What once seemed certain is now an open question

Mary Beard

  • The Dons by Noël Annan
    HarperCollins, 357 pp, £17.99, November 1999, ISBN 0 00 257074 2
  • A Man of Contradictions: A Life of A.L.Rowse by Richard Ollard
    Allen Lane, 368 pp, £20.00, October 1999, ISBN 0 7139 9353 7

Noel Annan will be best remembered for Our Age, his grand, confident and sometimes very funny memoir written in the late 1980s, looking back at that generation of the British élite which came of age between the two world wars and so (as the book’s subtitle claimed) ‘made postwar Britain’. Here he reflected on their social connections, their shifting political and intellectual priorities, their sexual preferences, and their apparently glittering careers. Annan’s own achievements within this group have been rehearsed in the many obituaries which followed his death in February this year: Provost of King’s College, Cambridge at the age of 39, Provost of University College London, first full-time Vice-Chancellor of the University of London, author of the ‘Annan Report’ on the future of broadcasting, Chairman of the Trustees of the National Gallery, Director of Covent Garden and so on; ‘a fine exemplar of the civilisation he portrays’, as Roy Jenkins wrote in a review of author and book together.

What made Our Age so arresting was its combination of self-promotion and self-flagellation, and Annan’s wistful reflections on the failures, as well as the successes, of his own generation. Put simply, he could scarcely conceal his pride in what he and his peers had achieved (from the decriminalisation of adult male homosexuality to public funding of the arts); and yet he was honest and wise enough to recognise the sad failure of the Britain they had ‘made’ and the emergence of a completely different set of political values and priorities under Thatcher. If ‘our age’ really had got it right, why hadn’t it worked? ‘Where did we go wrong?’ proved to be as important a theme in the book as ‘Look at what we accomplished.’

One of the few commentators who did not share the widespread admiration for Our Age was Stefan Collini (in an essay now reworked and reprinted in his English Pasts).[*] Sensing its ambivalent and sometimes contradictory voices, Collini teasingly observed that the book really had two authors: ‘Noel Annan’, the ‘gifted intellectual historian’, in uneasy collaboration with ‘Lord Annan’, the ‘well-known public figure’. He rather admired those sections of the book written (as he saw it) by ‘Noel Annan’, with their acute analysis of changing intellectual fashions and their insider perspective on almost a century of academic life in Britain. The chapters written by ‘Lord Annan’, on the other hand, he found disagreeable, partly because of their chairmanly tone. Like many of his generation who had been well-schooled in the ‘examination culture’ of Oxford and Cambridge, Annan never lost the tendency to rank the individuals he discussed (‘the outstanding theoretical economist of Our Age’; ‘the most impressive of all the Marxist historians’): ‘The Nation Sits the Tripos’ was Collini’s idea for an alternative title.

The Dons is a more lightweight sequel to Our Age. Most of it is written by ‘Lord Annan’, still in committee mode, but increasingly finding himself playing the eulogist or obituarist (as he wrote at the end of Our Age, ‘By 1990 ... we were dying. I found myself going to memorial services, sometimes speaking at one’). ‘Noel Annan’ has this time been relegated to an appendix, where he reprints an updated version of his ‘Intellectual Aristocracy’, the famous article (first published in 1955, in a Festschrift for G.M. Trevelyan) in which he traced the intermarriages, family connections and, from the mid-19th century, intellectual dominance of clans such as the Darwins, Macaulays, Butlers, Wedgwoods, Stephens and (inevitably) Trevelyans. This has become the classic formulation of the rise of the British intelligentsia and, like many such classic articles, is now more often referred to than read; admirers have made its catchy title into a slogan and, in the process, it has been blunted and repeatedly misapplied. To come across a version of the original essay, almost fifty years after it was first written, is a bit of a shock. Few who are familiar only with the title will be aware that its narrative, tracing the links between one family and the next, is constructed around the metaphor of a fox-hunt: ‘having started a fox in the Pytchley country, we pursue it on a 200-mile point straight across the Midlands, ending on the edge of the Beaufort. So in our pursuit of this class we will start from one family and move into the country of the neighbouring hunt.’ A deeply ironic comment on the subjects of the article, maybe? Or the last gasp of a culture that in 1955 could still unselfconsciously appeal to the tropes of the chase (just as in my childhood, Christmas cards regularly featured garish images of the Boxing Day meet)? Either way, this brilliant piece of writing (as it is in many ways) is a quite different rhetorical and political enterprise from the embryonic sociology it is so often assumed to be.

