After five years of beavering away in isolation and complete obscurity, it is tremendously exciting to pick up a nationally distributed newspaper or magazine and read a review of one’s own book. This has been my happy situation for the last two weeks, during which time most quality newspapers have carried a review of my biography of Ludwig Wittgenstein. The impact on me has been that of saturation coverage, but that’s because I’ve bought every single paper or journal that has carried a review. The cumulative effect has been to provide me, momentarily, with the delightful illusion that I am famous, an illusion that is, however, cruelly shattered whenever I ask friends if they have seen the reviews. No, they reply, they don’t read the literary sections, they just glance at the news headlines and the sports pages.
Still, I have been able to enjoy at least one aspect of celebrity status: I have begun to receive letters from people I have never met or heard of. They came in response to an article I wrote for the Independent. My brief was to write about an aspect of my research that would interest people who had no prior interest in philosophy and who knew nothing about Wittgenstein. I chose to write about the controversy concerning Wittgenstein’s sexuality, putting forward an abridged version of the argument I develop in my book that there is no evidence for the promiscuous behaviour ascribed to Wittgenstein by the American scholar W.W. Bartley III, and that Bartley’s claims are possibly based on the misreading of a manuscript to which he was given surreptitious access.
Printed with the article was a photograph which Professor George Steiner had, in conversation with me, treated as proof of Wittgenstein’s taste for ‘rough trade’. The picture shows Wittgenstein walking down the street with a young man wearing a black raincoat. It was originally published in Wittgenstein: Sein Leben in Bildern und Texten, edited by Michael Nedo and Michele Ranchetti, with the caption: Wittgenstein mit dem Freund Ben Richards in London. In the article I dismiss as absurd the idea that this picture proves what Steiner takes it as proving. I do so on the grounds that, having met Ben Richards, I can confidently discount the idea that he is, or ever was, ‘rough trade’.
Now in the background of the photograph there happened to be a bus, and this, bizarrely, formed the subject of the first letter I received. It came from a Mr Orchard of Reading (MA Cantab., member, Merseyside Transport Preservation Society), who wrote saying there must have been some mistake. The bus in the picture, Mr Orchard wrote, is of a type that was never used in London. It is an AEC Regent with Weyman bodywork built only for Liverpool Corporation and never, according to records, used outside Liverpool.Further-more, the livery of the bus shown in the photo is that used in Liverpool from 1947 to 1958. If the point was of any interest to me, he added, it could all be fully documented from Liverpool Corporation records.
As far as I knew, Wittgenstein and Ben Richards were never in Liverpool together, so this did indeed put a new light on things. I replied to Mr Orchard that his information was certainly of some interest and that yes, I’d love to see the proof. He turned out to be as good as his word. Back came pictures of the 1939 AEC Regent with LCT body (Weyman shell) used in Liverpool between 1939 and 1957, and, for the sake of comparison, pictures of the ST-type buses used in London at the same time. The two are unmistakably different (the tell-tale indicator is the shape of the destination blind, which shows up even, as in this case, when the bus is out of foe us and in the background of a technically poor photograph), and I regard the case as proven beyond reasonable doubt that the bus in question is of the Liverpool type. And lest it be imagined that a Liverpool bus might somehow have found its way onto a London street, Mr Orchard provides information (drawn from Volumes III and IV of the seminal work in the field, Liverpool Transport by J.B. Home and T.B. Maund) which would rule out such a possibility. The picture, then, was indubitably taken in Liverpool and not, as Nedo and Ranchetti would have it, London.
A small point, perhaps. Negligible, even. But there is a certain satisfaction in knowing that anything can be proved with such finality, and, at the very least, it means that in future editions of the book we shall have to change the caption to that picture (with, naturally, full acknowledgments to Mr Orchard).
Influenced, no doubt, by the air of intrigue and mystery that surrounds the whole question of Wittgenstein’s private life, I imagined at first that Mr Orchard’s revelations might have a darker significance. After all, wasn’t it rather odd that Ben Richards, who gave the photograph to Michael Nedo to use in the book, did not remember that it was taken in Liverpool? Surely having one’s picture taken by a street photographer and then buying it off him (or her) is a sufficiently unusual occurrence for it to have lodged in one’s memory where it took place. And what were Wittgenstein and Richards doing in Liverpool anyway? Richards was studying in London at the time. Perhaps the photograph is not all it seems. Perhaps – who knows? – George Steiner was onto something after all. Might it be that he knew something about the picture that I didn’t? Could it be, for example, that the young man pictured with Wittgenstein was not Ben Richards at all?
I then sobered up. The young man is Ben Richards, as can be seen by comparing the photograph with others. And there is a perfectly simple and adequate explanation for their being in Liverpool: Wittgenstein was at the time working in Ireland, and Richards would quite likely have accompanied him to Liverpool to see him off on the boat.
What this temporary flight of fancy shows, I think, is the powerful and intoxicating effect a mystery – any mystery – can have. And this, fundamentally, is at the root of the mischief caused by Bartley’s book. Quite why he said what he did about Wittgenstein’s sexual preferences, what possible grounds he might have had, is a mystery that seems to demand a solution. Surely people do not just make up stories like that? And so there is always the suspicion that he might have been right after all, a suspicion that is almost impossibly difficult to lay to rest. How do you prove that something did not take place? All you can do is draw attention to the fact that there is no evidence that it did.
In this case, it is especially difficult because many people, for whatever reason, want to believe that Wittgenstein was promiscuously and guiltily homosexual (he was – predominantly at least – homosexual, but neither, as far as I can determine, promiscuously or guiltily). It frequently happens that what people read or hear about him is, perhaps unconsciously, re-interpreted within that preconception.
