London - At the risk of destroying any hope our third son may have of a career in the politically correct world of academia, I’ll begin by repeating a joke he cracked nine years ago, when he was 14.
It was a Bank Holiday Monday, and he had just switched on the TV hoping for his daily fix of news and views about the Premiership.
But to his horror, he saw that instead of the expected manly chat about his beloved Liverpool’s chances against West Ham, or Middlesbrough’s against Man U, BBC1 was showing the Women’s FA Cup Final at Millwall. And not just the highlights - the whole ruddy thing, from beginning to end.
He glanced at his watch, glowered at the women footballers on the screen and exclaimed in disgust: “But it’s one o’clock! Shouldn’t they be getting lunch ready?”
Yes, I know. I should have treated him on the spot to a long and stern lecture about the wickedness of sexual stereotyping (sorry, “gender” stereotyping). Or perhaps I should have packed him off to a re-education camp, to be taught to appreciate the, like, y’know, intensely valid role of women’s football in the sisterhood’s struggle for freedom from centuries of quasi-fascist male oppression.
As it was, I’m afraid I just laughed - and rather more heartily than the boy’s joke deserved, in the opinion of his dear mother, who was getting our lunch ready.
Having made that appalling confession, I guess that I, too, must kiss goodbye to my hopes of an honorary professorship at theFaculty of Life Sciences, University College London.
All right, my chances were never all that strong in the first place, since I last set foot in a laboratory when I was 16 and haven’t dissected a frog or peered down a microscope from that day to this.
But as Professor Tim Hunt has discovered, to his awful humiliation, people even better qualified than I to teach the mysteries of cell cycle regulation to budding scientists can destroy their careers through a single light-hearted remark, judged to be unamusing by academia’s po-faced panjandrums of political correctness.
As the entire world now knows, Sir Tim is the brilliant biologist, honoured with a Nobel Prize for his contribution to the search for a cure for cancer, who was forced to resign by the UCL authorities.
This was after his attempt to amuse an audience of women journalists and scientists in South Korea fell a little flat, provoking a Twitter storm of outrage from the sort of people who devote their lives to hunting for excuses to take offence.
Now, in the nine days since the university inflicted this monstrous injustice on him, a great many eminent scientists of both sexes have sprung to Sir Tim’s defence - as have a fair few toilers in my own trade.
But it’s striking that, with only a handful of exceptions, his defenders have felt obliged to preface their remarks by describing his comments in Seoul as “stupid”, “crass”, “antediluvian” or, at best, “very ill-advised”.
Well, perhaps this is a generation thing (at 61, I am only 11 years Sir Tim’s junior). But believe me, I’ve tried - and I just can’t see that any of those descriptions can fairly be applied to the words he actually spoke.
True, with the wisdom of hindsight, he would not have uttered them. But this is only because of the deeply unfair and offensive reaction they provoked. In my view, the words themselves - unlike my son’s little witticism - were completely inoffensive.
But I’ll let readers be the judge of that. This is what Sir Tim is reported to have said: “Let me tell you about my trouble with girls. Three things happen when they are in the lab: you fall in love with them; they fall in love with you; and when you criticise them, they cry.”
Should he have said “women” instead of “girls”? Maybe. You can’t be too careful these days. But was this really a sackable offence? As for the rest, we may certainly disagree with him when he argues that single-sex laboratories would best serve scientific progress, with their lower risk of the distractions of romance.
Indeed, I’m persuaded by one of Sir Tim’s former pupils - Ottoline Leyser, professor of plant development at Cambridge University’s Sainsbury Laboratory - when she argues in the Times Higher Education supplement: “Progress in science depends on creativity, imagination, inspiration, serendipity, obsession, distraction and all the things that make us human. The best science happens in precisely the environments where people fall in and out of love.”
As for his charge against women that “when you criticise them, they cry”, we may take it that he’s speaking from personal experience - as he certainly is when he speaks of love in the lab, since it was in the laboratory that he met his wife, the UCL scientist, Professor Mary Collins.
Meanwhile, as no less an authority than the Mayor of London points out, it is an established scientific fact that women cry more easily and more often than men.
According to Boris, “the world’s leading expert on crying” is Professor Ad Vingerhoets of Tilburg University, who has found that women cry on average 30 to 64 times a year and men only six to 17 times. (Chillingly, by the way, a Labour MP called Chi Onwurah has told The Guardian she believes Mr Johnson may have breached the Sex Discrimination Act by suggesting that male and female employees are somehow different.)
What we can all agree, surely, is Sir Tim was most emphatically not saying that women make inferior scientists.
On the contrary, everyone who has actually had dealings with the man - including Professor Leyser, Professor Lord Winston and the feminist physics professor Athene Donald of Cambridge - has testified to his tireless promotion of the cause of women in his field.
Yet on the strength of a Twitter storm, the UCL authorities were apparently prepared to forget all the good work he’d done for women - never mind his contribution to the fight against cancer. Without any sort of hearing, they demanded his head within 24 hours of his ill-fated speech.
Says his wife: “I was told by a senior that Tim had to resign immediately or be sacked. Tim duly emailed his resignation when he got home.”
But it gets worse. The creeps at UCL - and nine days on, they still haven’t had the decency to identify themselves - failed even to observe the most basic civility of expressing regret at Sir Tim’s departure. Instead, they put out a disgustingly priggish little statement, saying: “This outcome is compatible with our commitment to gender equality.”
The Royal Society, from whose biological sciences committee the Nobel prizewinner also resigned, wasn’t much better. Though its statement acknowledged Sir Tim’s “exceptional contributions” to science, it went on: “It is the great respect that he has earned for his work that has made his recent comments so disappointing, comments he now recognises were unacceptable.”
How could these once-revered institutions treat such a man in this unspeakably shoddy way? Aren’t universities and learned societies meant to be bastions of free speech and independent-mindedness? Or have they all become craven slaves to the oppressive doctrines of political correctness?
I started with one son, and I’ll end with another. When our fourth and youngest arrived home from Sheffield on Wednesday after sitting his finals, I happened to be reading The Duke’s Children, the sixth of the Palliser novels. I asked him if he’d read any Anthony Trollope - and to my surprise and delight he said that he had.
But he hadn’t read any of the great man’s novels, for which he is chiefly famous. No, all he’d read was a bit of Trollope’s travel-writing about Jamaica.
Why pick that, I wondered? It was for a university course, he said - in “Victorian perceptions of race and racial stereotypes”.
So there’s the answer to my question about what Britain’s universities have come to. Trollope is no longer promoted and enjoyed for his wonderful tales about scheming churchmen, politicians, noblemen, terrifying aunts and poor-but- honest, love-struck middle-class girls.
As a man of his time, who believed Englishmen were better than foreigners, he’s studied only to be tutted at for the occasional offence he committed against modern ideas of political correctness.
Has anyone in academia the guts to stand up against this tyranny?