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Mad dons and dreaming spires

A Cambridge fellow reduced an interviewee to tears. But this is mild behaviour.
Thou art beside thyself: much learning doth make thee mad." So the Bible records how the apostle Paul was viewed. But it might be an apposite description of how many people see the dons of Oxford and Cambridge.

The latest eccentric don to hit the headlines is Dr Eric Griffiths, a lecturer in English at Trinity College, Cambridge (Alma Mater to, among others, Newton, Wittgenstein and Tennyson).

Among the students hoping to join the ranks of august alumni was Tracy Playle, whose interview with Dr Griffiths, by her account, was not a happy one. Ms Playle says Dr Griffiths mimicked her Essex accent, sneered at her home town of Harlow and suggested that since she grew up in Essex she might not be aware that some squiggles on the page were in fact Greek. After her nasty experience, Ms Playle has triumphantly announced that she is going to Warwick instead.

Dr Griffiths's image is somewhat controversial within the university. According to one former student, he once allegedly walked into a feminist consciousness-raising meeting and asked if there was anyone present who would sew on a button for him. His successive groups of acolytes and favourites sip gin and tonic from pint mugs in his rooms while the rest of the courtyard's residents enjoy his selection of opera at top volume. This is not the first time he has reduced a student to tears on the grounds of alleged stupidity, but his acerbic manner has many fans. His lectures are by far the best attended in the faculty.

Urban myths abound of the bizarre behaviour of the most learned. One Cambridge graduate recalls tales of a don who used to summon students into his rooms for lessons while he was in the bath. Another remembers the female don who conducted tutorials lying on the floor: "Coming into the room, you'd think `Where is she?' and then trip over her." A former classics student was most taken by his philosophy don, who walked out of a McDonald's restaurant in a state of bewilderment after one of his children bought a fillet of fish. "He could not understand the concept of a square fish in a box," says the student. "He also admitted that the idea of table football, still a popular pastime at many Oxford colleges, confused him." Some dons turn their eccentric image to their advantage. The same man, on being pulled over for driving his car erratically, angrily told an officer not to interrupt him because he was having an "important philosophical thought".

Professor Alan Ryan Warden of New College, Oxford, recalls the days of outlandish behaviour with affection: "There are not many eccentric dons left," he sighs. "People are more sober, virtuous, respectable and hardworking now. But I also think that they are more careworn and anxious."

He admits "exuberant" dons can put interviewees off. "You ask standard questions to make them think but it doesn't always work. I used to ask candidates about Dean Swift's pamphlet suggesting that the Irish should eat their own babies. Some people would completely over-react and say `God says you mustn't' and then other people would get nervous and say `Oh do you think they should?' So for all your good intentions the interview can go wrong."

Professor Ryan remembers his own interview, 40 years ago, was less than conventional. "I was interviewed by six people, one of whom was Lord Balogh. He read The Times all the way through, holding it in front of his face. Near the end he lowered it and said: `What did you think of question six?' I answered and he put the paper up and carried on reading."

But while some may find these affectations quaint, others find them infuriating. "They are not eccentric, they are dysfunctional," says Lisa Jardine, who is professor of Renaissance studies at Queen Mary and Westfield College, London. "I don't think there's room in the modern world for these affectations. It's just bad behaviour."

A former (male) zoology student of EB "Henry" Ford, the distinguished ecological geneticist at Oxford, recalls his tutor's utter inability to deal with women. "When women were allowed into lectures for the first time he walked into one of his lectures where there were only female undergraduates. Seeing this he said `As no-one has turned up today the lecture is cancelled' and walked out.

"So I shouldn't have been surprised when a friend of mine and I did a project with him. My friend had very long hair at that point. For six weeks we saw Ford once a week and he only ever talked to me. At the end he mentioned the `other young lady'. My friend spoke up: `I'm not a young lady.' "

"You don't find women behaving like this," says Professor Jardine with impatience. "In men it's called eccentricity, in women incompetence. When Muriel Bradbrook used to show up to seminars with one stocking hanging down and her hair all over the place she was called batty. When LC Knight turned up he was an eccentric don."

While the eccentric don is on the way out in most places - according to Professor Jardine they can only be found at Oxford and Cambridge colleges these days - their image lives on in the irresistible rise of the "telly don". David Starkey - dubbed the rudest man in Britain - is the prime example (sample quote from Starkey: "Doesn't he [the Archdeacon of York] genuinely make you want to vomit? His fatness, his smugness, his absurdity.") Dr Starkey, formerly of the London School of Economics, made his name on programmes such as The Moral Maze and presented his own series on Henry VIII, drawing analogies between Catherine Howard and the Duchess of York. He is joined on the podium by others such as Professor Norman Stone, the history don who left Oxford for Turkey last year but was chiefly known for his adoration of Baroness Thatcher ("Everything good about Britain is due to Lady Thatcher. Everything bad is the fault of Edward Heath"). Before he left Oxford, a notice went up in one junior common room advising the university authorities to "give Professor Stone a brain scan free of charge".

On learning the distress caused to Ms Playle, Dr Griffiths wrote her a letter of apology. Indeed, badly behaved dons are being drilled into line. "They are a dying breed in real life," says Professor Jardine, somewhat relieved. "We all have job descriptions and work as professionals alongside each other." Professor Ryan, with a suggestion of sadness, adds: "We're a little less exuberant now."