A Lifeby Ben Rogers
“A delightful discourse on an extraordinarily full life: Rogers succeeds in capturing the spirit of a philosophical maverick who many loved to hate.” –Kirkus Reviews
A.J. Ayer (1910-1989) was a man of startling complexity: an exceptionally rigorous and penetrating philosopher, he was also an ardent sports fan, dancer, and seducer. He traveled in the most glamorous social circles, yet his friends found him oddly remote. A brilliant, strangely vulnerable man, Ayer comes vividly to life in this acclaimed biography.
An analytic philosopher in the tradition of Bertrand Russell and G.E. Moore, Ayer was a leading exponent of Logical Positivism. Attacking the view that philosophy had anything to teach us about the nature of the universe or how to live, he sought to liberate life from the shackles of traditional metaphysics. This approach challenged many fundamental beliefs of his fellow philosophers, and Ayer’s dogged and eloquent articulation of his views earned him many enemies even as he succeeded in changing the course of British philosophy. Ben Rogers provides a clear and accessible account of Ayer’s philosophical writings and assesses their significance to twentieth-century philosophy.
Rogers also offers fascinating insights into the links between Ayer’s philosophy and his life. He guides us through the young philosopher’s troubled years at Eton, using Ayer’s experience there to create an indelible portrait of England’s upper classes during the twilight years of Victorian privilege. He takes us to Oxford, where Ayer astounded his tutors with his acumen and iconoclastic zeal, and where he befriended Isaiah Berlin, Ludwig Wittgenstein, e.e. cummings, and other great thinkers and writers of the era.
Ayer was only twenty-four when he wrote his most influential book, Language, Truth and Logic. Its success catapulted him into the public eye, where he reveled for decades as an intellectual, political campaigner, and socialite. He was married four times (but to three women) and had countless affairs.
Yet despite his social charms and appetite for life, Ayer, half French-Swiss and half Dutch-Jewish, remained something of an outsider, and many who knew him well considered him melancholy and oddly shallow. Rogers explores his complicated and often contradictory personality with a sympathetic eye. Succeeding as both a personal portrait and a rigorous philosophical assessment, A.J. Ayer is a powerful biography of a provocative thinker and unforgettable man.
“A delightful discourse on an extraordinarily full life: Rogers succeeds in capturing the spirit of a philosophical maverick who many loved to hate.” –Kirkus Reviews
“Ben Rogers has pulled off a feat of biography that deserves to take its place alongside the two other great biographies of philosophers of recent times: Michael Ignatieff’s Isaiah Berlin and Roy Monk’s Wittgenstein.” –Alain de Botton, Mail on Sunday
“A.J. Ayer lived a fascinating life and in Rogers he has found an ideal biographer. . . . [An] excellent book, masterly in its exposition of the philosophy as much as in its analysis of the life.” –Frank McLynn, New Statesman
“An incisive, highly intelligent and entertaining biography. . . . One cannot help feeling fond of this strange, brilliant, playful man.” –John Banville, Irish Times
“A marvelous story . . . A.J. Ayer [had a] truly fascinating life, which Ben Rogers in this biography fills in with all the color and detail it deserves. I can’t recommend the book too highly.
” –Peregrine Worsthorne, Independent on Sunday
“Ben Rogers has written a solid and well-turned biography of the philosopher, covering the full range of his interests and his foibles. I found it gripping reading.” –Colin McGinn, The Times Literary Supplement
“An expert analysis of Ayer’s developments and achievements is combined with a detailed description of his personal and social life. . . . For anyone interested in the cultural history of our time, Ben Rogers’s book is of absorbing interest.” –Raymond Carr, The Spectator
Teachers, Bankers, Merchants, Wives
On the Abbey Road, in St John’s Wood, right opposite the famous recording studio, there stands a pleasant six-storey block of red-brick mansion fiats: Neville Court. St John’s Wood first became popular in the early part of the nineteenth century with the erection of Lord’s cricket ground and street upon street of elegant late Georgian-style villas. The area’s tone was lowered somewhat in the 1880s and 1890s by the construction of a couple of railway lines, but at the turn of the century it still retained its reputation as one of London’s most desirable suburbs. Throughout the Victorian and Edwardian eras the variety of its houses, the width of its tree-lined avenues and its proximity to the centre of the city attracted writers and artists from George Eliot to Edwin Landseer, as well as less notable representatives of the upper middle class. All that St John’s Wood had against it, some said, was that it was terribly popular with wealthy Jews.
