Dr. David Cowan
A Book for the Weekend: An eclectic blog of book discussion published on a Friday, so readers may be inspired to peruse the book over the weekend. These are books I have bought, and photographed holding myself, so unpaid and unbiased apart from the personal biases all readers have!
To start this series of books for the weekend, I’ve chosen a book about Oxford, since I was born there and earned my Bachelor and Master degrees there. Professor Carey remains an Emeritus Professor of Oxford in English Literature, and passed through a number of the colleges in his day. He was a student making his way in the Oxford of the 1950s, before I was born, but I found myself comparing notes as I went along between my own school and university days in Oxford and elsewhere.
Carey’s journey in many ways was a standard one of undergraduate to graduate to lecturer to Fellow journey in the one place. Mine sadly has been more wayward, traveling through universities at Glasgow, Oxford and St Andrews, as well as seminary in Cambridge. His journey seems to fit the times in which he was raised, a time of greater certainty in spite of emerging from a war that tore apart a continent and parts of the world. My journey has perhaps been more deconstructed and postmodern. Carey’s journey, however, has the fascination of introducing us to the many interesting people, and eccentrics he has worked and socialized with in his decades at Oxford, and in the literary salons of London in his latter years; if this does not sound too prosaic a way of phrasing it.
His early life at school and doing the required National Service reflects the social attitudes of post-War England. However, this is a memoir that takes his journey in tandem with his love of, and work in, English literature. He discusses his past in constant dialogue with his life of literature, and we are all the better for it. The central part of these memoirs, as the title indicates, is his Oxford years. Carey’s Oxford is one that is so familiar, yet distant. Many of the traditions are similar, but the eccentricity of his student days are quite far away from today’s industrious students and dons. The dons we meet in Carey’s early years are the eccentrics and intellectuals we perhaps dream of in this city of spires, rather than the perspiring academic administrators of today’s Oxford. Of course, I steal this line and make it my own. The phrase originates from Frederic Raphael’s much to be commended book on Cambridge called Glittering Prizes, which refers to Oxford as the city of dreamy spires and Cambridge as the city of perspiring dreams.
The similarities in Carey’s memoirs are the feelings of any student entering Oxford and able to feel the connection to centuries of scholarship and endeavor. It is there when Carey enters Schools (the University examinations building) to sit his final exams, loosening the shackles of nerves to sit them. It is there when he sits his viva voce, an examination in the form of a discussion between a group of tutors and the student in full academic dress. He tells a tale of being bemused by this form of approval given by Oxford. I recall my own Master’s viva in similar ways. Earlier in the morning I had coffee with Senator Gary Hart, who was writing his DPhil at the same time, and whom I got to know a little. We met for coffee at the Oxford Union, he felt he ought to give me some encouragement before “the event,” and we chatted about Oxford. He explained, rather amusingly, his experience of Oxford administration. Gary said being American, he wanted to be organized and investigated for himself what was needed to submit his DPhil, as his supervisor had never made the slightest mention of what was required administratively. After chasing round the labyrinth of Oxford administration and gathering the necessary paperwork, his supervisor one day off-handedly handed him the necessary form and said he “ought to do something about it.” Hart recalled being told that if you need to ask how to do something in Oxford, then you probably don’t belong there. He said he was being typically American, and this was typically Oxford.
Another personal Oxford insight is when I submitted my dissertation, I had computer malfunction, because the computer I used at my home was different from the one in the Theology Faculty Office where I went to print it off. I had to reformat the whole thing. The problem being it had to be submitted in person at Schools by noon on the dot, where I would be given a green slip as a receipt it had been duly submitted. I only managed to meet the noon deadline by sprinting from my College on the other side of Oxford to the Schools on the High (how the High Street is called in Oxford). I barely made it, and then walked calmly back to College for lunch, where I sat down next to the Fellow of my College who also happened to be the Chairman of the Board of Examiners for my dissertation. He told me that he would be “popping round” after lunch to collect it. Oh, if only I could’ve taken it to lunch and handed it to him, but then it wouldn’t be Oxford.