To take a small but typical example: Colin Wilson in his book The Misfits: A Study of Sexual Outsiders – the theme of which is the relation between genius and sexual perversion – says that he did not understand Wittgenstein until he discovered from Bartley’s book Wittgenstein’s guilt-ridden predilection for rough trade (after that, presumably, the Tractatus was a piece of cake). Wilson then, leaning heavily on Bartley’s account, devotes several pages to an exposition of Wittgenstein’s life and work, at the end of which he recalls a conversation he once had with Dora Russell that would seem to provide further evidence for Bartley’s claims. Dora Russell, he says, told him that she and Bertie disapproved of Wittgenstein’s promiscuity.
Now this, if true, would lend support to Bartley’s account, for it would suggest that Wittgenstein’s promiscuous nature was well-known. But it would, to say the least, be somewhat surprising if it was Wittgenstein’s promiscuity (rather than his homosexuality) that the Russells disapproved of. After all, they were themselves famous, even notorious, for promiscuity and also for their public justifications of it (Bertrand Russell’s Marriage and Morals, for example). On the other hand, their disapproval of homosexuality is well known. So I wrote to Mr Wilson asking if he was sure he had the right word. ‘Obviously,’ he wrote in reply, ‘I can’t really remember much detail about a conversation of thirteen years ago, and have reported it as well as I can in The Misfits. But I certainly had the impression that she said she and Russell disapproved of his promiscuity – or rather, that they couldn’t really trust him when there were handsome young males around. I don’t think she actually implied that he was madly promiscuous – although I believe that he was capable of that.’ So did the Russells know, or even believe, that Wittgenstein was promiscuous? It is difficult to say from this account. What is clear is that Wilson himself believes it, and has interpreted his hazy recollections of a conversation with Dora Russell in the light of that belief.
Something similar, I suspect, is going on in the case of James Kirkup. I was alerted to the case of Kirkup by a letter to the Independent from Christopher Sykes, a television producer whom I met when he was making a programme about Wittgenstein for the BBC series, Horizon, which was broadcast last year. In response to my article, he wrote to say that he, too, had been encouraged by George Steiner to study the ‘rough trade’ photograph of Wittgenstein and Ben Richards, and that, like me, he had met Richards and discovered him to be anything but ‘rough trade’. But there was a sting in the tail. After the film was broadcast, said Sykes, a friend had drawn his attention to a passage in James Kirkup’s autobiography, I, Of All People. ‘Ray Monk and others,’ he went on, ‘may be as intrigued as I was.’ The passage from Kirkup is as follows: ‘I was referred to specialists at the Ingham Infirmary in Westoe Road, and at the Newcastle Infirmary – where I had once spent a few days at the beginning of the war with Wittgenstein, working alongside him as a very incompetent ward orderly. I could not stand the sight of blood, so I had to leave after three days. I remember Wittgenstein despised my pacifism, but when I met him occasionally in town at the public toilet behind the YMCA in Eldon Place, a favourite haunt of cruisers, he was more friendly.’
Sykes was right: I was intrigued. But also a little sceptical. For one thing, Kirkup seems to be a disconcertingly unreliable witness. He places his few days with Wittgenstein ‘at the beginning of the war’, but Wittgenstein did not go to Newcastle until April 1943. Moreover, Wittgenstein did not work as a ward orderly in the Newcastle Infirmary – he did that at Guy’s in London before he moved to Newcastle. But let’s say that Kirkup is just sloppy about these sorts of detail (rather than that he is imagining the whole thing). The central question is: what does he mean to imply about his ‘occasional’ meetings with Wittgenstein in the public lavatory?
In an effort to learn more, I read Kirkup’s book. It is a very colourful and highly camp account of his adventures and misadventures as a poet and a male prostitute (he takes pride in the fact that the English – unlike the French – find these two roles hard to reconcile), full of stories of the low life in France, Soho and his native North-East. Kirkup, one gets the impression, is a man who’s seen it all. He’s seen Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean have a drunken row, Quentin Crisp mincing the streets, Dylan Thomas in an alcoholic stupor reciting poetry in a loud voice, and much else. Including, perhaps, Wittgenstein cruising for rough trade? Surely, one might think, that is what the passage quoted by Sykes is meant to imply. Or is it?
So, dogged to the last, I have written to Kirkup asking him directly whether that is indeed what he meant to imply. The frankness of his book encourages me to think he will not take this amiss. But when I find myself writing to people asking them what they thought Wittgenstein was up to in a public lavatory 47 years ago, it does make me pause and consider: what on earth am I doing this for?
Many people, I know, had the same thought while reading my piece in the Independent. Some of them even wrote to the paper to complain. Michael Hastings accused me of ‘intellectual porn’ and of ‘abusing the genre of the biography of ideas’. Michael Kaufmann, I thought, put it better when he said that, rather than defending Wittgenstein from public prurience, I had pandered to it. That was never my intention. But neither was it my aim to defend Wittgenstein from public prurience: to ‘clear his name’. My admiration for him would be no less if it did, finally, turn out to be the case that he cruised the streets of Vienna and the public lavatories of Newcastle looking for rough trade. My only objective was to get at the truth and to make it openly available, to dispel the mystery and gossip, and replace it with documented fact.
I have never thought that Wittgenstein’s sex life was of any philosophical interest, and I have always regarded the controversy surrounding Bartley’s book as something of a side-issue in the understanding of Wittgenstein’s life and work. That is why, in my book, I relegate discussion of it to an appendix. But whether it has to do with buses or sexual promiscuity, there is, in me – as there must surely be in anybody engaged in research – a strong and natural desire to want to settle the facts of a matter. While we are settling them, they may seem to acquire an importance which, in the cold light of day, they lose. But that does not mean that, in trying to settle them, we have been wasting our time.