Monday Book: A lover of books and men
THE WARDEN: A PORTRAIT OF JOHN SPARROW BY JOHN LOWE, HARPERCOLLINS, pounds 19.99
Monday 31 August 1998
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.
BBC Trust agrees to axe channel from TV in favour of digital moveTV
FestivalsFive ways to avoid the portable toilets
Jurassic WorldThe results are completely brilliant
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Michael Douglas regrets 'embarrassing' Catherine Zeta-Jones with oral sex comments
- 2 Tunisia hotel attack: Locals form 'human shield' to protect hotel from gunman Seifeddine Rezgui
- 3 Tunisian builder has been hailed a hero after knocking gunman to the ground with roof tiles
- 4 German ethics council calls for incest between siblings to be legalised by Government
- 5 Fifty Shades of Grey author E.L James's Twitter Q&A didn't go exactly as planned
Kanye West at Glastonbury 2015: 'He raps' - BBC subtitles team upstages Yeezy with hilarious description of lyrics
Orange Is The New Black season 3 episode 1, review: The Ross and Rachel-ness of Piper and Alex is starting to grate
Glastonbury 2015: Lionel Richie attracts festival's biggest crowds for Sunday's 'dad slot'
Top Gear last episode review: A momentous occasion for Clarkson, Hammond and May fans
Fifty Shades of Grey author E.L James's Twitter Q&A didn't go exactly as planned
The moment a Queen's Guard soldier lost it and drew his gun at annoying tourist
Greece crisis: The wider lesson is that it’s time to abandon this failed experiment in currencies
'I wish the BBC would stop calling it Islamic State' – David Cameron unleashes frustration at broadcaster
Extend Right To Buy to tenants of private landlords, Labour's Jeremy Corbyn says
David Cameron struck double blow in his hopes to win Britain a new EU deal
Pentagon accuses Russia of 'playing with fire' over nuclear threats towards Nato