Books: Vile bodies glimpsed in the glades of Oxbridge

The Dons by Noel Annan HarperCollins pounds 17.99

Dons, even non-bisexual ones, have always had it both ways. Proud of their unworldly integrity, they also enjoy some vicarious power by educating the rulers of tomorrow, thus securing themselves an entree to fleshpots they may purport to despise. Amphibious animals who move between Mayfair party and ivory tower, they live the lives of monks untrue to their vows, relishing celebrity while meditating in their studies on the eternal transience of things. Only the cloistered could be so pathetically star-struck by the worldly. But dons are also trustees of richly endowed establishments known as colleges, and thus have a lot of clout of their own. Some of them would far rather be remembered as the bursar who ran up a new building than as the scholar who published a new study of Byzantium. And doing the one may always provide a convenient excuse for not getting round to the other.

These socialite dons, of course, are such flamboyant, mythologised figures as Maurice Bowra, John Sparrow, Isaiah Berlin and Freddie Ayer, not today's shabby-jacketed researcher in plant science in some untidy nook of the laboratory. The great classical generation of donnish wits, recalled by Noel Annan in this study, has now dwindled to a rare protected species, glimpsed occasionally in some Oxbridge glade or found long-buried beneath some common-room armchair. The heyday of the dons has passed, and this book reminds us, quite against its intentions, of just what a splendid thing this is.

Pampered, petulant, snobbish, arrogant, spiteful, domineering and ferociously self-centred, the traditional dons were, by and large, a pretty disgraceful lot. Oxbridge colleges, like prisons and hospitals, have an infantilising effect on their longer-term inmates, reducing them to a state of querulous narcissism. Just as the released lifer finds it hard to re-enter the world, so the pubs of Oxford and Cambridge are full of lumpen intellectual bar- flies who, as in some Bunuel-style fantasy, find themselves incapable of leaving the place. Freed, like prima donnas, from the dull constraints of reality, dons have time to obstruct their colleagues' promotion, provide some charismatic chairmanship of the college wine committee or throw off a slim volume of Renaissance Latin verse. "Boring" is their code-word for the lower classes, "amusing" their highest term of praise; "loyalty" means lying and twisting in your friends' interests while ruthlessly worsening those of your enemies.

A single word suffices to excuse these foibles: eccentricity. If a don spits in your drink or allows his pet parrot to savage you, he is simply being lovably idiosyncratic. Many old-style academics have preferred to be thought colourful rather than virtuous. Eccentricity, a fancy word for monstrous egoism, was to traditional Oxbridge what normality is to sergeant majors. The homosexual John Sparrow opposed homosexual law reform on the grounds that it would take the spice out of being gay. An outrageous old misogynist who derived many of his erotic frissons from opposing enlightened reforms, this malicious, trivial-minded Warden of All Souls (or All Holes, as the college became known after he gleefully spotted a passage about buggery in D H Lawrence) had no interest in ideas, chalked up no academic achievements of note and thought it amusing to joke about killing babies. Even Annan, whose book attempts a few feebly disingenuous defences of the unspeakable, brands him as lazy and "supremely selfish".

Another such erudite brat was the Cambridge historian Frederick Simpson, who was "vile and humiliating" to college servants, and whose Pooh Bear- like contribution to the war effort consisted in gathering honey in the countryside, which he ate himself. His Cambridge English colleague "Dadie" Rylands had about as much clue on how to analyse literary works as a giraffe, but could read the stuff aloud quite beautifully, and received several honours for doing so. Sex with this emotional desperado was said to be like being in a rugger scrum. Like a number of dons of the time, Rylands moved in a louche beau monde of upper-class loungers, and ended his days as a squalid sot. Fickle in friendship and volatile of temperament, his friends considered him, so the emollient Annan tells us, as the "wisest, justest and best".

