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A Don in the World

Memories

by C.M. Bowra
Harvard, 369 pp., $7.95

When I was twenty, I was more scared of “Maurice Bowra” than I have been of any other human being before or since. He appeared as an accusing figure in a nightmare and when, while I was traveling with my father in Yugoslavia, we unexpectedly ran into him, I was so petrified that I could not remember his name. Behind my fear, of course, lay envy. To the youth I then was, uncertain of himself, gauche, shy, and, therefore, brash, he embodied all those qualities, social poise, elegance, wit, worldliness, which I most longed to possess and despaired of ever possessing. For an intellectual undergraduate of my generation—in those days we were called aesthetes—to belong to “Maurice’s” circle was to be “in.” I was not “in,” but dearly wished I could be. Those who did belong, Harold Acton, Brian Howard, Cyril Connolly, John Betjeman, John Sparrow, Isaiah Berlin, to mention only a few, highly individual though each of them was, all possessed, I think, one trait in common. At an age when most young men are floundering about, they were already formed characters, that is to say, their interests, their outlook on the world, their manner of gesture and speech, were already what they would remain for the rest of their lives. The one I knew best, since we were exact contemporaries, was John Betjeman, and he made the kind of impression on me which I imagine Max Beerbohm must have made on Oxford Undergraduates in the 1890s.

Most of them, like Sir Maurice himself, exemplified, and still do, the truth of Logan Pearsall Smith’s aphorism: “Hearts that are delicate and kind and tongues that are neither—these make the finest company in the world.”

For such persons, writing an autobiography presents special problems. In private, among their intimates, they are accustomed to making devastating remarks about others, which are remembered and cherished for years by those who know them. On the printed page, however, it is impossible for a reader who does not know the author personally to tell whether such a remark is made in a spirit of imaginative play or out of sheer malevolence. It is enormously to Sir Maurice’s credit that Memories is not quite so entertaining a book as it would have been, were he a cad, like George Moore, instead of being one of the most decent of men. For example, those of us who still remember what people said and how they behaved when E. R. Dodds was appointed to the Regius Chair of Greek—Sir Maurice was one of the candidates—cannot help being disappointed by his admirable reticence which only permits him to say: “The whole issue was discussed in Oxford with an embarrassing degree of frankness, and various conjectures and criticisms appeared in the Press, while local busy-bodies tried to pull strings.” I cannot resist quoting one scrap of dialogue from the time.

A Dodds opponent: “Who reads Proclus anyway?”

A Dodds supporter: “Those who can.”

Sir Maurice manages to find a good word to say for almost everybody, even for Professor Lindemann, who cannot have been his cup of tea. Sir John Simon very nearly defeats him but, just in time, he remembers that that odious politician was kind to his two wives. The result of this generosity of spirit is that his pen-portraits are apt to resemble obituaries in The London Times—accurate, well-written, in impeccable taste, a bit dull.

Memories, however, contains plenty of incidents, comic and tragic, private and public, of the greatest interest. To begin with, while most autobiographers can extract interest from their childhood, few have been given so interesting a childhood to describe. Not many English-speaking children have had the luck to travel on the Trans-Siberian railway, to eat their first oyster in Manchuria, to have a glimpse of Kitchener—“a huge, gross, purple-faced man, with blotchy eyes, who seemed to be bursting at every point from his field-marshall’s uniform”—and to have as a governess a sister of Ethel M. Dell.

TO OFFSET these romantic advantages, he had the literary disadvantage, since terror, hatred, eccentricity are so much easier to write about than their opposites, of having a father and mother who were devoted to each other and to him, and completely sane, both in their ideas and behavior. As a small child he seems to have been frightened only once.

I was not going to sleep as I should, and a new amah tried to frighten me into silence by saying there was a tiger under my bed…. The poor woman was probably trying to do her little bit of private magic, and meant no harm, but the moment of terror which she caused me used to recur for years through my childhood.

Children who have been treated by their parents and relations as civilized human beings are likely, unless they are athletes, to have a tough time when they first enter a boarding school.

For a boy of twelve I had seen a lot of the world and moved too much among grown-ups. I was used to talking when I had something to say, and that was often. Nor had I the faintest inkling of the English convention that it was bad form to talk too much.

Soon, however, it was his facility in talk that rescued him from the doghouse, for he discovered, as others of his type have, that “schoolboys will forgive anything for a joke.”

It is generally true, I believe, that those who have enjoyed happy childhoods will always prefer to think about the happy experiences in their lives; their unpleasant experiences they do not dwell upon and, if possible, forget. For this reason, Sir Maurice’s description of his experiences as a gunner in the First World War conveys nothing of its horrors. The following incident seems a good illustration of his cast of mind.

At one point I was told to deal with some Germans who were said to be using the cathedral at Noyon as an observation post. I was sure that they were, but at first I had qualms about firing on the noble Gothic building which was in full view from my post on a small hill. Then I remembered that Noyon was the original home of John Calvin, and my qualms vanished. I felt that nothing could be too bad, even after four centuries, for this enemy of the human race, and I set to work with care. I fired a plus and a minus, and my third shot fell neatly into the middle of the church.

The knowledge he acquired as a gunner was to have one unforeseen and happy result: it enabled him to instruct Kipling.

