Words on the Air: Essays on Language, Manners, Morals, and Laws
by John Sparrow
University of Chicago Press, 272 pp., $15.00
John Sparrow, the former warden of All Souls College, Oxford, defies augury. The critics and social analysts may tell him that the world has changed and the manners and morals of his youth have now been discarded, but he will not be cowed, as the book of lectures under review makes clear. To be fashionable and accepted by the young, the arrivistes, and the successful is not among his ambitions. Saturnine and handsome in his seventies, his thick well-trimmed hair still black, he remains one of Nature’s bachelors, but his makeup is not that of the inspissated reactionary. He thinks life too funny and absurd. Not for nothing is he one of the line of Oxford wits of the fabled Twenties, such as Bowra, Waugh, Betjeman, Connolly, Sutro, Harold Acton, and Alan Pryce-Jones.
But neither is he a fogey. His grouches incubate in the heat of his devotion to the Johnsonian principle of clearing the mind of cant. This don is not a gentle old eccentric who would not harm a fly. He stalks inaccuracy and folly, then suddenly pounces and impales his victim, whose struggles and moans for mercy leave him cold. When he seizes Marcuse to punish him for the Essay on Liberation, which he describes as the nastiest book he has ever read, you can hear the knife go in again and again, and as he leaves the twitching body, he jeers, like a Homeric hero, at Marcuse’s brutalizing contempt for people and at the sentimentalism with which he tries to hide it by quoting from a young black girl. “Unfortunately the young black girl—whose existence one may be permitted to doubt—turns out to be no more worth listening to than the old white man.”
To call Sparrow a scholar could be misinterpreted. Where are the tomes, the articles in periodicals, the seminars, the acoloytes? There are not even unwritten volumes. Yet here is someone who while a schoolboy published an edition of Donne’s Devotions, who is a collector of lapidary inscriptions, of half-lines and repetitions in Virgil, of Renaissance Latin verse, whose large library (surpassed among scholars only by that of Gordon Ray of the Guggenheim Foundation) is lined with trophies won by his commando raids on English and European bookshops. In the end he wrote a book on Mark Pattison, about whom he is the acknowledged expert, though it was not the one his admirers hoped he would write. He is certainly not an academic politician. Few and esoteric were the committees on which he sat at Oxford. No trumpet call sounded to summon him to sit on the Hebdomadal Council or the vice-chancellor’s throne. Obstruction fascinates him, not construction—or deconstruction. He is the old style of don. All Souls has been his life, and for twenty-five years he was warden of the College. What did he do during that time? What did he become known for? To answer those questions one has to look at his educational …