At first sight, they don’t have much in common: A.J. Ayer (1910-1989), a philosopher known for his promotion of logical positivism and close association with humanist ideas who enjoyed socialising at clubs in London and New York, and at college dinners in Oxford, and Ruth Pitter (1897-1992), a poet deeply rooted in natural mysticism and spirituality, who preferred a much more reclusive life in a Buckinghamshire village.
However, Ayer and Pitter have a connection, not only through the fact that their respective papers both share an archival home in the Bodleian’s special collections.
Both were regular contributors to the BBC talk show The Brains Trust in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and they actually met and talked, at least once, as this letter from the papers of Ruth Pitter confirms:
The ‘other prof’ whose name Ruth Pitter could not remember when annotating her correspondence in the 1970s must have been Julian Huxley, an evolutionary biologist and zoologist (John Betjeman, the poet, writer and broadcaster, completed the Brains Trust panel for that episode of the programme).
Which questions the Brains Trust discussed in May 1957 we do not know, but any queries about religion, divinity, spirituality, nature and evolution, morals and family values would have sparked a lively debate between Pitter who, inspired by C.S. Lewis’s religious broadcasts and writings, had joined the Anglican Church in the 1940s, on one side, and Ayer and Huxley, both staunch rationalists and secular humanists, on the other.
Ruth Pitter donated her extensive correspondence with C.S. Lewis to the Bodleian Library, and around the same time started sorting and extensively annotating her own papers with view to bequeathing them to the Bodleian. The archive comprises literary papers and other material relating to Ruth Pitter’s career as a poet (c.1903-1983 and some posthumous material), as well as personal correspondence with an emphasis on literary and social letters (1911-c.1988) and personal and financial papers (1897-1988), including material relating to Pitter’s decorative painting business Deane & Forester. Also included are photographs (c.1884-1981), prints, drawings, engravings and watercolours (c.1900-1989), audio recordings of interviews with, and songs and poems by, Ruth Pitter (1981-1987 and n.d.), and material relating to Ruth Pitter which was collected by her friend Mary Thomas (1897-1998).
A.J. Ayer’s papers arrived at the Bodleian in 2004, donated by his son Nick. The material comprises personal and professional correspondence and papers, as well as papers – mainly manuscript and typescript versions – relating to A.J. Ayer’s books, essays, lectures, articles and other (published) works. While the material spans Ayer’s academic and professional life from c.1930 to 1989 and includes some posthumous material, there is an emphasis on material from the late 1960s, the 1970s and the 1980s.
But the connection to other archives at the Bodleian go further:
A.J. Ayer, for example, corresponded with J.B.S. Haldane (the letters are in MS. 5985/1), whose father J.S. Haldane, worked closely with the physiologist and pathologist Mabel FitzGerald. The then 12 1/2 -year-old Jack Haldane even appears in FitzGerald’s 1905 notebook on respiratory physiology experiments.
Ruth Pitter, in 1943 took part in a poetry reading, organised by Dorothy Wellesley, who would become a close friend:
Amongst the other poets featured at the charity event were Louis MacNeice, whose papers are at the Bodleian, and Vita Sackville-West, who was a friend of the diplomat Archibald Clark Kerr. And who was the architect planning Clark Kerr’s country estate in Inverchapel, Lock Eck? Dorothy Wellesby’s husband Gerald Wellesby (the architectural drawings are in MSS. 12101/120-125).
John Betjeman, linked to Ruth Pitter and A.J. Ayer by the appearance on the Brains Trust panel in 1957, was, of course, a friend of Louis MacNeice, who, besides his career as a poet, worked at the BBC Features Department, alongside Sasha Moorsom. Sasha Moorsom, in c.1960, collaborated for a radio programme on the lore and language of schoolchildren with Iona and Peter Opie, the childhood historians and folklorists, as documented in the Opie Archive (MS. Opie 209). Indeed, the Opies appear in the appointment diaries kept by B.B.C Features Department’s assistant, which are now in the papers of Louis MacNeice (MSS. 10641/63-64).
The link from the Opies back to Ruth Pitter is Joan Hassall, who provided illustrations for her Urania (1951), as well as for the Opies’ The Oxford Nursery Rhyme Book (1955).
Louis MacNeice, in 1952, contributed to the conference “L’œuvre du XXme siècle” in Paris, and so did art historian Edgar Wind (see MS. Wind 10). Edgar Wind’s lawyer in inheritance matters was Curt Sluzewski, a German solicitor who had set up his law firm in London after emigrating from Nazi Germany. The Sluzewskis were close friends of the Braun family: Curt ‘Slu’ Sluzewski played with Konrad Braun in an amateur string quartet, founded during their school years in Berlin in the 1920s and continued in their British exile until the 1960s. The Sluzewskis, who had left Germany earlier than the Brauns, hosted Gerhard Braun’s adopted daughter Ruth in London, when she was sent to safety in the UK in late 1938 ahead of her parents’ emigration.
….or in one simple diagram: