No to the claret, yes to the fax: The Oxford dons depicted in the film 'Shadowlands' no longer exist, reports Blake Morrison

'ACADEMICS are such prima donnas,' says the man in the pub. 'You'd think they were in the salt mines to hear them talk. What most of them here in Oxford do with their time, I really don't know.'

Come, come, surely they must do something.

The man grins across the table. 'They do nowt.'

This is ordinary pub talk, but this is no ordinary pub: it is the Eagle and Child, where, as a sign informs us, C S Lewis and his academic cronies, the Inklings, used to gather in a back room each Tuesday morning for beer and intellectual banter. And this is no ordinary speaker, either: it's Terry Eagleton, the Thomas Warton professor of English literature.

Some think of Eagleton as the Lewis de nos jours. A charismatic performer, he is one of the few professors who regularly fills lecture halls. He publishes books and enjoys media celebrity. But in the week that Shadowlands, Richard Attenborough's film about Lewis, opened, Eagleton is anxious to dispel some of the film's weepier images of the noble calling of academic life.

'Most people here are not ivory-tower types - they're very fly characters, very sharp operators. Put them in charge of ICI and they'd double the profits. They're bands of men and women who have been entrusted with enormous portfolios and who derive great kudos from sitting on committees; if you eavesdropped on their conversations, it would take you ages to figure out what their profession was.

'They may like to be seen as eccentric and sequestered, but they're locked into the industrial world. They produce the ruling class, and they get a vicarious power from that - and from keeping up contacts with former students.'

Professor Eagleton would have had more to say on the subject, but alas, having just come from a tutorial, he was now off to give a lecture, and later he'd be in London, and tomorrow was going to be tricky . . . His professorial duties might not be too irksome, but he does supervise 17 graduate students. He doesn't seem like a man with nowt to do.

Nor does John Carey, the Merton professor of English literature, a chair into which J R R Tolkien hoped to get his friend and fellow-fantasist, Lewis. Twenty years ago, Carey wrote a wonderfully funny piece called 'Down with Dons', about the loud, affected, obnoxious, snobbish, swilling-and- guzzling Maurice Bowra sort of Oxford don. In 1975, that world was already disappearing: now it has gone for good, says Carey.

'Dons are probably duller. The eccentric don is out of fashion now, partly because the undergraduates are more serious and are paying their way - some with loans. They know there are a lot of unemployed people out there. You've got to be efficient when it's costing them dearly. They don't want amusing old-world oddities.'

Carey arrives at college at 8.30am and stays till 6.30pm; after supper he spends two hours on his 'other job', writing book reviews for the Sunday Times. Kate Flint, a lecturer in Victorian and modern literature, describes a typical day as follows: 'Up at 7. Feed cat. In office about 8. Get phone calls and admin out of the way by 9 or 10. Supervise two graduates and give a lecture in the morning. Lunch - in college if there's time, sandwich here if not. Meeting 2-4. From 4-5 sit in office, re-read The Golden Bowl, 5-6 teach again. Tidy desk. Home about 7. Feed cat. Stiff gin. Work 9-11.30.'

It seems a long way from the Inklings, Sebastian Flyte's peeled plover eggs, and dreaming spires. Kate Flint's office could hardly be less collegiate, situated next to the Territorial Army, with a rifle range and tank-mending workshop audibly nearby.

John Carey's room in the Warden's Lodgings at Merton has a lovely leaded bow window overlooking a cobbled street. But there's a coded entry-system at the door, an answering machine by his desk and, on the college noticeboard, a Proctors' notice advising students about sexual and other harassment. On another noticeboard, the JCR 'notes the derogatory, narrow-minded and misogynist views of the University's Professor of Modern History, Prof N Stone', and suggests that 'the University authorities give Professor Stone a brain scan free of charge (and) look into the possibility of a sex change for this woman-obsessed academic.'

It's a far cry from beery clubbability or bachelor donnishness: Oleanna has come to Narnia, or, as Eagleton prefers to put it, 'people want classes on The Color Purple not Gawain and the Green Night'.

There are other changes. The typical don - who would never use the word 'don', except ironically - doesn't live in college but drives home at the end of the day. He - or, increasingly, she - eats lunch in college, but dines at high table only when entertaining. Gowns are worn rarely, for official occasions. Colleges are no longer single-sex. Faxes and word processors have brought closer links with the outside world. The 'remote and ineffectual don' (Belloc's phrase) is no longer acceptable.

Kate Flint, for one, winces at a likely resurgence in sentimentalised, archaic notions of Oxford: 'There's that awful feeling of here we go again, here comes more fetishisation of 'strange' Oxford customs - look, 17 crusty dons drinking crusty port, there's one in tweed jacket, etc. And it couldn't come at a worse time, when potential entrants are wondering whether to come here and we're trying to get a message across to schools about accessibility and openness.'

