‘It has nothing to do with Oxford University’ said the porter at the University Offices
(A postscript to my correspondence with the Pension Service)
Dear Glyn Caron,
In my email of 10 June 2015 I asked the Pension Service: ‘On what basis have the Pension Service found me in debt of £11,956.70 ? My request is urgent. On the 1st of September I shall be separating from my wife. From then on I shall live on my State Pension, at Oxford. My State Pension, even if it were paid to me in full, is not sufficient for my renting any accommodation at Oxford; I shall be therefore spending my nights in front of Balliol College, my days at Bodleian Library. But it would make a great difference, if I feed myself on £39.95 instead of £26.95.’
On 12 June 2015 you replied: ‘On the subject of you have to subsist on £26.95 that would not be the case … if you are to separate from your wife then you will be able to apply for Pension Credit as a single person … you will be entitled to an amount of £111.25 + your State Pension. Furthermore being entitled to Pension Credit will also make you entitled to Housing Benefit and Council Tax Benefit … I would therefore advise that as soon as you are certain of your future plans you telephone 0800 99 1234 and make a new claim for Pension Credit.’
These are undoubtedly well meant suggestions and I should like to use this opportunity to thank the Pension Service and all the other DHSS departments that since 1987 made it possible for me to continue my work in philosophy. But I will not make a new claim for Pension Credit; you either revise the decision concerning my debt, or from the day I separate from my wife I shall subsist on 26.95 a week.
Why do I insist on the revision of my debt? On 8 December 2009 The Pension Service wrote to me: ‘Details of the money we will take off your Pension Credit each week. Start date 11 January 2010. End date 24 April 2033. Total amount stopped £ 9.75.’ I have reasons to suspect an Oxford University hand in the decision to encumber me with debt. This is why I have been insisting on the revision of this decision ever since I have learnt about it, in September 2009. My suspicions go back to the year 1988. In 1987 I applied for unemployment benefit. In January 1988 the benefit was disconnected. I appealed against the decision and I was informed that in March a Social Security Appeal Tribunal would be held at which the matter would be decided; I would be informed of the exact date in due course. And so I wrote to all Members of the Sub-Faculty of Philosophy, inviting them to the tribunal and asking them to testify on my behalf that I was continuing to do my research in philosophy, the subject for which I have been qualified, and that I was applying for jobs in my speciality. Michael Dummett, Wykeham Professor of Logic and a fellow of New College replied: ‘I am very sorry indeed to hear that you are having trouble about supplementary benefit. If you would tell me on what date the tribunal will be held, I will certainly attend it if I am free to do so at the time. I am willing to act as a witness.’
The tribunal took place on 23/8/1988. On 17th August 1988 Professor Dummett wrote to me: ‘I promised to be present at your tribunal hearing if I could; unfortunately, I cannot, since I shall actually be giving a talk on that morning at the World Congress. I hope very much that your plea is accepted.’
Oxford dons are very good at this kind of machinations. In August 1981 I gave a paper on ‘Socrates in the Clouds’, jointly with Dr Wilkes, at the Triennial meeting of Greek and Roman Societies. My views on Aristophanes’ Clouds differed from those of Professor Dover. Dr Wilkes sent him the paper. On 15 August 1981 he replied: ‘I am most grateful for the opportunity to read Dr Tomin’s paper on the Clouds. It was a great pity that the organisers of the Triennial ensured my absence from the discussion by making me chair a different discussion at the same hour!’ (Dover’s exclamation mark.)
