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.