…he asked me about guns and especially about the buffer by which the eighteen-pounder gun is enabled to recoil after firing. He talked with assurance, but about an out-of-date buffer, worked by oil, instead of about the new kind, worked by compressed air. For a minute or so I was rather lost, as when he asked what we did to stop leakages, which made no sense with the air-buffer. Then I saw what he was after, and told him about the change to air. He seemed to be greatly interested, not so much in how the machinery worked, as in what the pieces were called and what effect on range and accuracy the new buffer had.

THOUGH BY FATE AND CHOICE primarily an Oxford don, Sir Maurice has never confined his social life to Common Rooms. He was always a welcome guest at Garsington, the home of Lady Otteline Morrell, and at The Wharf, the home of the Asquiths, where he once saw Churchill play chess. He has traveled extensively and made friends with persons like “Adrian” who, brilliant as they might be, were anything but academic. Of his chapters about life outside Oxford, I found that on Germany the most interesting. I have not read a better description of Hitler as an orator.

His gestures were few and formidable. He would throw both arms upwards, or shake a threatening fist, or fling out his hands sideways. He worked himself into a frenzy, which grew as he spoke, until he was quivering all over and sweating freely. The face revealed no ordinary human feeling. It was undeniably expressive, but of some violent emotion which I could not define…. The speech itself was extraordinary. The faulty syntax, the involved, clumsy, often unfinished sentences, the dreary recapitulation of German grievances and Nazi doctrine, the deafening, disturbing impact of that terrible voice were not what I expected from a great orator. Yet at times he would flash into an effect or a phrase which was more striking…. He said of the Nazis, Wir haben ein Schwert von Stahl aus Eis mit Feuer gemacht [We have made a sword of steel out of ice with fire], which, though it does not bear analysis, has an obscure power and brought a deafening ovation.

In 1937, Oxford nearly lost Sir Maurice to Harvard, but a timely telegram from Isaiah Berlin saved the day.

PANIC STOP DUNDAS WADE-GERY MYNORS PROFOUNDLY UPSET STOP ENTREAT DEFER FINAL DECISION UNTIL SPATE OF LETTERS REACHES YOU NOBODY ABLE FACE UP TO REAL FACTS SURELY HIGHEST DISINTERESTEDNESS ON YOUR PART DEMANDED IN THIS CRISIS.

In view of Sir Isaiah’s frequent visits to the United States and his enormous success here, this may seem a little odd, but I believe Sir Isaiah was right. Sir Isaiah is by temperament cosmopolitan, Sir Maurice is not, and Oxford is the right place for him both for its sake and for his. University life in England is not the same as university life in America, and he would not have been really happy here. My evidence for this is that he is far more interesting when he is writing about Oxford than when he is writing about other places. If I say that he is essentially a don, I mean this as a compliment. I am myself not very sociable, but, if I were forced to lead a tribal life, I would choose the tribe of dons before any other. First of all, they are intelligent; secondly, many of them are, or used to be—modern pressures may enforce conformity—charmingly peculiar. Herewith a little wreath of anecdotes about them, culled from these pages.

—“I want you to come to tea to-day to meet Mr. Casson.”

—“But I am Mr. Casson.”

—“Come all the same.”

One term he lectured on “What do we see?” He began hopefully with the idea that we see colors, but he abandoned it in the third week, and argued that we saw things. But that would not do either, and by the end of term he admitted ruefully, “I’m damned if I know what we do see.”

Once, when he heard a fearful row at night in the back quad, he walked up in the dark and said, “If you don’t stop at once, I shall light a match.”

An undergraduate was found drunk, and Symons abused another, quite innocent man for it, who said that his name was not that by which Symons had called him…”You’re drunk still. You don’t even know your own name. Go to your room at once.”

He drove straight into a cow and knocked it down, fortunately without damage. When the man in charge of it said quite mildly, “Look out where you are going,” he said fiercely, “Mind your own business,” and drove on.

The discussion turned on the use of certain earth-closets by women servants, and he said, “I suggest that as the women fall in they be replaced by men.”

I move that Professor Thomson be not allowed to speak again.”

Once when a vote was taken and he found himself in a minority of one, he did not accept the decision but said, “We seem to have reached an impasse,” and moved on to the next item.

IF ONE MUST GET INVOLVED with political intrigue and party passions, I for one would rather go purple in the face over the fate of a Senior Common Room carpet than over the fate of Nations. Then, every five years, comes the election of the Professor of Poetry, and what fun that is. At my election Sir Maurice was on the other side and lost, I am happy to say. In the last election we were both on the same side and lost, I am very unhappy to say: on that occasion the University displayed an insularity and anti-Americanism which did it no credit.

We all hope that Sir Maurice has many more happy and productive years to live, but in the end Memories will have to be complemented by a substantial biography which will include all that Sir Maurice out of modesty omits. If his future biographer is anyone whom he would consider qualified for the task, the result will certainly not be a hagiography: there will be plenty of naughty anecdotes. On the other hand, the general public will learn, what some of us already know, the immense services which Sir Maurice, both before and after the Second World War, has rendered, not only to his own college, Wadham, but also to the University.

A biographer will also have to assess his literary output, which has been considerable. While ardently defending “pure” scholarship—“the establishment of facts is the scholar’s duty, and there is no ultimate reason why he should do any more”—Sir Maurice himself, like his old teacher, Gilbert Murray, has always felt it his duty to do more.

To make contact with a world so remote in time we require more than texts; we require interpretation and other aids by which this lost world can be brought to life, and this is where the historian of literature comes in.

And the translator. I should like to take this opportunity to tell Sir Maurice how much I personally have profited from his translations of Pindar, The Oxford Book of Greek Verse in Translation, and Primitive Song.

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