Women over logic

A J Ayer: A Life by Ben Rogers Chatto pounds 20
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The Independent Culture
The first thing that needs to be said about this authorised biography of A J Ayer, the famous philosopher who brought logical positivism to Britain, is that it can be enjoyed by philosophical illiterates; not because it makes his rigorous thought accessible - which would be too much to ask - but because it does such gripping justice to a life which numbered among its many extraordinary exploits the rescue of Naomi Campbell from the violent attentions of Mike Tyson.

It is a marvellous story. "At a New York party, an elderly Ayer found Tyson forcing himself on the young model, then at the beginning of her career. Ayer ordered Tyson to desist. Tyson: 'Do you know who the fuck I am? I am the heavyweight champion of the world.' Ayer stood his ground. 'I am the Wykeham Professor of Logic. We are both pre-eminent in our field. I suggest that we talk about this like rational men.'" Ayer and Tyson began to talk and Naomi slipped out. Not even Ayer's friend and master, Bertrand Russell, whose own life was dramatic enough, could boast an adventure quite as un-ivory-towerish as that.

In Ayer's case, however, more even than in that of Bertrand Russell - who at one point at least tried to believe in God - the colourful life of a man of action and his philosophical convictions complemented each other. For it was precisely because any hope of an afterlife had been ruled out by Ayer's aggressive atheism - the seeds of which had been sown at preparatory school when God didn't answer his prayers to get into the first eleven - that he felt such an overwhelming compulsion to get the most out of this one, particularly when it came to women, which for him it almost always did. (Indeed he once confessed that he would sacrifice all his friends for the most ephemeral love affair.) In other words, he felt almost in logic bound to play the Don Juan, rather as an earlier great philosopher, Schopenhauer, felt almost duty bound to play the misogynist. Lucky Ben Rogers, the author of this biography. For apart from Bertrand Russell I can think of no other philosopher, alive or dead, whose life story provides so many picaresque incidents, as much in war as in peace, and so many grounds for gripping gossip.

For a start his background was colourful enough. His father, Jules Ayer, was secretary to Alfred Rothschild, the banker and friend of King Edward VII, who became the child's godfather, bequeathing to him the first name of Alfred - which he hated and never used - but not much else, since Jules went bankrupt early on. Nevertheless, in 1923 Ayer managed to win a scholarship to Eton, which in those days did not take kindly to Jews, particularly if they were as cocky and clever as this one clearly was. For example, another boy (Edward Ford, later to become equerry to the Queen), recalls him as "a bright bumptious little boy, trying rather self-consciously to be clever and looking around for approval after one of his quips". Not surprisingly, this trait got him into trouble with his seniors, from one of whom, Quintin Hogg, a future Conservative Lord Chancellor - himself not much of a martyr to modesty - he received several harsh canings: not too high a price to pay, one might think, for being launched into the highest rungs of gentile society wherein, for the rest of his life, he was quite happy to shine.

While still at Eton, however, he read an essay on "The Value of Scepticism", in which Bertrand Russell defended the proposition that "it is undesirable to believe a proposition where there is no good evidence for supposing it true", a motto which Ayer later described as having served him throughout his career. Then still in his teens, after winning a major scholarship to Christ Church, the nobs' college at Oxford, he got engaged to Renee, a beautiful young woman he had met on holiday in Paris, with whom he travelled all over Europe in the sidecar of her motorcycle, winning her hand, apparently, by his astonishing capacity to carry on reading and writing in such very difficult circumstances.

At Oxford, too, there was no stopping him. In no time at all he had got married to Renee in the fashionable Roman Catholic Brompton Oratory, in spite of having tried to argue Graham Greene out of his Catholicism; stood as a left-wing LCC candidate for Soho, his view being that the Pope had done more evil than Stalin; been befriended by Wittgenstein, who developed a crush on him when the two met in Cambridge; been described as "very clever" by Einstein, whose Christ Church Fellowship he was later to inherit and become for a time the only British member of the famous Viennese circle of logical positivists, out of whose deliberations he fashioned Language, Truth and Logic, which turned him before he was 25 into a major star of the intellectual firmament which he remained for the rest of his life.

