Ren approaches the bar at the staff club. The weekly departmental seminar, where visiting guest speakers come to give a talk, has just finished, and as seminar organiser he’s glad to see the back of it. He needs to be poisoned, and the quickest way at present to get the requisite dose into his veins is to dilute the stuff and ingest it orally.
Today’s speaker has been a distinguished philosopher of science called Hedley Beagle from the University of Longford who spoke on the unreality of time, a topic which makes Ren rueful because the problem he currently has with time is its scarcity, not its non-existence. Not that he said anything like this in public, that’s the sort of ho-ho-ho joke you’d expect Beresford Sadler, the boorish Physics Head of Department who turned up to the talk with Douglas and his distinguished colleague Garrett Slade, to make. This sort of joke had almost certainly made the rounds nearly a century ago, Ren thought; no doubt Bertrand Russell himself made a similar joke to McTaggart. Probably around the time Dirty Bertie discovered that he had a knob and started boffing various horse-faced goers, while writing peace-bollocks pamphlets encouraging us to surrender to the Commies (which he was still doing half a century later). ‘If time is an illusion, dear Taggie, then I need to imagine myself up some more, I can’t commit intercourse and advance the cause of international socialism at the same time, can I? Not when I’ve also got to dismantle your damnable British idealism, ho-ho-ho.’ Beresford Sadler actually makes jokes like this at philosophy talks, imagining that it causes the philosophers to think of him an astute observer of philosophical history.
The Head of Physics thinks of himself as Hemingwayesque, both physically, and in terms of his forceful, yet (so he imagines) charismatic personality, but his habit of angrily throwing his ample weight around has resulted in his colleagues calling him ‘Norman Mailer’ behind his back. (Later on the nickname will be changed to ‘Russell Crowe’, once Crowe tubs up and starts throwing telephones at people.) Beresford always turns up, in a bit of a mood, to any Philosophy talk that seems in any way related to physics. He’s well known for his temper, and his general intolerance, but he seems to have a particular chip on his shoulder about philosophers discussing physics. The reason Garrett often comes with him is to try to keep him under control.
Beresford always misunderstands what is being said at these talks, and today was a doozy. The Beagle is an upper-class smoothie, an assured, although sometimes contumelious, Cantabridgian, and Beresford, always sensitive about what he (but no-one else) sees as his humble origins, took an instant dislike to him, which may have injected a little more vapour into the cloud chamber that Beresford thinks of as the philosophical part of his mind.
The Beagle was not, despite the title of his talk, arguing the unreality of time, but was arguing against the existence of what is usually called ‘the moving present’. He was in fact arguing for the ‘spacelike conception’ of time (sometimes called the ‘four-dimensional’ theory of spacetime), a view that is popular with many physicists, and which seems to be what Sadler himself believes, as far as anyone can tell, but Beresford in his usual temerarious fashion decided early on that the Beagle was arguing for a position that everyone else, including Garrett and Douglas, could tell he wasn’t arguing for. So bullfighting Beresford was going to step up and take the Beagle – a mere theoretician, and of the wrong field at that – to task over the Beagle’s presumption to discuss matters that he was manifestly unqualified to discuss. An embarrassed Garrett, no fan of the Beagle himself, tried to steer Beresford off his hapless course, but failed.
The misunderstanding was partly the Beagle’s fault, though, because Hedley, assuming that everyone present was both a philosopher and well-schooled in J. M. E. McTaggart’s original arguments against the reality of time, as well as the subsequent well-known developments in the field (well-known to metaphysicians, that is) had said very little in the way of introductory or scene-setting remarks. Or perhaps the Beagle just assumed that anyone who didn’t have this background knowledge would have the decency to keep their mouth shut. Either way, he was mistaken. A philosopher as experienced as he should not have made such a mistake, for rogue audience members can turn up at any Philosophy talk, not just in the provinces and the wilder extremities of the country, but even at the top places, and these philosophists are hardly ever deterred by a lack of knowledge of the topic under discussion. The more they misunderstand, the more chaotic their intervention will be, so visiting speakers who jump right into the guts of their talk are taking a risk. Not a running-into-a-burning-building-type of risk, of course, but no-one wants to travel hundreds of miles to give a talk on their research and then have fifteen minutes of the discussion wasted by a strange man wearing green glasses.
In Hedley’s defence it could be pointed out that dozens of peripatetic philosophers make such a mistake every week across the country. There are possibly three, maybe even four or five, Travelling Wilburforces, as Ren calls them, making the same mistake this very afternoon, possibly even at Oxford or Cambridge where visiting speakers can be lulled into a false sense of security, thinking that here, surely, in these blessed groves there cannot be any Alan Pettigrews present, but sometimes there are, even in such hallowed halls.
These three, or four, or five, philosophers, it should be noted, will not frame this thought using the term ‘Alan Pettigrews’. Only Grayvington philosophers invoke the Pettigrew name, as we shall discover. (Alan, mercifully, was not present today for the Beagle’s talk.) One such philosopher, Toby Smalls, is at this very moment at UCL, about to give an evening talk, thinking – despite his many years of experience which, were he to examine that resource, would reveal the weakness of such an optimistic conjecture – that surely there cannot be any Maurice Dabneys present here. This belief is situated in what philosophers call an opaque linguistic context, meaning that one cannot replace the term ‘Maurice Dabneys’ with a co-referential term such as ‘Alan Pettigrews’, because while Smalls believes that there cannot be any Maurice Dabneys here, he does not believe that there cannot be any Alan Pettigrews here. Nevertheless, both terms, ‘Maurice Dabneys’ and ‘Alan Pettigrews’, refer to the same thing, namely the class of time-wasters who have acquired the delusive belief that they are philosophically adroit, and who turn up regularly to advanced academic philosophy talks and engage the speaker and various unfortunate audience members in confusing and unhelpful dialogue. (It should be noted that our genarch of Physics, Beresford Sadler, does not qualify as an Alan Pettigrew, at least not a full-blown Pettigrew; perhaps we should call his type a ‘Beresford Sadler’)
There is one Grayvington philosopher who never makes this sort of mistake about his audience, and that is Tristram York, who, incidentally, made rather a good comment today in the Beagle’s talk. But he is unusually sensitive to the presence of Pettigrews, and has been known, at his own talks, to ask the chairperson, at the point that the chairperson brings in his carafe of water and empty glass (just before people start drifting in and generally milling about), whether any such audience members can be expected at his talk. Such a question is considered to be slightly bad form, but understandable, and usually raises some shared, guilty, laughter of recognition.
The time-waster who will shortly be getting on Toby Smalls’ wick has no name that anybody in the London audience knows – generally people avoid socialising with Alan Pettigrews, and so the name of any particular Alan Pettigrew will only become known should that Pettigrew be the type to volunteer it – but this particular London-based Pettigrew is generally referred to in the common room after talks as ‘the eccentric chap with the green glasses’ by the more polite academics, and ‘the loony with green glasses’ by the more blunt.