Number 8 Neville Court is an airy three-bedroom, first-floor flat, with high ceilings and large french windows in the main rooms, leading out to little balconies. It was in this flat that Alfred Jules Ayer was born on 29 October 1910, and here he was subject to the first of those formless, depthless sense-impressions that played such an important role in his later philosophy. An adult, he would say, is just a child who has learned to give order to the chair scrapings, breast patterns, hunger pangs, and milky flavours of the crib. Ayer’s birth was difficult: it seems that his mother, Reine Ayer, was unable to have any more children, so he remained an only child. Reine was around twenty-three at the time, her husband, Jules Louis Cyprien Ayer, twenty years older. They had been married for just over a year.
Ayer could remember very little of his early childhood – he could recall almost nothing, for instance, of the schools he attended before he was seven. Nor did he preserve much in the way of contacts or possessions to remind him of his youth. In his sixties he did, however, write an autobiography, Part of My Life, in which, recalling what he could of his early years, he described a cosmopolitan, but otherwise conventional, affluent and relatively undramatic childhood – one that was not, apparently, unhappy. Ayer offered the picture of a remarkably precocious boy, a little `highly-strung’ perhaps, and `unusually susceptible to childish terrors’, but with a great zest for life, devoted to musical comedies, books and games.
Against this account, however, many friends and family close to Ayer in later life came to feel that he had a bleak and difficult upbringing – one that hurt and in some ways limited him. Richard Wollheim, a friend from the 1950s, detected a sadness in Ayer which he associated with his being an only child. Wollheim was reminded of an autobiographical story by the late nineteenth-century Oxford aesthete, Walter Pater – `The Child in the House’ – in which Pater describes the development, in a book-loving, cosseted, philosophically minded little boy, of an enchanting awareness of the beauty of the world along with an aching recognition of the sorrow and suffering it contains. There is much in Pater’s creation, Florian Deleal, that has no counterpart in Ayer (Florian has a deep feeling for nature and religion, Ayer had almost none) but it is not hard to see why Wollheim made the connection. The boy in Pater’s story combined a rare intensity of feeling and observation with a detachment from ordinary family relations in a way that is reminiscent of Ayer.
Yet although, as a young man, Ayer identified with Pater, there is no evidence that he read this particular story, or, if he did, that he made anything of it. Perhaps, then, Dickens offers firmer ground. Ayer never wrote about Dickens in any detail, but he returned to him again and again, and the novels are often a source of incidental reference in his philosophical writings. Dickens’s stories abound with vulnerable, receptive and enterprising orphans – children `of excellent abilities with strong powers of observation, quick, eager, delicate, and soon hurt bodily or mentally’, more or less obliged to make their own way in an unfeeling world) There was certainly much to which Ayer might have related in these creations. He was physically small, perceptive and determined; at once bookish and resourceful, sad and enthusiastic, gifted but emotionally perhaps a bit neglected.
Among the few photographs that he inherited from his childhood, there is one of his parents on their wedding day. It clearly shows the difference in age between them. Jules appears as a conventional, middle-aged man, short, dark, a little chubby, but moderately handsome; his narrow eyes, high cheekbones, and well tailored moustache all contribute to an air of neatness. Reine, by contrast, looks young, alert and vulnerable. She has a long neck, delicate features, and large sad eyes which stare out from under a crown of thick dark hair. Ayer never recorded how his parents met, but one cousin thought that they introduced themselves to each other on a boat – a cruise liner or a ferry. They were both, in a sense, foreigners, and although their families came from different parts of Europe and rarely socialised together, each was cosmopolitan and business-minded. Perhaps they thought that, despite the age difference, they understood one another.
