Michael Wilding's tale runs from village life to grammar school and Oxford, and his adventures in literatureMichael Wilding's tale runs from village life to grammar school and Oxford, and his adventures in literature

By Richard Lofthouse

First off this month is Growing Wild by Michael Wilding, (Lincoln, 1960) an autobiographical memoir that avoids the usual pitfalls because its author stands atop a distinguished career as a literary critic and writer. You’re in good hands from the first sentence. Offered a three year lecturing post in Australia, in his final year as an undergraduate (those were the days!) the author quickly takes us into colourful anecdotes about Germaine Greer boasting of having suckled a kitten in the bath. There’s a whole chapter on Oxford, but as usual, the place, and its immeasurable impact on a young man and scholar, suffuses the wider narrative like a depth-charge.

F. R. LeavisF R Leavis, the influential literary critic who taught for much of his career at Downing College, Cambridge

This was the era of F. R. Leavis, the Cambridge critic who singlehandedly split the literary establishment and brought a controversial emphasis to criticism at the expense of history. Casualties included Milton and Shelley, who were cast aside. Wilding offers a wonderfully clear-sighted assessment of what can only be described as a fad, (albeit a useful one, perhaps). It got rid of dilettantism through “vociferous negative assessments of the received tradition,” and dealt a blow for the Brideshead crowd. But, and it’s Wilding’s insight, it was “pretty much an illusion” and highly convenient that the Leavisites were aligned with a different British establishment that was anti-Marxist. It was, says Wilding, “a safe opposition” picked up and cradled by the British Council, and offering an identity to a new generation of angry young grammar school and even northern (!) men at Oxford. Anti-patrician but hardly anti-establishment, the movement “was a very effective control mechanism,” says Wilding, yet still like “some committed sect isolated in the jungle, preparing for a new millennium.”

Next up, in no particular order but fittingly, Meritocracy and the University by Anna Mountford Zimdars. The author achieves insights about what elite higher education is, illumined always by a comparative British/ American structure. In America there is a broader emphasis on fit, and sporting achievements, and religious and the extra-curricular identity of prospective students. In Britain, on account of never-dying class-warfare, there is an almost painfully self-conscious emphasis on academic potential and ability and meritocracy, shorn of anything extra-curricular and yet for all that utterly defined by whether any particular person is going to make hay in a ‘unique’ tutorial system, which of course brings the thing straight back to vocal dexterity and thus social confidence. Nothing to do with class at all. I’m sure the author wouldn’t want me to say this but if you had kids off to college soon, and America came into the equation, then read this carefully and prepare accordingly. The price of the handsome hardback is a lot cheaper that paying for a tutor who misses the broader reality of the quarry. If they don’t get in, flip to page 211 and be reminded that happy lives don’t rest automatically on getting into a top school.

 Michael Radcliffe Lee’s (Brasenose, 1953) Plants: Healers and KillersNext, with no segue whatsoever, Michael Radcliffe Lee’s (Brasenose, 1953) Plants: Healers and Killers. The author, now Professor Emeritus University of Edinburgh, having been Professor of Clinical Pharmacology and Therapeutics, has written a first class account of 16 extraordinary plants. Centrally, in our received notion of these things, is a gin and tonic, or at least quinine as an effective anti-malarial treatment. But what is the extent of your knowledge? Probably no more than the preceding sentence. Here we get a richly illustrated cultural and scientific history in one graceful chapter, titled, ‘Peruvian Bark (cinchona officinalis): The First Effective Treatment for Malaria’. Other plants include the Yew tree, Mandrake, St John’s Wort, Deadly Nightshade and the Foxglove. The quality of the book, published by the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, is terrific and it would make a wonderful classroom tool besides deserving a wide public audience. As so typically with Oxonians, the author refuses to be confined. The book spans botany, chemistry, toxicology, pharmacology, therapeutics and medicine. There is a plea made plain by two Forewords, about the return to plants by mainstream medicine, having run dry of synthetic alternatives, even why we destroy everything as fast as we can.

Three books in rapid sequence, and then a bit of Oxford loveliness to finish. OUP have just published Fed Power, How Finance Wins, by Lawrence Jacobs and Desmond King, the latter Andrew W. Mellon Professor of American Government at Oxford. The authors note how when push came to shove in 2008-9, “America’s uniqueness was its lavish, accommodating treatment of finance in a context of deepening economic inequality.” Canada emerges as a much better model. Next, God is No Thing by Rupert Shortt, a former visiting Fellow at Oxford and known for his biography of former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams. This is a plea to take Christianity more seriously but eschews everything you might assume that means if you got targeted by OICCU as an undergraduate.A vibrant portrait of Aleppo, an ancient city now living through its darkest daysA vibrant portrait of Aleppo, an ancient city now living through its darkest days, by Philip Mansel (Balliol, 1970)

Then, Aleppo, the rise and fall of Syria’s great merchant city, by Philip Mansel (Balliol, 1970). Dr Mansel pens the first proper, English-language history of this city, poignant and timely given its current destruction by civil war, but in no way determined by current affairs. The author reminds us that Edward Pococke, chaplain to the English merchants in Aleppo from 1630, bought manuscripts there for the University, to which he returned as first Laudian professor of Arabic and Hebrew in 1636. Cardinal Newman’s brother lived there and T.E. Lawrence and Leonard Woolley both stayed there frequently.