What follows is a radio-phonic version of the opening of my book, Someone Called Derrida, which is a real-life murder mystery centred on the famous French philosopher, Jacques Derrida’s complex relationship to the University of Oxford and the final years of my own father, years overwhelmed by dementia and nightmare. Every factual detail is, as far as I can tell, correct. The same applies to the voices you shall hear; they too are exact, verbatim. My father’s words are as transcribed at the time by my mother, and Derrida’s words come directly from a single book of his called The Post Card (1979).
MUSIC: the opening of Vaughan Williams’ An Oxford Elegy, to be used as a refrain throughout the play.
It is late, and I am reading. The book I read is by someone called
Derrida, a strange philosopher. And his book, it is also strange
because the philosopher, you see, does not seem to know the person about
whom he is supposed to be writing.
I truly believe that I am singing someone who is dead and that I
did not know.
Still more strange is that I am beginning to imagine that this someone is
my father. After all, he is dead and the philosopher did not know him.
… This, I know, is absurd. They are, or were, so very different - my
father being no philosopher But he is definitely dead, and Derrida
certainly did not know him.
They did not know each other, but …they form a couple …just because of
Philosopher and pastor
An odd couple.
It is true. But I shall point out that they were both born in 1930; both wrote
censored love letters from Oxford; and both (here I hesitate)… both
suffered, or seemed to have suffered, some kind of childhood calamity in
the middle of the Second World War.
In September 1942, someone called Derrida into his study.
The school officer has me come into his office: ‘You are going home, my
The boy, just twelve years old, is leaving because he is Jewish; he must
leave school for home. Exactly one year later, in England, another boy
(my father) goes the other way, leaving home for school. He is thirteen
and is beginning at boarding-school where something happens,
something quite terrible; or rather, it may have happened. … All I have
to go on is that, at around the age of 60, after several years of premature
dementia my father slowly disappeared. He seemed to understand almost
nothing that we said, just as we understood almost nothing that he said;
but then, we did not really want to understand, since he seemed to describe
a series of appalling events ….Well, perhaps not events.
Disaster - we have dreamed of it, no?
Yes – my father, he may have dreamed of it. But if so, he was dreaming
of it every day for the last five years of his life, and my mother, she heard
it all, and set it down even as he spoke.
It was lethal…. Hanging… They were kicking him. Just shut the
door. He is murdering me…. 666…. I must telephone.
The boy did, finally, telephone. I think he meant to make the call in 1943,
but it took him fifty years to do so, fifty years before he could get through.
I tried to call you but it was busy, then no answer, you must
have gone out.
When he did get through it was not just my mother who picked up the
phone; it was also, I think, the philosopher, for he was no stranger to
peculiar phone calls.
In 1979 someone called Derrida, it was someone called Martin
Heidegger, even though he, Heidegger, had died three years before.
On 22 August while typing the words, ‘from Freud and from Heidegger’
the telephone rings. The operator asks me if I accept a ‘call’ from
With messages coming in from the dead as well as the living, the
philosopher’s switchboard is burdened with interference, with noises off.
And these are terrible noises: the noise of -
All the cruelty in the world.
The worst concentration of evil: To the devil with the child, the
child, the child.
You can, perhaps, see why I dream that the philosopher got my father’s
call, my father’s 666 call. And I dream it again when the philosopher
looks round and asks:
Who is he afraid of, this child?
And his book, the philosopher’s book, it is, stuffed with dead children.
For the children, the holocaust has already begun.
As if this, or they, were not enough, there is also -
Norbert, my dead younger brother.
He who died of meningitis at the age of two
And as if he were not enough, there is also -
Paul…the little brother dead before me.
Poor boy, dead boy.
But which boy is this now? Which boy are we mourning? The boy erased
by meningitis? The boy they had called Paul? The boy expelled for being
a Jew? The thousands of boys that were lost in the Holocaust? Or,
simply the boy that was my father? Or, perhaps, the boy my father says he
saw being killed; if there ever was such a boy, such a never never boy.
He’s dead! That poor little boy…I saw them bring him out screaming.
… He was hanging... chairs and a plank.
The boy, if ever he was, did he survive? Did he live? … This question, as
it happens, is a question that confronts our philosopher in a book from the
thirteenth century, a book called Prognostica Socratis basilei. The
philosopher found it one day in Oxford, in the Bodleian Library. It is a
fortune-telling book that includes thirty-six questions, and each time you
open the book you are invited to choose one. I do not know why, but the
Si puer vivet – ‘If the boy lives.’
The same ancient book includes the answer to this question, but the
philosopher is not letting on. To find the answer you must, therefore,
take the last train to Oxford, to that -
Labyrinth between the…colleges.
