Books: Farewell to Sligger, Beetles and bottom-patting Oscar

Fred Inglis says goodbye, and good riddance, to the creepy time- servers and intellectual nonentities of old Oxbridge
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The Independent Culture
The Dons

by Noel Annan

HarperCollins, pounds 17.99, 357pp

IN THE period of his greatest works, P G Wodehouse made a personal hero out of the Hon Galahad Threepwood, a bright-eyed old buffer with an eye for a racehorse, a pretty woman, and a drink. The Hon Galahad was always on the point of bringing out gratifyingly scandalous memoirs. People were always and foolishly trying to stop him, quite missing the point that, as Jeeves explained to Bertie, the elderly have no objection to seeing their names in print, especially when they appear in stories which recall their days as a bit of a dog.

In 1991, Noel Annan published Our Age, a portly volume of memoirs notable for a characteristically nice balance of recrimination against the man's own undoubted geniality of spirit. He offered tributes to the many notables among his chums - tributes flavoured with a salty touch of prurience. It was a juicy, unstoppable read. The complaisance of title and contents was disfigured only by a momentary syncope. Annan wondered if the proprietors of our age (and of their England too) had not been routed and humiliated by the depredations of the great she-rhino and her buccaneers - who left new science and old, intellectual culture in ruins still unrestored by the Labour Party.

Nine years later, Annan returns to Arcady and speaks a validation over it. He is himself a figure of some substance in his histories: intelligence officer at the very sharp end during the last days of Hitler, Provost of King's, his Cambridge college, at a mere 39, first vice-chancellor of the newly federated University of London, chair and part-author in 1977 of one of the two highly intelligent, wholly unimplemented government reports on broadcasting (the other being Pilkington). Full of honours and importance, he is full of himself too, but with ample justification. He has done the state service of such a powerfully public-spirited kind that he might well have been an admired figure in the subject this book offers to take up - but then quite fails to grasp.

In 1955, Annan contributed an essay to a Festschrift for G M Trevelyan. It traced in ornate, zealous and (as he admitted) sometimes tedious detail the genealogy of that late-Victorian "intellectual aristocracy" so elaborately intertwined by marriages between the houses of Macaulay, Trevelyan, Darwin, Huxley, Haldane, Stephen and company.

The essay had its after-a-good-dinner sort of interest, but it was a rum thing to do. What he now offers in this meaty book is a celebration of both the culture and ethos breathed out by the blossoms of those fragrant family trees. If the result reads a little like a threnody spoken over old Oxbridge, maybe now is the hour for such a song.

The trouble is that Annan deliberately omits to choose among his "Dons" those still powerful figures who constituted, at a critical moment, the great tradition of the liberal scholar-intellectual in which he was raised. Instead of T H Green, he retells the biography of awful old Benjamin Jowett; instead of John Stuart Mill, J H Newman; instead of R G Collingwood, a bottom-patting nonentity called Oscar Browning.

But it is when he summons up the ghosts of his coevals that Annan does little service to his own winning gifts as a memorialist. Voluble, reminiscent, vivid, tart and charming himself, he could surely bring back to life more deserving figures than Maurice Bowra and John Sparrow.

There are many moments in this readable, at times ineffable, book which return us to the Hon Galahad. It is sprinkled with Wodehousian nicknames - "Sligger" Urquhart and "Beetles" Babington - as well as pacy little anecdotes about Dadie Rylands, founder of the Marlowe Society, and his antics in a homosexual bed ("like a rugger scrum").

At the same time there are moments which catch at one's heart. "Dons no longer follow a calling: they belong to a profession. Yet without such idealism... would the English conception of a university have developed as it has done?"

"After such knowledge, what forgiveness," Eliot asks. It is hard to forgive Annan for inserting encomia to that supine reactionary Maurice Bowra ("the Don as Wit") or to the dirty-minded, appalling and indolent John Sparrow, Warden of All Souls.

It is even a bit much to invite us once more to applaud Isaiah Berlin, so amazingly commemorated in the obituaries as "the wisest man in the West". And it is a keen disappointment that Annan doesn't show a tweak of his taste for malice by conceding the justice of Christopher Hitchens, and his surely correct identification of Berlin as writer-procrastinator, Cold War time-server and (until he did his bit for Wolfson College) middle- aged flaneur-about-Oxford-and-Washington. This lowering trinity make one wonder how loveable loveability really is.

Annan repeatedly holds out the glowing possibility that he will show us what there is to love and to revere in all that Oxford and Cambridge have given to the idea of a university, now so incoherent and defiled by both Left and Right. But he turns away from this imperial theme to rattle on in his headlong, attractive manner about his friends. Yeats said himself that his glory was his friends, and perhaps much may be forgiven Annan for loving much. But the other, better book remains to be written; and time will not relent.

Fred Inglis is professor of cultural studies at Sheffield University. His book `The Journalist in Modern Politics' will be published next year