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Book review

A. J. Ayer: A Life

by Ben Rogers

A. J. Ayer by Ben Rogers

A.J.Ayer, known as Freddie, was one of the most influential philosophers of the twentieth century. I first met his best-known work “Language, Truth and Logic” as a young man, and I remember being deeply impressed at the time, both by the work itself and by the brief bio of the author on the flyleaf. (Incidentally, as far as I can tell the title of the work is not written with an “Oxford comma” before the ‘and’, even though he was at Oxford when he wrote it.)

Then a few months ago, I read another remarkable anecdote about Ayer, and on impulse bought this book. Having read it, I found that Ayer lead a life full to the brim – and not just with philosophy. From the 1950s onwards, he was a regular fixture of British intellectual life, with radio and television appearances, books, lectures and a broad and active social circle. He wasn’t just hanging out with intellectuals, either – he loved soccer, and having chosen Tottenham as his team in his youth, he was a regular at their home games for much of his life, becoming known to other fans as “the prof”.

He also married four times (to three different women), and had many affairs, and at least one child from those affairs. He clearly had a very charming way with women, and lived in open relationships with at least two of his wives, who themselves took lovers. During his marriage to Vanssa Lawson (former wife of Nigel Lawson, and mother to three children including Nigella, the well-known chef), he apparently remained entirely faithful.

Ayer’s life was certainly not quiet and conventional. However, it did start in a way that was very common at the time for his class in society, that is to say, he went to boarding school at seven, and didn’t have a good time. At thirteen he won a scholarship to Eton, where he was highly intelligent, and significantly bullied. Whether this was for his precocity, his Jewish heritage, or his militant atheism isn’t clear, but it clearly left a lifelong mark on him. From there he went to Christchurch College, Oxford, where again his atheism didn’t favour him with several of the tutors. One of them saw how he thought, and set him to read tWittgenstein’s “Tractatus”. This wasn’t widely known in the UK at the time, and after he had travelled to Vienna and met with others in the “Vienna Circle”, he became a convert to logical positivism as a core philosophy.

It was his publication of “Language, Truth and Logic” at the age of 24 that made his name. Later he came to repudiate much of what he’d written in it, but the book has had an enduring influence and has continued to sell in volume, up to the present day.

The book follows Ayer through WWII, where he joined the Welsh Guards before being recruited into the intelligence services. This work took him to the US, where he met Lauren Bacall and wrote for several newspapers, before returning to Europe and working alongside the French resistance, in London and then in Paris (his father was French-speaking, and he was bilingual). After the war he returns to academia, building the philosophy department in University College, London. The book shows how highly regarded he was by his students: there are numerous stories from them of how he took their ideas entirely seriously, and would often help find them jobs after they had graduated.

We see many facets of Freddie through the years. He loved to dance, he was charming, well-travelled, and although he was vain, it was said of him that “his vanity was part of his considerable charm”. We see his marriages, his love affairs, his active social life, with friendships far and wide – from authors like Graham Greene, George Orwell, and Iris Murdoch, to politicians like Roy Jenkins and Michael Foot (he was an active Labour supportor for much of his life).

He was also brave: both socially, standing up for unpopular beliefs and for his friends, and also physically. The anecdote which brought me to this book shows both his vanity and his bravery: at a party held in New York by fashion designer Fernando Sanchez, Ayer, by now aged 77, was chatting happily with a group of young women, when one rushed in to say her friend was being assaulted. Ayer went with her to a bedroom, and confronted Mike Tyson, who was harassing a very young Naomi Campbell. When Ayer demanded that Tyson stop, the boxer said: “Do you know who the fuck I am? I’m the heavyweight champion of the world,” to which Ayer replied: “And I am the former Wykeham Professor of Logic. We are both pre-eminent in our field. I suggest that we talk about this like rational men”. Ayer and Tyson then began to talk, while Naomi Campbell slipped out to safety.

I very much enjoyed this book. Although I perhaps didn’t learn as much about Ayer’s philosophy as I thought I was going to, I learned a lot about the man, and his passion for life. He once said to a friend, as they walked by the river through Christchurch’s gardens, watching the young students enjoying themselves: “There is philosophy, and then there is all this!”.

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Book review

This is Going to Hurt: Secret Diaries of a Junior Doctor

This is Going to Hurt: Secret Diaries of a Junior Doctor
Read date: Nov 2018

This is Going to Hurt: Secret Diaries of a Junior Doctor by Adam Kay
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A marvelous, personal, engaged, and very funny view from the front lines of our (UK) hospitals, as Adam Kay recounts stories and entries from his “training diaries”, across his years as a junior doctor.

Some of the stories are just plain hilarious, but holding all of it together is the constantly visible thread: junior doctors work amazingly, passionately, sometimes almost literally unbelievably, hard. They relentlessly deliver hundred-plus hour work weeks, across day after day, without a break and often without sleep, missing birthdays, funerals, weddings (sometimes almost their own) to hold together the often creaking, glorious, sometimes Kafka-esque, National Health Service. None of these people work that hard in those circumstances for the money – they do it to save lives, to make a difference every day, in a way I can barely believe, but for which I am eternally grateful.

A friend of ours was woken up at four in the morning a couple of days ago, by an ambulance at her door. Although she had been sick in the night, she hadn’t called them herself: somewhere, sat on an uncomfortable chair using a taped-together computer in a local hospital, a junior doctor on his or her umpteenth hour of consecutive shifts had reviewed her blood results from two days before, had spotted that our friend was about to go into kidney failure, and had pressed the red button. Twenty minutes later, an ambulance crew were hammering on her door to take her in, fully prepared to break it down to get in. We all complain about the NHS – the waiting times, the paperwork, the endless seeming inefficiencies, even about the cost of the car parks. But there it was, unsolicited, in the dark, saving her life. Nye Bevan, we thank you.