And, once there, you must follow the philosopher to the dead centre of the
labyrinth, to somewhere they call the Duke Humfrey Room.
Are you following?
Perhaps not, but you should. You owe it to a boy, and perhaps even to a
philosopher. So, listen well as he tells your future:
One day I will be dead, and you will come into the Duke Humfrey
Room to look for the answer in this book.
The philosopher is now dead. He died on October the 8th 2004; I
heard it on the radio, a day later, a day late.
The radio transmits, no one understands.
But I do understand that the philosopher is dead. It is, then, time for you
to go into the Bodleian and look for the answer. First, though, the oath:
‘I, hereby undertake not to bring into the Library or kindle therein any
fire or flame.’ …
The Duke Humfrey Room is an ancient library, shaped by concentration,
the concentration of all the knowing world.
Letters, knowledge wall them up in their crypt.
And it seemed like a crypt on the day I visited the Room, and there
met a very English Frenchman who had emerged, like a holy father, from
the latticed confessional box that they call ‘The Reserve.’ This kindly
man was an archivist, and explained that it was he who, twenty-six years
before, had assisted the philosopher. He then showed me what the
philosopher had hand-written in a special copy of his book. It read:
To the soul and body of the Bodleian (‘à l’âme et au corps de la
For some reason, the French archivist had never seen this before, but he
immediately got the long-delayed message, the inter-linguistic text.
…am the corpse of the Bodleian.
He is right, there is a stiff in Jacques Derrida’s Bodleian; however, it has
not yet been finally identified.
I arrived at opening time, just now, still dragging along with me a
dream: all around someone in danger of death several doctors. The
patient is passive, immobile … my father.
If there is a body in the Room then, at first glance, it is (the philosopher
The philosopher’s father had died of cancer at the age of seventy-four,
and one day the philosopher would also die of cancer at seventy-four, in
hospital. The passive and immobile patient at the centre of this Oxford
dream may, then, be the philosopher himself.
I intend to go back to Oxford, to take the investigation to its end.
The philosopher, I think, investigates his own death. He has, you see,
come to Oxford in order to die -
It would be good if I died tonight, in the college.
The college is Balliol, a place where the thought of the philosopher’s death
had, in fact, already been entertained.
June 6th 1977 - seminar (at Balliol). Afterward, on the lawn, a
young student (very handsome) thought he could provoke me and, I think,
seduce me by asking why I didn’t kill myself.
If, two years later, when the philosopher returned to Balliol, he had then
died overnight the handsome student may himself have faced some
Cue the great Thomas de Quincey:
DE Q.: (Grandly)
Gentlemen, it is a fact that every philosopher of eminence has
either been murdered or at least been very near it, – insomuch that, if a
man calls himself a philosopher and never had his life attempted, rest
assured there is nothing in him.
Quite so. A sentiment shared, one feels, by our philosopher, particularly
whenever in Oxford. But then, where better to be murdered than glorious
Oxford? Indeed, where else are you so likely to have your murderer
identified than in a city which boasts a host of brilliant detectives? …
But, please, let us not involve the police in our investigation.
We… must… tell the police.
But I would really rather not. It shall be like that novel called Which Way
Came Death?, a 1936 murder-mystery that is set in (of all places) my
father’s school. As ever this is true, absolutely true. The novel revolves
around a murder that, in the end, the Headmaster keeps silent.
Death from natural causes is bad for a school, but, if a suspicion of
unnatural causes leaks out, it’s – damnation.
Yes, let us keep this in-house, in-school, within the academy. Let us see
what books can tell us, what books might know, or even fore-know.
This, perhaps, is madness but if so, it is shared by the philosopher.
I will look up what has happened to us in this book from the 13th
He is, you see, for some reason, certain that this fragile book -
Secretly recounts our history.
And that is precisely why I must find the fading page that will tell me,
once and for all, if the boy lives, Si puer vivet. It is also why I turn, and
turn, to this murder-mystery called Which Way Came Death? It too
whispers our history. And what it first whispers is that the one who
investigates murder must himself be a suspect. The headmaster,
remember, chose not to call the police. The detective must always be a
suspect. He must even suspect himself…. My father certainly suspected
The girl …I had to hold her head.… They took turns…. I could not kill
her. …I didn’t kill her…My gun.
So, which way came this death? Did my father shoot the girl? Was it his
gun that killed her?
It’s a firing squad - someone gives the order to fire, and everyone goes
The trouble is, when you’re shooting in the dark it’s difficult to know who
shot whom. The point is made in the school magazine, in a report on the
army cadet camp of 1947, a camp my father attended.
We had the thrill of night ops on the Saturday. Blackened faces and
lowered voices helped towards realism, but the problem of “who shot
whom” was never solved.
