At a speaking engagement at a central London bookshop last summer, AC Grayling found himself in a thick red-pink plume of smoke. The philosopher was halfway through his talk on arts funding cuts in the UK when a group of student activists heckled him and let off a flare, giving their verdict on his plan to open an elite private university charging its students £18,000 a year.
By setting up a humanities college in London for the wealthy, Grayling, a self-proclaimed “man of the left”, had been accused of betraying public education. His stellar line-up of celebrity academics – chums such as Niall Ferguson and Richard Dawkins – also smacked of elitism, said his detractors.
Terry Eagleton, a Marxist literary critic, called the project “odious”. While 34 staff members at Birkbeck College in London (where Grayling had recently been a professor of philosophy) wrote in a collective letter, published in the Guardian, that his “opportunistic venture will hasten the decline of the reputation for excellence that British universities, as public institutions, have fought so hard to establish”.
Grayling appeared to have few allies, save for Boris Johnson. “The whole thing is unambiguously good news,” Johnson wrote in the Daily Telegraph. The mayor of London mischievously claimed that he had toyed with the idea of founding a “Rejects’ College” for bourgeois students who failed to get a place at Oxbridge.
A year later and I am in Peckham, south-east London, on my way to meet Grayling at his home, on a street taking in a traveller site, industrial estates, public housing and gentrified townhouses. The proximity of £1m properties (such as Grayling’s) and blocks of cramped flats is a testament to a social-democratic ideal of mixed-income living.
It is late afternoon, the sunlight diffuse and all the more lovely because the days are growing shorter. A silver-maned figure with ultramarine blue eyes, Grayling walks into the drawing room and sits down in an armchair, surrounded by piles of books, great leaning towers of learning. He looks a little weary, and there is good reason for this.
“I’ve had a hectic week getting everything ready,” says Grayling, 63, referring to the opening of the New College of the Humanities next week. “This is my third interview of the day.”
Grayling has lived in this Grade II-listed house for the past 14 years. “This area is a very well-kept secret,” he says. “Geoffrey Howe lives around the corner, as do a lot of parliamentarians. And if you look at a map you see that we’re very close to the centre of London. Still, when friends come round for dinner they think they have to buy tropical kit with pith helmets and mosquito nets.”
He lives here with his wife, the novelist Katie Hickman. They have a 12-year-old daughter, Madeleine, and a stepson, Luke, who both attend boarding schools. (Grayling also has two grown-up children from his first marriage.) A “jobbing builder” designed their three-storey, semi-detached home in the 1840s, according to Grayling. “You’ll have noticed some of the Ionic entrance porches and pillars on this street,” he says. “They are all decorative and not at all structural. The builder pinched the idea from the grand mansions around Regent’s Park. That was the extent of his architectural knowledge.”
Last year, the announcement of Grayling’s college came at the high point of student anger over the government’s decision to allow universities in England to charge tuition fees of up to £9,000 a year, thereby transferring much of the cost of courses from the state to students. Was he surprised by the criticism his college had received? “A little,” he replies, “but considering the inflamed situation around higher education there was always going to be a lot of controversy.
“The smoke bomb was extremely pretty,” he continues, half-joking. “Seriously, though, I sympathise with the anxiety felt about our education system. Through the tax system we should be paying for people to attend university, not charging them fees. But that’s certainly not going to happen for a long time.”
His college, dedicated to the teachings of the humanities (predominantly literature, history and philosophy, with economics and psychology to be added at a later date) is partly a response to the cutting of government funding for the humanities. “Higher education is in a mess. From September onwards there is no more money going from government to universities to subsidise teaching the humanities.”
He continues: “Successive governments have given up on the idea that we, as a society, are going to fully invest in education. And let’s not pretend that it’s going to stay like this – fees will get more and more expensive. So you can break windows and knock off policemen’s hats, or you can try and introduce a different model. And this different model is staring us in the face – just look at the fee-paying universities in America, which charge far more than we are. So really I am just copying the American model.” (This is despite the fact that US student debt has topped $1tn for the first time, as highlighted by the Occupy movement.)
On the other side of the drawing room is a floor-to-ceiling window with views of the long rear garden. At the bottom of the garden stands a beautiful turquoise wooden hut. “That’s my wife’s office, where she does all of her writing,” says Grayling. “I had it built over her dead body – she didn’t want it – but now she loves it so much she doesn’t let anyone else inside.”
Accompanied by the family’s “incredibly intelligent” dog Misty, Grayling leads us to the garden. On our way downstairs to the basement, we pass a framed picture of Grayling with Michael Foot, the former Labour politician and man of letters. (“Recognise that chap?” says Grayling.) We also pass a mock “honorary doctorate in heresy” that Grayling, a life-long atheist, was “awarded” by a friend, and a cartoon by Martin Rowson showing Grayling slumped over a desk – head in hands, a tear trickling down his face – holding a birthday card. “Whatever ... Professor Grayling has suffered on hitting 60,” the message reads, “was infinitely worsened by the birthday card from God.”
At the bottom of the garden – overgrown but still very pretty, with an abundance of mint, lavender and apple trees – stands an imposing brick façade that looms over the writing hut. Formerly a warehouse, the building is now used as a “noisy Christian fundamentalist church” – an irony not lost on Grayling, who spent more than two decades writing The Good Book (2011), his 600-page “secular bible” and “manifesto for rational thought”.
We return inside for a cup of tea. A display of miniature teapots stands beside the kitchen. Grayling started collecting them when he lived in Beijing in the early 1980s. “But now most of the collection is owned by my former partner,” he says.
In the kitchen there are large windows offering views on to a park. “That used to be a continuation of the houses on this street,” he explains, pointing at the greenery across the road. “But there was a bombing raid here on December 29 1940 – I wrote about it in my book on the morality of bombing. You can follow the lines of the bombs, which went right the way through the park, destroying all the timber yards there. This parkland, I say to friends, is courtesy of the Luftwaffe.”
Grayling grew up in Zambia and was reading Plato at the age of 12. He moved to England in his late teens, but returned to Africa for a short period after the murder of his sister – an event so traumatic that Grayling gave up eating tropical fruit until recently because of its associations with the continent of his birth. The tragedy, he says, turned him into a workaholic. He studied simultaneously at the University of Sussex and Magdalen College, Oxford. “Otherwise I would have felt I was on a diet of whipped cream,” he says.
For students at the New College of the Humanities, whipped cream will not be enough either – Grayling hopes to provide a feast.
“Despite being a child of the 1960s,” says Grayling, “I’ve never taken drugs like pot or cocaine.” Which makes his favourite object – an opium pipe – all the more strange. “I used to drink when I was a student but realised very quickly that it didn’t suit me; even small quantities of alcohol – a glass of wine, say – gave me really bad headaches. It’s unfortunate, because wine is one of the great pleasures in life.
“I don’t take drugs out of fear, because what passes for my brain is my main tool – I don’t want to do anything to it that blots it. Plus, as a teetotaller I think I probably have a third more of the day than most people do.”
Pointing to the Chinese opium pipe, which he bought at an antiques market in London, he says: “This is made from ivory; the quality of the engraving is exceptionally good. I’ve promised myself that, if I reach the age of 90, I’ll make good use of it.”