When great minds met on the banks of the Cam

The Agreeable World of Wallace Arnold
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The Independent Online
I LEARNT an awful lot from my old friend, tutor and tea-quaffing partner F R Leavis, whose 100th anniversary occurred only the day before yesterday. From him I gained my high moral seriousness, my well-developed aversion to the ephemeral and my deep hatred of the frivolous. As you tuck into your Sunday Breakfast of fried eggs, bacon, sausage, tomato, fried bread and - with any luck - a goodly slab of black pudding, I trust you will wish me to share with you my own memories of the great man.

Our first meeting was indeed auspicious. It was some time in the 1950s. I was an undergraduate at Cambridge, hungry for knowledge, earnest in my pursuit of that all-encompassing moral viewpoint upon which I was later to build my reputation as a man of letters. During that hazy summer of '53 - or was it '54? - I was sitting on the banks of the Cam, a pile of improving books by my side, soaking in the wisdom of the sages who had preceded me. I was well into the wisdom of the second paragraph of the Brothers Karamazov, wondering whether now might be the time to break for a jam doughnut, when something extraordinary happened.

"Worthless nonentity!" The words whistled through the air. Without thinking, I turned around. There before me, his skull damp from long-distance hopping, stood a rigorously bald gentlemen of slightly lower-than-average height.

"Hmmm?" I replied.

"Dostoevsky," he said, "worthless nonentity."

"Oh goodness! Really?" I said. "In that case I'll read the Four Quartets. They say T S Eliot's awfully good." Casting Dostoevsky to one side, I reached for my pristine copy.

"Revolting work. Eliot's an Establishment toady. No integrity whatsoever. Not one jot or tittle," he replied.

It was then I realised I was talking to none other than the great F R Leavis, who had already instructed an entire generation of Cambridge undergraduates on what they should and should not read, with a proper emphasis on the latter. Leavis had imbued them with a deep-seated belief in the civilising properties of great literature, while ensuring that their struggle to become fully civilised might be made all the more swift by the knowledge that the canon of worthwhile literature numbered no more than a handful of books. I was all ears.

"And you can chuck that away, too!" he demanded, looking aghast at my copy of The History Of Western Philosophy by Bertrand Russell. "The man's an odious buffoon, the possessor of the most undistinguished brain of his generation. Entirely worthless. Like so many others, he has betrayed me. And I shall not lightly forgive him."

My pile of books was diminishing with an attractive rapidity. I knew in the very depth of my heart that here, in the company of this finest of minds, I was growing more civilised by the minute: as each book plummeted into the river, my life was taking on a moral force that it had hitherto lacked.

"Forster? Dreadfully low grade. Woolf? Out! Auden? Tch! Utterly without integrity, a disgusting man." One by one, Leavis went through my pile of books, casting them all into the water. The river heaved and rose as it welcomed each batch of worthless and unimproving literature to its bosom.

As the last two books - Byron's poems, followed by the complete works of Swift, if I remember rightly - sailed away, Leavis and I were left alone together to contemplate life on the book-free river bank. A great moral vision seemed to shine from the man's being. "The study of literature, such as we have performed here today, is the supremely civilising pursuit. It must be placed at the very centre of the spiritual renewal of our impoverished culture," he reminded me, as I offered him a Polo Mint, which he steadfastly refused.

At this point, a distinct shaking of the earth came upon us. Looking around, we saw that Leavis's old sparring-partner C P Snow was bicycling along the towpath towards us. "Quick, lad - pass me that stick," hissed Leavis. Bent double in the long grass, he waited until Snow's bicycle drew parallel before thrusting the stick between its spokes, pitching Snow headlong into the river. "That'll teach him!" exclaimed Leavis, as Snow bobbed towards the sluice, "Moral turpitude must be condemned at all times!" And from that day to this I have followed his philosophy, taking pains to avoid all but the very greatest literature, if any.