Those who lost the unempIoyment benefit could ask the Unemployment Benefit Office for a loan. I did so in April 1988. The officer at the desk asked: ‘How would you repay the loan?’ I answered: ‘In August, there will be a World Congress of Philosophy in Brighton. I shall cycle there and start a hunger-strike in front of the Congress Building. I expect journalists to come and ask what it is about; I shall give an interview to them under the condition that they repay my debt to you.’ The officer said: ‘Mr Tomin, wait a moment.’ He went away and returned in about a quarter of an hour: ‘Mr Tomin, your benefits will be renewed.’ The first week after my visit I received the benefit. The benefit came always the same day of the week (Tuesday?). The following fortnight it did not arrive. I waited for two days and then I went to the Benefit Office. I had to wait for more than an hour, a precious hour I planned to spend at the Bodleian Library. At last an officer received me: ‘We sent you the cheque.’ I had to fill in a Form: ‘Report of girocheque not received/lost/stolen/destroyed etc.’ The same thing happened for several weeks that followed; my waiting was more and more protracted. I was openly treated as a man who had received the cheques, is lying and defrauding the country. And so I went to the University Offices and asked for an interview with the Vice-Chancellor; the Vice-Chancellor was not available, but I was given a hearing by the Marshal. I told him I had every reason to believe the involvement of Oxford University in the matter. He said it was nonsense: ‘But I can tell you one thing, Mr Tomin. There is no place for you here. All doors are closed for you at Oxford University.’ I told him that I could not accept that: ‘The supreme duty of Oxford University, and any other university, is to get the best men and women they can get to teach their students. There is only one acceptable reason for not giving me a teaching post; that I am not good enough in Ancient Philosophy, my speciality. If I am not good enough today, I shall do my very best to advance my knowledge, so that I become good enough tomorrow.’ – After my visit at the University Offices my giro-cheques arrived by post every fortnight without any further problems.
The tribunal that was to decide whether I was to receive unemployment benefits coincided with the World Congress of Philosophy. My attendance at the Congress caused quite a stir: Under the photo subtitled ‘Dr Tomin relaxes by the sea at Brighton during a break from the World Philosophy Congress’ The Daily Telegraph of August 23. 1988 brought an article entitled ‘Dissident is philosophical on £67 benefit’. Barry o Brien wrote: ‘Dr Julius Tomin, the dissident Czech philosopher who has lived in exile in Britain since 1980, has had to cycle from Oxford to the World Congress on Philosophy at Brighton because he could not afford the train fare. He spent a night on the way sleeping rough south of Horsham and has been given a week’s free lodging by a policeman’s wife who took pity on him because he had nowhere to stay … ‘I had to leave the Congress for a day to go to Oxford for the tribunal hearing. I could go by train; quite a number of Congress Members donated to me money so that I could pay the Congress fee – over £300 if I remember – and the return train to Oxford.
At the tribunal were several journalists. The Economist wrote under the title ‘Available to think’: ‘Picture the scene. On one side of a large municipal-style table in a prefab government office sit three middle-aged middle-class home counties worthies. On the other is an unshaven, overwrought, gesticulating and heavily accented man trying to argue, like Aristotle, that philosophy is the key to the best life; and, like Socrates, that a life without philosophy is not worth living … ‘ The Tribunal did not reach any decision; I was to receive a decision in a fortnight. On 6th September I was notified that I had lost my appeal. But by then I was bombarded by letters sent mostly by The Daily Telegraph readers, sending me money: £5, £10, £20, £ 50. This shower of charity, roused by Barry O’Brien articles in The Daily Telegraph ended in two or three weeks – with a postal strike, which took place only in Oxfordshire and lasted for some three weeks. By then I was offered a three year lecture contract at the Beehive Pub in Swindon.
My troubles with the Unemployment Benefit Office started again in 1992. Following a refusal of the Sub-Faculty of Philosophy to allow me to have reading classes on Plato at the University, on October 22 I visited the Administrator of the Sub-Faculty of Philosophy and told him that if I am not allowed to lecture at the Philosophy Centre, I shall protest with a ten day hunger-strike. On Saturday October 30 I was expecting a giro-cheque with my Income Support and Housing Benefit, but it did not arrive. My cheques went missing in the past; each time it happened I signed the appropriate Form and obtained a new cheque. Not this time. I was told that the cheque could not be immediately given to me, for there was something wrong with my address (I lived at 330 Banbury Rd).
After my visit at the Unemployment Office I visited the University Offices and asked the porter for an appointment with the University Marshal. The Marshal came immediately. I told him I suspected a co-operation between MI5, MI6 and Oxford dons was behind the non-delivery of my cheque and the Unemployment Benefit refusal to give me the cheque; I asked him to investigate the matter: ‘For as long as Oxford dons deny my academic credentials – “He would not be accepted as a graduate here, let alone be given a teaching job” said Jonathan Barnes, Professor of Ancient Philosophy at Balliol College, Oxford, quoted by Nick Cohen in ‘The Pub Philosopher’ published in The Independent Magazine 18 November 1989 – while at the same time they refuse to face me in a public discussion, they must be interested in getting me out of Oxford. I have received letters from Members of the Sub-Faculty of Philosophy and from several Heads of Colleges asking me to leave. Since they cannot prove me academically inadequate in an open academic confrontation, no wonder they apply other means to achieve their aim.’
