Philip Hensher: 'Comedy' was the word for my exam


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All Souls College, Oxford, must be the most bizarre educational institution in the world. It has an endowment of nearly a quarter of a billion pounds, but has no students.

All of its members are dons, who once every hundred years parade round the college by torchlight, in search of a non-existent duck. How do you get to be a member? Well, you get elected, or, if you have just got a good First from Oxford, you may be invited to take an exam.

I did it 25 years ago and it was absolutely terrifying. Grudgingly admitted to the bounds of this fabled academic Shangri-La, you were presented with papers on your specialist subject (“It is impossible to weep for a heroine while admiring the close-up. Discuss.”). Then some Oxford-y general papers, inviting the unwary to sketch out an inaccurate history of 20th-century philosophy.

But the two papers that stick in the mind for sheer, unbridled horror were, first, the translation paper. It contained passages in a dozen languages, which you were supposed to go through until you had run out of languages – I managed two, but four is said to be respectable. And then there was the essay paper: a single word on a sheet, about which you had to discourse for three hours. That year the word was “comedy”: God knows what the economists made of that one.

All Souls has just done away with the essay question. From now on, the intellectual resources of its perspiring applicants will not be amusingly stretched by having to write about “bias”, “integrity”, “water” or “novelty”. It seems rather a shame. In more generally useful circumstances, it has been observed that open-ended questions of this sort are a much better test of intelligence than a rigorous inquiry into specific knowledge. You get a very good idea of the intelligence of a student of any level by asking them, say “How many uses for a brick can you think of?” And “Tell us about water” is, surely, one of those beguiling, deceptive invitations which ought to let a brilliant mind shine.

Anyway, of course I didn’t get any further than the first stage. The latter stages were, apparently, just as appalling. They included an invitation to dinner at which cherry pie was served in a rimless bowl – another of those loony duck-hunting traditions. The question of what to do with the stones was supposed to test your social resources – A L Rowse apparently swallowed his, poor sod. And now I hear that they’ve done away with the cherry pie, too. The next thing you know, this maddest of institutions will be thinking of multiple-choice exams to choose its fellows. I’d like to know that there was still some home for mad old farts in the world, so long as, obviously, I don’t have to go anywhere near it.

I don’t want to share my favourite authors

I didn’t quite see the point of the 40-years-on Booker Prize. For some recondite reason, the prize didn’t run in 1970, and it was decided to jump through the hoops now, even though posterity has pretty well decided the matter. It went to J G Farrell for Troubles. Farrell has always been a favourite novelist of mine, and Troubles is probably his best novel. He has had bad luck as a novelist, starting with the bizarre coincidence of dying within 10 days of another novelist, also called James Farrell. This posthumous recognition is wonderful, of course, but there’s a faint tinge of possessive regret. He was my own enthusiasm, only shared with a small band of other fans, and now everyone will be reading him.

The same regret covers another, still less predictable popular success. For years, I’ve been foisting the novels of the pre-war German writer Hans Fallada on friends, starting with the exquisitely moving Little Man, What Now? I don’t think I ever met another English person who had read him. A year or so ago, Penguin published his beautiful Alone In Berlin, a heartbreaking story of ineffectual resistance to the Nazis. What happened? It became a bestseller.

It’s an unworthy feeling, but I don’t really want Fallada suddenly to turn into Dan Brown. For people who really love the novel, there is nothing like discovering, all on their own, a novelist called Kurt Tucholsky or Ivy Compton-Burnett or Albert Cohen and sinking in delicious solitary communion with the neglected complete works. No one has recommended this author to me, you think; no marketing man has placed this novel on the three-for-two table; for the moment it’s just mine.

Abbott is the Labour leader I want to see

Neil Kinnock has given his seal of approval to Ed Miliband as the next leader of the Labour Party. Rather than being seen as an obvious kiss of death, this is apparently the sort of gesture which swings it for one Miliband brother over the other. The most naturally gifted and, in almost every way, admirable politician standing has, alas, no real chance. Vote for Diane Abbott.

Years ago, I had the opportunity of working with Miss Abbott when she was on the Treasury Select Committee and I was a lowly bureaucrat. She was an extraordinarily effective, outstandingly intelligent and wily questioner. You could see everyone she came into contact with falling for her famous charm, before she made an elegant, difficult point and left them floundering. She always had a sheaf of briefing notes from some unknowably deep source somewhere in the City. No one ever underestimated her twice.

Since then, of course, she has become a terrific media star in her sofa double turn with Michael Portillo on Andrew Neil’s politics show. It’s compulsory viewing for political junkies. To see her political substance and visionary idealism, however, the essential reading is the remarkable speech she gave in the Commons on 11 June 2008 about the 42-day provisions of the Counter-Terrorism Bill. It is incredible, reading this great speech, to think that the woman who gave it is considered by the Labour Party as an outside candidate, and impossible not to conclude that she is too large a figure for her party to reward properly. Politics needs more Diane Abbotts: but probably there is only one.

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