In the rest of The Dons ‘Lord Annan’ offers a series of pen-portraits of notable dons (Oxbridge only) from the mid-19th century to, almost, the present day, each one made to stand for a particular type of donnish character: John Henry Newman (‘The Charismatic Don’); Maurice Bowra (‘The Don as Wit’); George Rylands (‘The Don as Performer’); John Sparrow (‘The Don as Dilettante’); Isaiah Berlin (‘The Don as Magus’). The scheme falters somewhat when we reach the Don as Woman. The token chapter on ‘Women Dons at Cambridge’, focusing on the unlikely duo of Jane Harrison and Betty Behrens (with a side glance at Eileen Power, who ‘dropped down dead buying a hat’), serves mostly to demonstrate the incapacity of even the most eccentric female scholars to meet the exacting standards of ‘donnishness’. Outside men’s colleges, clubs and dining rituals, away from the frissons of male homosexuality and the risks of male ambition, there are no plausible ‘dons’ in Annan’s sense of the word.

These reminiscences (part of the book’s appeal is that Annan knew personally all his 20th-century subjects) are the reflections of a hugely successful man, writing well into his eighties. There is more of the Tripos-style ranking (‘in Whitehall’ Oliver Franks ‘was hailed as an “alpha triple-plus mind” ’) and more cavalier dismissals (‘another nonentity, Sir Eric Beckett’). Honours and decorations play a major part, their significance carefully decoded: ‘the fact that he was made a knight before he was Vice-Chancellor showed that he had been honoured for his scholarship and not for his skill as an administrator,’ he writes (implausibly) of Bowra. But it is the Order of Merit that bulks ever larger, as it does also in Richard Ollard’s biography of A.L. Rowse, A Man of Contradictions. Rowse appears never to have got over the OM awarded to Veronica Wedgwood: ‘ “My OM!” as he grew, with resentful jealousy, accustomed to exclaim.’ Annan, too, scrutinises its recipients minutely: the Trinity scientists (Adrian, Hodgkin and Huxley) undoubtedly deserved theirs; but he is far less clear about Sir Richard Jebb (‘but there was, after all, his edition of Sophocles’); and as for Henry Jackson (Jebb’s successor in the chair of Greek at Cambridge in 1906), his gifts would certainly not ‘in our days’ have been ‘sufficient for the OM’. One begins to feel that Edward VII had a lot to answer for in creating an order so pointlessly to stir the ambitions of the elderly.

The Dons is not all eulogy. Annan sees the ‘sublime self-satisfaction’ of donnishness as a major ingredient in its gradual decline; and he has some harsh (if not entirely fair) criticism of the ‘cumbersome democracy’ that lay at the heart of the donnish administration, planning and self-government of Oxford and Cambridge. But he does not choose to reflect on the relationship between the image of these Oxbridge super-dons (with their histrionics, wit, pomposity, urbanity and relatively exciting sex-lives) and the reality of academic life as it is lived, in Oxbridge and elsewhere. Annan asks us to take his anecdotage about these men as reasonably representative of a slice of British university culture (albeit more glamorous than the mainstream). If we do, we are faced with a range of university teachers who are at best blithely unaware of their own (political and gender) privilege (‘The most considerate and welcoming of men, he expected his wife without warning to provide lunch for five, six, or it might be a dozen guests’), more often deeply inadequate (‘After twenty years as a university lecturer he still needed brandy before giving a normal lecture’ – in real life this would be called alcoholism), or at worst frankly abominable.

To be fair to Annan, none of his characters (with the possible exception of the vile Oscar Browning, who ‘wrote an ode in alcaics to the penis’) is quite as appalling as Ollard’s Rowse. I approached this biography very much in the hope that Rowse would turn out to be, if not nicer, then at least more complicated than he is usually made out to be; in the hope that the blustering and boasting might prove to have had a delicately self-ironic side; or that he would emerge cleverer than the stream of his books, from the 1970s to the 1990s, suggests (Historians I Have Known, All Souls in My Time and so on; not to mention his fixation on the Dark Lady). No such luck. Ollard is a careful biographer and does his best with the early years (when Rowse was an unsuccessful Labour Party candidate in Cornwall, struggling with illness and writing imaginative local history). But it is only the elderly Rowse who makes any impact: his conviction of his own genius, his cruelty to erstwhile friends, his total self-absorption (his ‘strong proclivity to monologue’, as Ollard tactfully puts it) and his snobbery. A Man of Contradictions is a generous title.

