This Trying Time

A.N. Wilson

  • The Warden by John Lowe
    HarperCollins, 258 pp, £19.99, August 1998, ISBN 0 00 215392 0

John Hanbury Angus Sparrow (1906-92) was a devotee of the poetry of A.E. Housman. He wrote a vivid introduction to Housman’s verse, whose tight control, both of metre and of homosexual passion, found obvious echoes in his own character. Sparrow was also co-author of A.E. Housman: An Annotated Hand-List, one of the few excursions into modern bibliography made by this great collector, 17th century bibliographer and connoisseur of Renaissance Latin, who counselled aspiring bibliomaniacs: (1) never lend anyone a book; (2) never sell a book; (3) never give anyone a book; (4) never read a book.

The ascending, punctilious nihilism of these injunctions is typical. Reading this disappointing memoir by one of Sparrow’s oldest friends, I was reminded of Auden’s line about Housman keeping ‘tears like dirty postcards in a drawer’. Then I remembered the line by which the same poet skewered Matthew Arnold: ‘And thrust his gift in prison till it died’.

Sparrow was a man who appeared to have had every girt handed him by the gods: unshakeable homosexuality – no pram in the hall to make war on his early promise; brutal, but stunning handsomeness; an exact and dogged intelligence, and a delight in arguing impossible positions which would have guaranteed him success at the Chancery Bar, had he wanted it; a bibliophile’s flair for finding rare editions – in an era when such discoveries could be made on bookstalls and in secondhand shops; an intense feeling for poetry; an exuberant sense of mischief; a romantic temperament which enabled him to enjoy a number of undemanding love affairs; a fellowship of All Souls and, at the age of only 45, the Wardenship.

Perhaps this last was the trouble, ‘OUR THOUGHTS ARE WITH YOU DURING THIS TRYING TIME. JOHN AND PENELOPE’ read his telegram from the Betjemans when he was elected. Or perhaps it was money, never having to worry about it, having been born the scion of a line of extremely prosperous ironmasters near Wolverhampton. Something, some accursed thing, made him throw it all away and do almost nothing with his life.

As a schoolboy at Winchester, Sparrow bought an early edition of Donne’s Devotions upon Emergent Occasions; and before his 18th birthday, he had published a learned edition with Cambridge. It won laudatory reviews from Edmund Gosse, George Saintsbury and others. Surely a future stretched ahead in which Sparrow was destined to be a great scholar and man of letters, perhaps a good minor poet? Who could have predicted that when this learned and precocious adolescent had become an inebriated old man, his published work would consist of a few collections of footling Latin inscriptions, some elegant essays, some broadcast talks and four lectures on Mark Pattison (his hero) which were a substitute for the great book on Pattison which, John Lowe tells us, was never even begun?

Many dons, of course, regard publication as incurably vulgar. Bruce McFarlane, a fellow of All Souls before becoming the history tutor at Magdalen, knew more about the late Middle Ages than anyone alive, but could not translate any of his knowledge into books. Sparrow might have liked to be such a man, but he wasn’t Lowe describes visiting him in old age. He got Lowe to line up his complete works on a shelf by his elbow, and having inspected them for a few minutes, he asked: ‘ “Are you sure you’ve found everything?” “Yes, I’ve looked everywhere,” I assured him. “Quite respectable, don’t you think?” ’ It is hard to know how to read this sad little exchange. No doubt kindness compelled Lowe, in the old man’s presence, to agree. But he seems to suggest that the reader, too, will agree, and this is piety run mad.

If Sparrow was wilfully, stylishly, constipated, then his rival for the Wardenship, A.L. Rowse, suffered from the opposite condition, producing, as his seventh, eighth and ninth decades of life were entered, an increasing effusion of stridently opinionated and lightweight books. Rowse complained that Sparrow had read none of them. ‘ “Do you know my Tudor Cornwall, John?” “No,” replied John and gestured to the figure on his right: “Do you know Stuart Hampshire?” ’

His biographer, with a faith touching in one who must have heard these carefully crafted witticisms repeated over several decades, tells us that ‘such ripostes were quick-witted ... born of the moment.’ Others, such as myself, who met Sparrow perhaps half a dozen times, always had the sense of his wit being not a thing of the moment, but polished and honed. On four of the six occasions we met, he asked me if I had ever noticed that the anagram of a man’s name could often tell you more of his character than the name itself: Arnold Goodman: A man? No, Lord God. Asa Briggs: Sir Gas Bag. Jokes for Sparrow, like the Latin epigrams and inscriptions which he so much admired, were worth labouring. It is not improbable that he took his friend Stuart Hampshire into dinner at All Souls on dozens of occasions before he could trap Rowse into saying the line about Tudor Cornwall.

