A Life Remembered
Author David McAvoy
Publisher Grosvenor House Publishing, 2012
ISBN 9781781487754
RRP £9.99

You can learn a lot from a book like this. First you get to read about someone else’s life — in this case the subject is alive and well in the Cotswolds, it should be noted — and inwardly compare it to your own. Secondly, and because this is about an Oxford life, there are valuable historical insights into the University.

Zbigniew Pelczynski’s experience as a youth fighter in the Warsaw Uprising in 1944 makes for a gripping narrative and frames everything that follows. He was very nearly killed in a basement crammed with people and dive bombed by a Stuka, saved only by a thick beam underneath which he happened to be standing, and many hours later by rescuers who dug their way into the collapsed building. From the perspective of a fellow Pole, we find out several decades and many pages later, Pelczynski was automatically a war hero. From Pelczynski’s perspective he was a willing participant — though it’s less clear how many shots he actually fired in anger.

This reviewer would have liked a greater degree of reflection on such matters, but the weakness of the book, if it has one, is that it is written by someone else, so never quite shakes off the air of faithfully recorded speech. Because author David McAvoy has been duly diligent in not missing anything out, there is a great emphasis on what happened, all in the third person, and rather less on the inner ambiguities of decision making and action. It’s not quite a biography and it’s not quite an autobiography. Balancing these literary considerations, however, is an invaluable historical record that appears to be robust about mistakes and failings, thus avoiding the defect of most memoirs.

Pelczynski’s life speaks for itself. He was one of a golden generation that, having survived the war, seized every opportunity and valued every success. He had the gifts of a socially aspirational mother and the entrepreneurial instincts of his businessman father, but was besides everything else preoccupied with learning and wanted to answer deep questions concerning political legitimacy. Born in Poland in 1925, the end of the war saw his release in Germany as a POW — grateful not to have been executed arbitrarily in Warsaw. Then he managed to latch onto a fragment of the British army and hence, via a scholarship scheme, to St Andrews and then Oxford.

Pelczynski came into his own at Oxford, acquiring a DPhil on the study of Hegel’s minor political writings, until then all but ignored. He was then a lecturer at several colleges before taking up a permanent fellowship at Pembroke, where he remained until retirement. 40 years of teaching politics at Oxford harvested a rich crop of Pelczynski alumni, but it was by no means his only achievement. He gained some renown as a Hegel scholar and globe-trotted to Yale and Harvard on visiting professorships. But, by his own estimation, his greatest contribution was setting up the Oxford Colleges Hospitality Scheme in 1982, which allowed hundreds of Polish scholars to visit Oxford and pursue their studies during the Long Vacation, before returning to Poland and furthering — one might assume — values and causes inimical to the Communist dictatorship that subsequently collapsed. Pelczynski was duly awarded an OBE because the scheme attracted Foreign Office support and Hungarian-American billionaire George Soros, and was subsequently expanded into a much wider scheme for former Soviet Bloc countries. In retirement, Pelczynski advised the post-Communist government in Poland, sometimes commuting there from Oxford on a weekly basis. Finally, he established a School for Young Social and Political Leaders in Warsaw, which was later renamed School for Leaders of Civil Society, and celebrated its 20th anniversary last November.

Turning to Oxford, we learn at least four significant lessons. First, that to have been a Hegelian in mid-late twentieth-century Oxford (as it would have been perceived, and still today, as distinct from merely a scholar of Hegel) meant trouble. Secondly, that low academic standards common before the war persisted well into the 1950s, at least if we follow Pelczynski’s experience as a young fellow at Pembroke. Thirdly, that Pelczynski’s generation had unique opportunities as scholars that just seem quaint from today’s perspective. Finally, that Oxford really was stuffy and dreary in the post-war years, with hardly any women and the worst imaginable coffee.