Freddie’s birth certificate describes Jules’s occupation as `bank secretary’. He was in fact a secretary to Alfred Rothschild, one of three enormously rich brothers who requested the fourth generation of the Rothschild dynasty. As the first Jewish director of the Bank of England, a trustee of the National Gallery and an intimate of the Prince of Wales, Alfred Rothschild was at the nub of Britain’s financial and political life. But he also had a reputation as a fast-living, showy dilettante, `England’s most eligible bachelor’, who shared the Prince of Wales’s taste for horses, actresses and night-life. It is not known exactly what Jules’s duties as secretary entailed, but it appears, according to Ayer, that his connection with Rothschild gave him `an entry into Edwardian Society’. Although it is not easy to imagine a resident of Neville Court gallivanting with the Prince of Wales, Rothschild and Jules were certainly on good enough terms for Rothschild to agree to become young Alfred’s godfather. Ayer never appreciated the honour – `he gave me a silver christening mug which I have lost and a name which I do not like’. Nevertheless, Jules appeared to be prospering.
When he met Reine, Jules was living near his French Swiss mother, Sophie, in the genteel south London suburb of Norwood. Little is known about Sophie, whom Ayer called Bonne Maman, although she was said to be clever. She had been born Sophie Henriette Raetz in the Canton of Berne around 1844, and was married at an early age to Jules’s father, Nicolas Louis Cyprien Ayer, who merited an entry in the Swiss Dictionary of Biography and History as an important educationalist, geographer and linguist. Ayer never knew this grandfather, who died a quarter of a century before Ayer’s birth, but he seems to have inherited certain character traits from him.
Nicolas Ayer, like his grandson, was an anti-clerical, Enlightenment thinker, a federalist and democrat. Un radical fervent et militant, he edited two prominent left-liberal papers in the late 1840s and was close to many of the leaders of the Radical party, including Numa Droz, twice president of the Swiss Confederation; his interests in education, in the vernacular languages of Europe and in the Continent’s political geography were typical of the liberal nationalists of his age. Yet for all of his strongly held and controversial views, his textbooks, primers and statistical surveys, Grammaire compar”e de la langue fran”aise, Manuel de g”ographie statistique, or Introduction ” l’”tude des dialectes du pays romand, make for very dry reading. A professor, simultaneously, of geography, French and political economy, eventually principal of Neuch”tel Academy, he preferred verifiable facts and figures to untestable speculation and excelled at sorting the rules of grammar, the constitutions of Europe and the peoples of the world into clear and simple classes. Not only the political radicalism and the anti-clericalism, but something of this devotion to hard fact would be passed down from grandfather to grandson.
Sophie and Nicolas had four children, of whom Jules, born in Neuch”tel in 1867, was the oldest. Their marriage, however, was not happy. Grandfather Ayer was said to be a brilliant but very difficult man – un homme terrible, in the words of a long-dead cousin – and at some point in the 1870s Sophie took the dramatic step of leaving him and moving to London. The children joined her only after their father’s death in 1884, when Jules would have been around seventeen. Ayer wrote in Part of My Life that his grandmother worked as a governess in London and that `she had had some Rothschild children among her pupils’. The story sounds plausible – the Swiss had a reputation as teachers and often found work abroad as tutors and governesses – although one of Ayer’s cousins believes that she lived not as a governess but as a companion with a branch of the family after befriending a Rothschild in Switzerland. Whatever her relation to the Rothschilds, she was able to get both Jules and his brother employment in the family bank. Banking was, like teaching, a Swiss tradition, and both young men prospered. Their two sisters, Ayer’s Tante Berthe and Tante Marie, married Swiss men. The first entered the Belgian diplomatic service and became Governor of the Belgian Congo. The second, Philippe Suchard, was a grandson of the confectioner and lived comfortably off the family firm in Switzerland. Freddie and his parents sometimes visited the Suchards in their house in Vevey on Lake Geneva. Again there is a suggestion that Freddie tended in his memoirs to downgrade the Ayers; but if they all ended living very comfortably, it was largely with the aid not of inherited wealth but of money they had either earned or married.