Lowe does not repeat Sparrow’s anagrams in his leaden book. Most readers of the Life of a Warden of All Souls would have enjoyed a few moth-eaten donnish anecdotes. One does not imagine that anyone in Oxford today even tries to be amusing, so that such pleasantries, or rather unpleasantries, would have a faded period charm, like the famous put-downs of Dean Gaisford in a previous century. It is even possible – textual analysts of jokes will one day argue about it – that the Tudor Cornwall one originated with Rowse himself who, contrary to the impression given in Lowe’s pages, had a pronounced sense of humour – though of a more capricious, he would have said ‘Celtic’, variety than Sparrow’s. Of the two men, I confess, I found Rowse not only the more impressive and charming but also intensely loveable.

Tudor Cornwall, written 25 years before the logorrhoea phase, is superb, a ground-breaking work for its time (1941) in the way it uses materials of local history, patiently assembled from muniment rooms, archives, county record offices and private libraries to construct the first of Rowse’s grand mosaics of the Elizabethan age. Rowse had a Macaulayesque brio and readability denied to Sparrow and his cronies. He had also, as a young socialist, and a supporter of the Churchill view of foreign affairs in the Thirties, written a damning book called All Souls and Appeasement, in which he exposed the damage done by this quasiacademic dining club when figures such as Lord Halifax and Cosmo Gordon Lang, both fellows during the Thirties, used the High Table as a place to discuss and plot their disgraceful foreign policy. The dry-as-dusts and the clubmen were able to unite against Rowse, not only ejecting him from the chance of the Wardenship, but also turning up their noses at his great series of popular and learned books about Elizabethan England, or his unimprovable two-volume history of the Churchill family.

By the end of their lives, both Rowse and Sparrow had become caricatures of themselves. I last met Sparrow when Rowse took me into dinner in All Souls. It was never exactly comfortable being Rowse’s guest in that company, not least because of his loudly voiced teetotalism. ‘Look at John, ruining himself with stupid al-co-hol, deah!’ ‘The port’s with you, Leslie.’ ‘And that’s where it will stay. You’ve all had quite enough’ – and so on.

On that evening, Sparrow was very drunk. He had the quiet, belligerent carefulness of utterance of a man who had been drinking all day, if not all week. It must, presumably, have been only months before the infamous episode, recounted by his loyal biographer, of the Warden lowering his trousers when dining at another college and exposing his bottom to a female fellow. Nevertheless, he was just about able to repeat, as if thinking of them for the first time, some of the better-worn jokes. When I’d laughed at ‘Sir Gas Bag’, he did his act of pretending he had not heard of Eton: ‘Near Slough, is it?’

Rowse, meanwhile, deafly oblivious to what anyone else was saying, kept up his flutey monologue, sounding like a deranged cockatoo who has been taught to speak by a Dowager Duchess. ‘The trouble with the world, you see, deah, is that there are just too many bloody humans.’ Sparrow cocked his ear with mock-deafness, the puzzled expression assumed.

‘Human what, Leslie?’

‘Bloody humans. You agree with me. Don’t pretend you don’t.’

‘Isn’t human an adjective? I’d much rather you said human beings.’

This heavy exchange would have been embarrassing heard once, but my recollection is that they repeated it about twenty times in the course of the dinner.

Interestingly, this little obsession surfaces in a letter from Sparrow to his friend Betjeman in February 1946. Sparrow was always asked to edit and vet Betjeman’s poems before publication and here he corrects the line ‘With every breath a human dies’: ‘For God’s sake, read “A mortal dies” I will not have “human” as a noun.’

Educated opinion will side with Sparrow as against Rowse and Betjeman. The tragicomic nature of their old-aged spats, in which the abstemious Rowse, shouting his head off, could have been mistaken for a drunk and the ever more precisely spoken Sparrow for the sober judge, is that Sparrow never failed, truly and deeply, to shock Rowse; and the Cornish boy who had enraged his family by yelling, at the age of four, ‘You’re all fools and I’m not!’ could usually get a rise out of the irascible Sparrow. A scholarship-boy from St Austell, Rowse could not forgive the languid Wyke-hamist who had had it all so easy and thrown it all away. For what?

