52 Book Challenge: #2 The Reluctant Professor

John Carey is a retired professor in English Literature, emeritus professor Merton College Oxford who is perhaps best known for his “anti-elitist views on high culture. He has chaired the Booker and the Man Booker prize awards on several occasions, and has been chief reviewer of books for a number of media outlets including the Sunday Times …….. all of which makes my reviewing one of HIS books it a daunting prospect! To put this in context, his anti-elitist reviews/books have included What Good Are The Arts (2005), and The Intellectuals And The Masses (1992). In the latter he slated Eliot, Woolf, Yeats, Lawrence, Wells, for their “elitist and misanthropic views” of the mass society”!

The Unexpected Professor is an autobiography covering his life from birth in 1934 to present day (pub. 2014) and therefore describes his growing up and school period through to professorship and old age. I’m not usually a reader of biographies but I thought it would be fun to read a book about someone who is a literary critic and writes reviews of other people’s books ….. if you see what I mean. I was hoping to get an inkling of his approach, though he is clearly a million miles away in this from my own humble offerings. I wasn’t disappointed!
The chapters describing Professor Carey’s life are illuminating in many ways. His description of school and growing up pre and post WW2 are windows into a bygone age that few of us now will recognise.

“Jack and I both had collections of toy soldiers, mine were hand-me-downs from Bill, inappropriately dressed in scarlet tunics, but we engaged them in battles on the rockery in our garden. From Smith’s the chemist we bought sulphur and potassium nitrate, which we said was for chemistry experiments at school, and mixing them together we made gunpowder, which could be enclosed in twists of lavatory paper to manufacture bombs or grenades. We could never get it to explode properly, but it flared and made an impressive whoosh and scorched the toy soldiers standing near it.”

I can remember having toy soldiers myself, though nowadays it’s soldiers in video games on iPads or XBox I suppose, and the possibility of getting sulphur and potassium nitrate to make gunpowder less than zero! Thank goodness it was available to me too in the 1950s or I might never have ended up with a PhD in chemistry! Life at Oxford University for Professor Carey was completely unrecognisable to me, even though I went to university just 15 years later, and his criticism of the Oxford English syllabus was scathing:

“To today’s undergraduates college life in the 1950s would seem prehistoric, and even at the time I thought some aspects of it a trifle antiquated. There were no women, of course. Women were segregated in five heavily fortified colleges on the outskirts of town. All the other colleges were men only. We wore our black academic gowns almost all the time–for meals, for lectures, for tutorials, and even on the streets of Oxford.”
“The Oxford English syllabus in the 1950s was a scandal or a joke, depending on your sense of humour. Its cut-off point was 1832–that is, it omitted all Victorian and twentieth-century literature. The unspoken assumption seemed to be that any gentleman would acquaint himself with the Victorian poets and novelists, without needing to study them, and modern writing was not worth serious attention anyway.”

Other chapters demonstrate his literary critic expertise, indeed he writes about many giants of literature he actually meets such as Robert Graves, Ted Hughes and Philip Larkin.

“All this made me wonder what it would be like to meet Larkin, and I found out through Charles Monteith who, early in 1974, asked me to dinner in All Souls, adding that Larkin would be there. We met before dinner in Charles’s room and Larkin was notable for his silence. He seemed not so much withdrawn as guarded and watchful. I learned later that he had stammered so badly as a boy that he couldn’t trust himself to ask for a railway ticket, but had to write his destination on a piece of paper and push it across the counter.”
“My worst literary mistake, if it was a mistake, was reviewing Ted Hughes’s Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being. I knew Hughes a bit and admired him enormously as a poet, so I was keen to review his Shakespeare book. But when I read it I was aghast. The idea for it originated, he explains, in a dream. Shakespeare appeared to him one night, clad in dazzling Elizabethan finery, and laid on a special performance of King Lear. I thought the whole thing was appalling nonsense. Worse, it was a kind of betrayal. Hughes was a great poet, exquisitely attuned to the multiple meanings of poetry. What did he think he was doing reducing Shakespeare’s plays to this tedious mythical mumbo-jumbo?”

If you grew up during the 50s and 60s then this book will resonate for you, and even if you are younger it will give you a glimpse into life in England post WW2 written by someone describing their own experience of it. Professor Carey is actually quite positive about those years and doesn’t see them through the lens of a typical left wing academic. There is a fondness in the way he remembers things, and he’s certainly not wishing that today was more like the times of his youth. He clearly has a pride in “Britishness” and our academic and literary institutions, though he is unafraid of criticism when it’s due. Nowadays however he spends his time with his wife, Gill, caring for his beehives. In summary I learned a lot from this book, it taught me to look beneath the mere words and to interpret the message that the author is trying to convey.

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