New Bats in Old Belfries, by Maurice Bowra, ed Henry Hardy & Jennifer Holmes

What to do between evensong and cocktails
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The Independent Culture

Maurice Bowra, Warden of Wadham College, Oxford, was famous for his wit and his provocative but intensely engaging manner. Some of his best loved bons mots include his reflection on his single state, "buggers can't be choosers", and his remark that "buggery was invented to pass the awkward hour between evensong and cocktails." His scabrous poems, usually satires on his friends and colleagues containing outrageous thoughts on their sexual proclivities, were much talked about but unprinted as Bowra was afraid of blackmail. He would recite them to friends who understood the many allusions. By all accounts these were hilarious occasions.

Now thanks to Henry Hardy, the poems have been printed. For 30 years Hardy has been pursuing every scrap of paper and every lecture and every letter Isaiah Berlin ever produced and has published a number of wonderful books as a result of his diligence. Berlin was a great friend of Bowra's - as were John Betjeman, Evelyn Waugh, Elizabeth Longford and a host of others, both undergraduates and dons - including the vigorously homosexual warden of All Souls, John Sparrow, who may have been his lover.

Hardy discovered a number of Bowra's poems amongst Berlin's papers and set about creating this edition from these and other sources, including Wadham College's Bowra papers. Berlin and Sparrow once had a plan, never carried out, to annotate all Bowra's poems; the editors have worked to complete the task as the mists close on pre-War Oxford, so that almost every allusion is accompanied by a footnote. The footnotes, which at times reminded me of Nabokov's Pale Fire, along with a wonderful introduction by Julian Mitchell, add all sorts of trivial and sometimes scandalous detail to the lives of already well-known academics like Freddie Ayer, Stuart Hampshire and John Sparrow. A lost world, perhaps disproportionately prominent, has been given new human richness.

The picture this little book gives of Oxford, most notably in the 1920s and 1930s, but right up until Bowra's death in l971, is fascinating and at times slightly repellent. Alongside the powerful liberal and scientific traditions, there has always been a kind of public school delight in infantile doggerel and scatological insult in Oxford. Bowra turned this into a scandalous art-form. Many of his poems display a prurience - for example in relation to Penelope Betjeman's and John Sparrow's sex lives - that seems, surprisingly, not to have disturbed his listeners, nor even the victims. And some of the poems - but by no means all - are very funny and very accurate pastiches of all sorts of styles. This one, a pastiche of Kipling, is about John Sparrow's adventures in the army, spoken by the Sergeant-Major:

"He likes to poke his person where

I'd 'ate to put my stick.

And I won't 'ave no bottoms bare

For such as 'im to prick

The Army Acts forbid it

And 'im what's gone and did it,

Must pay up bloody quick."

So, for those who care about such things, this book can be read as a background, a sort of gossip column about Oxford figures of those times. If you knew nothing else about that Oxford, you would find it very difficult to understand why or how Maurice Bowra came to be regarded as a liberating force, with an astonishing influence on all who were drawn into his circle - "our age" as he called it. The problem with Bowra is that his cleverness and his articulacy and his humanity never transferred themselves to his written work: there is very little poetry in his poetry. As his chum Sparrow said, his prose was unreadable and his poetry unprintable.

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