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Book review

Poverty Safari: Understanding the Anger of Britain’s Underclass

Poverty Safari: Understanding the Anger of Britain's Underclass
Read date: Nov 2018

Poverty Safari: Understanding the Anger of Britain’s Underclass by Darren McGarvey
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book is a scream of rage at modern Western society. McGarvey manages to do this while acknowledging that the same society contains the seeds of the solution. He also sees very clearly the processes that create the problems.

Darren McGarvey was brought up on one of the most challenging estates outside Glasgow in the 1990s. Except that “brought up” is an exaggeration – better to say he survived an often personally dangerous childhood with an alcoholic and depressive mother, a father he fell out with, bullying an everyday fact of life, addiction to drugs, alcohol and fast food an everpresent reality. Behind this all, he contends, are the brutal battering from the stresses of extreme poverty.

He’s fairly unflinching in his views of the world – judging all by the standards he came to recognise as reality, from the highest to the low:

“People who are convicted of crimes very rarely think the law has been applied fairly to them. This is as true of serial killers as it is of petty thieves. Most people find it hard to accept even the most banal forms of legal responsibility. Think how indignant drivers get when they receive legitimate parking tickets or speeding fines. Everyone always has a good reason as to why they are the exception to a rule they are being subjected to and it’s very rare that a person holds their hands up and accepts culpability. Most people believe their circumstances are unique and that the rules shouldn’t apply.”

He holds no truck with the press, and their relentless middle-class approach to the world:

“On the day women were legally obliged to provide proof of their rape to claim benefit designed to ease the burden of in-work poverty on their children, the national news was dominated by a family who felt hard done by because they were fined £60 for taking their daughter to Florida. I’m not saying both parties do not have the right to feel equally aggrieved at their respective circumstances, but surely one deserves more prominence than the other in the public mind?”

or:

“Being underclass is to sit, day after day, and scroll through a news feed full of Guardian articles that are confirming things you knew were the case 20 years prior. ‘Study finds children living in dysfunction can’t learn’, ‘Experts say sugar is addictive’ or, my personal favourite, ‘Survey discovers the arts is dominated by middle class people’.”

His tough mindedness and his honesty are sometimes challenging, but I think he would say he doesn’t care – he’s trying to get a message across, and he does what he needs to do in order to ensure it sticks. Each chapter is part of a thread, telling a story to deliver his message. It certainly changed my views on what the lived experience is like today in Britain for many people:

“Much like the school curriculum, where your value is derived not only from your ability to think and reason but also from your willingness to submit to a process, the conversation about decision-making in your own community follows a similar pattern. You must engage within the parameters set by the people who are really in charge.”

I also came away better informed on the complexities and difficulties that lie behind the simplistic phrases and glib generalisations of those in the “poverty industry”, who often tacitly need the problems to continue to justify their roles and funding. However, McGarvey isn’t afraid also to challenge those in poverty themselves, encouraging them to take personal responsibility – if only because actually there are no “quick wins” coming from politicians or the third sector.

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Book review

The Undoing Project: A Friendship that Changed the World

The Undoing Project: A Friendship that Changed the World
Read date: Oct 2018

The Undoing Project: A Friendship that Changed the World by Michael Lewis
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I loved this story of Amos Tversky and Danny Kahneman’s lives, how their paths crossed and re-crossed, their extraordinary friendship, and their uncovering and unpacking of the way in which we are not the perfect, rational, beings that economists and psychologists once had us believe.

Michael Lewis is a consummate storyteller, and he does a brilliant job of bringing these two characters to life, with all their brilliance as well as their human frailties. One aspect I particularly liked was the interweaving of their lives with the emergence of modern Israel – Tversky was born in Palestine, while Kahneman’s family emigrated there after the war. It feels very much as if the culture and the intellectual climate of the new country was a significant factor in what they were able to accomplish.

This is a story that has not yet ended, even though one of the two leading characters is no longer with us. Others have picked up the torch, and are carrying it forward. The implications of their work are profound and still being explored, yielding so far a couple of Nobel prizes, and some important implications for our understanding of ourselves, how we make decisions, and how we can make them smarter.

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Book review

FDR

FDR
Read date: May 2018

FDR by Jean Edward Smith
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is an extraordinary book: not only a work of immense scholarship (with 150+ pages of footnotes and 35 pages of bibliography), it is also the immensely readable tale of one of the most remarkable and influential figures of the 20th century. I was gripped with every page, learning a huge amount not only about FDR himself, but also the period of American history across the two world wars, as well as gaining something of an insight into how American politics actually works. Everything from the impact and true depth of the Depression to gripping accounts of nomination convenient floor fights, to behind the scenes views of his meetings with Churchill and Stalin. Outstanding!

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The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer

The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer
Read date: August 2017

The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer by Siddhartha Mukherjee
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Great perspective on cancer through its history and the history of its treatments, beautifully written by a practicing oncologist. I read this very shorly after my own diagnosis, which perhaps wasn’t the best thing to do, as some of the details of early treatments are fairly horrific. I do firmly believe, however, that knowledge is never a waste, and this was a gripping read. Ultimately, what it shows is how little of the details we know about this set of conditions, for each cancer – almost each person’s cancer – is unique. Treatments for one very often won’t work for another, and it all seems horrifically hit and miss in terms of finding new pathways to help people. None the less, our track record has improved, and over the past few decades, great strides have been made.

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