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The Unexpected Professor: An Oxford Life in Books by John Carey

Writing.ie | Memoir

By Berni Dwan

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Orcs, pubs and evensong…

The spires are dreamy against a stark blue sky. It is the kind of spring day you would wish for in Prague, but I am in the ‘scepter’d isle’; in the city of Oxford. Like Jude the Obscure, I am an outsider, avoiding cycling scholars as I stop at yet another crest sporting yet another ancient grove of academe – Balliol, Christ Church, Queens, All Souls, Magdalen, Brasenose. I enunciate the names in my head just like Jeremy Paxman. The streets and coffee shops are filled with the type of people you see bobbing up and down to sea shanties at the Last Night of the Proms. I even see a double decker bus destined for, I kid you not, Chipping Norton!

For a few English pounds I can walk around the quads; go into the chapels and the dining halls and look at wooden benches smoothed and hollowed by generations of aristocratic male arses. The centuries race through my mind. I imagine early medieval sorts like Chaucer’s young Squire, the high middle ages doublet and hose brigade, be-wigged cavaliers, powdered Georgians, flouncy Regents, stuffed Victorians, unbearably snobbish Edwardians, androgynous inter-war chappies, solid end of the Empire types – all ‘up in Oxford’.

It helps greatly that I have just finished reading John Carey’s The Unexpected Professor: An Oxford Life in Books. As the lucky grammar school, scholarship boy who became an academic he is well placed to dissect the Laputa that is Oxford. The most endearing aspect of this book is Carey’s complete sense of egalitarianism when it comes to literature. While he has consumed an enviable quantity of ‘haute’ fiction, he readily admits that he was often playing catch up. This is heartening for me at any rate, because no matter how many books I read I will always be asked about the ones I have not read.

As an English Literature undergraduate in St John’s College in the 1950’s, Carey was locked in a syllabus that started with Anglo-Saxon and perplexingly ended in 1832. Carey explains, “The unspoken assumption seemed to be that any gentleman would acquaint himself with the Victorian poets and novelists, without needing to study them, and modern writing was not worth serious attention anyway.” Indeed, the syllabus was top heavy with pre-1300 literature. “I suppose,” says Carey, “that since nobody could conceivably read them for pleasure they suited the rigorous demands of an academic discipline.”

As a scholarship research student in Merton College, Carey was given the opportunity to pig out on the entire canon of Elizabethan and Jacobean poetry and drama. I was particularly taken with his description of Merton’s oldest Fellow, and keen chess player, Professor H. W. Garrod. Carey describes Garrod’s ploys to prevent his opponents ever wining; his elderly cocker spaniel was trained to knock over the board, or he would force endless glasses of port on his opponent.

I recall Garrod, when for two mornings in Oxford we are joined by an ‘Old Fellow’. He arrived in 1939 and is now ninety-five, old enough to have had a walk on part in that 1940 Laurel and Hardy romp, “A Chump at Oxford”. As he works through his ‘full English’ – nothing to lose at ninety-five – he talks about Richard of Occam and the importance of keeping things simple – a kind of less is more philosophy. I nod enthusiastically and quip, ‘Isn’t that Occam’s Razor you are speaking about?” He eyes me wryly and replies peevishly, “oh, you know that one.” I am instantly mortified. Why couldn’t I keep my motor mouth shut and just listen to that lovely old man? He recovers quickly though and carries on with a discussion on the utilitarian philosopher, Jeremy Bentham. He concludes with the lines, “Full many a flower is born to blush unseen, And waste its sweetness on the desert air.” He cannot recall the poet he should attribute these fine words to. I mentally put a sock in my mouth, not daring to say Grey’s Elegy, a poem my own father would recite frequently, particularly when his advice was being ignored by bolshie teenagers. We all scratch our heads in annoyance that we cannot remember the poet and vow to look it up later.

