INTERVIEW: SOMETHING ABOUT MARY

She's a former philosophy don and now a kind of moral consultant to the Government. But to Will Self, Baroness Warnock is Mary

IN SAM Peckinpah's minatory, tumultuous film Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, the title says it all. The daughter of a Mexican patriarch of no little bloodthirstiness has been violated by the eponymous antihero, and a host of retainers are dispatched to detach the seat of Garcia's reason from the rest of his body. The film begins with this exodus of assassins and ends with the "winner" - played by the superb Warren Oates - veering in and out of psychosis as he tries to keep his car on the road back to the Patriarch's estancia. Garcia's head is in a sack on the passenger seat and its severer's advancing insanity is manifested in the discourse he begins to hold with it.

Now, I know this must sound just as batty as Peckinpah's scenario, but I was reminded of it the other morning as I thrashed my four-door saloon through the wet winter lanes of Wiltshire, desperately late for my appointment with the moral philosopher, educationalist and influential chair of government committees, Baroness Warnock. For - entirely figuratively speaking - her head was plonked there on the unattractive yet durable checked seat cover, and she and I were engaged in a discourse which wasn't so much wide-ranging as universal.

The paradoxical thing was that my Peckinpah flashback wasn't a function of any anxiety I might have had about being late; the reverse was the case. I'd met Mary Warnock once before when we worked together on a television programme called The Great Ape Debate. The programme was the centrepiece of Channel 4's Christmas schedule for that year, which was anything and everything animalistic. The conceit of the programme was that Mary Warnock and I were members of a jury which would consider whether or not the great apes (chimpanzees, gorillas, orang-utans) should be accorded some form of limited human rights. We spent a long day at the Granada studios in Manchester listening to Michael Mansfield propose the motion and David Mellor oppose it. Both were allowed to call a number of witnesses (including Peter Singer, the philosophic father of the animal rights movement), and there was also all the usual faffing about involved in a large-scale television production.

The "jury" was a splendidly heterogeneous group, which, as well as Warnock and myself, included Christine Odone, then editor of the Catholic Herald, and Bill Paterson, the actor. Two things were immediately notable about Mary Warnock during that day. The first was that when we were introduced I said to her (being fanatically opposed to the Honours System), "I'm very pleased to meet you, Mary." And she didn't bat an eyelid - no insistence on, or even acknowledgement of, her title. I liked that. The second and more predictable happening was that there was a universal and unanimous decision between the other jurors that Warnock should take the role of foreperson. Naturally, she acquitted herself splendidly - this is a woman whose authority is subtle yet irrefutable, and whose commensurate powers of reasoning almost audibly hum. Needless to say, she was brilliant and unflagging with the task in hand and, without in any way succumbing to the distorted reality of the medium, she took the motion seriously.

The recording went on late into the evening, so that those of us who were London-bound had to be driven back in a mini-van. It took well over three hours, mostly because, as he saw fit to inform us at the start of the journey, the idiotic driver was utterly exhausted and in danger of falling asleep at the wheel if we didn't keep talking. We did - and made it. Mary Warnock never once lost her composure or her good humour, although this was at the time - I now realise - that she was nursing her dying husband, her co-labourer in the field of ethics, both theoretically and practically.

So, the discourse with the imagined head was eclectic, amusing and instructive - rather than the ravings of an increasingly psychotic bounty hunter. When I finally arrived at the small Wiltshire village where Mary Warnock now lives in a comfortable but by no means affluent house, I was only minimally piqued to discover she'd entirely forgotten that long day in Manchester. She answered the door with some alacrity, shook hands with me firmly and said, "I knew your father, of course, we worked together on various committees." I myself have a dreadful memory for having met people, and anyway this is a woman who has many many more important things to think about.

I suppose there are those who would describe Mary Warnock as an intimidating presence. She is tall, handsome, and has a marked tendency towards the penetrating stare. She's been an Oxford philosophy don, a headmistress, the head of an Oxford college, and is - as I've already remarked on ad nauseam - a life peer. She has written numerous books on both of her principal fields, and of course she's chaired a number of important government committees, including, most famously, the one which determined the legal guidelines for medical research involving the use of human embryos. It was in this latter role that Mary Warnock aroused the most controversy; having set the allowable limit for such research at an embryo lifespan of 14 days, she was lambasted by all-comers, from the pro-lifers to the scientific community, who claimed that her facts about ontogeny were radically wrong. Well, it was only to be expected.

On this day she was wearing a grey pleated skirt and a blue cardigan. It may have been a function of the alteration in scale - Manchester television studio to Wiltshire cottage - but throughout this encounter I felt that she was somehow larger, more embodied, more present. Her house is neat but not too austere. We sat and talked in what was clearly a room where both work and leisure were embraced - not unlike my own writing environment. She's lived in the house for only a couple of years, which perhaps explains its relatively Spartan feel. She told me, "After Geoffrey's death I couldn't stay in Axford" (where they'd lived together). "It was so much a part of him, a beautiful place on the Kennet. And anyway, you had to drive if you wanted to post a letter." With utterly characteristic forthrightness, she then went on to say, "I still feel guilty about his death. He was ill for three-and-a-half years and I didn't deal with it that well - I became very irascible."

They had five children together. They worked together. They were influenced by the same thinkers; and yet seeing Mary Warnock in her widowed estate I had no sense that here was someone to be pitied, or that she was the wriggling half of a severed worm. Yes, there are those who might find her intimidating but I'm not among them. On the contrary, I found Mary - I feel I must indulge in this Anglo version of the tutoiement - to be as I'd anticipated her while I caromed through the morning damp. She was warm, engaging, quick to laugh at both herself and the world, and absolutely devoid of any self-pity or indulgence.

