In the midst of reading novelist Justin Cartwright’s (Trinity, 1965) This Secret Garden Oxford Revisited, I ran into Auden’s contemporary Louis MacNeice (Merton, 1926), who wrote:
That having once been to the University of Oxford
You can never really again
Believe anything that anyone says and that of
course is an asset
In a world like ours
“And ours too,” I thought immediately.
When I first contemplated this post it was Thursday October 25th, a day since former McKinsey boss and Goldman Sachs director Rajat Gupta and Societe Generale’s Jerome Kerviel were handed jail sentences for leaking boardroom secrets and fraud respectively. It was 48 hours since BBC Director General George Entwhistle stumbled in front of a select committee of MPs to explain why the BBC failed to broadcast a news investigation about Jimmy Savile, a predatory paedophile. And three days since the president of cycling’s governing body finalised a process that strips American cyclist and convicted doper Lance Armstrong of his seven Tour de France victories.
The giants are toppling all around us. And this on the back of everything else, from Lehman to Madoff, Leveson to MP’s Expenses.
Surely someone is writing one of a mountain of possible books as I write this. The Deceitful Nineties, from Madoff to Lance, perhaps? Or How the Tide Went Out: What YOU can learn from the era of scandal (perhaps the US version)? How about Hidden in Plain View: Paedophilia in British Public Life, 1945-2000, Vol 6: The BBC? Or even Donkeys led by Monkeys – the lowering of public values from Westminster to Wapping?
I particularly like the last one, a play on the ‘Lions led by Donkeys’ accusation hurled at World War One generals by Alan Clark (Christ Church, 1946) in a book he published in 1961. Although, it’s worth pointing out, the phrase predated the trenches.
But let’s return to MacNeice, who was writing on the eve of the Second World War. He was referring to graver matters than we are attending to in 2012, but he was also writing about Oxford.
Specifically, according to John Dougill (Queen’s, 1972) in Oxford in English Literature: The Making, and Undoing, of 'The English Athens', MacNeice was trashing the Brideshead inheritance, (as he saw it even by the late Thirties) and a wider tendency to falsely inflate an idyllic memory of Oxford in the 1920s, dunked, as MacNeice believed, in sickly sweet Greek sauce compounded by a sugary embrace of Plato:
Good-bye now, Plato and Hegel,
The shop is closing down;
They don’t want any philosopher-kings in England,
There ain’t no universals in this man’s town.
We’re in a similar climate now, and it feels good. In one sense everything is collapsing -- yet in another, there’s a resurgent honesty about the way things actually are, or were. It makes the boom years seem dreadful, when at the time everything appeared to be great. I hope the reverse is true of now.
And yet, I wonder if any of us truly apply MacNeice’s standard of scepticism, which he attributes to an Oxford education, on a daily basis. It’s not easy, and I suspect most of us struggle more than we’d like.