The Agreeable World of Wallace Arnold : When it comes to thinking, the British are best

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Long have I considered myself a thinker; indeed, very much so. Myself have I a thinker very much considered, long so much. Whichever way you choose to look at it, the name of Wallace Arnold sits high on the list of the nation's most prominent post-war cogitators.

And I have the tomes to prove it. Thoughts I Have Thought (1973), with an introduction by HRH The Duke of Edinburgh, was a masterly edition of my more philosophical (dread word!) writings, well-reviewed by, among others, Mr Paul Johnson, Mr Bernard Breslaw and "WA" in his influential, albeit anonymous, books column in Encounter. No lesser an authority than A J Ayer declared the author of both the follow-up, A Few More Thoughts to Think About, and the combined edition, All The Thoughts I Have Ever Thunk (1979), to be "arresting", or - in full - "worth arresting".

Despite the envious barbs of nations less reliable than our own, we British have long excelled at thought. We are to be congratulated on our avoidance of the fashionable "isms" (!!) that so beset the thinking patterns of our European counterparts. One can have too much of the abstract. Personally, I prefer real life. I sometimes wonder whether Monsieur Michel Tournier ever popped into his local butcher for a string of sausages, and if so what on earth he did with them when he got them back home. Eschewing such obvious Continental time-wasters as "post-modernism", "quantum mechanics", "existentialism" and "transvestism", we British have been content to light our pipes, set our caps at a thoughtful angle, put our feet up in front of a freshly lit fire, take a refreshing swig from a glass of halfway- decent claret, and treat ourselves to a jolly good snooze. More so than Monsieur Tournier and his ilk, we realise the immense benefit of treating the brain to a jolly good rest. For then - and only then - can common sense begin to flourish.

"Common sense": that's an expression which won't get you very far in the smoke-filled bars and cafes of Paris, hampered as they are by the Union of French Intellectuals and Allied Eggheads (!). "S'il vous plait, monsieur - le common sense pour moi," I once asked the patron of a Parisian dive - and within seconds I had been shown the door, decorated with the Order of the Boot (!).

Ever topical, I raise such vexed questions as I have just been perusing the reviews of a new biography of that wily old devil Bertrand Russell, subtitled not, as one might expect, General Bloody Nuisance or The Tomfool Years but - bah! - The Spirit of Solitude.

Solitude indeed! Russell was the least solitary of beings. I first encountered him in the early hours of a January morning at the Hokey- Cokey Club in Earlham Street in the early 1950s. At that time, he was moonlighting from his then unpublished work on relativity in order to pursue a more lucrative night-time career as a casino croupier of remarkable promise. "Place your bets," he would say, "in strict accordance with mathematical principles, which can themselves be reduced to a branch of logic." Russell soon rose through the ranks to become senior croupier: the owner of the Hokey-Cokey appreciated not only his raffish coiffure, but also his habit of dismissing any claims of a win. "A counter placed on a number is not thereby transformed into a bet, ergo any coincidence of a ball settling on a number on a wheel and the number covered by a counter on baize can have no basis in logic," he would say. "So we keep the money, sir. Place your bets, please, mesdames et messieurs!"

His head for figures combined with his undoubted way with birds of the unfeathered variety might have found Russell challenging Mr Paul Raymond's position as King of Soho; but he missed his opportunity. Alas, his career took a fatal U-turn, and he spent his life saddled with a variety of philosophical treatises, ideas, formulae and concepts, many still unproven, of little use to himself and a burden to others.

And whatever happened to our old friend, the great philosophical debate? It emigrated from the lofty reaches of the philosophy departments to the more down-to-earth editorial pages of the Daily Mail. Were Bertrand Russell alive today, he would feel obliged to come down off his lofty perch to contribute to the great issue that is dividing the nation: Does Di Have Cellulite? But whether he would have anything useful to contribute to the debate, I very much doubt. So much for philosophers!