Where the Ayers were descended from Swiss Calvinists, Reine Citro’n, Ayer’s mother, came from a family of Dutch Jews. Ayer had assumed that the Citro’ns were descended from Sephardic Jews who fled from Spain in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and it is indicative of his and his family’s lack of interest in their own history that it was not until Ayer met a cousin in the 1970s that he learned that they were in fact Ashkenazim who came from Eastern Europe early in the eighteenth century. Over the next hundred years the family rose from its humble beginnings; Jacob Moses Limoenman, the earliest recorded ancestor, was an itinerant fruit seller; his son, Barend Roelof began as a working goldsmith, but became a retail jeweller, changing his name from Limoenman to the more genteel Citro’n. The eldest of his fourteen children followed him into the wholesale jewellery business and a shop in Amsterdam still bears his name; another became a jeweller and it was his son, Andr” Citro’n, who started up the great car company. The photographer, Erwin Blumfeld, the artist, Paul Citro’n, a friend of Kandinsky and a member of the Bauhaus staff, and Hanan Cidor, a postwar Israeli ambassador to the Netherlands were all descended from the same stock. A third son also became a wealthy wholesale jeweller, and his eldest son Dorus, born in Amsterdam in 1860, was Ayer’s grandfather. A stern but loving patriarch, he lived until 1935 and was in many respects the most important figure in Ayer’s life.
Although Dorus’s father was rich, Dorus was required to make his own way in the world. He became a fruit trader in Antwerp and then prospected for diamonds in South Africa, in the 1880s, at the time of the great South African diamond boom; he seems to have prospered and was rich enough on his return to Antwerp to become a founder-partner in an engineering firm, Minerva, set up to produce the newly invented motorbike. He married Sarah Rozelaar, the daughter of a Dutch-Jewish diamond dealer who had settled in London; Reine, born in 1887, was the eldest of their three daughters. At some point in the 1890s the family moved to London, where Dorus, an Anglophile, deeply admiring of British tolerance and commercial spirit, set up a new branch of the Minerva company. At first he continued with the manufacture of motorbikes, but then, like his cousin, Andr” Citro’n, he turned to motor cars. During the First World War Minerva converted to the production of shells and fuses under the direction of Winston Churchill’s Ministry of Munitions. According to Ayer, this experience left his grandfather with ‘an abiding contempt for Civil Servants’. Dorus’s role in the Ministry, however, must have been significant because at the end of the war he was offered a knighthood: his wife persuaded him to refuse it on the grounds that as foreigners `it would make them look ridiculous’.
Dorus, a stout, well turned-out man with a neat pear-shaped face, was a pioneer driver. Yet unlike Andr” Citro’n, he does not seem to have been technically minded; on official forms he described his profession as `merchant’, and the cars were, according to one of his granddaughters, `just a business’. They were, however, a very successful one: Minerva motor cars were well made and prestigious, `the Rolls-Royces of Belgium’, and they made the English Citro’ns rich.
