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.”

Some might conclude that the warden had been all too firm of purpose—his purpose. Perhaps he was justified. After all, had not that reserve which he had displayed about the Ghanaian fellow been justified? Had he not returned to his country to back Nkrumah’s attempt to make the University of Ghana his creature, a ploy foiled only by Conor Cruise O’Brien and Alex Kwapong, an admirable professor who, reassuringly, had been awarded a double first in classics at Cambridge? He was justified because in 1960 he had suffered a nasty shock and the success of his rebuff to the commission steadied his nerves; and they needed to be steady during the years when students became scarcely recognizable.

The event that presaged the end of common decency as it had been known was the acquittal of Lady Chatterley’s Lover at the Old Bailey on the charge of obscenity. Under the new law, which Roy Jenkins had fought through Parliament, a host of expert witnesses had been enabled to be called in the book’s defense. They testified that the book could not be said to be corrupt. Some of them testified to its innate purity, its power of redemption—and some very silly things were undeniably said.

For a few months Sparrow brooded and fashioned his thunderbolt. Then he unleashed it. He acted, so he said in an article, from “a liking for honesty and a hatred of humbug.” But it was not just humbug that he was out to expose, but humbuggery. What, he asked, had the witnesses made of a certain passage in which Mellors “burns out the shame” in Connie, a practice which later ends in his being accused of making love to her “all ends on”? In an exquisite analysis Sparrow established that Lawrence had portrayed Mellors as having anal intercourse with Connie. Were the witnesses, he asked, so inexpert and frivolous that they had not noticed this passage which could hardly be interpreted otherwise? And if they had, how could they have mouthed the pieties which they had used to defend the work? Indeed, why had they concealed this indecency when prosecuting counsel seemed to be somewhat out of his depth in interpreting it?

The argument came oddly from a lawyer. Unlike French law where the juge d’instruction attempts by minute examination of the accused to establish the truth before the trial takes place, in Anglo-American law a criminal trial is concerned only incidentally with the truth: it is concerned primarily with guilt or innocence at law. In fact, when closeted with counsel before the trial, the leading witnesses for the defense raised the interpretation of that passage. Counsel did not conduct a university seminar on what Lawrence meant. He simply asked what other interpretations could be put on the passage and suggested to the witnesses that some of these were reasonable. If pressed, witnesses might care to argue (or of course they might not) that another interpretation was valid. In fact the counsel for the prosecution (who in opening his case delighted everyone by asking the jury whether they would care to leave this book lying around in their homes to be seen by their servants) toyed with the passage and then said, “I don’t know what it means.”

Sparrow’s article created something of a sensation. Two things followed. Dr. Leavis, who had been outraged that other people had appropriated Lawrence, whom he regarded as his property, struck up a correspondence with Warden Sparrow—an unlikely occurrence since Sparrow was one of the warmest champions of Edith Sitwell’s detested poetry. The second was that ribald observers renamed Sparrow, perhaps not in the best of taste, the Warden of All Holes. An even more dire event was to follow. A few years later bills began to be debated in Parliament to legalize what were called “sexual acts between consenting male adults.” It might have been thought that if only out of friendship for numbers of his old Oxford friends who would no longer be under threat of blackmail and could benefit from such liberal legislation, the warden would have supported it. But no: once again outrage at humbug took possession of him. It is, of course, insulting when well-meaning people, who have no conception at all of what it is like to be homosexual, argue that society surely should not punish those afflicted by a disease. But Sparrow’s complaint was not so much that it was insulting to homosexuals to suggest that they were sick or mad as that such legislation removed two things essential to homosexual pleasure: the sense of guilt and the sense of danger.

After this one could expect only the worst. Peering from his window overlooking the High, he saw a new generation of undergraduates passing by. Now, if there is one thing John Sparrow disliked more than dogs (“If that little dog comes over here to trouble us, give him a good kick”), it was beards. Overnight, clean-shaven, well-groomed English youth disappeared and was replaced by creatures with bare feet whose faces looked like Victorian curates, but who wore anoraks and jeans. His comforters were inept. “But think of the Victorians whom you so much admire…. Surely they reconcile you to the idea of the beard?” “Well! It isn’t clear to me why I should be expected to tolerate something, just because it was tolerated by the Victorians. Look at Maclise’s drawings of the youthful Dickens, or Samuel Lawrence’s marvellous oil-sketch of Tennyson as a young man of thirty, and you will see what a tragedy it was that they smothered the contours of cheek and lips with the bush of beard…. Well! After half a century or so of hispidity the beard went out…surely due to the invention of the safety razor, the only entirely beneficial scientific invention of all time.”