It wouldn’t be Carey’s Oxford either. Carey takes us on a journey through literature, with a large helping of John Donne, one of his specialties. He talks about literature he had to study and the literature he chose to read. As such, it is also an interesting intellectual autobiography. He references the left-wing nature of intellectual life in the 1950s, especially in his Balliol years. He almost quaintly refers to the friendly way in which discussions of political difference could take place and end with a friendly joke. Far from the divisive political differences today. It reminded me of my early undergraduate days at Glasgow University, where students on opposite sides of the house could drink and eat together during and after debates, though being Glasgow this usually meant “liquid chips” in the evening, which is Glasgow parlance for Whiskey instead of food. I think it was around that time in the early 1980s the division started, and I’m not convinced it came from either the Left or the Right; it seemed an unhappy coalescence of the attitudes on both sides of the house.
Carey captures life’s moments well. Moments like being able to read literature for fun and selecting at whim, after years of reading what one has to in order to fulfill the ordinances of a degree. Who in any subject of study has not felt this sense of elation at the end of their formal studies? He also captures some wonderful figures who worked at or passed through Oxford, ranging from the Inklings to WH Auden. He recalls, with obvious joy, the story of Hugo Dyson, one of the Inklings, who railed against JRR Tolkien after several readings of his Lord of the Rings, “Oh not another fucking elf!” He also has a wonderfully insightful discussion of the great Austin Farrer, who arrived at Keble College while Carey was a fellow there. He recalls as well some of the students that passed though his rooms, including the author Ian McEwan. Ian, who attended the same state boarding school as I did a generation before me, called Woolverstone Hall. Ian was awarded a Third by Oxford, but Carey thought he deserved a First and wanted him to stay up for a DPhil, but Oxford made what Carey calls “a crass assessment of his abilities that only Oxford could have made.”
He also captures the battleground, and often vindictiveness and petty spitefulness, of the Oxford (and I can vouch, Cambridge) High Table, including the Master who ignored him for three years at High Table. Oxford can be a small world of dons living in an even smaller hermeneutic of ever-decreasing circles, as they seem at times incapable of recognizing their academic provincial qualities, as the McEwan story suggests, whilst they explore the grand horizons of their subject areas for generation after generation of students. Not that Carey is above all this himself. His discussion of a Keble College bursar, whom he dismissively insults by referencing his having a “second” in Law, suggests he wanted to indulge in a little High Table spitefulness of his own. However, Carey does absolve himself by treating us to an amusing tale of a prank by students on the said bursar who was entertaining in the Senior Common Room. The students managed to build a small wall to block the only exit to the building where the SCR was situated, thus preventing the drunken party from leaving in the early hours of the morning after much downing of port.
Carey doesn’t complain much about the negatives in his life or the things that one might regret or disapprove of as he looks back at his early years in Oxford. He seems to have borne these things with decent humor and forbearance. He reminds his reader on a number of occasions that he is an atheist, but God is hard to avoid in the history of English literature, and he has a good-natured tolerance of it rather than the vitriol of some more recent Oxford atheists, such as Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins. Politics is not the only area where it is difficult for people to converse and disagree in our modern times.
His extended disquisitions on Milton, whose Christian Doctrine he translated, and George Orwell, whom he hero-worshipped, are wonderful discourses to read. The literary world of England in the 1960s and 1970s, with wistful references to The Listener magazine, make one crave for such an intellectual time again in this day of social media. The remaining chapters focus on his life as a reviewer and writer himself; so, less the Oxford Professor in situ, and more a life outside the Oxford walls.
Like any good teacher, Carey makes you want to read the books he discusses, if you haven’t already. This makes The Unexpected Professor: An Oxford Life in Books something of an Oxford tutorial, where a don can inspire and guide you to read and think for yourself. If you ever wanted an Oxford education, or want to have such a tutorial, Carey’s memoir is a pleasant walk through both English literature and the quads and meadows of the University. If you know or have known Oxford, then it is a pleasant, and sometimes less than pleasant, reminder of things past.
The Unexpected Professor: An Oxford Life in Books
Faber & Faber (2014)