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
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

  • Get to the point
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.

    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
    Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

    UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

    Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
    John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

    ‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

    Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
    Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

    Let the propaganda wars begin - again

    'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

    Japan's incredible long-distance runners

    Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
    Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

    Tom Drury: The quiet American

    His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
    Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

    Beige to the future

    Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

    Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

    More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
    Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

    Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

    The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own