They were, for all their horrors, an egregiously witty bunch. Maurice Bowra, of whom Sparrow remarked that his prose was unreadable and his verse unprintable, dubbed the gay leftist Oxbridge of his day the "Homintern", and observed of the gaudily-dressed professor of French, Enid Starkie, that she had appeared at one of his parties "in all the colours of the Rimbaud". "Heard of any amusing deaths recently?" the aged Bowra was wont to inquire. Brow-beating and grotesquely partisan, with a voracious craving for public honours, Bowra was nevertheless a genuine champion of justice and liberty, unlike most of his confreres. "Buggers can't be choosers", he remarked when announcing his engagement to a rather plain woman.

Annan reserves some of his choicest compliments for the pathologically loquacious Isaiah Berlin, whose machine-gun-like speech was once timed at 400 words a minute. Berlin was an authentic intellectual in the way that Sparrow and his ilk were not - though if English academic life had been less fearfully parochial, his exposition of European thinkers might not have seemed quite so impressive as it did to those reared only on Locke and Hume. The very paragon of liberal humanism, Berlin was rather more liberal-minded about right-wing regimes than he was about left-wing ones. Violence, Annan piously informs us, was what revolted him above all, though he seems not to have been particularly perturbed by the invasion of Suez or the bombing of the Vietnamese.

Pooh-poohing the notion that the formidably authoritative Berlin might have spoken up against the Vietnam war, Annan tells us that he did not take public stances, having apparently forgotten that he refers a few pages earlier to Berlin's signing of letters critical of the Soviet Union. Christopher Hitchens, who has dared to take the sacrosanct Berlin to task for such inconsistencies, is dismissed here as a "nihilist", which makes about as much sense as calling the Queen Mother a Trotskyist.

The Dons is a stylish dissection of that peculiar mixture of pedantry and frivolity which is traditional Oxbridge. It has informative chapters on the likes of Newman, Jowett and Rutherford. But though it does not stint on its criticism, it ends up, like most such comfortably inside accounts, as too dewy-eyed by half.

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Creep show: Tim Cockerill in ‘Spider House’

TVEnough to make ardent arachnophobes think twice

Arts and Entertainment
Steven, Ella Jade and Sarah in the boardroom
tvThe Apprentice contestants take a battering from the business mogul
Arts and Entertainment
TV Presenters Ant McPartlin and Dec Donnelly. Winners of the 'Entertainment Programme' award for 'Ant and Dec's Saturday Night Takeaway'
musicAnt and Dec confirmed as hosts of next year's Brit Awards
Arts and Entertainment
Jewel in the crown: drawings from ‘The Letter for the King’, an adventure about a boy and his mission to save a medieval realm
Arts and Entertainment
Juergen Wolf won the Young Masters Art Prize 2014 with his mixed media painting on wood, 'Untitled'
Arts and Entertainment
Iron Man and Captain America in a scene from
filmThe upcoming 'Black Panther' film will feature a solo black male lead, while a female superhero will take centre stage in 'Captain Marvel'
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
The Imperial War Museum, pictured, has campaigned to display copyrighted works during the First World War centenary
Arts and Entertainment
American Horror Story veteran Sarah Paulson plays conjoined twins Dot and Bette Tattler
tvReview: Yes, it’s depraved for the most part but strangely enough it has heart to it
Arts and Entertainment
The mind behind Game of Thrones George R. R. Martin

Will explain back story to fictional kingdom Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Dorothy in Return to Oz

film Unintentionally terrifying children's movies to get you howling (in fear, tears or laughter)
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Robert James-Collier as under-butler Thomas

TVLady Edith and Thomas show sad signs of the time
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
The Dad's Army cast hit the big screen

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
JK Rowling is releasing a new Harry Potter story about Dolores Umbridge

Arts and Entertainment
On The Apprentice, “serious” left the room many moons ago and yet still we watch

Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor finds himself in a forest version of London in Doctor Who episode 'In the Forest of the Night'
TVReview: Is the Doctor ever going stop frowning?
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from David Ayer's 'Fury'

Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift performs at the 2014 iHeart Radio Music Festival
music review
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Anderson plays Arthur Shelby in Peaky Blinders series two
tvReview: Arthur Shelby Jr seems to be losing his mind as his younger brother lets him run riot in London
Arts and Entertainment
Miranda Hart has called time on her award-winning BBC sitcom, Miranda
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Nicholas Serota has been a feature in the Power 100 top ten since its 2002 launch
Arts and Entertainment
Awesome foursome: Sam Smith shows off his awards
music22-year-old confirms he is 2014’s breakout British music success
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis in Syria: A general reveals the lack of communication with the US - and his country's awkward relationship with their allies-by-default

    A Syrian general speaks

    A senior officer of Bashar al-Assad’s regime talks to Robert Fisk about his army’s brutal struggle with Isis, in a dirty war whose challenges include widespread atrocities
    ‘A bit of a shock...’ Cambridge economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

    ‘A bit of a shock...’ Economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

    Guy Scott's predecessor, Michael Sata, died in a London hospital this week after a lengthy illness
    Fall of the Berlin Wall: History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War

    Fall of the Berlin Wall

    History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War
    How to turn your mobile phone into easy money

    Turn your mobile phone into easy money

    There are 90 million unused mobiles in the UK, which would be worth £7bn if we cashed them in, says David Crookes
    Independent writers remember their Saturday jobs:

    Independent writers remember their Saturday jobs

    "I have never regarded anything I have done in "the media" as a proper job"
    Lyricist Richard Thomas shares his 11-step recipe for creating a hit West End musical

    11-step recipe for creating a West End hit

    Richard Thomas, the lyricist behind the Jerry Springer and Anna Nicole Smith operas, explains how Bob Dylan, 'Breaking Bad' and even Noam Chomsky inspired his songbook for the new musical 'Made in Dagenham'
    Tonke Dragt's The Letter for the King has finally been translated into English ... 50 years on

    Buried treasure: The Letter for the King

    The coming-of-age tale about a boy and his mission to save a mythical kingdom has sold a million copies since it was written by an eccentric Dutchwoman in 1962. Yet until last year, no one had read it in English
    Can instilling a sense of entrepreneurship in pupils have a positive effect on their learning?

    The school that means business

    Richard Garner heads to Lancashire, where developing the 'dragons' of the future is also helping one community academy to achieve its educational goals
    10 best tablets

    The world in your pocket: 10 best tablets

    They’re thin, they’re light, you can use them for work on the move or keeping entertained
    Lutz Pfannenstiel: The goalkeeper who gave up Bayern Munich for the Crazy Gang, Bradford and a whirlwind trawl across continents

    Lutz Pfannenstiel interview

    The goalkeeper who gave up Bayern Munich for the Crazy Gang, Bradford and a whirlwind trawl across continents
    Pete Jenson: Popular Jürgen Klopp can reignite Borussia Dortmund’s season with visit to Bayern Munich

    Pete Jenson's a Different League

    Popular Klopp can reignite Dortmund’s season with visit to Bayern
    John Cantlie video proves that Isis expects victory in Kobani

    Cantlie video proves that Isis expects victory in Kobani

    The use of the British hostage demonstrates once again the militants' skill and originality in conducting a propaganda war, says Patrick Cockburn
    The killer instinct: The man who helps students spot potential murderers

    The killer instinct

    Phil Chalmers travels the US warning students how to spot possible future murderers, but can his contentious methods really stop the bloodshed?
    Clothing the gap: A new exhibition celebrates women who stood apart from the fashion herd

    Clothing the gap

    A new exhibition celebrates women who stood apart from the fashion herd
    Fall of the Berlin Wall: Goodbye to all that - the lost world beyond the Iron Curtain

    The Fall of the Berlin Wall

    Goodbye to all that - the lost world beyond the Iron Curtain