Words on the Air 
by John Sparrow.
Collins, 163 pp., £7.95, August 1981, 0 00 216876 6
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In October 1971 the Italian Government made one of its ritual announcements that it had raised enough money to save Venice, by protecting it from pollution and installing a new sewage system. Simultaneously, John Sparrow was also turning his attention to the plight of the stricken city. In one of his major letters to the Times, the then Warden of All Souls addressed the urgent question of Venetian dogshit. He noted with regret the inadequacy of the local decree which insisted that dogs ‘when out of doors … shall be muzzled – but (alas!) at one end only’. The enforced wearing of a second, matching retro-muzzle was clearly one solution, but even this, the Warden implied, might not be the end of the matter. He balefully remarked on the way the dogs ‘fight and philander in no very decorous manner up and down the calli in every quarter of the town … Even the most pacific and the least libidinous cannot but contribute their quota of defilement that makes even the shortest of walks in Venice today a hazardous and unsavoury experience.’ Sparrow, unlike the Rome government, declined to trifle with a mere new sewage system for the offending canines; nor, as he might have done, did he argue for the development of an Integrated Triple Muzzle. His recommendation was absolute: ‘a very simple legislative measure, providing for the absolute exclusion from Venice of the dog … to put out of action once and for all this disgusting engine of pollution’.

Well! – as the Warden habitually puts it. The picture is pleasingly ironic: Venice saved from the rising waters only to be threatened instead by a descent of dogdump; the Warden of All Souls, a man of refinement and culture, skidding to a halt at the sight of yet another pair of copulating pooches; la Serenissima, besmirched by excrement and lechery, only saved from final depravity by a ruthlessly enforced law. It is, of course, all a joke: but it is also, of course, all entirely serious. Sparrow returns once again to this hobby-dog of his in a radio talk reprinted in Words on the Air. If he were ever appointed dictator, he avers, he would instantly ban all privately-owned dogs in the country: ‘a far-reaching and, in my opinion, an extremely beneficial reform of the law’. No sooner are these stern words out of his mouth, though, than they are smilingly disclaimed: ‘Don’t take me too seriously!’ He only does it to annoy, you see, because he knows it teases.

John Sparrow has been teasing us now for almost fifty years. Often the tease has been intensely serious, effected in the name of high principle: intellect, clarity, order, scholarship, civilisation, excellence. But such guiding ideals are more frequently implied than invoked. The preferred manner is that of indirection. While Mr Sparrow may delight in a guise of bluff, non-specialist plain-speaking, there is irony in his soul. His most unguarded admissions of belief are often found in parentheses, just as his most joyful attacks may be confined to footnotes. Take this early, footnoted blast from Sense and Poetry (1934), in which the muzzle is pointed at Pound but the scattershot takes in Leavis and Eliot as well. The theme is Leavis’s approval of ‘Hugh Selwyn Mauberley’:

It is a pity that Mr Leavis has not explained the effect aimed at by Mr Pound in his mis-accentuations (carefully preserved by himself when he quotes and Mr Eliot when he edits the poem) in the second line. Of four different words, three are wrongly accented. Mr Pound’s Latin is sometimes strange ... It would be captious to call attention to such points as these, if it were not that much of the respect accorded to Mr Pound is apparently due to his reputation for scholarship in Latin, Greek, Provençal and Chinese. His learning in the latter pair of languages I take on trust; it is difficult to believe that the mistakes which occur almost as often as he ventures into the former pair are due inevitably to the printer.

Sparrow’s position in Sense and Poetry was not as anti-Modernist as one might expect (there was solid praise for Joyce and Eliot): he was only against that Modernism – quite a lot of it, though – which went too far, which abandoned meaning by the roadside. Difficulty in poetry was fair – and traditional – enough: what he argued against was wilful obscurity, arrogant ambiguity, the feeling of the reader’s foot slipping beneath him, as during a Venetian stroll. This sternness with things that ‘go too far’ has continued for fifty years, up to the closing section of Words on the Air, a blast at modern laxness entitled ‘Too Much of a Good Thing’. Such qualified anti-Modernism, when coupled with a love of irony, makes Sparrow a harder man to pin down than at first seems probable – which is doubtless how he likes it. He’s a maverick conservative, standing out for what he knows to be eternal values, warning us urgently against any disturbance of the thin crust of civilisation, and yet dolefully aware all the time that the barbarians have long since reached the gates and are even now selling hot dogs underneath the windows of All Souls.

