading this copy of Milligan's book when Hawking commented on how funny the dedication was ("To my dear brother Desmond who made my boyhood happy and with whom I have never had a cross word, mind you he drives his wife mad"). In a sprit of joie de vivre and perhaps recognising that he would not be able to sign his name for much longer, Hawking scrawled his autograph beneath the dedication. It was the only example of his handwriting that existed in his friend's collection. At this point, Hawking had not written a full-length book and was far from being a household name, and so one would not expect an autograph on one of his own works; there are only a couple of verified Hawking signatures from this period, including his PhD thesis in 1965 and an archaeological book given to a departing colleague at the Institute of Astronomy in 1974. Nevertheless, we don't expect to find a great scientist's signature in such an incongruous book. Yet it is a perfect representation of Hawking's famously anarchic sense of humour as well as a poignant suggestion that he knew his physical abilities were waning fast.

James Hawkins remained friends with Hawking for the rest of his life and passed this book on to his friend John Masih Fleming, the musician and dealer, shortly before his death. Fleming was also a friendly acquaintance of Stephen Hawking.