Frederic Raphael assesses the life of Bertrand Russell, the philosopher who, if he was close to being a genius, was even closer to being a shitby Frederic Raphael / May 20, 1996 / Leave a comment
Published in May 1996 issue of Prospect Magazine
I first saw, and heard, Bertrand Russell when I was 11 years old. My grandmother then lived in a block of flats in Gloucester Place, which had a restaurant on the ground floor. In 1943, wartime regulations limited the price of a meal to five shillings, though there was a permitted supplement (2s/6d) for smoked salmon. Having dutifully visited my bedridden grandmother, my mother and I were placed, at lunch, at a table next to Russell and his schoolboy son Conrad (the second of that name), to whom he addressed himself, in a consonantal tone, as if he were an unfamiliar and slightly deaf intellectual coeval. When the boy asked him whether having learnt Greek would assist him in mastering Sanskrit, Russell said, “I have a fancy that Welsh might be more pertinent.” Since I was in the process of mastering the uses of ho, hee, to, I was rather dashed by this news.
My only other recollections of that distant day are of the zeal with which Russell spooned his carrot soup and of his philosophically dashing white hair. I have never discovered whether Welsh and Sanskrit do indeed have some formal affinity; it may well be that Russell was entertaining himself with fanciful facetiae (he was famous for laughing loudly at his own jokes). His erudition, however, seemed casual, precise and enviable. Perhaps as a result of that impressive midday proximity, I decided, ten years later, to read philosophy. When I went to hear Russell lecture in Cambridge, there were so many people in Mill Lane that there had to be an overflow meeting. Purporting to be unimpressed by his popularity, Russell observed that some of the audience was probably there “for the wrong reasons” and said that the next week’s lecture would be twice as difficult.
How did an evacuee rarely in London, and certainly no subscriber to Mind, know even in 1943 that Russell was a famous intellect? Although his voice was not as well known as that of another philosopher, CEM Joad, who-as a regular on the original radio Brains Trust-was renowned for insisting that everything depended on “what you mean by” this or that, Russell’s aura was more lustrous and more enduring. Following a loud period of fame, Joad was defenestrated by the BBC after being convicted of travelling on a train without a ticket. Poor Joad is now remembered, if at all, only for his part in the original Gamesmanship, in which Stephen Potter depicted him as a ruthless tennis player. Joad, like Russell, is said to have been an ardent pursuer of women, though he advertised that he had no time for them intellectually. (Would Mary Warnock’s recent Women Philosophers have disposed him to change his mind?)