Thus, while his natural enemies are of the intellectual Left, he also draws the fire of the conventional Right. For himself, the form of attack he enjoys most is not the frontal attack. He is more of a sapper: he prefers to mine away at the edifice, then retire to a hilltop and watch the enemy’s position collapse seemingly under its own weight. Hence his sapping of the 17th-century Polish poet Casimir Sarbiewski: a little plagiarism exposed and suddenly a whole chapter of Polish literary history falls in and has to be rewritten. Hence too, more famously, his essay on Lady Chatterley’s Lover, proving with precise, lawyerly argument what some had already half-suspected: that the seventh erotic encounter between Mellors and Lady Chatterley, where the gamekeeper ‘burns out the shame in her’, contains an act of buggery. Sparrow’s line is not – as the conventional Right might have hoped – that this makes the book obscene: indeed, he offers no opinion on the legal implications. His intention is both more distant and more gleeful than this: he wants to point out to the earnest array of defence witnesses (mostly of the libertarian Left, in his view) exactly what it was that they were defending. It’s nothing very much to do with me, his stance suggests, I don’t really care one way or the other; I just thought you ought to realise what all this shame-burning stuff really refers to, and what your supposedly plain-speaking novelist-hero is here so keen to avoid saying. Wryly declining to convict the book of obscenity, Sparrow instead convicts every single defence witness on one of two charges – ignorance or hypocrisy. They can take their pick of whichever suits them best. As an attack, it is elegant, vigorously sustained, and lethal; as a literary essay, it leaves one, nonetheless, slightly dissatisfied. Where, one can’t help asking, does the Warden actually stand? What does he think? He must have an opinion. If forced to side with either Mervyn Griffith-Jones or Richard Hoggart, which of them would he pick?

However, Mr Sparrow has long since folded his tent and slipped away. That familiar sound of canvas being taken down is heard in many of his independent and controversial essays. ‘I do not suggest what the answer should be; but I cannot help pointing out ... ’ is a frequent Sparrovian formula. It is not, of course, a binding declaration (often it is used as a mock-modest rhetorical device) but it does indicate a central impulse in the writer – the impulse of his Chatterley essay, to say: Look, far be it from me to tell you what to think, but I would like to point out what’s wrong with whatever it is you happen to be thinking at the moment. And that big gulf between your brain and mouth: surely someone’s mentioned it to you before me? No? Well! ...

Such controversialists are both welcome and necessary – especially if their political stance is counter to the prevailing one, as Sparrow’s has mostly been. He is not a theorist, rather a pragmatist with a taste for counterpunching. His published output has been small, partly because the counterpuncher’s form is small: the essay, the review, the squib, the letter to the Times (Sparrow has also published a study of the shortest form of all – inscriptions ‘in, and as, works of art’). Part of the pleasure, one assumes, is working within that constricted form. The Times letter must have seemed a bit like a New Statesman Competition: compose a 500-word squib from the head of an Oxford college on the subject of dogs shitting and fucking which will be acceptable to both the editor and readers of the country’s stuffiest newspaper. Sparrow succeeded with elegance and wit, a Martin Fagg of academe, a large master of minor form.

The form in Words on the Air is the talk. Most of the pieces here were first commissioned for the radio; one was a university sermon; others began as guest lectures. The book starts, perhaps unwisely, with the weakest part, a collection of talks from Radio 3’s grouser’s haven, Words. Sparrow works through some routine grouses (‘simplistic’, ‘parameter’, ‘confrontation’), some astonishingly old ones (‘usherette’, ‘drum-majorette’), some eccentric ones (‘dynamic’ used as a noun), and some memory-lane ones (etymological hybrids – amazing that he doesn’t bring up ‘television’). He ends with a ritual appeal to preserve ‘the purity of our national speech’. When, one wonders, does he think it was pure? And what does he think of Shakespeare’s rerouting of parts of speech? And why, incidentally, are the grousers so lazy in their choice of sources, spotting their solecisms in free hand-outs, academic circulars, shop fronts, advertisement hoardings and packets of frozen food? Why aren’t they keener to cite books?

