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  • A Report on Experience
  • David Wemyss


In November 2002, a series of tutorials was advertised within the University of Cambridge. Neville Critchley—a lecturer in philosophy with a reputation for preferring literature—placed advertisements on college notice boards saying he wanted to hear from students not just philosophically or intellectually intrigued by language but literally made unwell by it. Four young people replied, one of whom subsequently provided me with an account of what passed in Room C28 at Emmanuel College. Almost thirteen years afterwards, this account was published under the title "The Weighing of Our Words."1 Sadly, however, its author—Richard Salisbury—died in September 2016.

Just days earlier he had circulated to a small group the "letter to my friends" presented below. This group included the other three students from 2002—one of whom, Carole, had become his wife—but the material had actually been shaped with other people in mind, people whom (Carole told me) Richard felt did not understand a remark he had recently made at a party to the effect that, psychologically, and in relation to his experience of language in particular, he was "a million miles away even from his closest friends." Apparently, he had felt this lack of understanding in a particularly vivid way.

However, I should make clear that Carole does not accept for a moment that her husband was ill, and she asked me to pursue publication [End Page 444] of the letter, not least for the purpose of clarifying what Richard was really like. She told me the man she lived with was warm and relaxed and outwardly happy, and I had no reason to doubt her. But, Room C28 apart, no one could grasp that he was as different as he was—and that made him feel deeply alone, because Room C28 could never be the answer.

When I met him in Edinburgh in 2012 he was thirty-three. He had been married to Carole since 2003—roughly a year after the tutorials at Emmanuel. The other two students back then, Helena and Vikki, were in Australia, trying to reinvent themselves completely. Critchley was in New York—still in touch but also perhaps trying to overtake his own history. And Carole and Richard had a young son—Mark. They seemed to be very happy being a mum and dad—but of course neither of them was exactly normal. Richard, however, found everyday life more difficult than his wife did.

We came together at Edinburgh City Council, where both of us had ended up working as legal consultants, and we hit it off immediately. He said that I could have been in Room C28 ten years earlier, but that he now wanted to make a break with that world. He even told me that he wanted to avoid speaking altogether, though he knew he was a good talker, and he could laugh at the contradiction. Good talker or not, however, he evidently suffered from an anxiety that could be prompted by the slightest accidents of conversation.

But he wasn't melancholy or manic-depressive. He exhibited no inability to function or immobilization. And yet he did carry a vague aura of pretense, or concealment. He once told me that he thought he was a bit like the Cambridge spy Donald Maclean, who, when drunk, sometimes revealed his treason to people who just couldn't hear what was actually being said to them quite plainly. But I certainly never saw Richard drunk, and I had no reason to suspect that his concealments were serious ones. Perhaps the point of the remark was a "not waving but drowning" one. If he pictured himself as a spy, for whom was he spying? Judging by the papers reprinted below, he was trying to infiltrate the opacity of his own words, in the thrall of an unknown country he couldn't even name.

The last time I saw him, he said in a very gentle way that he had had more than his fair share of luck in his life, more than his fair share of joy, and less than his fair share of simple happiness. Very matter-of-fact, as if...


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pp. 444-462
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