The ‘Old Fellow’ also shares with us some interesting thoughts on the Master’s degree. Oxbridge colleges awarded them for good behaviour, or more appropriately, for not being caught behaving badly, he tells us. The idea that somebody would embark on a course of research or study to earn a Masters instead of a PhD. seems ludicrous to the ‘Old Fellow’; and he giggles mischievously at how this opinion annoyed the ‘red bricks’. I can’t help giggling with him. “Primary degrees are for knowledge,” he says, “masters degrees are for wisdom”. This gives me pause for thought.

I have a chance to redeem myself on the second morning. The ‘Old Fellow’ joins us again for breakfast and, probably because his eyesight is not as sharp as a younger man’s, he does not recognise us and proceeds to tell us about Richard of Occam. This time I listen with rapt earnestness – an ingrate at the feet of an intellectual giant. Not one sharp word emanates from my lips. He also, I hasten to add, entertains us enormously with his perspectives on history, politics, philosophy, environmental issues and current affairs. He is a lovely old man with a fine mind and an enviable and detailed knowledge of a wide range of subjects. If I live to be ninety five I want to be like him.

I am determined to wander around Christ Church College, it being the alma mater of one of my literary heroes, Lewis Carroll. I especially want to loiter beside the river in Christ Church Meadow in the hope of meeting a finely attired rabbit in a hurry. It is a lovely sunny day and I want to sit on the grass with my eyes closed remembering that famous line, “Alice was beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister on the bank, and of having nothing to do:” I picture Alice and her sisters going on boat trips with the shy mathematics professor and pioneering photographer. A sign in Tom Quad announces evensong at 6.30 in the Christ Church chapel. Imagine, Lewis Carrol was a regular here; I wonder had he sat where I’m sitting. What ensues is a kind of mise en scene of highly ritualised processing, singing and praying; a beautiful anachronism.

Carey mentions how, as a research student, he used the Bodleian Library. The thought that someone was entitled to avail of this hallowed space is astounding to me. I take the tour with a guide who must be Clare Balding’s twin. She draws our attention to a four-volume first edition of Dr. Johnson’s dictionary. My heart skips a beat. Just like I very quickly sat on Dean Swift’s chair in St Patrick’s Cathedral many years ago, I want to quickly touch one of those volumes. I fear being whacked with a lacrosse stick by Clare Balding’s twin if I even mention my wish. Every so often, a fusty academic scurries past; lost obviously, in some Anglo-Saxon time warp.

I am particularly curious about the Inklings, the Oxford literary group who met from the 1930’s to the 1960’s to read aloud and discuss works in progress. The two most prominent members were C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien. The Inklings regularly met at a local pub called The Eagle and Child. We go there to have lunch and pay homage. We look at the space, known as the ‘Rabbit Room’, were they met. I say space because when a wall was knocked out, it was no longer a room. In protest, The Inklings moved to the pub across the road, The Lamb and Flag, which we also visit. Indeed, Hugo Dyson, an early Inkling member, interviewed Carey for his Merton College scholarship. Carey tells us it was well known that Dyson was not a fan of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and relates that at one reading, Dyson was reported to have said, “Oh not another fucking elf!” after which Tolkien stopped the readings. It was also at one of those meetings in 1950 that C.S. Lewis circulated the proofs for The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

St. John’s College now owns both The Eagle and Child and The Lamb and Flag. As the Lamb and Flag beer mat says, all profits from the pub go towards scholarships for graduate students of outstanding academic excellence and the lucky list of recipients can be viewed by the front entrance to the pub.

On the way back into town we stop off at Blackfriars Priory Church. An alarmingly handsome and debonair young friar approaches us enthusiastically to tell us that the ‘baddies’ in the Stations of the Cross closely resemble the Orcs in The Lord of the Rings. We take a look and sure enough Pontius Pilot and his gang are those very Orcs we saw on the big screen. The young friar tells us that Tolkien used to serve at Mass in the Priory Church and was no doubt influenced by those depictions.

Oxford is full of surprises. It is believed that Thomas Hardy wrote much of his novel, Jude the Obscure in The Lamb and Flag. Jude could have done with one of those scholarships.

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