Author John Carey
Publisher Faber
ISBN 9780571310920
RRP £18.99

Reviewed by John Garth

My first encounter with John Carey was hearing him on Dickens at the St Cross Building. His Violent Effigy is sharp and illuminating; but I kept going back to his lectures because his readings lit up the comedy which was prone to be undervalued by over-serious youngsters such as I was. Much later I read the Faber Book of Science, a polyphony of observation and ideas superbly expressed by scientists from Da Vinci to Dawkins, which Carey edited. That the same man could have filled these diverse roles suggests broad and healthy sympathies. Now his sparky, wide-ranging, and often hilarious autobiography seems to confirm that assessment. If there is a problem with the book it’s a common enough one with biographies, in which the rise is more interesting than the summit and decline; and especially with the autobiographies of successful people, which rarely chart the decline and linger instead, smugly, in the sunny uplands.

The son of professionals who left school at 15, Carey has bucked the family trend of non-academic anonymity. But he was a late developer, and frankly this book is all the better for it: the chapters on childhood and youth are easily the best. The Unexpected Professor presents itself as ‘a history of English literature and me, how we met, how we got on, what came of it’. The ‘me’ element turns out to be considerably more engaging than the English lit aspect. Here, in the opening chapters, the detail of common objects and habits of life imparts vitality, and there are laugh-out-loud moments, especially in his account of national service. One night he inadvertently discharges his .38 while demonstrating his superior skills to a new officer; the bullet leaves a hole in the door beyond which other ranks are camped out. ‘Stumbling round tents at night, waking up soldiers to ask if they are still alive, is not a task that earns you universal popularity,’ he observes.

But in the account of later years the litany of famous friends and acquaintances can be rather deadly. A sharply defined private life dissolves into the fizz and fuzz of overfamiliar, impersonal public property. The pages on Troilus and Criseyde or Paradise Lost certainly make me want to re-read those poems, but Carey handles these and other works with a breezily unliterary touch, too light to do justice either to the literature or to his views on it. Certain touches smack of excess imagination or animus, such as the memory of J.R.R. Tolkien lecturing in the 1950s, seeming ‘immemorially aged, and green mildew on his gown, as if he had recently emerged from a wood’. Nevertheless, the passages on encounters with Ted Hughes, William Golding and Philip Larkin are valuable insights from a privileged observer.

A running theme of class and democratisation takes us from straitened middle-class family circumstance in Lonsdale Road, Barnes, all the way to Carey’s books The Intellectuals and the Masses and The Faber Book of Utopias – an anthology which bears out his view that ‘the aim of all utopias is to eliminate real people’. Carey works in the post office sorting room at Christmas, like so many other undergraduates across the years (though few of us happened to be working a couple of positions away from anyone like Christopher Ricks). As chair of the English Faculty board at Oxford he presides over the removal of Anglo-Saxon as a compulsory element in the undergraduate syllabus – though he has made such a deal of his personal lack of sympathy with the Old English period that this comes across as a triumphant vendetta rather than level-headed.

Carey always wants to reach beyond academia. ‘One American professor deplored my “colloquial phrasing and word order”, presumably preferring books that put ordinary readers off,’ he writes. He champions the reading of European masterpieces of literature, and of the application of nose to grindstone. Studying literature is a vocation to him, not a gentleman’s hobby: he is the heir of trade not privilege. Instead of appealing to God, or to the cavalcade of 20th century theoreticians, he appeals only to the idea of personal taste. Which is fine, but suggests no reason why academe should promote this arbiter or idea rather than the other. ‘The inheritor sits in the ivory tower, imparting cultural values frequently identical to his predecessors’, and certainly no less arbitrary.

Moments of acute observation come thick and fast in the early chapters, and Carey continues to deliver, describing residence in Keble as ‘like living in an enormous Fair Isle cardigan’; W.H. Auden turning his head ‘slowly and carefully, as if it was someone else’s head and he might break it’; or Sir Godfrey Driver lording it croakily over the editors of the New English Bible ‘like an excited rook’.

Carey’s comic touch is light yet often biting – especially about the University. As chairman of the Oxford English graduate studies committee, Carey says, he was unpopular except among American grad students who ‘welcomed the idea of belonging to a faculty, as in a real university’. Students fare little better, with evocations of the little animal noises made by petrified candidates trying to locate their desks in the Examination Schools, and a jaundiced glance at latter-day college open days, with ‘swarms of friendly undergraduate assistants, and every kind of backup, from male and female chaplains and paramedics … in reserve in case of emergencies’. Things were so much better, he makes clear, in the days when prospective entrants were methodically scared witless.