Spat'll be ninety quid

Observations on argument

Tony Barnett seems a quiet, understated academic. Knowledgeable? Certainly. He is an expert on the social and economic effects of HIV. Challenging? Could be. But contrary, factious or spiky? Surely not. However, we can reveal that this London School of Economics professor is indeed quarrelsome. Asked to donate something to a charity auction he was persuaded by his wife to offer an hour's ding-dong as a prize - albeit on a strictly once-only basis.

"Are you itching for an argument?" asked the auction brochure. Professor Barnett offered a variety of types of row: "friendly disputation; imperious teacher-student, angst-ridden soul searching; the traditional guilt trip around some personal issue of your choice; irritating evasion of the issue; austere intellectual logical examination; or just old-fashioned discussion".

So, given the chance of bidding for a week in Miriam Margolyes's seaside home, a case of fine wine, even a rather nice drawing by actor Antony Sher - I put my money on a spat with a professional contrarian.

After some fairly confrontational bidding, I won my prize and was presented with contact details for the professor. The next day I sent him an email. It read: "Dear Tony, I've bought the right to row with you. Oh yes I have!"

We couldn't agree on which subject to argue about but nevertheless arranged to meet in a place for ever associated with the disputatious, Lincoln's Inn Fields, one of London's legal centres.

In the end we ranged widely over several issues: the importance of argument as a means to learn, the uselessness of my degree, the fact that I hadn't read enough books, pickled genitalia, how Foucault screwed up social sciences, Iraq . . . the subjects rattled by. The Oxford English Dictionary defines argument as "a connected series of statements or reasons intended to establish a position . . ."

But, most of all, the professor wanted to talk about blogs. "My son writes a blog - his latest entry talks about doing yoga and reading John Fowles's The Magus. Now who's going to be interested in that?"

"Mind you," he answered himself, "my son has a female admirer called ML in Washington - perhaps it's a new form of dating agency . . . or is it like those round robins you get at Christmas. We get one from a man in which he tells us about his hamster . . ."

"Perhaps," I interjected, "blogs are a bit like diaries - at one end of the scale you get a daily record of a mundane life: 'Got up, went to the toilet, made tea, read paper', and at the other you have Pepys recording the fire of London?"

"Now that's interesting," he responded, "Was Pepys an early blogger? Did he write because he witnessed momentous things or were they momentous because he wrote about them?"

This was becoming distinctly amiable and unargumentative, and relaxing as this was, I began to wonder whether it was really worth £90.

But it was - on several levels. The money raised at the auction will go to Tembaletu school in South Africa, which educates disabled children from the townships around Cape Town.

And it gave me the opportunity to argue. Tony Barnett explained why he offered this particular gift to the Tembaletu auction: "The point of selling an argument at an auction is this: it says that it's worth arguing, that it's vital to learning, vital to understanding and that we have to know how to cite and examine authorities in order to give the view we're expressing some validity.

"The blog phenomenon with it's multicentred truths and denial of mainstream knowledge could destroy the whole possibility of truth."

Oh no it couldn't.

Ben Davies trained as a journalist after taking most of the 1990s off. Prior to joining the New Statesman he spent five years working as a politics reporter for the BBC News website. He lives in North London.

This article first appeared in the 19 March 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Trident: Why Brown went to war with Labour