For most of Freddie’s childhood his grandparents lived in a handsome red-brick villa in Hamilton Terrace, St John’s Wood, moving for the duration of the war to a country estate in Essendon, Hertfordshire. Hamilton Terrace is an elegant tree-lined avenue and Dorus’s double-fronted 1850 house (number 44) is still one of the finest on it. Like the Ayers, the Citro’ns had family scattered over Europe. Dorus was well educated and multilingual (Dutch and French as well as English were often spoken in the house) and built up impressive collections of books, rugs, Chinese porcelain, clocks and other antiques. (When, however, he sold his Essendon house at the end of the war and moved back to London, he also sold his whole collection along with it, and started another, suggesting he was as much a collector as a connoisseur.) He had remarkable powers of mental arithmetic. `He could run his eyes down a long page of figures and in seconds tell you their sum’. There is evidence that Kenneth Ayer, a cousin from the other side of the family, had the same skill. If so then Freddie’s own quickness of thought was a double inheritance.
Dorus Citro’n, astute, upright and practically minded, was a free-market liberal, with a strong sense of fair dealing. As Ayer recorded, however, he turned to the Conservatives when he became convinced that the country could no longer afford Free Trade. He was atheistic and vehemently assimilationist, with an open hostility to Zionism – a much-debated subject in the drawing-rooms of St John’s Wood and Bayswater when Ayer was growing up – and he more or less forbade his three daughters to marry Jews. This was in part because he believed in the genetic advantages of `intermarriage’, but also because he wanted to see his family integrated and disliked what he saw as the Jews’ `clannishness and religious obduracy’. Dorus never converted and did not keep his Jewishness a secret; he merely considered it irrelevant to the modern age. Ayer never saw any reason to quarrel with this position.
This then was Ayer’s ancestry: Swiss-Calvinist bankers and professors on one side, Dutch-Jewish merchants on the other.
When Freddie’s father, Jules, met Reine Citro’n, he had been working for the Rothschilds for about twenty years. Like his employer, Alfred Rothschild, he was a ladies’ man, a gambler, and, with his tidy moustache and monocle, something of an Edwardian dandy. He spoke English fluently, although with a slight French accent, and pronounced his surname in the French way; it was Ayer and his cousins who Anglicised it. Isaiah Berlin never met Ayer’s father, but his own father, also in the timber trade, did and described a frivolous character, `the sort of man who would be drunk after two glasses of beer’.
If the picture of a dandyish sociable man suggests someone rather dashing, Jules’s two publications cast light on another aspect of his character. The first appeared in 1899. In his memoirs Ayer described it as `a set of General and Comparative Tables of the World’s Statistics’ in two parts. In fact it is simply a large and enormously detailed wall chart of global statistics, which sold for two shillings and which in spirit, if not in detail, owes a great deal to his father’s figure-laden textbooks, most notably his Tableaux de statistique g”n”rale et compar”e (1871). The second work, apparently unknown to, or forgotten by Freddie, was A Century of Finance, 1804 to 1904: The London House of Rothschild. This is also less than it sounds. Dedicated to `the present Members of the great House’ by `their obliged and obedient Servant’, it is not a full history of the bank but a summary, in table form, of its loan operations since its foundation. Like his wall chart, A Century of Finance is little more than a long and meticulous compilation of statistics. A related feature of Jules’s character, and one inherited by his son, was what one cousin described as an `obsession’ with all sorts of games and puzzles. He played bridge and other card games avidly, and loved not only solving, but also designing crosswords; at least one of his puzzles was published in the Daily Telegraph. In later life he took up bowls and golf. Freddie described his father as `a very clever man’, but his was a particular sort of intelligence – narrow, rule bound, pedantic. He read very little and neither Freddie nor his cousins say anything to suggest that he held interesting views on politics, art or religion.
