Wednesday 12 March 2008
Miles Kington Remembered: The tale of Bertrand Russell and the Big Red Dustbin
28 January 1988
I am told that there is an enormous demand for children's stories with intellectual rigour as well as an exciting story, so I have devised a series based on famous thinkers of the past, which I am convinced will make my fortune. The first one, which I may bring you today, is called: Bertrand Russell and the Big Red Dustbin.
It was a cold, snowy day in 1888 and all Bertrand wanted to do was stay indoors and think about things. But his mother had other ideas.
"Bertie!" she cried, "Bertie? Oh, where can he have got to? He seems to have vanished."
"How many times must I tell you mother," said Bertie, appearing behind her, "that there is no such thing as vanishing?"
"A person cannot dematerialise, matter is indestructible. So is Mater, come to that," added Bertie, making one of his rare jokes.
"What about your Uncle George?" said Bertie's mother, who liked nothing better than a rousing philosophical debate. "He vanished five years ago. So did half the family silver."
"You are using the word 'vanish' in a very loose sense, mother," said young Bertie, loftily. "Uncle George merely took a passage to Australia, presumably accompanied by the silver."
"How did you know that?" said his mother, genuinely surprised. "Even the police could not trace him."
"I took the precaution of checking the passenger lists on boats bound for Australia. He was listed as Albert Prince. It was an old joke of his."
"Why didn't you tell us that?"
"Nobody listens to a five-year-old child on police matters," said Bertie. "And now, if you don't mind, I've got some thinking to do."
"Oh no you don't," said Bertie's mother. "I've got a job for you. I want you to take the big red dustbin down to the end of the drive ready for collection by the dustmen."
"Why should I...?"
"Just do it and don't answer back," said his mother, giving him a clip round the ear-hole.
Young Bertie reddened and tears came to his eyes.
This was for two reasons, he quickly analysed. One, because it was shameful to have a mother who was so quick to forget modern educational theory as to substitute physical coercion for sweet reason. Two, because it bloody well hurt. Well, he would get his own back, that he would. No, no, he thought hastily, petty revenge is NOT the answer. That was as illogical a primitive reaction as his mother's box on the ears had been. If he could not rise above the behaviour of his mother and act logically at all times, what chance of progress was there?
"Bertie!" said his mother crossly, coming back into the room. "Take that dustbin out before the dustmen come, for God's sake!"
"I hardly think that an appeal to a non-existent deity will have much effect," said Bertie, with dignity. "I believe in the existence of the dustmen, yes. The big dustbin, yes. But God, no."
Another box descended on his ear. Right, thought Bertie, grimly. Petty revenge it is, then. He put on scarf and gloves and went outside into the cold. There stood the big red dustbin in the yard, full of rubbish. Take it down to the road, his mother had said. Right, he would take the dustbin to the road. But, he would leave the rubbish behind at the house. That would set his mother right for not issuing a logical order.
As he was emptying the bin on to the ground, he realised a tramp was standing a few yards away, watching him. "Having a good time, son?" Bertie explained briefly the reasoning behind his actions. The tramp nodded approvingly.
"Matter of fact, I need an empty bin myself," he said, "so this will come in handy. I also need all the stuff that's on the dining-room dresser. Nip in and get it, there's a good boy."
Bertie went to fetch the rest of the family silver and put it in the big red dustbin.
"How was Australia, Uncle George?" he said.
The tramp smiled. "Still, the clever one, eh Bertie? Well, Australia's very expensive, hence my reappearance. But I did remember to bring you a present."
He gave Bertie a boomerang stamped "Australia Centennial – 100 Years Old", winked and went off down the drive with the bin on his back. "Did you take the big red dustbin down to the road?" said his mother later.
"Mother, I promised the bin would be taken down the drive, and it was," said Bertie, phrasing his sentence to avoid lying. Logic, he had already realised, was the most important thing in the world. After getting your own back, of course.
Coming soon: Wittgenstein Goes To The Supermarket and Naughty Little Nietzsche.
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