I informed the Marshal about another incident concerning ‘something wrong with my address’: ‘Earlier in the year I was surprised to have received an invitation to give a lecture at the Department of Philosophy at the University of Wales at Lampeter. The lecture was for free, but I was to be paid my travel expenses. After the lecture the Head of the Department encouraged me to have a good meal on the train on my way back as part of my travel expenses. I did so and paid the bill with my Barclaycard, hoping to receive the cheque before the bill from the Barclaycard would arrive. I was wrong in my expectations. It was in the winter and my electricity bills were high, my situation became desperate. In the end I wrote to the Secretary of the Philosophy Department at Lampeter. The Secretary replied: “I have just received your letter, and I phoned the Accounts Department straight away about the money; they say they sent out your cheque on 22 January, but the silly fools sent it to 205 Iffley Road. I’ve told them to stop that one and send you another at the Banbury Road, which they will do next week. Why they didn’t use the address on the form I don’t know.” I waited for the cheque a week, ten days, no cheque. In the end I wrote to the Secretary that the Accounts Department presumably unearthed another of my previous addresses, so if I do not get the cheque, I shall cycle to Lampeter to get it. My address became immediately all-right and I received the cheque promptly.’
My appeal to the Marshall concerning ‘something wrong with my address’ was not very successful, as the following incident demonstrates. The Editor of Symbolae Osloenses, a Norwegian classical journal, offered to publish in the 1992 issue my article on ‘A Preliminary to the Study of Plato’. 1993 arrived and I still hadn’t received even the proofs of my article. I wrote to the Editor concerning it. In a letter of March 1993 he replied: ‘Your article has already been printed. I enclose a copy for you to see. You will soon receive the offprints. It is a mystery for me that you have neither received them nor the proofs.’
Bente Lassen wrote to me: ‘I hear from Professor Knut Kleve that you have received neither proofs nor off-prints of your article ‘A Preliminary to the Study of Plato’, which was published in Symbolae Osloenses vol. LXVII 1992. I am very sorry about this and wonder whether a slight change of address might explain the misunderstanding. However it may be, Universitetsforlaget is now informed and will send you your off-prints.’
I never received the off-prints. I sent a copy of the article to a classical philosopher in Prague in 1991: ‘Around this little article the Platonic Studies will make a U-turn, for it in itself is sufficient to substantiate the early dating of Plato’s Phaedrus, which I have championed. The modern Platonic scholarship considers it to be late. That’s the crux of the scholarly differences between me and my Oxford colleagues.’ Without the off-prints which I could send to Platonic scholars my article in Symbolae Osloenses was as good as dead.
To substantiate my suspicion that MI5, MI6 and Oxford dons cooperated, I gave the Marshal a copy of Roger Scruton’s ‘A Catacomb Culture’ published in the Times Literary Supplement, February 16-22, 1990: ‘The publicity-conscious Tomin then emigrated and … Kathleen Wilkes, Alan Montefiore, Bill Newton-Smith and myself … We decided that, although our purpose was charitable … it should not be openly pursued, and that we could henceforth best help our Czechoslovak colleagues working secretly.’
