Clever, or even Clever-Clever

Adam Kuper

  • Edmund Leach: An Anthropological Life by Stanley Tambiah
    Cambridge, 517 pp, £60.00, February 2002, ISBN 0 521 52102 5
  • The Essential Edmund Leach: Vol. I: Anthropology and Society by Stephen Hugh-Jones and James Laidlaw
    Yale, 406 pp, £30.00, February 2001, ISBN 0 300 08124 3
  • The Essential Edmund Leach: Vol. II: Culture and Human Nature by Stephen Hugh-Jones and James Laidlaw
    Yale, 420 pp, £30.00, February 2001, ISBN 0 300 08508 7

Edmund Leach was Provost of King’s College, Cambridge, KBE and FBA, a trustee of the British Museum, a senior fellow of Eton College, the president of societies ranging from the Royal Anthropological Institute to the British Humanist Association, and a noted collector of committee chairmanships. I once asked him how he could square all this with his regular insistence that he was a scourge of the establishment. He responded, reasonably enough, that he had opened King’s to women students, a revolutionary move at the time, and then added that when he came to correct his Who’s Who entry every year he found himself laughing: ‘Who is this comic clown?’ But in practice he liked to have things both ways, and seemed to believe that, when it came to politics, this was a sort of hereditary privilege. He once claimed that all the Leaches ‘have an odd way of being Rebel and High Tory at the same time’, and elected as his role model his mother’s uncle, Sir Henry Hoyle Howorth MP FRS, who published a five-volume History of the Mongols but was notable chiefly as a maverick. ‘He refused to believe in ice ages long after everyone took them for granted,’ Leach once told me proudly. ‘In politics, when an MP, he formed a splinter party on the Irish issue. Which side he was on I have no idea. But I am told that his New Party could at most marshal two votes and that he was thrown out at the next election.’

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