Friday 17 August 2012

Mr Joad's 'buzzing bluebottle'

As well as being a 'botanophile' (as he terms it, to distinguish himself from a proper botanist), Jocelyn Brooke was also a keen maker of fireworks, an interest he developed while still at school. Once, 'quite unwittingly, I nearly blew up Professor Joad. I was at Bedales by this time, and had become friendly with Julian Trevelyan, to whom, in the holidays, I sent a parcel of home-made fireworks. Mr Joad, who was staying with the Trevelyans, was detailed, it seems, to ignite one of my maroons. Either Mr Joad was too slow, or the fuse was too short: the maroon, at any rate, exploded with an annihilating report within a few inches of the philosopher's nose. Had the distance been only slightly less, the BBC might have been a different (and doubtless inferior) institution.'
  C.E.M. Joad - all but forgotten now - was in his day one of the most famous public intellectuals in a country notoriously suspicious of public intellectuals. And looking at the example of Joad, one can see why. If he hadn't existed, a satirical novelist would surely have invented him.
  A brilliant student (double first from Balliol etc), he moved smoothly (and fashionably) from Syndicalism to Guild Socialism to Fabianism, until he was expelled from the Fabian Society for sexual misbehaviour at a summer school. He entered the Civil Service, bent on infusing it with a socialist ethos, before moving on to Birkbeck College, where he became a great populariser of philosophy and a prolific author.
  Along the way Joad had married, settled in the delightful hamlet of Westhumble in Surrey, and fled to Snowdonia at the prospect of conscription (this was the Kaiser War, and Joad was, of course, a convinced pacifist). When the coast was clear, he returned, then a couple of years later left his wife and three children for the first of a long string of mistresses. Sexual desire he regarded as 'a buzzing bluebottle that needs to be swatted promptly before it distracts a man of intellect from higher things'. He was a firm believer in the all-round uselessness of the female mind, and had no interest in women who (mysteriously resistant to the combined firepower of paunch, pipe and whiskers) wouldn't go to bed with him.
  In the Thirties, Joad effectively won the famous Oxford Union debate on the motion: 'This house will in no circumstances fight for King and Country' (this just after Hitler became Chancellor). And he indulged an interest in the supernatural, going on ghost-hunting expeditions with Harry Price, though Joad's publications in this field were coolly received by the Society for Psychical Research.
  With the Hitler War came Joad's big break, when he talked himself onto the new radio discussion programme The Brains Trust, by means of which he became a national celebrity, famous for his catchphrase 'It all depends what you mean by...' Joad hugely enjoyed his fame, but it all ended in scandal - not over his sexual behaviour, but over train tickets. Having foolishly boasted in print that 'I cheat the railway company whenever I can', he was shortly thereafter convicted of travelling without a ticket on a train from London to Exeter, fined, and sacked by the BBC. His career as a celebrity philosopher was over, but he still found time to renounce his long-standing agnosticism and return to the bosom of the Church of England before he died.
  And now we have to make do with Alain de Botton...


  1. As Bertrand Russell said - nastily - as he despised Joad :

    "He has lost his Ticket, but found God".

    The train ticket 'scandal' in 1948 did not just get him sacked from the BBC; it also blew his chances for a Professorship at Birkbeck, and a Knighthood - and probably contributed to hastening his cancer which killed him 5 years later - aged 61.

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