Words on the Air: Essays on Language, Manners, Morals, and Laws
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 ancestry.
John Sparrow went as a boy to Winchester, the second most famous English public school. At both Eton and Winchester the very clever boys are elected to “college” but Winchester demands a higher intellectual ability from all its boys than Eton does. At Eton, until recently, only modest attainments were expected of the sons of the ruling class. It was Winchester’s role to produce the proconsuls not the statesmen, the civil servants not the cabinet ministers, the generals, judges, officials, and the regulators of the wheels and mechanism of the state. Wykehamists learn precision and are famed for their tortuous clarity and their art of drawing distinctions. They resemble the young seminarist who was asked by a cardinal on a visit, “Monsieur L’Abbé, your superiors are full of praise for your promise in casuistry: tell me, is it canonical in your opinion to baptize an infant on point of death in soup?” “In your soup, Your Eminence, no: in the seminary’s soup, yes.”
This training was powerfully reinforced when Sparrow went to New College. Not by the remarkable Spooner, who was no longer warden. (“I want you to lunch with me next Sunday to meet our newly elected fellow Mr. Casson.” “But, Warden, I am Mr. Casson.” “Come all the same.”) His tutor in philosophy was H.W.B. Joseph, the most famous tutor at that time, the enemy of Cambridge philosophy, a precisian, and a man rash enough to think that he could dispose of Einstein on relativity by drawing clever distinctions. In Sparrow, the controversialist, you can hear the voice of Joseph to this day.
Maurice Bowra lamented that the imaginative, charming, gay, often reckless, companion, who loved literature, painting, and German night life, was ground down by the subtle, skeptical, hair-splitting training which John Sparrow received at Joseph’s hands. Practice at the Chancery bar after he had been elected to All Souls twisted the screw tighter. Not for him the rough and tumble of the common law—he preferred to unravel the mysteries of wills, trusts, and corporation law. Mr. Tulkinghorn would not have hesitated to brief him on the affairs of Sir Leicester Dedlock. No one knows better how to move discreetly and at ease within the Establishment. Certainly, when a few years after the war the fellows of All Souls had to elect a warden it was the Chancery lawyer whom they chose in preference to A.L. Rowse, who was too self-obsessed and unpredictable for them to be certain of his reaction to the turn of the times.
They did so because there was no disposition in All Souls to change anything. It remained a marvelous anomaly, a college without undergraduates or even graduate students. Some of the fellows were, like Sparrow, nonresident. Others were professors or research fellows or young men who shortly after graduating had taken the annual examination to enter All Souls which consisted of papers on two subjects in the humanities, two compulsory general papers, and an essay. Once elected, they had no obligations. Some might go to London and be called to the bar. Others might choose to stay there and research. All Souls was rich. After Goronwy Rees became estates bursar and transferred half a million pounds out of bonds into equities it became embarrassingly rich. A building fund was set up into which surplus income was ladled. No new building was envisaged. Perhaps an old building might fall down. The building fund increased at such an alarming rate that a reserve building fund was created from its income. What function the reserve fund was to perform that its parent could not do was far from clear.
Meanwhile horrid things began to happen outside the walls of the College. People had begun to ask why only 4 percent of British adolescents went to a university. Were Oxford and Cambridge and especially the rich colleges using their wealth wisely and was not their system of admitting students, if system it could be called, chaotic and hampering to every other university? What in particular was the remarkable institution of All Souls doing to greet the new age? The famous Robbins Report, which Macmillan had commissioned to tell him what to do with higher education, besought the ancient universities to put their house in order, and in 1964 Oxford accordingly set up a special commission under Oliver Franks, the former ambassador in Washington, to make recommendations. The encounter between the warden and the commission was awaited with bated breath. The commission was suspected of being tiresomely in favor of reform. What ground, if any, would Warden Sparrow give? Had he not been known to be less than enthusiastic when the College elected its first black fellow from Ghana? But the reformers were confident. Surely now the students and all enlightened people circumambulating All Souls would shout with a great shout and the walls of the College would fall flat.
The meeting, in February 1965, turned out to be not an encounter but a feast of agape. Suave and solicitous, the warden cooed like a turtledove. The majority of the fellows, he revealed, were smitten with remorse. They realized now that, for years, they had lived cut off from the “main current of the intellectual life of Oxford.” Yes, it was true that of the fifty-nine fellows only twenty, in addition to the warden, bursar, and librarian, required to be supported by the College. So naturally the College had a scheme in mind. The coffers bursting with gold were to be opened so as to enable a considerable number of postgraduate students to be admitted to the College. The commission sighed with relief and proceeded to draft its report. And then a whisper was heard, a rumor gained currency, incredulity turned to suspicion, and suspicion to something worse. Could it be true?… But it was. In January 1966 the College changed its mind. The air filled with accusations of bad faith and intrigue. A radical young fellow denounced the warden in the press. Worse was to come. Lord Bridges, the former secretary of the war cabinet, a man weighed down with honors from the state, a London fellow who had just published his report on how the colleges at Cambridge might reform themselves, rose in a meeting in the College and called upon the warden, as he put it, to reconsider his position. Most people thought that he was calling on him to resign.
Warden Sparrow was all innocence. How the College had come to change its mind was beyond his comprehension. Surely no one was suggesting that he could in any way have influenced the proceedings? Surely the warden was the mere collector of votes, a passive mouthpiece for the wishes of his colleagues? By now it was too late for the Franks Commission to take fresh evidence from him on the new scheme put forward by the College. It was a scheme that could sop up some of the surplus wealth and leave the College virtually unchanged. A number of visiting fellows would be admitted, stay for a year, and have no vote. The College had, like some hardened old toper, slipped back into its deplorable ways, and forgetting that it had taken the pledge in February, was uproariously indifferent to the fact that it would still remain inescapably outside “the main current of the intellectual life of Oxford.”
The commission was baffled. They penned a nasty paragraph pointing out that the amount that the fellows spent on their feasts and dinners did “not suggest a lively and continuous effort to find more money for academic purposes.” They also went on to recall that forty years before, in the early 1920s, when a royal commission had examined Oxford, All Souls had told those commissioners too that they had already drawn up bylaws to admit and house postgraduate students. Yet, strangely enough, the College had never used the bylaws. What deduction could one draw from that? Lord Franks delivered a spine-chilling judgment: “It is not just that the College has found great difficulty in making up its mind but that, when it has done so, it has unmade it again…. We are compelled to infer infirmity of purpose.”