William Donaldson's Week: The professor's right, I'm white

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The Independent Online
HAVING spent the last week in America - one day in Miami, the rest in New York - I am struck by three things I hadn't noticed before.

The first is that the mind/ body problem - which obviously affects people such as myself who have recently undergone a colour change and thus want to maintain that their 'mind', or their 'consciousness', at least, is black - is being debated with a greater degree of intellectual rigour, as you would expect, than it is in Britain.

Indeed, after six hours as a philosophical football - kicked backwards and forwards between Daniel Dennett, of Massachusetts, and John Searle, of Berkeley - I am persuaded that I am, after all, a walking infinite regress (If 'mind' is a ghostly exertion behind the hardware, what drives the ghost?), and I have therefore become white again. More of that in due course.

My second discovery is that fashion changes so fast that your pumped-up Air Jordans are fatuously out of date three days after you acquired them. I solved this problem the same way as everybody else does: I furnished myself with a tyre-iron and mugged a 13-year-old for his.

Finally, I found that you can use irony on television without being misunderstood. Try that on British television without the need to sprout an accompanying range of comical fifth- form faces.

I was in New York, you may remember, as a feather in the cap of some lunchtime charity wives - resident in Mustique - who'd discovered they could have my Gazza knee fixed at no cost to themselves. Having decided I'd go along with the caper until the day of the operation, I allowed them to install me in David Bowie's town apartment, which I had to myself, I'm glad to say, since Mr Bowie appeared to be elsewhere.

Had he not been, an embarrassing scene might have ensued. Many years ago, I took the wrong side (as he saw it) in the divorce proceedings between him and his delightful wife, Angie, thereafter moving in her circle rather than his.

Which brings me to the Waleses. Americans are greatly amused by the Royal Family's present difficulties, and I was asked to appear on various chat shows - invitations that I could accept only after balancing a reluctance to talk about my friends in public against a duty, as the only black man at the Court of St James, to publicise myself on television.

My connection with the Royal Family dates back, in fact, to the Twenties, when my father was, for a short time, an equerry to the Prince of Wales. Thereafter, we were dropped by the Windsors (the Queen Mother is an unforgiving woman, my own mother used to say), but during the Sixties - and due to my raffish theatrical connections - I became a somewhat reluctant member of the Princess Margaret set.

I didn't know the Spencers at all, I admit, until my friend Little Jo introduced me to Lady Diana shortly after her engagement to the Prince of Wales. On that occasion, I impertinently advised her against the marriage, pointing out that it's always a mistake when people hitch up with those who are notably less intelligent than themselves - no less so when, as in this case, it's the woman who holds the intellectual cards.

In sum, I felt fully qualified to speak for England on various television chat shows, not least David Letterman's.

'What is the mood at home?' Mr Letterman asked.

'Sombre,' I said. 'We're a nation at prayer. In Stoke Newington, Deptford, Peckham and New Cross, citizens toss and turn in their cardboard boxes.'

Mr Letterman screamed with laughter - which was nice, of course - and then asked if the monarchy would survive this latest setback. 'Without a doubt,' I said. 'It is around the monarchy that the nation gathers. Without the monarchy, Britain's standing - our prestige, our unique influence in the world - would plummet.'

This caused such an outburst of hilarity that the interview had to be discontinued, and I would have returned to London had I not been invited to appear on a late-night arts programme, in which John Searle, the Berkeley philosopher, used me as a walking refutation of the materialist claims of Artificial Intelligence theorists, not least Daniel Dennett.

What is left out of computer theories of mind, Searle argued, is consciousness, and he had no problem, he said, with my belief that my consciousness is black. Professor Dennett was unimpressed, and argued that the only solution to dualism's infinite regress was 'to get ideas to think for themselves'. The computer model of mind achieved this, he said, and it would be nonsense to claim that a computer's mind was black.

'Any further questions, Professor Searle?' I said.

'Yes,' he said. 'Where did you get your Air Jordans?'

I took them off and gave them to him, whereupon Dennett said that Searle, as an enthusiast for category mistakes, would now imagine that he had three things: the left shoe, the right shoe and the pair.

Impressed by the argument, I abandoned my claim that my mind is black and returned to London.