Paul Johnson

Odd man out in the age of ‘celebs’

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.

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