Herein lies the mystery of Sparrow’s life. I was going to write ‘a life like Sparrow’s’, because he was far from unique, as a person of influence, both a symptom and a cause of All Souls’ refusal to become like other graduate-based seats of learning, its insistence on remaining a club for men of the world, the Quintin Hoggs and the Waldegraves, who came up from London on Friday evenings to hobnob with the professors and the misfits.

The fact that it was a club more than a college was the ruin of many of the fellows. Think of Isaiah Berlin, who early in life settled for the career of an essayist, of a middlebrow giving the Establishment potted versions of philosophers whom it was too lazy to read for itself. Berlin told these British clubmen what they wanted to hear: namely, that Continental political thought, when boiled down to his palatable spoonfuls, was all rubbish. Who’d bother to read de Maistre, Proudhon, Fourier when Isaiah, so clever, had done it for them? Above all, this George Saintsbury of political philosophy could so précis Marx as to assure the Chancery lawyers and the cabinet ministers that their capital was safe in spite of Kapital. Berlin was rewarded with the OM and the knighthood which, even in old age, he campaigned to deny to poor old Rowse.

Sparrow’s was a far more interesting mind than Berlin’s, and his fall, like Satan’s, was therefore the greater. It would have taken Robert Browning to convey this with anything like the comic pathos, the irony, which it deserved. Sparrow’s ‘failure’, if such it was, to become a poet, or a serious antiquarian, must have felt for much of his life like a success. He ‘saved’ All Souls from the intrusion of interesting or original minds in the dangerous Sixties. He led a life (the fine bindings, the witty friends, the rent boys, the Latin epigrams) which was in every sense ‘civilised’. For what else had three generations laboured in a Wolver-hampton iron foundry, if not to allow the young master of the fourth generation to live like a duke? Rowse, who so often said that the life of the English country-house in the pre-First World War generation was the apogee of human civilisation, should surely have been able to agree.

This book, then, prompts dark thoughts about the nature of the civilised, as well as the intellectual, life: what it’s all for; what and whom it costs. Are alcohol and friendship the best narcotics to numb the sense that the aims of scholarship are too hard and too elusive to pursue to the end?

As befits a Sparrow disciple, John Lowe does not ask, or answer, such questions. There are a few strange slips – not so much errors of fact as suggestions that the author, who knew his subject so well, was in some ways a stranger to his world. The publisher Jock Murray is described as a ‘literary editor’, a term which in current English usually connotes the drudge on a periodical who arranges book reviews, rather than the person who edits manuscripts before publication. An odder vagueness occurs when he tells us out of the blue that Sparrow was the friend of ‘Mrs Frances Horner, a relation and friend of the Asquiths who as a widow lived at Mells’. This implies that ‘the Asquiths of Mells’ had taken her in as a lodger. In fact, Frances Graham, one of the favourite and most celebrated of Burne-Jones’s models, went to live at Mells after she married John Fortescue Horner, and her daughter Katherine married Raymond Asquith (killed in 1916). The house had been in the Horner family’s possession ever since Little Jack Horner had pulled out the ‘plum’ of the Abbot of Glastonbury’s summer residence. Lowe, for some years director of the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, a place so closely associated with Burne-Jones, must have known this. The nursery rhyme associated with Mells, now that I think of it, seems applicable to Sparrow himself, sitting in his corner, and grinning with satisfaction at his good fortune, but with something of the lost soul in his animated, humorous eye.

If only he had had a Boswell before the drink made him into a repetitive old bore. The reader of this book will want more of the puns and jokes, and more of the Latin verse; and fewer of the jaw-breakingly dull letters to his mother and to a boyfriend which are quoted at such length. The leadership contests for the Wardenship had to be told, perhaps, though they will appeal only to addicts. Sadly, Lowe does nothing to bring alive the bizarre dramatis personae of Sparrow’s life. Goronwy Rees, Harold Nicolson, Isaiah Berlin, John Betjeman, A.L. Rowse and Maurice Bowra all had highly distinctive manners of speaking and dressing; no hint of this reaches the page. We read from the biography of the author on the jacket that his previous publications include works on Thomas Chippendale, cream-coloured earthenware and Japanese crafts. Perhaps his skills are better suited to the description of inanimate objects than of ‘bloody humans’.