When I achieved 3% for my ‘end of term’ examination in Logic, I began to realise that my attempt to study Philosophy had failed.
Peter Geach, my renowned tutor, and husband of the even more famous G.E.M. Anscombe, and I would suffer painful one-to-one tutorials, where hardly a word was spoken between us, as I struggled to make sense of ‘truth tables’.
Geach was a legendary figure and eccentric at the university. For a term, he went around in someone else’s duffle-coat, which was several sizes too small for him, so that he looked like some vast scarecrow out of a Hammer horror film. We could only feel sympathy for any undergraduate wearing his enormous coat, in exchange. Sometimes,Mr Geach ( we never called our tutors by their first names in those days) would lie down on the floors of the Library, where he could read the spines of the book titles more clearly, much to the consternation of the librarians, who thought that he had had a fall.
He and Elizabeth Anscombe were followers, pupils and close associates of Ludwig Wittgenstein, whose philosophy was very au courant in the Sixties. Anscombe was to become one of Wittgenstein’s literary executors, and was present at his death-bed.
Wittgenstein affectionately referred to her as ‘old man’; a treasured friend and colleague of his. She greatly admired his work and translated his many articles, books and texts from German into English. She and Geach also translated the work of Gottlob Frege.
I enjoyed the lectures given on ‘moral philosophy’ and the ‘pre-Socratics’, but was restless. I took a supplementary course in French History ( given by Professor Douglas Johnson) , and managed to get a couple of As for two essays. Really, this was the moment when I should’ve ‘jumped ship’ over to the English Department, but I lacked the confidence to do so.
Instead I hung around the offices of the student magazine Mermaid, which was being run and edited by Martin Robertson, Andy Sims, Gay Search and John Saunders. I had three dreadfully pretentious poems accepted – one dedicated to the poet, Rainer Maria Rilke, whom I much admired at the time.
I also wrote a piece on the journalist, Dee Wells, the wife of the philosopher, A.J.’Freddie’ Ayer. She was a formidable woman, and had come to Birmingham to judge a debating final. I only just managed to hold my own with her in the interview, but, at least had done my research on her quite thoroughly, describing her as ‘one of the select coterie of women journalists and pundits writing under the brand names of Laski, Whitehorn, Brophy, Dunn, Sharpley, Wells and Mortimer’. It was ever thus. This was in 1965, and I was almost 20 and was to learn my first lesson in the crushing put-down of the older woman, when I asked her, innocently: ‘Do you have any opinions about provincial universities, Miss Wells’.
‘Actually, no. I spend all my time in Oxford’.
At about this time, Gay, Martin, John and I all decided to rent a flat together in the leafy suburb of Moseley. We were a happy quartet – two couples living together. So grown-up! But it proved to be a short-lived set-up, as relationships between students in these times shifted constantly.
I had other friends then: David Kilburn, David Silver and Alan Munton; and Ralph Steadman and his girlfriend, Anna, were a delightful couple, and Ralph was kind, funny and generous. However, I had made my mind up to fail my exams, and to leave the university completely. I thought, misguidedly, that this would ,at least ,please my father.
I could not have been more wrong.