It was not only their cheeks he liked to see. “‘It’s years,’ said an Oxford friend of mine the other day—and he said it with a sigh—’It’s years since I’ve seen the back of a young man’s neck.’…Well! I don’t want to pass judgment on the new life-style of the young… but…one of the things that made the Bar to me a delightful profession was the fact that it was a clean-shaven profession.” The two great G men of our times for Sparrow’s money are Gillette and Guillotin, the latter presumably because he invented a definitive way of ensuring that hair was kept short.

There are, he argues, only two things left that distinguish men from women, and the unisex movement will do its best to extinguish the difference if it can. Does not its anthem run: “Raise the clarion call again, Beards for Women, Breasts for Men”? Sparrow laments that sex has become a less personalized and serious affair than it was—it’s all comradeship and play. “Love, for them, means a diffused benevolence, which finds expression in altruistic concern for the alienated and the oppressed, the love of the ‘love-in’…. The one thing love does not mean to them is the mysterious, possessive, devastating personal passion…the intense preoccupation of one individual person with another.”

In the three talks which Sparrow gave to the University of Chicago he asked whether one could not have too much of three good things—equality, humanitarianism, and liberty. Virtues they may be, but the progressives have covered them with cant. Are we to abolish examinations and discriminations of every kind in art because they deny equality? Despite compassion, is not punishment in schools or in prisons necessary to preserve society if it is to have nobility, genius, and imagination? Should not artists be restrained by law from a few forms of self-expression if only out of respect for the individuality of their fellow citizens, which is likely to be exceedingly different from that of the artist?

It would not be too difficult to show that these essays do not run deep. Indeed their author explains that he is devoid of pretensions to be a philosopher, a social analyst, or a historian. Just as he admitted that he could not really judge whether Lady Chatterley should or should not have been censored, so he can produce all the arguments for capital punishment yet in the end admit that the humanitarian case which he so much despises must carry the day. His good feelings get the better of him. So he takes a grip on himself and does not weaken in deploring the fact that the prefects in the English public schools have themselves agreed to stop caning the smaller boys for misdemeanors. And why have they done so? Because, he says, they cannot bear to inflict pain. But pain sometimes has to be inflicted, for the individual’s good and for society’s good. To deny this, says Sparrow, is self-indulgence.

At this point one wonders whether it has crossed his mind that the reason why these intelligent boys all over the country abandoned this barbarous practice was that they recognized that boys such as themselves, with the power to inflict pain, became too often sadists, as well as prigs, and that the autobiographies of generations of former public schoolboys and many indifferent novels bore witness to the savageries which the system perpetrated. You often feel, when reading Sparrow—for instance in his utterances on Vietnam or Watergate—that he brushes aside the rights and wrongs of the issue itself. What obessed him were the motives of those who denounced the war or Nixon.

Not only can one have too much of good things, but all good things must come to an end, and Sparrow’s wardenship of All Souls drew to a close. There were, it is true, a few visiting fellows about the place, but otherwise nothing had changed. The social club remained undisturbed, and dreams for reform, such as that of Isaiah Berlin, that All Souls might become the foremost center of research in the country in the old humanities, remained no more than dimly remembered nightmares.

A threat was posed by the candidature for the succession to the wardenship by the philosopher Bernard Williams, an attractive, sagacious, and undoubtedly liberal character, a former fellow of All Souls, and at that time a professor at Cambridge. New voting procedures were at once devised to meet this situation, and the warden warned his colleagues: “If you vote for Bernard Williams there will be women in the College as soon as you can say Joan Robinson.” The prospect of that formidable Keynesian, the world’s leading woman economist, renowned for her work on imperfect competition, appearing in her trousers or kimono in Hall dinner, caused stout hearts to quail. Williams was not elected. The senior fellows swept in Sparrow’s candidate, a loyal barrister practicing at the commercial bar. But perhaps not quite as loyal as could be wished. Last year All Souls elected its first woman fellow—though only for a year.