Her most recent book is one of a series put out by Duckworth's, under the general umbrella of "Intelligent Person's Guides". Mary has done ethics - while such luminaries as Roger Scruton got to tackle culture. I put it to her that the series title was off-putting and she guffawed, "It's a bit ridiculous - it makes me think of the Eighties and young fogeys like AN Wilson." The book itself is something of a reprise of Mary's preoccupations as both moral philosopher and a kind of "moral consultant" for the British government. It's highly readable, even for the non-philosophically literate, as well as tackling - as any such guide should - the practical problems of ethical decision-making in a world that is now not so much post-lapsarian as continually in moral free-fall.

To compound its catholicity, it also gives its readers a potted history of Mary's own philosophic influences, from the "deadening" Naturalism of GE Moore, to the liberating effects of JL Austin: "Both Geoffrey and I greatly admired his masterly and ironic style." Mary was up at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, in the immediate post-war period. "It was the first grown- up life I'd had at all - not that we spent our time leaping in and out of bed with each other." Even with my upbeat view of Mary, I did find it difficult to imagine her behaving in any such fashion.

Not that Mary Warnock has any disdain for the pleasures that life has to offer. When I quizzed her on matters sumptuary, she said, "I adore good single malts ... " and then we spent the next five minutes comparing tastes and trying to remember the names of them; for, with almost Newtonian predictability, I too am a whisky fanatic. I wouldn't wish to suggest for a second that Mary's Scotch affair is much more than a lowland fling, although when I asked why it is that she hadn't retired, she succinctly replied: "I need the money."

The five children all come to visit regularly and a couple of them live in the vicinity but, as she herself admitted, having the kind of career she has meant that they were mostly "raised by nannies and such". But while content to chat about the psychopathology of everyday life, her full animation was reserved for matters of the public kind.

I reminded her of how unruffled she'd been when I untitled her, and asked why it was she'd accepted it - she wasn't a monarchist was she? "Not particularly. Actually they offered me the DBE first and I considered refusing it, because what I really wanted was a peerage. I wanted to be in the House of Lords. But I was disabused of this and spent a while as Dame Warnock - which sounds preposterous, like a character in Chaucer."

When she did eventually make it to the Lords she became a crossbencher: "I think that it's important to consider each piece of legislation entirely on its own merits - rather than in relation to one party line or another." And concerning the ambitions of the current regime she was more than dismissive: "Their ideas for constitutional reform are quite extraordinarily bland; people really should be warned about the way the constitution is being ripped apart." She herself is inclined to think that there should be a series of referenda on all of these matters, if only so that the consciousness of the British people in general can be properly focused on what are epochal changes.

It was a rare example of my leaving my gloves off in a potential argument situation, for despite her earlier assertion that she wasn't a royalist "particularly", she still lambasted Margaret Jay over the Labour reforms: "I knew Margaret Jay well and admired her greatly, but she's been utterly, vulgarly hostile to hereditary peers." For a moment I considered pointing out to her how inconsistent this view was, but it passed and within a few seconds we were back in the impenetrable jungle of ethics, with Mary positively enthusing about "a whole lot of completely new issues which will come directly from the development of genetic engineering".

The one sour note in our encounter came towards the end when we veered into an exchange on the Semitic cast of the Thatcher government. I pointed out that it was Thatcher who had given the Chief Rabbi a seat in the Lords for the first time, and she immediately reminisced: "Yes, I went to dinner once at his house - the food was absolutely revolting: smelly, overcooked cauliflower. Then, when it came to saying grace the Chief Rabbi delivered a 25-minute- long lecture on abortion - where we were, where we should be going." A preternaturally sensitive, anti-Semitic Jew myself, I would have jumped down the throat of almost any Gentile who related the smelliness of a prelate's cabbage to his views on the sanctity of human life - even if that relation was solely one of verbal contiguity, rather than any form of causality. However, to imagine for a second that Mary Warnock was an anti-Semite would've been as crazy as chatting to a severed head which was resting in a sack on the passenger seat of my car. It was the bad manners and the fundamentalism she'd objected to; after all, if there's one thing everyone knows without the need for an Intelligent Guide, cuisine is the very nadir of Jewish culture.

Mary told me that the branch of philosophy she most admired was the philosophy of science, but that she herself was rather more of an historian of philosophic ideas. I'm glad that she said this herself - for it means that I only have to reiterate it. I don't think it can be in any way conceived of as Mary's fault - the limiting constraint is itself epistemological rather than intellectual - but there is very little indeed in her writings on philosophy that could be construed as original. No, she is the very wise pedagogue that she appears to be, and her books are guides to the field, far more so than those of the majority of contemporary academic philosophers. That being said, they're all the better for it. Mary told me that she "abhorred Logical Positivism", with its avowed aim of analysing the meaning of all ethical propositions solely in terms of their empirical verifiability. She laughed heartily when I told her how I'd once heard AJ Ayer being interviewed on the radio, and that when he was asked what, 50 years on, he now thought of Logical Positivism (a school of thought of which he was one of the main exponents), he replied succinctly: "Obviously we were wrong." Linguistic philosophy has, in the post-war period, had a still more pernicious effect on the prose of philosophers, rendering it into a jargon of altogether impenetrable coinages. What a delight Mary's lucid expositions are after these irrelevant tomes full of neologisms.

Mary Warnock represents the best of what Britain has to offer when it comes to providing wise people to undertake weighty deliberations. Given the "extraordinary banality" of Tony Blair's conception of constitutional reform, he could do far worse than to shout to his savage assassin of a press secretary: "Ali! Bring me the head of Mary Warnock!"

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