I told the Marshal that in my experience, whenever people in Czechoslovakia did anything ‘secretly’, the Secret Police was well informed about it, and whenever it suited them, they made people know that they were well informed, so as to sow among them mutual suspicion. I could not expose my students to that; that’s why I insisted on the openness of my philosophy seminar. Shortly after Roger Scruton published his article, the man who secured Oxford dons’ ‘secret contacts’ with the Czechoslovak ‘underground’, Jan Kavan, the Head of the London Palach Press, was exposed as an agent of the Czechoslovak Secret Police. At around that time I heard on Radio 4 an interesting interview with Professor Ericson, the British expert on East European military and police forces. He revealed that around 1980 the KGB decided to dump Communism. Presumably, Roger Scruton’s ‘secret seminars’ became a significant factor in accomplishing this aim. To make this plain, I underlined for the Marshal some further lines from Roger Scruton’s article:
‘We were able to set up a network of secret classes – not only in Bohemia, but also in Moravia and Slovakia … a small sum of money had been given for the relief of our Czechoslovak colleagues [the Jan Hus Foundation trust was founded] … Many of our visitors were extremely well known in their own countries … We also encouraged our French, German, American and Canadian colleagues to establish sister trusts, thereby acquiring an international dimension which was to prove invaluable in the hard years to come … We were obliged by our trust to support educational and cultural activities in Czechoslovakia … We therefore began to establish other, purely nominal organizations through which to pay official stipends, so that the names of our beneficiaries could not be linked either to us or to each other … In the mid-1980s, thanks to a generous grant from George Soros (who will surely be commemorated in future years, not only as a great Hungarian patriot, but also as one of the saviours of Central Europe), we had expanded into Moravia … it was a time of miracles … Čarnogurský was made Deputy Prime Minister of his country … another of our beneficiaries was President [Václav Havel], and within weeks we were to see our friends occupying the highest offices in the land … Among those who had worked with us we could count the new rectors of the Charles University, of the Masaryk University in Brno, and of the Palacký University in Olomouc.’
After my meeting with the University Marshal I visited the Oxford BBC. A young research assistant was willing to listen to me. He appeared intelligent and sympathetic. Next day, on Tuesday November2, 1992, in my letter to him I wrote: ‘For years I was allowed to lecture at Oxford. I lectured for free, for it was I who asked for a permission to do so. I asked Oxford philosophers and classicists again and again to attend my lectures and to subject my views on Ancient Philosophy to criticism; both my students and I would have benefited from it. But all my appeals were in vain. Recently the rules were changed. When I wanted to give further lectures, I was asked to find two referees who would support my proposal. I wrote to Dr Kenny, the Master of Balliol, and to Professor Barnes. Dr Kenny did not reply to me, which I found strange, considering that it was he who had invited me to Oxford in the first place. On the other hand, as soon as I arrived at Oxford in 1980, he told me that there would be no place for me at Oxford or at any other British University. His tacit refusal may thus be considered consistent with his original stand. A remarkable consistency, for during the past twelve years I concentrated all my efforts to make myself worthy of presenting the results of my studies to Oxford students. Professor Barns from Balliol College wrote to me: ‘I am unwilling to recommend your proposed lectures to the Sub-Faculty – indeed, if the proposal is brought before the Sub-Faculty, I shall oppose it.’ (I never received a response to my letter.)
During my evening walk on that day I realized the absurdity of the Benefit Office’s position. If they found something wrong with my address, the more reason to give the cheque directly to me. The only legitimate reason for their refusing to do so would be a suspicion that I had received the cheque and intended to defraud the Office. Who else but a representative of Oxford University would have the authority to persuade the DHHS officers that they should doubt my integrity? I felt I had to talk about this to the University Marshal. I would have preferred to talk about it to the Vice-Chacellor, but all my efforts to have an appointment with him were to no avail. I revisited the University Offices on Wednesday November 3, 1992. This time the porter would not allow me to see the Marshal or anyone else. He maintained that my cause had nothing to do with Oxford University. I tried to persuade him otherwise, but he would not listen to me: ‘It is way above my head’. Opposite the porter’s seat was the Registration Office. I approached the lady behind the counter and asked her for advice who should I talk to. She was prepared to listen. I showed her Roger Scruton’s article in the TLS. When I was explaining it and commenting on it, the porter intervened: ‘Not a word more. Leave the building, or I call the police.’ – ‘Please, call the police,’ I replied, and wanted to continue explaining the matter to the lady behind the counter. But her telephone rang and she was summoned away. ‘I shall be back as soon as possible,’ she said before leaving. I waited and waited, but neither did she return, nor did the police come. In the end I asked a gentleman who came to serve the customers if he knew when the lady I had spoken to would return. ‘She won’t return.’ – ‘Would you help me,’ I asked. – ‘No, I can’t,’ he said, ‘it is way above my head.’
