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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Thomas carried Lady Edith over the flames in her bedroom in Downton Abbey series five

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck as Nick Dunne, seated next to a picture of his missing wife Amy, played by Rosamund Pike

film
Arts and Entertainment
Rachel, Chandler and Ross try to get Ross's sofa up the stairs in the famous 'Pivot!' scene

Friends 20th anniversary
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Dunham

books
Arts and Entertainment
A bit rich: Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey

There’s revolution in the air, but one lady’s not for turning

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Chloe-Jasmine Whicello impressed the judges and the audience at Wembley Arena with a sultry performance
TVReview: Who'd have known Simon was such a Roger Rabbit fan?
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Frost will star in the Doctor Who 2014 Christmas special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Actor and director Zach Braff

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams plays 'bad ass' Arya Stark in Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson said he wouldn't

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Meera Syal was a member of the team that created Goodness Gracious Me

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The former Doctor Who actor is to play a vicar is search of a wife

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jack Huston is the new Ben-Hur

film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Syria air strikes: ‘Peace President’ Obama had to take stronger action against Isis after beheadings

    Robert Fisk on Syria air strikes

    ‘Peace President’ Obama had to take stronger action against Isis after beheadings
    Will Lindsay Lohan's West End debut be a turnaround moment for her career?

    Lindsay Lohan's West End debut

    Will this be a turnaround moment for her career?
    'The Crocodile Under the Bed': Judith Kerr's follow-up to 'The Tiger Who Came to Tea'

    The follow-up to 'The Tiger Who Came to Tea'

    Judith Kerr on what inspired her latest animal intruder - 'The Crocodile Under the Bed' - which has taken 46 years to get into print
    BBC Television Centre: A nostalgic wander through the sets, studios and ghosts of programmes past

    BBC Television Centre

    A nostalgic wander through the sets, studios and ghosts of programmes past
    Lonesome George: Custody battle in Galapagos over tortoise remains

    My George!

    Custody battle in Galapagos over tortoise remains
    10 best rucksacks for backpackers

    Pack up your troubles: 10 best rucksacks for backpackers

    Off on an intrepid trip? Experts from student trip specialists Real Gap and Quest Overseas recommend luggage for travellers on the move
    Secret politics of the weekly shop

    The politics of the weekly shop

    New app reveals political leanings of food companies
    Beam me up, Scottie!

    Beam me up, Scottie!

    Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
    Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

    Beware Wet Paint

    The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
    Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

    Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

    Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
    Sanctuary for the suicidal

    Sanctuary for the suicidal

    One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
    A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

    Not That Kind of Girl:

    A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

    In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

    Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
    Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

    Model mother

    Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world