Starting with the caffeine, Pelczynski recounts that, as a young fellow in the 1960s, he resolved to address the lamentable coffee served at Pembroke. He investigated the existing situation: it turned out that the SCR Butler, Mr Duke, was accustomed to making coffee just twice a week by grinding some beans and boiling them fiercely in a giant pan for twenty minutes. That batch would then be served up and re-heated for the next three days. Pelczynski gathered support from the fellowship for a fine machine, which was duly delivered:

“He had reckoned without the ingenuity of his adversary. Three times in as many weeks Mr Duke contrived to damage the machine and make it unusable. Three times he went back to his old ways. Eventually Pelczynski gave up the fight. The bold reformer had been defeated in his first brush with Oxford’s conservatism.”

It’s a funny story, but only up to a point. The Oxford of those years, as recalled by a young foreigner full of spring in his step, was draughty, cold, largely women-free and to a large degree repressed. The food was awful and no one wanted to change anything.

The antidote is when Pelczynski was able to purchase — as a student at Nuffield using an endowment fund — a Patrick Heron painting for £20, bringing in a bit of the new and demonstrating how extraordinary Oxford can be at handing patronage down to the next generation, no questions asked.

On the subject of Hegel, the Oxford objection of course was that he was German. No one could spell Nietzsche, but Oxford knew that Hegel influenced Marx and led to Hitler. Pelczynski is described as a long-time friend of Isaiah Berlin (despite their disagreements over Hegel), but it ended in acrimony concerning the inclusion — in a collection meant to be dedicated to him — of an essay on Hannah Arendt. On this occasion, as an old man, he displayed a surprising intolerance. He shouted to Pelczynski that he hated Arendt and all her ideas. Elsewhere, we hear that it was very hard for Pelczynski to get a doctoral supervisor, simply because no one in Oxford read Hegel, assuming they had even heard of him. Continental philosophy has never cut much mustard in Oxford, and to this day retains a curious status. This situation must have puzzled Pelczynski more deeply than the book reveals, and is not entirely separate in spirit from Mr Duke’s refusal to use the coffee machine.

On the subject of low academic standards, Pelczynski tried to set Saturday morning collections and no one came save one chap, who explained that Saturdays were for rowing. Separately, Pelczynski received a special note of thanks from the Master, when after some years he managed to garner more seconds than thirds from the year group — although in today’s money that would surely mean more firsts than 2.1s, allowing for grade inflation. Clearly also, however, other colleges like Merton had already raised standards, so the evidence is not sufficient to make a general conclusion, other than that the work a little, play hard ethos of the Depression years died hard in some quarters.

The other point, that Pelczynski’s generation had unique opportunities as scholars that just seem quaint from today’s perspective, crystallizes around his experience of being approached by the Social Sciences Editor of Cambridge University Press, Patricia Skinner, in 1968. Did he have something they could publish? He didn’t, but went on to gather some essays on Hegel to which he appended an introduction. Published in 1971, missing the bicentenary of Hegel’s birth by a year, Hegel’s Political Philosophy: Problems and Perspectives duly appeared.

“The effect on Pelczynski’s career was even more dramatic. An obscure fellow of a small college, well-known and respected in Oxford but scarcely heard of elsewhere, found himself almost unwittingly transformed into a Hegelian scholar with an international reputation.”

None of this could happen today. The editor wouldn’t come knocking; the contributors wouldn’t write original essays for someone else’s glory; there wouldn’t even be much glory for an edited collection, let alone visiting professorships to Harvard and Yale.

In other words, Oxford was a small and very elite academic community even in the late 1960s. There was a clarity of purpose that we might still find ourselves mourning the loss of, particularly as it applied to taking students and teaching very seriously and research and scholarship rather less so. The author of this book, one of Pelczynski’s near-contemporaries, expresses regret at the end that Pelczynski never issued a monograph nor even a text book, and yet one wonders if, for all our obsession with publication output, the broader wonders of a college fellowship have been distorted.

In Pelczynski’s case, it wasn’t just about love of Oxford and teaching, but the wherewithal to become a man of action and politics and journalism. By nature not inclined, one supposes, to spend a life in the archive, he achieved much more through radio broadcasting and essay writing about Poland in the early 1980s when outsiders didn’t know what was happening there, and then through the scholarship and leadership initiatives that played a role, however small, in ending the Cold War. The worry today would be that such breadth is being squeezed out of Oxford careers by narrow assessment criteria preoccupied with research — at the expense of everything else.