When memory fails, try Wittgenstein

WILLIAM DONALDSON'S WEEK
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The Independent Online
I wouldn't want everyone to know - indeed, I wouldn't want anyone to know - but I'm keen to obtain a copy of Stevie Wonder's 1985 hit, "I Just Called To Say I Love You". Aware that it may not be at the leading edge of musical chic, and that a man of a certain age dressed in a Peter Jones blazer might, if he searched for it in a record store, attract a degree of ridicule from the pony-tailed and multi-pierced youth behind the counter, I have asked various of my young friends to buy it for me, but without success.

They blanch, frankly, just as my socially ambitious mother used to blanch when I discovered, at the age of three, that I could cause the world to make no sense to her by saying "pardon?" in front of the Duchess of Gloucester's sister, Lady Burghley.

Young Andrew from Radio 4 came nearest to obliging, suggesting a variation of the "embarrassing items in the chemist" ploy.

"I could go into WH Smith, I suppose," he said, "and establish myself as a serious person by first asking for a lot of respectable stuff. `I'll have the Independent, Granta, the London Review Of Books and, er, excuse me' - wink wink - `Stevie Wonder's ``I Just Called To Say I Love You''.' It's too risky, though. The assistant might misunderstand the code and, in front of everyone, hand me a copy of the Daily Telegraph.''

And here's another thing. I don't know about you, but when I'm invited to write a book these days I always go to my shelves, before accepting the commission, to check that I haven't already written it. Had I followed this practice at the start of my career, the history of my first book - inadvertently published three times, and by the same house, under different titles, and later appearing as a play, the book of the play and finally as a court case - might have been very different.

That said, I didn't, for some reason, take this precaution before starting my memoirs, From Sunningdale To This, the upshot being that I was half- way through an anecdote this week - to do, by an odd coincidence, with the almost inseparable nature of my friendship with Dr Tony O'Reilly - when I thought, hallo, this is familiar, I've heard this one before.

You may remember it. Invited by our mutual friend JP Donleavy to play in a game of American football at his home in Ireland, Dr O'Reilly had said that he would turn out only if I turned out too. I bruised over to Ireland, where, as captain of one of the teams, I picked Classy Cressida - knowing she'd been junior sprint champion of Berkshire - as my first- round draft choice to play at wide receiver, and Donleavy, un-aware that Dr O'Reilly had lost a yard of pace, picked him to mark her at cornerback.

Every time Classy Cressida got the ball, Dr O'Reilly knocked her flat, causing her to catch the first plane home ("I always carry £500," she said, "in case there's violence,") and, in her absence, allowing me and Dr O'Reilly to discuss the old days man to man - not least his gratitude to me for going crook just before the varsity match of 1958, which meant that my understudy, and his best friend at the time, Andy Mulligan, could fill in for me at scrum-half and spend the afternoon being lobbed into the cheap seats by Oxford's open-side flanker, the incomparable Peter Robbins.

"I'll always be grateful to you, Button," Dr O'Reilly said. Familiar, right? That's what I thought, so I went to my shelves on Tuesday to check whether I might, without remembering, have written my autobiography already, when my eye was caught by another book - Ludwig Wittgenstein. Lectures and Conversations on Aesthetics, Psychology, Religious Belief (Blackwell, 1978) - which might, I thought, clear up a problem currently of some concern to Mr Amis and myself.

Both of us are interested in the objective nature of aesthetic judgements - I because I wish to engage a pony-tailed youth in a record store in a black-belt intellectual discussion, Mr Amis because he wants to believe that the excellence of his work can be objectively demonstrated.

For Mr Amis, time will be the judge, but this is a mistake, surely; it might even be the equivalent, in aesthetics, of the relativist fallacy which, by its logically disastrous attachment of a non-relative moral principle (tolerance) to a view of morality as relative (when in Rome, etc) so bedevils ethics. To assume that readers will have got it right in a hundred years is to assume that a contemporary culture which believes in cannibalism, say, has for it, got it right now. (Equally, Mr Barnes's contribution to the debate - "At some point down the length of eternity, even Shakespeare will appear banal and no one will perform his plays" - is only telling if Mr Barnes concedes that, in such an event, Shakespeare's detractors will, simply, be mistaken.)

At which point, Andy From The Sixties pitched up.

"Where's my fiance, Michelle?" he said.

"Riding in Ireland," I said. "Respectable women always have a friend who has a horse."

Andy From The Sixties then asked me what I was doing, so I explained that, having gone to my shelves to discover whether I had already written my memoirs, I had been side-tracked into an investigation of whether Wittgenstein believed in the objective nature of aesthetic judgements.

"He did," said Andy From The Sixties, who, while doing eight years in Maidstone, read Wittgenstein from cover to cover. "He compared an aesthetic discussion to a court case - a matter of persuasion, employing rules and precedents - and he often referred to `true judgement', suggesting that his conversations with Leavis were not as rigidly uncurricular as both insisted. Finally, of course, he would have said that anyone disagreeing with the proposition `Martin Amis is a great novelist' hasn't understood the way `Amis' or `great' or `novelist' is used in the English language."

I returned to my shelves, where I discovered that I had indeed already written my memoirs, and more than once.

"I won't, after all," I said, "need Stevie Wonder's `I Just Called to Say I Love You', since I wanted it merely as a nostalgic aide-mmoire."

"Thank goodness for that," said Andy From The Sixties.

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