Comment: `Reading "The Dons" made me pine for the academic world we have lost'

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The Independent Online
IN THE early Seventies, I found myself, briefly, the universities reporter of the then fledgling Times Higher Education Supplement. Not easily given to depression, I would sometimes wonder nonetheless how such institutions devoted to the more exciting aspects of the life of the mind could produce such excruciatingly dull copy. It was as if you only reached a seat on the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals once your intellectual and verbal sap had run dry.

There was one worthy exception to this - a brilliant growth, a glorious deciduous tree amid a forest of conifers, who would enliven the most ghastly press conferences with fusillades of glowing paragraphs delivered in what I took to be a gamey, pre-war Bloomsbury style. His name was Lord Annan and he was, at that time, Provost of University College, London.

Noel Annan gave the impression of shimmering between committee room, literary salon and high table, picking up the ripest pieces of gossip as he went and circulating them efficiently and discreetly.

I suspect, but I may be wrong, that he operated what his good friend Isaiah Berlin called the Oxford principle of confidentiality - that you tell only one person at a time.

I write as if Lord Annan is in that part of heaven occupied by the great conversationalists of what he called "Our Age". (Berlin and Maurice Bowra in full cry surrounded by admiring and bemused archangels is an irresistible scene).

Mercifully he is not. Noel is still here and has just produced a wonderfully evocative study of "Mentors, Eccentrics and Geniuses" simply called The Dons (HarperCollins, pounds 17.99). Noel's characters still get off the page and walk and, above all, talk.

Lord Annan has taught me a great deal over the years. Ten years ago nearly, I gushed at him over the lunch table of how marvellous it must have been most Fridays during the war when Keynes would forsake the Treasury and he (Noel, that is) the Joint Intelligence Committee to lunch together in the Athenaeum (if I recall it correctly).

"To think," I enthused, "that you witnessed the developing outlines of what became the Bretton Woods system, the International Monetary Fund and all that."

"My dear Peter," said Noel. "How you misunderstood. You see, Maynard loved gossip and we would talk about what the frightful X was up to with that bitch Mrs Y!"

How could I have thought otherwise? And me, supposed to be a historian (though I have never been much of a one for gossip).

Reading The Dons has made me pine for the academic world we have lost. One must not overdo this - the universities did need to become more transparent and accountable; the more extinct among the donnish volcanoes certainly needed to sputter again on to the monographic page. But oh, for a world when the state treated the University Grants Committee with respect and was determined it should not become an instrument of intrusion into the thought processes of those who share in library and lab, seminar room and lecture hall.

Shortly before the latest of the Annan oeuvre had arrived, I found myself "losing it" on his front. At the end of a near perfect academic week (great fun at my own college including a special seminar for an ex-Whitehall friend who wanted to try out the thinking in her forthcoming book on my young specialists in matters governmental; plus a viva in another university on a specially fascinating PhD), I finished up at the council of a learned body to which I belong.

And a good and fruitful meeting it was until, late on Friday afternoon, we had to consider the latest consultative document from one of the newer overarching academic quangos which attempts to place numerical worth on types of degree.

I crack. "It's bollocks from beginning to end," I cry. Colleagues appear to agree. Our president, balanced as ever, does not think this can quite be the basis of the council's reply.

"What will have to come before us," I ask, "before we write back with the single sentence: `This is all bollocks'?"

Noel's book has a story from the Seventies when Sir Brian Flowers chaired an inquiry into possible alterations to the shape of the academic year.

Sir Brian said later: "There were many responses which varied from Oxford's crisp "sod off!" to Cambridge's more elaborate "sod off, please!"

Days of innocence. If only they had had the slightest notion of what was to become of us.

The writer is Professor of Contemporary History at Queen Mary and Westfield College, University of London