The middle section of Words on the Air is the best. There is a splendid carpet-bombing attack on Marcuse, though mostly the pieces are fireside Sparrow – playful, relaxed, teasing. The manner, though donnish, is commonsensical: reminding us that right-wing academic wit doesn’t have to mean the toiling archness of Mercurius Oxoniensis. As Sparrow discurses on such subjects as Public Notices, Beards, Memory and Growing Old, the tone of voice – light, jokey, a touch valetudinarian – reminds one of an earlier small-former and radio star: Beerbohm. There is an ease of reference, and even the same touch of deliberate antiquarianism: Sparrow must be the last person in England still referring to the TES as ‘the Educational Supplement of the Times’ (as if its contents were somehow the responsibility of its stablemate’s editor), while Radio 3 reverts to its prelapsarian title of the Third Programme.

Perhaps such touches are the result of Growing Old, a topic which provokes some untypically private references and some affecting moments. Sparrow confesses to spending five or ten minutes, on some days, sitting in front of the mirror at war with his eyebrows: ‘snipping off with my nail-scissors the white hairs that are beginning to invade them, in ever increasing numbers. Vanity on my part, you say? ... I think that it’s just a sense of decency, a liking for order and tidiness and a dislike of change.’ His unself-pitying reflections on old age reminded me of his coeval, Donald Hebb, the American psychologist and expert on aging, who in latter years has been able to provide himself with his own research material. When asked how his current intellectual performance compared to that of his prime, Hebb replied: ‘My observation is that I’m not as smart as I used to be – but I’m still a lot smarter than some of my colleagues.’

‘A liking for order and tidiness and a dislike of change’: no, one can see that in Sparrow’s case they aren’t specific functions of old age. Give me Modernism, but not too much, was the cry in 1934; and now, in the closing pages of this book, the complaint returns that we can have ‘too much of a good thing’ when it comes to equality, humanitarianism and liberty. At this point, and for a change, Sparrow invites us to take him seriously. He lays out his market stall more openly than usual, and offers us a mixed bag of antiques: blunderbusses, hauberks, cuirasses and old firedogs. Capital punishment, corporal punishment (‘I was beaten pretty often, and I don’t believe a beating ever did me any harm’), toughness, not softness (an echo of the screeching Rowse is heard at this juncture), censorship. Such a programme is naturally hedged about with the usual ‘I do not suggest what the answer should be ... ’ But this time the disclaimer is rather wooden, and the foes clearly elaborated: softness, drugs, undiscriminating sex, motorbikes, long hair, A Clockwork Orange and communities of hippies. Strange enemies, you might think (at least we are spared trade-unionists, sociologists and TV personalities) – the enemies of the Sixties rather than the Eighties. But then perhaps he dislikes change in his enemies as much as in other things.

More than once in this volume John Sparrow describes himself sitting at his window in All Souls, gazing down at the spectacle of mankind beneath him. Each time the memory provokes a vigorous, heartfelt passage on the ‘horrifying’ students below: ‘Shock-headed and dishevelled, with hair that seems to have run to seed, hiding neck and ears in a whiskery undergrowth, they pad along the city in patched and dirty jeans.’ Some of them, it transpires, even hold hands (that Rowse tone again – one is reminded of the latter’s poem of disgust on observing a couple kissing on a bus). These beardies make several appearances in Words on the Air, first as comedy, later, if not exactly as tragedy, at least as deeply indicative social phenomena. Sparrow, perched in his lodgings, seems to fear the rising tide of hirsuteness just as he fears the rising tide of excrement in Venice: both excite in him a considerable fear of contamination. One wants to invite him to pat both the dog and the hippy, and reassure him that neither of them has rabies. This Warden Sparrow, the fastidious don, is a familiar enough product of closed, conservative, largely male societies like Oxbridge and the bar. The other Warden Sparrow, the aggressive sceptic, the rationalist, the textually precise counterpuncher, is much rarer, and altogether more valuable. He is a tough and undeceivable man, an essayist on whom it is possible to break a lot of teeth. You can disagree fundamentally with every seriously-intended statement in Words on the Air, and still end up recommending the book. It is the work of an uncommon conservative of the sort liberals need very much indeed.

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