Anthony Ferner

A fictional experiment: the use of deadpan humour to portray grief

Sample Passages

  • The Cat It Is That Dies, Perhaps

    Professor Winegarden put his hand on the knob of the bedroom door and waited, uncertain, in the early morning light. The daily ritual, the barely resolvable daily choice: should he go back in to glimpse his wife again before he left, or not? If he did, would she wake or stay sleeping? Were she to wake, would she be irritable, saying, for example, ‘For goodness’ sake, Jacob, are you a child?’ in that restrained murmur that made it all the more cutting. This would be painful to him. And, at the same time, like a welcome pinprick of feeling in a numb limb. But then again, she might smile sweetly and say, ‘Jacob? Is that you, darling? I hope the day goes well.’
    If he chose not to go in, to remain in ignorance as to whether she would wake or stay sleeping, he could speculate then on infinite possibilities, and some of these would not carry the heavy charge of loss and diminishment.
    And so he held back, a burly man with thinning hair and entropic eyebrows, until some small electrical twitch of muscle led him to turn and tread down the stairs with a sigh. He would phone her later to tell her that he’d been called into the office first thing. He imagined her reproachful voice: ‘On a Saturday? Is it that important? Are we to be ships in the night, Jacob?’
    To which he would reply, ‘Miriam, darling, there’s been a problem.’
    A problem with the experimental cat.
    Winegarden came out of the drive, glanced at the icy splendour of St Augustine’s church, a fixed reference point in an unpredictable world, and turned south. He strode down the tree-lined street, past the detached red-brick houses with their self-important chimneys, dwellings fit for the professoriate. At the lights he crossed over and turned right into Norfolk Road. He could walk to his office in thirty minutes, along streets whose generous sycamores and copper beeches shaded him from the sun and kept him moderately dry on rainy days.
    As he crossed the Harborne Road by the Bluecoat School, he recalled, as he often did at this spot, the four years in the 1990s when he’d worked in temporary accommodation nearby. While their offices were being refurbished, the research group in non-empirical experimentation had been displaced from the Poynting Building and had settled into cramped rooms above the Harborne branch of the Cats Protection League.
    Though Winegarden was never sure why the location had been chosen by the hierarchs at the School of Theoretical Physics, the decision was felicitous. For the one constant in non-empirical experimentation, apart from pencil and paper, was the presence of a cat. Or at least the idea of a cat.
    The manager of the Cats Protection League, perhaps as a joke, perhaps because of a problem with vermin, had lent the thought-experimenters a black cat so sleek it sometimes looked pearlescent grey. It served very well, prompting experimental thoughts and catching small rodents. While the scientists toyed with the former, the cat toyed with the latter and laid them out in neat ranks under Winegarden’s desk. When the cat died, another was provided. It proved unexpectedly difficult to devise a test to falsify the hypothesis that an actual cat aided thought experiments. In the absence of which falsification, the convention continued, even after the research group’s return to the Poynting Building.
    This building, square and red-brick, was named after John Henry Poynting, an early professor of physics at the university. Poynting was an out-and-out empiricist who measured knowable unknowns (as Winegarden put it, before Rumsfeld), rather than the known unknowables of the quantum thought experiments conducted by Winegarden’s group. Poynting, the son of a nonconformist minister, was famous for weighing the earth, and something more definitive and as little open to doubt was hard to imagine. But then Poynting also believed in the ‘luminiferous ether’, and in God – and these signs of human frailty softened Winegarden towards him.
    Jacob Winegarden, despite being a non-religious Jew, an agnostic in every vibrating atom (because being agnostic was to admit to the probable impossibility of knowing), often wondered about the existence of God. What if God both did and did not exist, or sometimes did and sometimes did not? What if He-She-It was only forced into existence – or blocked from coming into being – by thoughts and intentions in the hearts and minds of men? Or indeed women? John Henry Poynting was by upbringing a Unitarian, a denier of the Holy Trinity and hence a believer in the One God. That left too little room for equivocation. At least, thought Winegarden, the Trinity allowed for the idea that God was the Father, and at the same time the Son, and the Holy Spirit, the pneuma, the divine breath that was immanent in this world and in human beings.
    ‘The breath of God.’ An idea – thought the professor as he made his way along the wide grass verge of Somerset Road with its lavender-scented air – an idea that was rich in arcane possibilities, even for an agnostic. He had no time for that Dawkins character and his confident atheism. How absurd to insist that one must not believe in God. How black and white, how categorical. Winegarden smiled to himself and his eyebrows quivered in grim pleasure at the image of the man Dawkins standing on a street corner with an armful of newspapers, in the fashion of old Socialist Worker stalwarts, crying, ‘Militant Atheist! Militant Atheist!’ Things were always more complicated.
    Except, rarely, when they were not. When all the spins and orbits of the world’s electrons aligned in such a way as to make the improbable likely, to make the incredible happen.
    And at such moments, things could become very simple and you could hold in your hand the key to future states of being. Or of non-being. So, in April 1936, Winegarden’s grandfather, Heinz-Josef Weingarten, cut through the hubbub of the times and recognised an instant of crystalline simplicity. He decided against the wishes of his relatives and friends to abandon familial ease, pay the Reich flight tax, and leave Germany’s murderous certainties for ever. He took with him his heavily lamenting wife and their teenage son Harry – who was to become Jacob’s father – and they found refuge first in Belgium and then in England.
    The Weingartens lived in London for a few months, changed their name to Winegarden, established contact with the Yekkes of Birmingham and, joining the influx of German Jewish refugees in the city, rented a modest apartment in a bulging tenement block off Sherlock Street. By the seventies, Harry was prospering as a seller of rare books and had moved his young wife, Ruth, and Jacob, their only child, out to Edgbaston.

