Diary

A.J. Ayer

On 29 October I celebrated my 73rd birthday. All in all, this has been a good year for me. A year ago I was living with my future family at Hanover, New Hampshire, as the result of being appointed a Montgomery Fellow and Visiting Professor of Philosophy at Dartmouth College. Mr Kenneth Montgomery, a millionaire alumnus of the college, had endowed a fellowship which made generous provision for anyone whom the college chose to appoint. There was no requirement that it be an academic, nor was any period set to the tenure of the Fellowship. Mr Edward Heath had held it in the course of a very short visit to Dartmouth; my immediate predecessor, the Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes, for the best part of a year. I was originally invited only for the autumn term of 1982, but the invitation was extended to the winter term of 1983. We returned to London for the month of December 1982 and spent January to March back in Hanover.

One of the advantages of the Montgomery Fellowship is that it carries with it the occupancy of a large house with extensive gardens running down to a lake known as Occam’s Pond. Having rejoiced in the beauty of northern New England in the autumn, I had qualms about its winter climate, since the area around Hanover, on the borders of New Hampshire and Vermont, contains the principal ski resorts of the United States. Happily for me, if not for the local economy, this winter was the mildest that the local inhabitants could remember. It was just cold enough for Occam’s Pond to be frozen, so that we had the pleasure of watching skaters from our window and families equipped with sledges. It could have been a scene from an old print. Dartmouth College was founded before the American Declaration of Independence and most of its buildings are in the Colonial style of the 18th century. The town of Hanover is dominated by the college. Not only did we meet with universal courtesy but there was a complete absence of the stridency that one encounters in some other parts of the United States. It also added to our comfort that the cost of living, whether it was a question of clothes, petrol, or the prices at an excellent restaurant, was about half what it is in London.

As a Montgomery Fellow, I was supposed to have leisure for writing, but in fact my duties as professor of philosophy took up all my working time. I gave a class which lasted from ten to twelve on two mornings in the week and informal instruction on one afternoon. I restricted the numbers at my informal instruction to about half a dozen, but some twenty undergraduates were enrolled in each of my classes. Dartmouth has no graduate programme in philosophy; and I began by crediting my audience with more knowledge of the subject than most of them possessed. The result was that in the autumn term I was put in the position of having to lecture for two hours almost without interruption. I had prepared my lectures carefully, but still found it a strain. By January I had managed better to divine the interests and to win the confidence of my audience, so that half the two-hour period was spent in quite fruitful discussion. I lectured on the basis of my book The Problem of Knowledge, which came out as long ago as 1956, but the questions which it covers are perennial and for the most part I found something new to say about them.

My arrival in Dartmouth just preceded the publication by Random House of the American edition of my Philosophy in the 20th Century. It had been published by Weidenfeld in England a few weeks before. Designed as a sequel to Bertrand Russell’s A History of Western Philosophy, it was an even more self-indulgent work, almost ignoring the philosophical tendencies and topics which had not greatly attracted my own interest. Nevertheless it has been well received, especially in the United States. An edition in paperback will soon be appearing in both countries. I made it the basis of my first course of lectures in Dartmouth and delivered the opening chapter as a special lecture to a large, mainly unprofessional audience.

Returning to England in March, I began work on the second volume of my autobiography, for which I had signed a contract with Collins exactly a year before. Perhaps because of a feeling of guilt at my delay in starting, I wrote with unusual speed and am now only waiting for my secretary to type the last of its 12 chapters, before rechecking the whole typescript and sending it to the publishers. I am proposing to call it More of My Life. It covers the period from 1946, where its predecessor, Part of My Life, ended with my acceptance of a Professorship at London University, to the birth of my son Nicholas in April 1963. It was a period when, chiefly as a result of my frequent appearances on the television Brains Trust, I was more in the public eye than I have been before or since. I cannot say that I am wholly indifferent to the change, though it is not something that I brood over. I shall be content if I can avoid satisfying A.E. Housman’s description of

Runners whom renown outran
And the name died before the man.

On 29 March my decree of divorce from Dee Wells, whom I had married in 1960, was made absolute on the basis of mutual agreement after two years’ separation, and on 5 April I married Vanessa Lawson at the Marylebone Registry Office. This is my third marriage, and one that belies the pessimism of Dr Johnson’s characterisation of immediate remarriage as ‘the triumph of hope over experience’. We live nearby with the youngest of Vanessa’s children, the 16-year-old Horatia, in a house which can also accommodate Nicholas when he is not living with his mother in New York.

In May I went back to America to receive an honorary degree from Bard, a small Liberal Arts College at Annandale on the Hudson. I had taught there for one day a week in 1948, as a means of supplementing my salary as a Visiting Professor at New York University. I used to take the train from Grand Central Station to Rhinecliff. I believe that this is one of the few train services that still operate in the United States, but on this occasion I was fetched by car from the house in Greenwich Village, where I was staying with my former stepdaughter, Gully, and her husband Peter Foges who is the BBC’s representative in New York. Nicholas came with me and we spent a very pleasant day at Bard. My fellow honorands included the novelist Margaret Drabble, the exceptionally learned ancient historian, Professor Momigliano, who had been a colleague of mine for many years at University College, London, and Professor Kolakowski whom I first met at a congress in Warsaw in 1957 when he was still a Marxist, and have sometimes seen at Oxford since he was established at All Souls. His scholarly Main Currents of Marxism, of which the third volume appeared in 1978, shows how radically his views have changed.

I was back in England well in time for the melancholy June Election. Ever since the first general election for which I was eligible to vote, in 1935, I have cast my vote for Labour, but on this occasion I switched to the SDP. I was influenced by the dissensions in the Labour Party, by the unhappy results of its adoption of the practice of reselecting its Parliamentary candidates, and by its growing insularity: but I also hoped that the SDP would at least succeed in depriving the odious Conservatives of their overall majority. I still think that it might have done so, if the diplomatic ineptitude of the Foreign Office and the absurd bravura of the Argentine military government had not given Mrs Thatcher the opportunity of re-awakening British jingoism. It is no good complaining that our electoral system is unfair and undemocratic. Its effects have first to be overcome before it can be changed.

My attitude in respect of the current politics of this country is despondent. In some ways I wish that the present government were more Conservative than it is. Old-fashioned Conservatives at least had some sense of social responsibility. Their successors’ belief in the maxim of ‘the devil take the hindmost’ reproduces the least attractive aspect of 19th-century Manchester liberalism. If I still hope for their overthrow, it is because I find it hard to believe that a government can survive with so bad a record, but where is the replacement to come from? There has been no cementing of the alliance between the SDP and the Liberals; the SDP itself appears to have lost its original élan, and the Labour Party, under its new leadership, shows no signs of being able to broaden its appeal.

In the intervals of working throughout the summer, I went to watch cricket at Lord’s. I have been a supporter of Middlesex since I was nine years old and was grieved by their failure to win the County Championship, when they had seemed to have made it secure. More recently I have been troubled by the inconsistency of the Spurs, though they have the makings of a very good side. I even have a vision of their winning the League Championship for only the third time in their history.

Now I must start trying to honour my contract with Lord Weidenfeld to write a short book about Wittgenstein. As if enough books about Wittgenstein had not been written already.