The Sarawak Gazette, April 30, 1953. “Death of a Philosopher” by “P.S.J.” (Philip Suttill Jones – Ed)
On April 9th 1953 there died in London a man whose name ten years ago was a household word in England, and well-known wherever the BBC’s famous Brains Trust was heard – Dr. Cyril Joad.
People clamoured for his autograph; jugs and book-ends were modelled from his face; he brought Plato and philosophy into every house where there was a wireless set; traffic was stopped in the streets by crowds trying to get into halls to hear him speak.
One Sunday afternoon in 1942. Dr Joad went to Dartmoor Gaol in Devon to address five hundred of the toughest convicts in England. He spoke in the prison chapel. He was supposed to be talking about the moral issues of the war, but at the last moment, as he mounted the lectern, he changed his mind and gave a lecture on philosophy.
He talked for an hour, with shining lucidity and wit, about the theory of philosophers called ‘idealism’. He argued that hard tangible matter does not really exist : it is no more than an illusion in the mind of man. He finished by saying to those five hundred men, many of them in prison for life :
“And so you see, and I am sure you will all agree with me, that:
‘Stone walls do not a prison make
Nor iron bars a cage.’ “
When he sat down, it seemed as if the clapping and cheering would never end. When silence came at last, the Prison Chaplain – a quiet, earnest man (“P.S.J.”? – Ed), proposed a vote of thanks. He doubted, he said, if all his listeners would agree with Professor Joad’s conclusion, “and even some of you who do so now may later say, like a cockney I once knew, ‘Blimey then, I must be ‘ypnotised!'”…and the clapping began all over again.
The war ended, and later the Brains Trust. By his own fault and folly, life turned sour on Joad. He cheated a railway company. He was convicted and fined. The BBC was closed to him. He was expelled from his London club, a place he greatly loved. Yet it is perhaps wrong to call it folly. It was, rather, a mental quirk – something related, in a bastard way, to his dislike of bureaucracy and to his passion for the freedom of the human mind and spirit.
He used to illustrate this rebellious force in him by the especial pleasure with which he told of something he had once seen. It was in London, during the General Strike of 1926. The only motor lorries then being driven in the streets bore placards with the words “Driven by permission of the Trades Union Congress.” No others dared go on the roads. But one day, in the Strand, Joad saw a different lorry go by. It was driven, very fast, by a little red-haired man (“he could only be a cockney,” Joad said) with a bristling red moustache, and on the bonnet there was a poster, with the words, “Driven by my own bloody permission.”
He enjoyed telling stories against himself. Before the last war, he gave a lecture at a well-known girls’ school. After the lecture the head-mistress offered him a cheque. “Now,” Joad would say, “I’m not in the least averse from being paid for what I do, but on this occasion I had spoken on a subject near my heart and I didn’t want any money, so I asked the head-mistress if she would keep the cheque and give it to any charity she might choose.” He thought no more of the incident until he was leaving. Then it occurred to him that his fee might be given to some object of which he disapproved, and as he said good-bye he asked the head-mistress what she thought of doing with it. “If head-mistresses could hesitate,” he said, “she would have hesitated. If head-mistresses could blush, she would have blushed. She did neither. She looked me calmly in the eye and said: “The money, Dr. Joad, will be paid into a fund for providing the school with better lecturers next year.’ “
Though he lost much by his strange lapse, he never lost his mental clarity and brilliance, and he never faltered in his allegiance to beauty as he saw it, or in his generosity. Joad had no connection with Sarawak, except for his vivid interest in far places, his curiosity about all that goes on in the world, and his concern for his friends. One of them, about to set out for Kuching, went to say farewell (This was Philip Suttill Jones – “P.S.J.” – who met Joad at his Stedham home in June 1952, according to hand-written information at the back of a ‘page of 1st typescript’ given to him by Joad – see Note below). Joad was already, and knew that he was dying. He lay in his garden, a pale semblance of the tubby, vigorous, rosy-faced man he had been. But he was full of curiosity and questions: the climate, the ways of life, the Rajah and his rule, how the different peoples live and work together. Later, still alert and interested, he wrote: “I have got steadily worse and weaker. But please keep me on the list of your letter recipients. You may not have to send them for long. Please do that.” (This was letter written by Joad to his friend on October 3 1952 – six months before his death on April 9 1953. See Note below)
In his latest book, “The Recovery of Belief – A Restatement of Christian Philosophy”, finished and published during his last illness, Dr. Joad describes his conversion to the Christian faith.
(Note : I have Philip S. Jones personal copy in front of me – within which I found this Sarawak article and other enclosures, including a letter from Cyril Joad to “My dear Philip” – from which the initials “P.S.J.” were identified)
For most of his life he could not accept the religious view of the Universe. It seemed to him, he writes, “no more than a pious propensity to believe in propositions which there was no reason to think true”. Through 250 pages closely – and sometimes toughly – argued, he moves to his conclusion:
“On the whole…I think I can subscribe to the testimony of the innumerable people who have tried to practise Christianity – the thing does, at least sometimes, work.”
Now there is no more argument. He may know the answer. All he learned on earth is ended, and all his skill. Memories will grow dim : they always do. The time comes when even the most sensitive human ear can no longer recapture the tones and colour of an unheard voice; and though there are doubtless many records of Dr. Joad’s sometimes almost squeaking lisp, and his “It all depends what you mean by…”, they will not often be listened to now.
But his writings remain, high in the long line of English prose, lucid, musical; witness to a hatred of violence in an age of violence, and to the lifelong service of truth.
It is not perhaps foolish to imagine that service still unended and, not as an incantation of empty words but as a confident prayer of amnesty in a well-fought field, to ask :
“Rest eternal grant unto him, O Lord, and let light perpetual shine upon him” (“Lux perpetua luceat eum” – See Note above)