Bertrand Russell’s home recordings discovered

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David Hodgson / Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation

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The philosopher Bertrand Russell recorded many hours of material at his home in north Wales

Previously unheard recordings made by the philosopher Bertrand Russell have been discovered by the BBC ahead of the 50th anniversary of his death.

Russell is regarded as one of the most significant British minds of the 20th Century – an eminent philosopher, an anti-war activist and a social critic.

To commemorate 50 years since his death on 2 February 1970, the BBC has been exploring his personal archive.

The tapes were recorded at his home in north Wales.

They are part of the collection, alongside his suits, smoking pipes, letters and artworks.

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Media captionPhilosopher Bertrand Russell encounters a tape recorder for the first time

In the later years of his life, Bertrand Russell and his American wife Edith acquired a reel-to-reel Tandberg tape recorder. Together they recorded hours of material, much of it containing spontaneous discussions.

The tapes offer new insights into his life, humour and behind-the-scenes influences. Russell reads his own short stories, talks with neighbours in north Wales, and recalls his travels in China in 1921.

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Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation

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Bertrand Russell at the seaside with his family

The collection is kept by the Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation, which was formed in 1963 to continue Russell’s work for peace, human rights and social justice.

Tony Simpson, the foundation’s director, says: “Whilst moving premises, we discovered vinyl, tape and film recordings of Russell, which are being collated in collaboration with the official Bertrand Russell Archives at McMaster University, Canada. Hearing Russell laugh and converse is a remarkable way to encounter one of the most discerning minds of the 20th Century who, 50 years on, attracts new enthusiasts worldwide.”

I have a lot of heroes, but Bertrand Russell has a special place among them.

He was the figure held up by my father as the Great English Mind in whose footsteps I should follow, and thereby justify the sacrifice he and my mum made in coming to this country when I was three.

I think about this every hour of every day. Alas, various tentative steps that I may have taken in that direction swiftly revealed my enormous shortcomings as a mathematician and logician (Russell’s first pursuit as a student), chief among them that I had no aptitude for fractal geometry – and indeed all the other subjects Russell mastered when he read for the Mathematical Tripos at Cambridge.

Nor have I, so far, so much as come within sight of his shadow when it comes to writing clear prose, or pumping out great works of philosophy. I could pretend there’s still time, but time isn’t really the issue.

There is a funny scene in How to Break Into the Elite, a documentary produced by Clare Hix which I presented last year, about three minutes in. My dad reveals that he wants me to win the Nobel Prize (though, much to my chagrin, he never specifies which one).

A lot of people found this scene really hilarious. To me, the actual joke was that my dad wasn’t joking at all. He is very serious about this ambition – and again, the model is Russell, who won the Nobel for Literature.

I think about that every day too. My dad has a thing for reciting poetry and great prose, which I have imbibed. Growing up, he would reach up to the shelf and pull down volumes of Russell’s best work, like In Praise of Idleness and Why I am Not a Christian, and read aloud.

To my mind, Russell gave us the best prose of anyone writing in English in the 20th Century. I try to emulate his style, which combines moral force, erudition, and plain English with unique wit and humanity. That’s why I set up the Russell Prize. Of course, I know I’ll never come close to Russell’s prose calibre.

Imagine my glee then, when Alva White, a brilliant BBC producer, approached me to say that she had uncovered some never before heard voice recordings by the great man. To say I was excited would be an understatement. Thanks to Alva’s masterful mixing and production, we got a package of unheard Russell onto the Today programme.

And if that doesn’t keep my dad happy then frankly I’m stuffed.

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