Tennyson,” wrote Alice Meynell, “the clearest headed of our poets, is our wild poet; wild notwithstanding that little foppery we know in him—that walking delicately like Agag; wild, notwithstanding the work, the ease, the neatness, the finish; notwithstanding the assertion of manliness, which, in asserting, somewhat misses that mark; a wilder poet, than the rough, than the accuser, than the denouncer.” John Sparrow’s wild heart, which loves danger and the unique, which understands that the lot of men who rise to grasp occasions is tragic in that in their journey they will be overtaken by calamity, is forever exasperated by the pretensions of rationalism and radicalism. He is a romantic not to be encompassed by the other Sparrow, the spruce, precise Wykehamist. He may tease his friends and pester them to admit that they keep bad intellectual company, but he is capable of unusual devotion because he is genuinely interested in how his friends think, move, and have their being. Conversely—and it is a tribute to the lack of rancor in the Oxford of his generation—those who quail at his views would never dream of quarreling or planning a vendetta. He may be exacting but people want him as a friend.

He is a fascinator. Some of the best pieces in this book are radio talks, and I cannot judge whether the particular quality of his voice and the delight with which one listens to him speak come across. To those who know him and read the book one might be in the same room. In his time he has been both a games player and a player of games. In the game in which you have to describe someone in one syllable, he would be called a tease. He plays the game of needling progressives to perfection by appearing amazed at their Panglossian absurdities. He is crotchety, but his crotchets have considerably more resonance than the quavers of the enlightened.

Naturally the views he holds are unfashionable—for instance that there is such a thing as Good English. Those who believe that English lives as a language because it is changing and absorbing new words, new idioms, new conceits, constructions, and syntax will be somewhat taken aback by his determination to reestablish the supremacy of syntax. Are not people who speak English in America and in numbers of Commonwealth countries such as Australia, Nigeria, or India developing idioms which cannot be brought within the rules? This does not dismay Sparrow who begins with a characteristic genuflection toward the shade of Joseph. “What is a word? It’s not just a sound. Is it a sound that stands for a thing? But not all words stand for things—lots of them don’t…. Words, I should say, are best thought of as parts of speech…. Well! These were the kinds of doubt that rose up in my mind when I sat down to write this talk.”

He does not like words such as “viable,” or “syndrome,” or “dynamic” used as a noun; or such a sentence as “The message of this book is relevant anywhere because it pin-points the generation gap.” Naturally, he does not like jargon. When one professor told him that a young scholar was “capable of forming insightful associations between the elements of his knowledge,” and when another professor added that the young man was “sophisticated in interpersonal relationships,” Sparrow asked why they could not have said that he was shrewd. “I was recently invited to attend a symposium…. What was it to be about? Well! The title told me nothing: it was called ‘Perimeters of Social Repair.’ ‘Perimeters’! I suppose we should be grateful for not having said ‘Parameters.”‘ These views on language delight me. He knows what makes so much of what one reads hideous and phoney.

But you will not satisfy Sparrow by avoiding jargon and using short words. If long words are used to conceal woolliness, short words are used to create an atmosphere of heartiness and reassurance and to jolly you along past a gap in the sequence of ideas. If they want to cover up the fact that they can’t find a rational link between two ideas, what do politicians and advertisers do? They fall back on the word “about.” “Participation is surely what democracy is supposed to be about.” Or, “That’s what Beer is about!” Sparrow comments: “Certainly, the advertisement is about beer; and his arm is about the girl’s waist; and the girl is, probably, about to be kissed by the young man. But beer…isn’t about anything.”

I cannot follow the sage. On this subject I have heard great argument, about it and about, and doubt whether I can go so far as he in preserving “the purity of our national speech.” Vitality in language seems to me to matter as well as exactitude. So if I had to summarize this book, I think I would say that beards is what it is about.

What have I said?


This Issue

February 4, 1982