Reine read more than Jules, although she preferred historical romances to anything more highbrow. Born in Antwerp, she was educated in London, and spoke English as a first language. She was by all accounts a bright student who matriculated from school, which was more than many women of her background achieved. Ayer recalled that she `would have liked to go to university, but my grandfather considered this a waste of time and money for girls and sent her instead to an art school for which she had no aptitude’. As a result she seems to have lost any ambition she may once have had. Relatives mainly agreed in remembering her as `fey’, `an uncertain sort of woman, not very reliable and rather unpredictable, in fact a worry to her sisters’ or even `highly strung, twitchy, neurotic’: `her father’, one cousin suggested, `had knocked it out of her’. She was to tell Freddie’s first wife that when she married at the age of twenty-two she had been ignorant of the facts of life – a startling admission, even by the standards of the day. In many ways Reine and Freddie were unusually close. They shopped, read and played together, and generally kept each other company – perhaps the amount of time they spent together explains Ayer’s later ease with women. Yet their relationship was fraught and they often fought. She was proud of his precocity, but irritated by his show of it: `She would have liked me to be more of what she regarded as a normal boy’. Freddie, in turn, resented her passivity, unworldliness and lack of imagination. `She needed more affection than she received from me, or indeed, from my father.’ But perhaps she lacked the confidence, or was perhaps simply too selfish, to give him all the love and guidance a child wants.
Whatever Dorus’s attitude to Jules and Reine’s marriage (and for all of his beliefs about assimilation, he must have savoured the prospect of Jules’s connection to the Rothschilds, the acknowledged head of Britain’s 70,000-strong Jewish community), he quickly came to regret it. In 1912, when Freddie was about eighteen months old, Jules went bankrupt, the bailiffs were called in, and he was forced to leave Rothschild’s. Freddie put his father’s dramatic fall from grace down to his speculations on the foreign exchanges – `He borrowed from moneylenders to make good his losses, speculated more heavily as his debts increased, and then had to borrow again’ – but one cousin suggests it was gambling of a more conventional kind; if so, it offers further evidence of his devotion to games. The collapse in the Ayers’ fortunes caused a crisis from which, one senses, neither Jules nor Reine, nor their relationship, ever quite recovered. Dorus, who came to suspect that Jules might have married his daughter as a means to pay off his debts, and who anyway considered bankruptcy a form of theft, was disapproving enough to offer to support Reine and Freddie, if she wished to leave her husband. Forced to choose between a domineering father and a bankrupt husband, Reine chose the latter, and Dorus helped Jules secure some sort of a job in Belgium. Here the Ayers lived for two years, until the outbreak of the First World War brought them back to a small house in Kilburn, St John’s Wood’s poorer neighbour. Once again Dorus stepped in, this time to help Jules purchase a partnership in a timber firm in the north London suburb of Finchley.
Jules was not a natural businessman – `his adventurousness,’ Ayer suspected, `alarmed his partner’ – but a wood business could hardly fail in time of war, and by 1918 the Ayers had moved to 41 St John’s Wood Park, a four-storey house not far from Hamilton Terrace. They were not rich, but, with a cook and a housemaid, they were independent and secure. Ayer was much too young to remember the bankruptcy or the bailiffs, and must have pieced together the story later. He seems, nevertheless, to have felt the humiliation of the situation. Later in life he tended to dwell on, even exaggerate, his family’s poverty and always worried about money. The whole experience, Dee Ayer suggests, contributed to his sense of being an outsider – to his looking at the world with `big desiring eyes’. Dorus worried that Ayer might inherit some of his father’s `weakness’, but if anything Jules’s failure seems to have worked in an opposite direction: Ayer became especially determined to get on in life. It spurred his ambition and fostered a desire to be someone else, someone stronger and more successful. Alongside his sense of being an outsider, Ayer tended to think of himself as self-made.
The Ayers’ marriage was far from happy. Freddie’s father had lost his social standing and `hated’ his new employment. He had been used to the company of Alfred Rothschild, friend of the Prince of Wales. Now he had to make do with that of his partner, Mr Bick, a Russian Jew who lived with his large family in a house in suburban Finchley. The Ayers sometimes visited the Bicks at the weekend and Freddie enjoyed `the hothouse domestic Jewish atmosphere’ that he found there, so different from the hush of home. His father, however, did not. He drank heavily and in later years spent ever more time on crossword puzzles. `I did not,’ Ayer wrote in his memoirs, `see him as an unhappy man, but he must have been more unhappy than I realised.’
