10 DECEMBER 2005, Page 22



Odd man out in the age of ‘celebs’

The world of mammon has never been more blatant and noisy. A businessman, a caricature plutocratic monster, pays himself a yearly dividend, from just one of his companies, of £1.2 billion: that is more than the total income of 54,000 people on average earnings. He is capitalism’s top celeb, a media hero, alongside the football managers, pop singers, fashionable harlots, TV academics, babbling bishops, political demagogues and the rest of the pushers and shovers who compete for attention in the headlines, and who dominate the world of ‘getting and spending’, as Wordsworth called it. Hard for anyone, however wide-eyed and virtuous, not to be infected by this pandemic of self-aggrandisement, this virus of vanity, this Gadarene lust for fame and attention.

Yet there are such people. One, who died recently, I knew well. His name was Aimable Jonckheere, but everyone called him Jonck. He was Anglo-French, bilingual, his father an astronomer, his own training in statistics and psychology. He spent almost his entire working life in an academic cocoon of his own devising at University College London, and was planning to go to his office the morning he died, aged 85. At one time or another he worked with or under a wide range of personalities, including J.B.S. Haldane, A.J. Ayer, Cyril Burt, Hans Eysenck, Jean Piaget and Ernst Gombrich, all of them celebs in their day. He worked on a huge variety of topics, and helped armies of pupils and research students to pass exams, acquire PhDs, write papers and books and, in their turn, teach and lecture. There was always a little crowd of clever young people hovering around his room for advice and criticism. He shared his knowledge and, with increasing years, his wisdom with a generosity and unselfishness rare in any sphere, not least in academia. He must have contributed — always without acknowledgment (at his own insistence) — to literally hundreds of papers, some of considerable note. He never published anything himself if he could possibly help it, preferring to pass on his findings to others.

This policy of self-abnegation and deliberate obscurity did not always succeed: despite his efforts he was and is associated with a new statistical test applied to categorical data which is likely to be standard for generations. But as a rule all his contributions were well hidden. Equally, he never sought professional advancement. Not once in his long career did he push himself forward or allow anyone else to do so. His only devotion was to the impersonal acquisition of knowledge. He regarded professional ambition and academic self-service as deadly enemies to truth. This view is debatable, but he held it with a militancy he applied to no other aspect of life.

Jonck was not a holy innocent. There was nothing naive about him. On the contrary: he was coolly sophisticated, wise in the world’s ways, a sceptic and agnostic who sometimes came close to cynicism. He was désabusé. Coleridge would have called him a minimifidian. Yet he had a quasi-religious urge to cut himself off from the temptations of careerism, which gave him the air of a secular coenobite. He did not advise his fellow academics to follow him, and he certainly had no acolytes. It was as though he wrote and lived according to a monastic rule which applied to him alone.

Yet there was nothing monkish about him. He was not a puritan. He laughed, and caused others to laugh, constantly. His cricket-loving 15-year-old nephew described him as ‘cool’. He loved plays. He devoured books and magazines and newspapers of all kinds, and had a passion for TV and radio which I found incomprehensible. He relished talk and company: no Trappist he. Perhaps because he had continued to inoculate himself against the malady of success-worship and the endless anxieties and agonies of those who succumb to it, he struck me as an unusually happy man. He perceived as acutely as any of us the idiocies and tragedies of the grotesque world in which we now live, and would denounce its evils with fervour; but also, I think, with relish, even enthusiasm, as if he was quite sure our culture would survive them. He reminded me of Gladstone’s phrase, ‘The resources of civilisation are not yet exhausted.’ No one had explored the highways and byways of culture more thoroughly than Jonck or moved with more ease among its summits and valleys.

A scholar can be assessed from different angles, but in the last resort you judge him by his books. Not the books he writes so much as the books he reads and owns — the books he knows. On this point Jonck was a phenomenon. His rangy apartment in Little Venice, with its large, high rooms, was crammed with books from floor to ceiling. Many of them — thousands, indeed — covered the arcana of his profession: mathematical mazes spread over the walls, statistical stalactites and stalagmites hung from the rafters and sprang from the carpets, and psychologi cal tomes advanced in armies from every corner. But there was no aspect of science, from black holes to anthropoidal ancestry, unrepresented in his library. Surveying his shelves, I used to reflect with wonder at the many and vast fields of physical knowledge with which he was evidently and thoroughly familiar and about which he could talk with assurance, but also with the modesty of the truly learned.

There were no Two Cultures in Jonck’s case. It was all one, a seamless garment fabricated from four millennia of human exploration, ingenuity and artistry. He bought books insatiably, right to the end, and bought them not for their appearance — God forbid! — but for their content, to be devoured and docketed for future reference, the raw meat of future symposia with his friends. His knowledge of English literature, especially of poetry and drama, but not neglecting the novelists either, was wide and deep. He had not one book on Milton but whole shelves, as with Keats and Shelley, Joyce and Beckett, Lawrence, Conrad and Huxley. Wells, Shaw and Eliot — and scores of others — crowded and jostled each other at every turn. Virginia Woolf had to squeeze up to make room for Wyndham Lewis, and Hemingway to put up with Irving Babbitt, Ezra Pound, Faulkner and Saul Bellow. There were many hundreds of books on French literature, from Rabelais to Mallarmé, not forgetting the uncomfortable monuments — Corneille, Pascal, Racine, Bossuet, Hugo — and a huge selection on Proust. Jonck loved the Russians and the Germans too, so that Turgenev and Chekhov rubbed shoulders with Fichte, Kleist, Schiller and Mann. The writings of Camoëns and Manzoni, Cervantes and Da Vinci, Ibsen and Kierkegaard all had their places.

Jonck was a great concert-goer and a constant visitor to museums and special exhibitions. He could talk about all the arts with discernment and often with detailed knowledge. One skill I particularly envied: he could debate philosophy with academic professionals. So far as I know he never, in adult existence, believed in God and lack of belief did not disturb him any more than it worried David Hume, a thinker he admired. But he was a just man, incapable of a mean-spirited action, or deceit, or envy. He was a living demonstration that if you can shake off ambition absolutely and completely, you can shake off too a great many unlovable and burdensome characteristics — and leave plenty of room for happiness.