Growing from an ordinary background to become the emeritus Merton Professor of English at Oxford, John Carey has been at the forefront of Britain’s literary establishment for decades. Michael Shallcross reports on his appearance at Durham Book Festival, to launch his memoir, The Unexpected Professor: An Oxford Life in Books.
Having spent the week leading up to John Carey’s appearance at the Durham Book Festival in the company of his recently published memoir, The Unexpected Professor: An Oxford Life in Books, I came to think of Carey as a curious amalgam of two apparently contrary academic types: the stern scholar and the irreverent iconoclast. From the dust jacket looms a gaze no doubt turned upon a thousand undergraduate skim-readers of Paradise Lost; an inscrutable Mona Lisa smile conveying the impression that Carey has access to some private information about me that I should feel slightly ashamed of. However, in the text this sardonic air of scrutiny is more often turned upon the vagaries of the institution to which he has committed his working life. As Carey notes of his first steps beneath the dreaming spires, ‘it occurred to me that I probably did not belong in Oxford’, and this sense of outsiderdom proves to have exercised a surprisingly pertinacious influence upon a figure who the contemporary reader might otherwise consider the very personification of the Oxonian elder statesman.
The clipped, somewhat disapproving professorial tone familiar from countless television and radio arts review shows is often in evidence. When reading cranky asides on subjects such as the current political unfashionability of Carey’s favourite childhood books – ‘I can see they’re not exactly what you would select nowadays as the ideal primary-school curriculum’ – it’s sorely tempting to mentally dictate the lines in the voice of that other famous representative of academic authority, Professor Yaffle. It’s particularly dispiriting that Carey’s tendency to lapse into fogeyish self-parody is so often accompanied by extravagant eye-rolling at the PC tyranny of a multi-purpose ‘nowadays’. Discussing the student rankings once posted on school notice boards: ‘I imagine anything so discriminatory would be illegal nowadays’; on G.K. Chesterton’s ‘Lepanto’: this ‘is a poem glorifying a crusade against Islam, so you couldn’t read it in school nowadays’; on his father’s habit of offering sweets to children: ‘I suppose he would be arrested if he did that nowadays’.
I was once sick over a history book, open at a page showing an illustration of the Venerable Bede, which has permanently tainted my feeling about that great polymath
Nonetheless, Carey is equally critical of the conventions of olden-days Oxford, which he first encountered as a student, and has since been instrumental in bringing up-to-date. For example, he notes that the ‘Oxford English syllabus in the 1950s was a scandal or a joke, depending on your sense of humour’, because a rationality-defying snobbery caused it to stop abruptly at 1832. This hint of a more purposeful iconoclasm is pleasingly complemented by the many passages that give rein to an unexpected gift for dry, self-deprecating humour – his youthful attempts at poetry constituted a ‘tasteful blend of Biggles and T.S. Eliot’ – and poker-faced absurdism: ‘I was once sick over a history book, open at a page showing an illustration of the Venerable Bede, which has permanently tainted my feeling about that great polymath.’
In view of the somewhat paradoxical figure that emerges from the memoir, I was curious to see which of the two professors might take centre-stage at the Durham Book Festival, and it was something of a relief to find the spirited, avuncular Carey very much the dominant force. Although the vignettes offered up to the audience on figures such as Tolkien (‘absolutely hopeless’ as a lecturer) and F.R. Leavis (‘an actor’) will have been familiar to those who had read the book in advance, the puckish glee with which the tales were recounted served to soften the occasional waspishness of the memoir to a more genial register.
Carey particularly shines when discussing his baffled apprehension of the more aristocratic denizens of 1950s Oxford, who seemed to him ‘like another species of animal’. While these observations are typically couched in comic terms, the broader issue of class within education occasionally causes Carey to drop the mask of detached amusement and reveal genuine anger. For example, the ‘vindictive extermination of grammar schools in the 1970s’ discussed in the book makes a return in the festival Q&A, and Carey goes on to express the conviction that ever-increasing tuition fees will deter the Careys of the future from going to university at all, with the consequence that we will find ourselves under the permanent rule of ‘a privileged class’. At the beginning of the hour-long discussion, Carey recounts one of the most telling anecdotes from the memoir, which offers a fascinating insight into the acutely personal seam of emotion that underpins his most controversial work, The Intellectuals and the Masses. As Carey explains, the Bloomsbury-affiliated Oxford don, Sir Roy Harrod, once thoughtlessly referred to Carey, over dinner, as ‘nobody’. Carey’s text was inspired by his conviction that Harrod, ‘and people of his ilk, would have despised my father, as he had despised me’.
In a largely negative Guardian review of The Unexpected Professor, Stefan Collini highlights the Harrod revelation as evidence of a dismaying lapse of disinterest on Carey’s part: ‘one can’t help wondering why the hugely successful Carey should have been using his literary opportunities to settle such obscure scores’. While I share Collini’s reservations over the excesses of the polemic itself, I must admit to finding Carey’s unguarded explanation of its genesis rather thrilling. Indeed, Carey’s brash insistence upon advertising his prejudices might be considered unusually conscientious scholarly practice. Although Collini doesn’t say so, I wonder if the chief source of his own irritation at the memoir might be located in an irreverent aside on another pivotal Oxonian, Matthew Arnold, a figure who looms large in the Collini firmament. When Carey informs us that Arnold’s social criticism ‘is at best useless and at worst malign’, we perceive a prime example of the enthusiasm for wild generalisation and unqualified assertion that Collini finds so infuriating. Nonetheless, it’s perhaps most telling that the remark forms the preamble to a complaint about the ‘wrong-headed’ citation of Arnold ‘by academics hoping to reverse the government’s cuts in arts funding for universities’. This is surely a tacit dig at Collini’s recent public activities, and when reading the latter’s mock-sorrowful audit of the memoir’s failings in this light one wonders whether Carey’s passing slight may have triggered a comparable lapse of disinterest on the part of the reviewer.
he possesses a pleasingly unaffected capacity for simply enjoying things
While I’m on the subject of personal biases underpinning apparently disinterested enquiry, I should note that Carey’s bracingly imprudent tub-thumping possibly appeals to me most for its resemblance to my own critical hobbyhorse, G.K. Chesterton. Carey identifies his youthful discovery of Chesterton’s verse as a catalytic ‘turning point’ in inspiring his love of English literature, and the passion of his avowal reminded me of a remark made by E.C. Bentley on Chesterton’s character: he ‘had at least a double dose of the faculty of enjoying things, from a nineteenth-century sausage-and-mashed to a fifteenth-century Madonna and Child’. Notwithstanding the more perverse enjoyment that Carey seems to derive from quibbling over the shortcomings of ‘nowadays’, he also possesses a pleasingly unaffected capacity for simply enjoying things. The passages that linger longest in the memory are those that convey a diffident astonishment at the myriad ways in which humanity contrives to offer the author fresh instants of delight. Whether marvelling at the precise skill that goes into packaging butter in a branch of United Dairies, or striving to find the perfect phrase to convince the reader of the unique value of Pope, Milton, or Orwell, this is Carey at his best. At such times, one envies the generations of undergraduates who have had the comparable pleasure of uncovering the rapt enthusiast lurking beneath that forbidding exterior: altogether a most unexpected professor.