If Jules was disappointed, so was Reine. She had enjoyed working as a VAD nurse during the war, but otherwise lacked a focus for her talents and `suffered’, Ayer thought, `from too little to do’. Perhaps it is revealing that one of the few memories Ayer had of his early life was of a dreary domestic routine: his mother’s weekly account-settling tour of the local shops. Speaking many years later to a journalist, he described Reine’s position as typical of women of her period who were denied education and opportunity:
My mother, although she was an intelligent woman, led a vapid existence. We were not particularly rich and only had a small house, but servants’ wages were minimal, so we had a cook and a housemaid. Therefore she had very little to do. In the morning she might shop; in the afternoon she sometimes had tea parties or saw friends; in the evening she would have dinner with my father – mostly in silence because after twenty years of marriage they had very little to say to each other. It was a great waste of a fine intellect.
Ayer had many happy family memories: of his mother playing Coleridge Taylor’s Petite Suite de Concert on the piano, of holidays spent in France, of shopping expeditions to the West End on open double-decker buses, and of visits to Christmas pantomimes and musical comedies, his favourite treat. Ayer loved the theatre – it appealed to the performer in him – and learned the words to many of the musicals’ songs, taught himself to tap-dance and dreamed of going on stage. Yet people who knew him in later life tend to agree that his home must have been a rather joyless and unstimulating place to grow up.
Jules’s friends dropped him after his bankruptcy and Reine had only a few friends of her own. In the absence of a social life to bring them together or much attachment between them, their families helped to fill the vacuum. Jules’s French-speaking mother, Sophie, was alive until Freddie was about thirteen. Freddie visited her Norwood home, where she lived with her widowed daughter, Tante Berthe and Berthe’s much adored pet monkey. Tante Berthe was an intelligent woman, warm and attractively eccentric (on her death she left money to London Zoo so that the monkeys could have bananas on bank holidays) and Freddie felt close to her. `She disapproved of the way in which my parents were bringing me up, though she did not feel entitled to interfere. She thought that I was nagged too much and also too much cosseted.’
It was the other family, however, that exerted the stronger force; Dorus in particular. Not everyone Ayer writes about in his memoirs comes alive, and it is significant that Dorus does. The picture is somewhat ambivalent, but judging by the accounts of his remaining relatives, it is true to life. The Dutch merchant was a strict and intimidating patriarch. `He had,’ in the words of one granddaughter, `a terrible temper and what he said went.’ He was ambitious for his grandsons, probably excessively so, and urged Freddie to take Disraeli as his model. Years later, after the Second World War, at a time when his job prospects looked bleak, one of Dorus’s grandsons killed himself. Freddie was to write: `To the extent that this was due to his seeing himself as a failure, he may well have been a victim of the pressure to which we were subjected in our boyhood by my grandfather’s desire for our success.’ Dorus, though, was also devoted and kind, with a strong sense of family. He kept a close eye on Ayer’s education, paying for the greater part of it, and in other ways fed the tendrils of his talent, introducing him to Shakespeare, Pepys, Rousseau, and Disraeli’s novels.
The family in which Freddie grew up thus formed a close and doubtless rather claustrophobic unit. The two Citro’n grandparents, the three daughters and their five children lived close together in north London and saw each other on a daily basis until, early in the 1920s, at around the time Freddie left his prep school, Dorus and his wife Sarah (later only remembered as `a kind old woman’) moved to Trellick Towers near Eastbourne on the south coast. Dorus’s new address was a large late nineteenth-century estate (now a college) with a team of gardeners, an orchid house, grape house, rose garden, and tennis court. A man came in from the town twice a week solely to wind up Dorus’s collection of clocks. The rest of the family visited often, and in the holidays Freddie would sometimes be chauffeured from London to stay with his grandparents alone, practising cricket on the lawn, climbing trees in the orchard, or poring over Dorus’s map collection. One of his cousins’ birthdays was on Christmas Eve and, as the eldest grandson, it fell on Freddie, much to his delight, to make a little speech wishing her happy returns. With Grandpapa Citro’n in the background and a mother, two aunts and a grandmother to fuss over him, Freddie had a pampered upbringing, even by Edwardian standards. As his wives would later complain, he never had to learn to do anything for himself.