It may never be. Not that it matters; I do realise that these were only
operations, that the cadets were only play-shooting. It’s like when, as
children, we would go to the fair, and my father would so impress us at the
shooting-booth and say that he’d learnt to shoot at school. Fitting, then,
that at school he should have played the part of a character called Pistol in
Shakespeare’s Henry V. That was June 1947, just a couple of months
before the cadet camp. … So, to resume: whom did Pistol shoot? And if
it wasn’t Pistol that did the killing, who was it? … It is, I think, too early
to say; but no-one can be ruled out. Everyone of us is a suspect,
Right here I kill you ...there is someone in me who kills.
See, even philosophers are dangerous … if only by thinking, by using
The brains, kill, quick!...The brains, kill, quick!
The brain, I think, is another unusual suspect. Let it be noted: thinking
may not be trusted.
Think! Think! …Think! Think!
And think-think is exactly what Socrates does -
That devil of a Socrates
Yes, that perverter of youth, that philosophical celebrant of the beautiful
boy. Everyone knows that the father of metaphysics cannot be trusted
with boys, or at least not his thinking, his brains, his mind. Indeed, I shall
here insist that if philosophy were personified, were Someone (as She so
often is), She might well be saying:
Hell is in my father’s head.
‘Hell is in my father’s head.’ These are words my own father heard,
in Oxford in April 1951, as he sat and watched Christopher Fry’s play A
Sleep of Prisoners. It is about four British soldiers held in a church turned
prison camp. I am not sure why they are prisoners, or who is holding
them, or even where they are, but their hell somehow mirrors the hell that,
one day, would be in my father’s head.
Oh, someone take me out…. A little church… it was the Sergeant. … He
was wearing uniform. …In the army. …Trapped.
The boy that was my father is trapped in a church with men who look like
soldiers. Or so his story goes. If the boy then lives, lives to become a
young man who, in 1951, watches a play about soldiers caught
in a church, what happens in the young man’s head? Did the play
awaken a memory, or create a memory?
SOLDIER: (from The Sleep of Prisoners)
The boy’s dead. You might as well be told: I say, the
Those words, they are from the play.
FATHER-AS-UNDERGRAD: (calm, earnest 1950s Oxford voice)
My dear Mary, last night I saw
Fry’s The Sleep of Prisoners, a very fine drama though I found it rather
hard to get hold of the meaning and the moral.
But think, father! think! Is not the meaning and moral what you suffered
as a boy, whilst away at school? Don’t you recall - the church? the
soldiers? being trapped?
No, he is not listening, for April 1951 is not a time to look back. This is
Oxford in springtime and he is in love. His letters speak of playing
canasta like the smart set, of chasing the college eight on the river, and singing madrigals from
‘Madrigal’ - a song with 4,5,6, 7 voices.
My father’s Oxford letters transcribe, I admit, a dream of Oxford, a dream
of Oxford-past. And yet it is also a dream of Oxford-future. Listen:
FATHER-AS-UNDERGRAD: (Writing a letter)
March 10th 1951. My dear Mary, Spring at last is here,
and somehow I am sure that the summer is going to be a fine one.
And it was. Once Schools are over, Mary will go up to Oxford for a
Commemoration Ball, and that night, at Christ Church, within the Dean’s
Garden, he will propose to her and they will dance. The summer is going
to be fine, and so too the world.
Promise me that one day there will be a world.
Promise? How could I? But, the young Oxonian he might make such a promise.
FATHER-AS-UNDERGRAD: (Writing a letter)
‘Dear Mary, I am in sympathy with pacifist ideals, and
indeed am now a Socialist.
FATHER-AS-UNDERGRAD: (Writing a letter)
However, whatever my politics, it does not seem to make
our meat rations any larger.’
War was slow to leave hungry Oxford, but Pistol-the-pacifist will still set
down his gun, declaring himself a conscientious objector.
FATHER: (now an old man, once more)
We don’t fight….
In Henry V, when Pistol exits stage-right a character simply known as
‘Boy’ is left, all alone, looking around at the deserted English camp.
And he says:
There is none to guard it but boys.
In 1951 there is one boy less to guard camp England. Not that England
needs saving any more; war is finally over, the summer will be fine, so
too England. And my father is sure of this, for his world is one of pure
prediction, pure prognostication. In the summer of 1951 his world is the
world of the Oxford fortune-telling book. Time then to turn, at last, to
the page to which the philosopher points, the page that will reveal if the
boy lives, Si puer vivet. As I turn, though, to this page from the 13th
century, the text before me seems familiar, for it reads like a
dream, like something that has somehow come straight from my father,
the post-war, pacifist man-boy who was so much in love:
That boy will live long in the land…
Wars initiated will be rendered peaceful…
You will have good sleep by the side of your heart’s desire.