His war, too, was glamorous. Without waiting for the call, with a bowler hat on his head, a furled umbrella under his arm and an Old Etonian tie around his neck, he applied for a commission in the Welsh Guards which, after a cruel and gruelling three months of training in the ranks - during which he disgusted his friend Philip Toynbee by seeming to enjoy "the ragging, rowdy banter and table banging of army life" - he duly received, eventually rising to the rank of major. Despite his best efforts to join a fighting battalion, he was eventually posted to work for SOE in New York, charged with the job of countering pro- German activities in north and south America, a job that left him plenty of time for amatory conquests which included Joan Crawford, the famous Hollywood film star, and Sheilah Graham, the former mistress of Scott Fitzgerald, by whom he had a secret daughter, the first of several illegitimate children.

Only after much agitation on his part did he finally in 1944 (via a raffish spell in Algeria) reach France, where he requisitioned a Bugatti and toured the south, helping to make peace between the various resistance groups, even appearing at one point on the Toulouse mayor's balcony behind General de Gaulle. But the best was still to come as he ended up in liberated Paris in a chateau lent him, replete with butler, cook and wine cellar, by Guy de Rothschild, a relation of his godfather Alfred. It was almost too good to be true, enabling him to entertain tout Paris - Malraux, Giacometti, Sartre, Camus, not to mention star British visitors like George Orwell and Cyril Connolly. Not unquestionably a "good war" but certainly an enviable one.

Nor was post-war Oxford and then London - where he was made Professor of Logic at UCL, much of an anticlimax, because by then Freddie had become something of a national institution, invited to teach and lecture all over the world, including the Kennedy White House where Ethel Kennedy, chiding him for not mentioning Thomas Aquinas, had to be roughly silenced by her Attorney General husband, Robert. Nor were politics ignored. He campaigned vigorously on behalf of all the great liberal causes - legalisation of homosexuality, abolition of capital punishment, and penal reform - in the course of which he got to know Hugh Gaitskell and Roy Jenkins (the former, had he lived, would have made him a peer) and all the other progressive luminaries. None of this, however, stopped the feverish philandering which was only temporally interrupted by a second marriage to Dee Wells, a formidably witty and outspoken American controversialist in whom for a time he found his match, until Vanessa, wife of Nigel Lawson and many years his junior, came along and stole his heart away. (Yes, he did have one.)

But was he a great philosopher? Ben Rogers leaves this question unanswered. My own opinion, worth very little, is that he was a master of destructive logic - ie, at demonstrating how all conventional assumptions about ethics and morality are invalid - but that he never had, as even his friend Isaiah Berlin once admitted, "an original thought". Hatred of humbug, rather than love of truth, was the driving force behind his work. Towards the end of his life, in the 1980s - through Vanessa who was a friend of mine - I saw quite a lot of him, if only because with so many of his contemporaries dead he was reduced to scraping the bottom of the barrel. But to me he was always a disappointing companion since his overwhelming scepticism was such as to freeze off good conversation, although by then, in the heyday of Thatcherism, his penchant for the unconventional and for challenging received ideas made him surprisingly sympathetic to my kind of heretical, reactionary high Toryism. We used to meet at the Beefsteak Club, where he would announce himself over the intercom as Professor Sir Freddie Ayer, unlike a former prime minister who was content simply to say "Harold Macmillan".

His few years with Vanessa, whom he truly loved, I believe were his happiest, but even then his self-centredness was such that when she was struck down with terminal cancer he wrote asking me to put him up for re-election to the Garrick Club, giving as his grounds that since he was shortly to be on his own, he would have more occasion to use its facilities. Quite logical, I agree, but excessively cold blooded nevertheless. He didn't, in the event, have much occasion to use the facilities, since he soon remarried Dee who looked after him to the end.

The above gives only the merest sketch of A J Ayer's truly fascinating life, which Ben Rogers in this biography fills in with all the colour and detail it deserves. I can't recommend the book too highly.