A small, nervous and precocious boy, Freddie was, by his own admission, `unadventurous except in thought’. He had his younger cousins to play with but few friends, and, in the way that only children do, he seems early on to have developed a rich, consoling and rather narcissistic fantasy life. One gets the sense, in fact, that the five- or six-year-old Freddie – the neat little dark-haired boy with big eyes and a quizzical smile, dressed in a sailor suit, gliding down Baker Street on the back of a gleaming Minerva – already possessed the qualities he displayed as an adult: an acute intelligence, a capacity to lose himself in the flow of life and a love of praise and admiration. Together they helped ward off an inner sadness.
Freddie was unusually clumsy, so that the models and Meccano sets that other boys built were beyond him, but, like David Copperfield, he read early, read everything, and found it easy to identify with whatever he read. The first books he could remember included the Brer Rabbit stories and Robinson Crusoe, but he also read comics like the Boy’s Own Paper, poems and rhymes, adventure stories, and school life novels whose upright young protagonists could be relied on to vanquish playground bullies and sports-field cheats. At eight he discovered Kipling, winning The Jungle Book as his first school prize, and quickly moved on to Dumas’s Three Musketeers. At around the same time Dorus gave him fondly inscribed copies of two jingoistic histories: Deeds that Won the Empire and Fights for the Flag. `There was always a bit of Deeds that Won the Empire in Freddie,’ Dee Ayer suggests. It is true: the values of the schoolboy hero – courage and emotional resilience married to a steadfast conviction of what was right and wrong – remained with Ayer for the rest of his life.
At the age of about five Freddie became, like his grandfather, a collector, not of clocks and paintings, but of books, stamps and cigarette cards. He also quickly developed a lifelong devotion to games. He remembered that he and his mother were happiest when playing together – tennis and ping-pong, board, card and spelling games: anything at all. Above all he displayed an extraordinary memory, although less for events or people than for verse and facts. At an early age he could recite from memory the list of all the English league football teams in the order in which they stood, what he took to be the strongest eleven for every one of the sixteen first-class county cricket teams (a mental list, excluding dozens of rejected players, 174 items long), or the whole of the 500-line poem about Horatius from Macaulay’s Lays of Ancient Rome. His adoring family encouraged their little prodigy in his dazzling mental feats and he delighted in their applause. A star was born.
Yet although Freddie was precociously clever, he was also cocky, quarrelsome and hard to control. One cousin recalls an early but inevitably formal birthday party at which he jumped on the table, ran down it, picked up a piece of cake and ran back: it was apparently characteristic. In Part of My Life Ayer himself recalled how when Andr” Citro’n came to visit Dorus in London, Ayer pulled away the chair on which Citro’n was about to sit. Perhaps these can be discounted as everyday examples of boyish high-spiritedness, but his cousin Doris Bamford confirms what Freddie himself described: he and his mother fought together, he would talk down to her, and there would be embarrassing scenes in public. Jules deliberately distanced himself from their quarrels, and Freddie repaid his remoteness in kind. Although father and son both loved games, they hardly ever played together.
Ayer himself had little to say about these tensions, and it is not easy to make sense of this aspect of his life. Yet there seems to have been something in his upbringing which combined with his father’s bankruptcy and his foreignness to make him feel small and angry. Perhaps he understood as much as Jules and Reine did about the evasions and compromises on which their lives were founded.
Copyright ” 1999 by Ben Rogers. Reprinted with permission from Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.