Private Lives

Ray Monk

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 Blidern 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.

The full text of this essay is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in