I went in search of someone in the University Offices who would listen to me and give the matter due consideration. I was half the way up the staircase when my jacket was snatched from behind, I was pulled back, raised up from the ground by a giant of a man, carried down the stairs, across the entrance hall and out of the building: ‘If you ever come again, it will be worse,’ said the man after releasing me.
On Thursday November 4 I decided to return to the University Offices and ask the name of the man who carried me out of the building. But in view of the threat ‘If you ever come again, it will be worse’ I wanted to inform someone from the media about my intentions. The Oxford BBC was closed, and so I cycled to Osney Island to The Oxford Times offices. I told the lady at the Reception that I had a story concerning Oxford University. She asked my name, passed it on by telephone, and then told me to wait for ten minutes. Ten minutes turned into more than half an hour; finally came a young lady with a pen and a note-book. She asked what I had to tell her. I barely began to talk when she interrupted me: ‘You make me confused. I do not understand what you say.’ Whatever I wanted to say, I was confronted with her repeated and imperturbable: ‘You make me confused. I do not understand what you say.’
In the end I told her that I was similarly manhandled in 1986. At the time, I wrote about it in a letter that I sent to several philosophers. Would she read the paragraph in my letter in which I described the incident? It concerned a Czech classical scholar Karel Hubka who committed a suicide in his flat in London. The Daily Telegraph reported the suicide: ‘Jobless defector killed himself.’ He may have been ‘an expert on 18th-century Latin languages, as the article says , but he was first and foremost the best Classical scholar of his generation in my country (he was 47 when he died). I once took part in his seminar on Plato’s Gorgias. The article twisted the case so as to eliminate any connection between Karel Hubka and Oxford University. In my letter I wrote:
‘I had to talk the case over with somebody. At Exeter College I found Christopher Kirwan. “I know about it,” he said when I handed over to him the article. – “The article is heavily doctored,” I expostulated. “It does not even mention that Hubka came to Great Britain invited on the initiative of Jan Hus Foundation.” – “He was not invited,” insisted Christopher Kirwan. – “But that cannot be true, for how could he have got here, if not invited?” – “Well then, he had been invited, but only to give a few lectures at the British Academy,” conceded Christopher, “Jan Hus Foundation had nothing to do with it.” – “I doubt it.” – “Get out! You call me a liar. I am on the board of Jan Hus Foundation trustees.” – “I have not called you a liar, I only want to get the facts.” – “Out! I said get out!” – “Wait, how come you knew about Hubka’s death before reading about it in the newspaper?” – “I knew him.” – “How come?” – “I met him in Prague.” – “In what circumstances?” – “I visited his seminar.” – “Under whose auspices did you visit his seminar?” – “Get out! I said get out!” – “Wait, was it not under the auspices of Jan Hus Foundation?” – “It’s none of your business! Shoot!” With these words Christopher Kirwan grabbed me and carried me out of his room. The last time I had been manhandled prior to this was some six years ago, by the Czech police in Prague.’
The lady from The Oxford Times glanced at the text, read a line or two, and said: ‘It makes me confused. I do not understand.’
Let me quote the closing lines from the letter: ‘Can the bedevilling circle of secrecies be broken to reveal the truth about Karel Hubka? Would he be dead today if his defection and his services to British academics while in Prague on their secret missions would have been known to British public? Secrets jealously guarded from British Public while shared with the Czechoslovak Secret Police are deadly secrets; they have been poisoning British academic scene for some six years; and what about British journalism, free, independent, investigative journalism?’
I have changed my mind concerning the date of my departure to Oxford. I shall go to Oxford on 15th of September. During the first week of September I shall go to the Czech Republic to organize Three days in Prague devoted to philosophy, held in Stromovka, the park in which I read Plato’s Phaedrus with Dr Kathy Wilkes from Oxford University thirty five years ago. On the first of these days I intend to present to my audience a revised version of ‘Self-knowledge as an imperative’ (available on my website), on the second day I intend to present a paper on ‘The Kantian subjectivity of space and time’, and on the third day I intend to present a paper on ‘Plato’s Parmenides in the light of Aristotle’s criticism of the theory of Forms’.