Openness: not a word one associates with Oxford, where the Pitt-Rivers Museum, as a James Fenton poem once usefully told readers, is 'shut 22 hours a day and all day Sunday'. But some colleges are now open for tour parties to wander round, with students and tutors trying to do business as usual rather than posing as heritage-industry souvenirs. Academically, too, Oxford, like other universities, is much more open to scrutiny and quality control, much more 'accountable', with tutors forced to fill in endless forms. (Secretaries have largely gone, too.)

Next year, the English faculty will come under review from government inspectors. It is a prospect some fear but, according to Eagleton, previous government efforts to comprehend Oxford have been comically inadequate: 'It's like the joke about the tourist arriving at the railway station and asking: where's the university? Officials come and ask: who is the director of studies? There isn't one. The colleges here are democratised, decentralised units, with very little bureaucracy. It's a bit like workers' control in a surreal setting, and very Kafkaesque, because you can never find out who's in charge. The officials stumble away again with a bemused look.'

Not everyone is as convinced as Eagleton that things are run properly. There's still a smack of Athenaeum-meets- Academe when an applicant for a key job in the English faculty can be asked, as one recently was: 'Hopkins (Gerard Manley, poet, 1844-1889) was rather an unpleasant person, wasn't he?'

Carey worries that colleges may soon have to charge higher fees and that the proportion of state-school students, which hasn't risen above 50 per cent, will fall again. And last week an internal working party report suggested that the university's policy of paying its 144 professors the same salary - pounds 34,984 - is destroying its capacity to attract academics of the highest calibre.

Oxford professors - who are employed by the university rather than colleges, and whose chief task is to supervise graduate students, give lectures and carry out research - now earn less than comprehensive school heads, sub-editors on newspapers and Cambridge professors (basic salary pounds 37,042).

Because of Oxford's Byzantine system, they also earn less than many college tutors or fellows, who perform the theoretically lowlier but more burdensome task of teaching undergraduates. Valentine Cunningham, a fellow and tutor in English at Corpus Christi (one of the richer colleges), earns 'considerably more' than he would as a professor. Kate Flint, in her prestigious but non-professorial university post, earns about pounds 24,000. While the top people in new universities, formerly polytechnics, have created what some in Oxford regard as 'Mickey Mouse professorships and salary self-donation', poor old Oxford, says Cunningham, 'is looking very sticky'.

When C S Lewis was appointed a fellow of Magdalen in 1925, he was paid pounds 500 a year. It wasn't a bad sum: Kingsley Amis's Jim Dixon, a provincial lecturer, dreamt of earning the same figure nearly 30 years later. For pounds 3,300, Lewis was able to buy a house with eight acres. Today, the sort of north Oxford house that academics once bought would cost pounds 250,000 - beyond the reach of most.

Should the vice-chancellor be empowered to make the salaries of Oxford professors more competitive? John Carey thinks so: 'It's difficult, because a more competitive system would also lead to jealousy and ill-feeling. But it would also provide incentives and put people on their mettle. The great danger in any community is stagnation.'

Terry Eagleton, however, would prefer things to stay as they are: 'Professors here don't have to run departments, as they would in other universities: they're adornments. Tying salary to achievement is a bedevilled issue. I wouldn't like to see us go the American way, where stars are poached and poor universities aren't in the bidding.'

Eagleton and Carey both took a drop in salary when they became professors. So did Roy Foster, Carroll professor of Irish history, who left his post at Birkbeck College, London, for the 'enormous inducement' of holding the first established chair of Irish history in this country: 'There were also the other obvious benefits - the graduate students, the resources, the general stimulus of the place. And I have a far freer hand in what I teach than I would anywhere else'.

Others, too, speak of Oxford's continuing pull: the Bodleian is so handy, the architecture is the finest in Europe, the one-to-one tutorial system is unmatchable, the terms are only eight weeks, and since academics generally are so badly paid and undervalued that they might as well be underpaid and undervalued somewhere pleasant.

John Fuller, a fellow of Magdalen College, occupies a room near to Lewis's old room, overlooking the college deer park: 'To spend one's working life in a building like this must be worth a lot in spiritual terms.' With the exception of the decline in levels of pay, he welcomes most of the changes he has seen over 30 years. But he also suspects that academic life in Lewis's day was not the genteel, amateur pursuit that people imagine: 'There was a man here, 'Tom Brown' Stevens, a tutor in ancient history, who used to share two bottles of claret a day with his students - and share his knowledge, too. He once taught a 72-hour tutorial week.'

Film review, page 27

(Photograph omitted)

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