Monday Book: A lover of books and men

THE WARDEN: A PORTRAIT OF JOHN SPARROW BY JOHN LOWE, HARPERCOLLINS, pounds 19.99

JOHN SPARROW (1905-1992) was the bibliophile, barrister and essayist who, as Warden of All Souls College, Oxford, for 25 years until 1977, became anathema to university reformers, young dons and what he himself called "revolting students". He was a man of precocious gifts which he spoilt by self-absorption. Born into a family of Midlands iron-founders, he was striking even in infancy. "He seems to look right through you," his nurse told his mother when he was six weeks old. "You must make a judge of this child."

As a Winchester schoolboy, Sparrow became an avid book-collector. At the age of 17 he edited a reprint of John Donne's Devotions which was praised by Edmund Gosse for its "ripeness and elegance". By the time of his Oxford graduation, he had edited Abraham Cowley's works for the Nonesuch Press. "Sparrow was, first and last, a great, even a very great, collector of books," Nicolas Barker wrote in a brilliant tribute.

His collection reflected his adoration of English poetry and his veneration of classical scholarship. He amassed 2,000 books of Renaissance Latin verse as well as Latin lapidary inscriptions from all periods. John Lowe's accounts of Sparrow savouring his beloved collection provide The Warden's most pleasurable passages.

At the age of 23, Sparrow was elected to a fellowship at All Souls, but two years later, in 1931, he moved to London to practise as a barrister in the Chancery division. His chambers earned such large fees that its clerk owned a Rolls-Royce and a house in the south of France. Although Sparrow liked the discipline of mastering briefs, he had too thin a voice to be a great advocate and his application for silk was rejected.

As an undergraduate, Sparrow told Kenneth (Civilisation) Clark that he preferred to have "few but important friendships" because he found "practically everyone... hateful, and very few people perfectly nice". As Lowe demonstrates, his friends and Oxford tutors were more influential with him than his family. Many of his friends were bisexual - Maurice Bowra, Roy Harrod, Bob Boothby, Harold Nicolson, John Betjeman. Having accepted his own homosexuality in boyhood, he had a happy amorous life after reaching London in the Thirties.

The deception and discretion required by a criminalised sexuality were fun for him. When he joined the Army on the outbreak of war in 1939, he initially refused a commission because he relished the barrack-room life of a private. "I almost loved my platoon (I mean, some of the men in it), and always liked most those who craved help." Nor surprisingly for someone with such sympathy for soldierliness, Sparrow wrote with superb precision and clarity about AE Housman.

Lowe traces in tedious detail the convoluted machinations whereby Sparrow in 1952 was elected Warden of All Souls, the undergraduate-free Oxford college. Shortly after this success, the philosopher Stuart Hampshire warned him that All Souls was "half dining-club and half borough council", and that without a commitment to scholarship "Oxford is trivial and insipid, a great Gothic nursery where everybody seems to fidget".

Though Sparrow wrote some polemical essays during his wardenship, he gave his energies to preserving the college as a sort of Beefsteak Club among the dreaming spires. He preferred clever, worldly conversationalists to specialist scholars.

Disregarding Hampshire's advice, he acted the part of a cultivated man of letters, performing his ceremonial duties with dignity, and the social side with brio. But he was a calamitously weak administrator. He prevaricated over decisions, became entangled in intricate consultative rituals, and wearied colleagues with exasperatingly conspiratorial letters full of Jamesian qualifications and periphrases.

When young, Sparrow had been a sharp analyst and dialectician, but at All Souls he became lazy and diffuse. Always he remained vain, self-assured, reactionary and whimsical. He was a splendid tease who based some of his objections to the radical youth of the Sixties on aesthetic grounds: the trouble with long-haired undergraduate men, he complained, was that one could not admire their necks. But, in Lowe's words, his "deep-rooted self- concern prevented him from using his considerable talents for the benefit of others". Like many dons, he had an appalling provincial insularity. Though he was widely travelled, nowhere left a mark on him except Venice.

In retirement Sparrow became so obnoxiously drunken that he was banned from dining at All Souls. He recovered his sobriety, and his last years of amnesiac contentment are tenderly evoked by John Lowe, whose shrewd, affectionate, old-fashioned and ill-organised biography perfectly befits its subject.

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