Sample Information


Winegarden recounts episodes in the life of Jacob Winegarden, an agnostic Jewish professor of theoretical physics whose speciality is ‘thought experimentation’. A burly, vague, distracted man, a fan of popular films such as Toy Story and Fantastic Voyage, Jacob is still forlornly infatuated with his enigmatic wife, Miriam. She brings him back to reality: he is in a world of his own, she says, but there are things that need doing in this one.

And he loved the idea of quantum entanglement because it explained what he felt for Miriam. He had a strong sense that she was, in some real way, ever-present, that he and she were somehow tied together.

Winegarden operates at the elusive boundary between physics and metaphysics, trying to understand what the world of quantum mechanics can tell us about the soul, the existence of God, the meaning of love and memory; about how those who are absent can also be present.

Jacob Winegarden, despite being a non-religious Jew, an agnostic in every vibrating atom (because being agnostic was to admit to the probable impossibility of knowing), often wondered about the existence of God.

He uses pencil and paper, and classic aids to thought such as cats, zombies or occasionally Golems, because these creatures occupy ambiguous spaces between states of being and not-being and can thus illuminate the nature of the universe.

His apparently whimsical thought experiments are revealed to have a deadly serious purpose. Making connections between his life and his work is his way of coping with the uncertainties of love, the trailing tendrils of his Jewish heritage, and the trauma of a devastating loss.
Winegarden fears certainty: if the truth is bleak, it may be better not to know, to be uncertain. And if it has to be known, then there will be thought experiments that can imagine other universes where things might be different.

He lay on the bed as instructed, facing a large colour monitor attached to the wall beside him. By habit, he distracted himself with a thought experiment. What would happen if one could alter the molecular properties of the solid tissue of the human body so that light was no longer refracted but passed straight through?

Moving backwards and forwards in time and touching on different parts of Winegarden’s life and thoughts, the stories are designed to fit together as a novella. Together they tell a larger personal story of grief and survival, the ambivalence and persistence of love, and the meaning of being Jewish.

Winegarden was launched in Leamington Spa’s town hall on 25 October 2015. Enjoy the photos.

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Winegarden is distributed in the USA by SPD.

ISBN: 9781907320507
Number of pages: 92
Price: £0


‘It has that great old Jewish quality of combining high seriousness with low playfulness, it is rich and ironic and not ironic, subversive yet curiously traditional: it holds one’s attention, it provokes one into thought.’ – Rick Gekoski

‘An extraordinary piece of work: clever, entertaining, dramatic and moving.’ – Alan Mahar

‘This is an unusual and compelling novel, exploring the anxieties of an intellectual who is forever probing the unknowability of things, especially in his relationship with his wife. It’s moving, funny and intellectually stimulating. A deep and pleasurable read.’ – Gaynor Arnold

‘The cat motif is retained throughout this hilarious satire of academic life.’

‘The mysticism of the Romantics and of modern physics are drawn together in this impressive philosophical essay disguised as a very funny book.’ – David Gardiner in issue 28 of Gold Dust Magazine

‘This book is superb: thought provoking, moving and absorbing. It is a very funny, perfectly tuned and satisfying read.’ – Alan Beard on goodreads

‘I’ve have been charmed, (seduced?) by the lightness and seriousness of this book.’ – Sibyl on goodreads

‘Winegarden and Miriam are engaging characters and the mix of seriousness and humour make Winegarden a compelling, thought-provoking read.’ – Emma Lee on her blog

‘The very economy with which Ferner writes reinforces the quality of the writing.’


‘Ferner has created a figure who encapsulates so many of those common Jewish neuroses  which we all know so well.’ – Richard Jaffa in the BPS Bulletin

‘Fantastic first novella. I hope to see more.’ – Dalton Blue on goodreads

‘Winegarden is a wise and funny little book which left me with a lump in my throat.’ – Ali Hope on her blog

‘Professor Winegarden will probably charm you and infuriate you as much as he does the lovely Miriam. That’s the joy of this book.’ – Yasmin on goodreads

‘A dissection of a marriage between a very unworldly academic and his determinedly practical wife.’ – Brian Davies on Amazon

‘A really gripping read that will make one laugh, cry and ponder the intricacies of life, love and religion.’ – Daniel on Amazon

‘I enjoyed this novel. It was different from my normal reads. I like that it took me to another world.’ – Natalie Carter AAMBC Reviewer 

‘Throughout, the book compels one to reflect on one’s own humanity and frailties. This is Ferner’s first novel. It’s a most impressive debut.’ – review on Amazon

‘This oddly compelling book is both humorous and melancholic.’ – Adam on goodreads

‘An exquisite novella of love and loss, tenderness and ageing.’ – Davy Crockett on Amazon

‘This was a sweet little novella about a Jewish professor of philosophy. It was interesting peeking into a Jewish life.‘ – Peggy Ann on her blog