Of course, in real life, dons are not – by and large – like this. Certainly not these days. For all the exotic aura that Oxbridge must still exude (to attract donors, if nothing else), the truth is that most of us quite simply have no time for all the bons-mots, dining and other donnish rituals. We have no time, because our evenings are spent, at best, with our families (donnish lives, in the old sense, never mixed very congenially with toddlers); or, more often, marking students’ essays, preparing lectures or responding to the increasing Government demands to account for, and justify, every minute of our working day and night. Hardly different (except for the Merchant-Ivory setting) from the lives of university teachers anywhere in the country. Annan knows this well enough; in fact, he is at his best when he descends from a great height on the time-wasting futility of the current round of Government assessment of the universities. Yet one cannot help but feel that the traditional donnish image underlying his own book (the glamorous, irresponsible and under-employed genius, for whom society’s needs – let alone the individual students’ – always came a poor second) has done a lot to legitimate the witch-hunts of all recent governments against ‘lazy’ academics. I rather hope David Blunkett never reads The Dons.

But were dons, as a group, ever, even a hundred years ago, as Annan paints them? I doubt it. Annan wittily recounts a whole series of myths of the eccentric ‘college man’ of the early to mid-20th century. These stories, to be sure, have their own important symbolic function: they simultaneously bolster nostalgia for a leisured intellectual world that we like to imagine we have lost, and fuel a crude anti-intellectualism that would eradicate all such superfluous luxuries (if those are the glitzy intellectuals, we can surely do without them). They also play a useful role in transforming the egotism of real-life eccentricity into its tamer, cuter and more acceptable version on the printed page. (Rowse is surely unusual, in that his eccentricities still seem unacceptable even when mediated on paper by a relatively sympathetic biographer.) But like all modern myths they are constructed out of a highly selective reading of the much more complicated and untidy muddle that is the history of Oxbridge, or any university, over the last hundred and fifty years. You could tell very different stories about Annan’s subjects here, and choose a quite different cast of characters, to produce a very different image of ‘the don’.

Take, for example, Henry Jackson, whose qualifications for an OM Annan doubts. In The Dons, he is very much a walk-on player, a genial old cove, sympathetic to reform, with a ‘gift of making college and university business agreeable and harmonious’, while being tutor ‘to many who rose in the world’. Another version of a history of Cambridge in the late 19th and early 20th century would put Jackson centre stage. Far more influential than the dons to whom Annan devotes his attention (Browning, Montague James, Provost Sheppard), Jackson virtually invented the modern University of Cambridge. He put in place a system of organised college teaching for students (replacing the old, entirely unregulated, private ‘coaching’ with the distinctive Cambridge ‘supervision’); he was in the forefront of the campaigns to admit women to the University and to abolish the requirement that all undergraduates, whatever their subject, should pass a test in ancient Greek; he was a reformer of the whole examination system; and, for what it’s worth, in his spare time, the man who ensured that the old discipline of ‘Classics’ and ‘Classical Studies’, which had been nothing much more than translation between Latin, Greek and English, was replaced by the subject we know today (his was the simple, but in the 1870s radical, claim that a student should not just be able to translate Plato, but should also know something about the Theory of Forms). An engaging workaholic, and not a particular focus of anecdote (though there is a donnish myth about his serving up a pet donkey for dinner, to its erstwhile owner). His contemporaries must have been much less surprised than Annan when he was made an OM.

How, in the end, does The Dons reflect on Our Age? All kinds of changes in nuance are a sign of the decade that separates the two books; it would no doubt please Collini that, writing in the last years of his life, ‘Lord Annan’ could once again confidently proclaim the intellectual function of the universities (the ‘élite’ ones, at least); and urge that the purpose of teaching – far from ‘training the workforce’, as he came close to suggesting in Our Age – is to ‘communicate to students the struggle to produce out of the chaos of human experience some grain of order won by the intellect’. The most striking change in The Dons, however, lies buried in the revisions for republication made by the elderly ‘Noel Annan’ to his 1955 essay on the ‘Intellectual Aristocracy’. The original version was written when Our Age were firmly in control, and when Annan himself, aged nearly forty, was on the brink of his first grand appointment as Provost of King’s. In its final paragraph, he reflected on the future prospects of the families whose rise and dominance he had pursued, concluding without a hint of hesitation: ‘Here at any rate seems to be an aristocracy that shows no signs of expiring.’ By 1999, significantly, Annan could not be so confident. In The Dons, he concludes the article quite differently: ‘Whether the names of these families will continue to appear among the holders of fellowships and chairs in the 21st century remains an open question.’

The vast majority of us who do not come from the intellectual, or any other, aristocracy may have good reason to be grateful that this is now an open question, and we can only celebrate the fact that fellowships and chairs (at Oxbridge or anywhere) are no longer presumed to belong, as if by inheritance, to the Darwins and Trevelyans of this world. Yet, Annan’s retreat from his 1950s certainty still evokes a certain wistfulness. His return to the ‘Intellectual Aristocracy’ and his carefully considered revisions, draw a final line under Our Age. Now firmly Their Age.

[*] Oxford, 348 pp., £14.99, 25 March 1999, 0 19 820780 8.