Dons don’t usually appear to much advantage in fiction.

Dons don’t usually appear to much advantage in fiction. Sillery, Samgrass, Cottard, Lucky Jim’s professor, the History Man, all Snow’s Masters: these spring to mind at once. Why are they so disgusting? Perhaps some are false fathers to young people expecting more attention, like the pompous young Gibbon at Magdalen. Perhaps because they are obvious targets to would-be writers at a time of life when the urge to debag and deflate is strong: they seem self-satisfied in ways which cry louder for satire than the ways of more, or less insignificant subjects. The clever students don’t need dons. The dons don’t need the stupid ones. Theirs is a marriage of inconvenience, bound to end in tears.

Not always. I come to praise, not bury Raymond Carr, a refreshing contributor to this weekly, who celebrated his 90th birthday last week, looking (according to his oldest friends) no less corvine than he did at 25. His life and career have defied fiction, outbid caricature and disarmed enmity. Fifty years ago, when he was a college tutor at Oxford, they said he drank too much; no, he drank more than that. They said he chased women; he certainly caught them, and they him. They said he screamed, raved and insulted his pupils and colleagues; so he did, and waved to a row of empty bottles and invited them to ‘Have a drink, help yourself, go on.’ They said he was clever but lazy; he was clever and very industrious, once he had decided to breach the socialist taboo and study the history of modern Spain. Now he puts ‘Publications: too many to list’ in reference books. They said he was completely unreliable, but he could always find new ways of disappointing those who said it: becoming serious and coherent, even in German or Spanish, when they expected buffoonery, and by revealing a kind and considerate nature under the dirty macintosh of ruthlessness. They said, they said . . . But now he can say, let them be desolate for a reward of their shame that say unto me Aha! Aha!

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As for his biography: he released fragments which could be fitted variously into epics of the working-class hero, the middle-class defector, the man-about-town, the scourge of the bourgeoisie, the lapsed Marxist intellectual and the fox-hunting playboy. Maria Gonzalez is said to be sorting them out for Spanish readers. He has certainly been difficult to pin down in any collection of types; fortunate in having pursued an academic career in a period when many students and colleagues viewed dullness as a defect. That ended in the Eighties, when Margaret Thatcher sent in the bills and the puritans looked big once more. His tutorials had been unforgettable performances in the days of cigarettes and whisky. He had the art of remedial brutality, hitting to be hit back, getting into the ring with pupils without either an air of superior knowledge or the chill of indifference. He made it clear where he stood. Moral relativism? No! Religion? You mean petty-bourgeois religiosity? There was a good deal of that, and we took his advice, flinching a bit, about love, literature and the sorry aesthetics of modern life. ‘No New College man may leave the college without reading Proust’ was one of the axioms. ‘Not Anthony Powell. Feeble imitation.’ He managed without that ‘bit of dog’ which Sir Roderick Glossop needed to impress the paying customers — if he turned up, that is. He was no slave to the convention that it takes two to make a tutorial.

After 11 years he had had enough of that, and of the depressing absurdity of college politics, for which he lacks one essential qualification: malice. He left to write history, follow hounds on Exmoor and spend money from the Ford Foundation on larger projects; he rose rapidly to professor, head of house, elder statesman. In the sometimes turbulent university politics of the late Sixties and Seventies he kept his head because he had leapt from Leftist to Reactionary with no intermediate phase of liberal-conservatism. He also switched from party-goer to party-giver with ease, dispensing food, drink and conversation for Oxford as long as supplies lasted. Poets, politicians and pen-pushers from all over the world gathered in that suburban drawing-room hung with a wide ‘Marriage Feast at Cana’, and were puzzled to work out what exactly was going on. A drinking competition? A dance? A fight with a dog? A debate with students? A diplomatic incident? An English game?

His ingrained refusal to draw the line on social occasions brought his parties to the edge of anarchy and made them more interesting to the international clientele which his various jobs obliged him to placate. Lowell or Warhol was heard to ask, ‘What does he put in these drinks? I could have sworn that was an armadillo sneaking out of the room.’ It was indeed Priscilla, who did not like crowds; but Raymond loves animals. There was a game called Least Characteristic Remark in which Raymond’s was held to be: ‘Pull yourself together, man!’ It could be: ‘The party’s over. Let’s go!’ or ‘Take it away! I won’t drink that!’ But the Lord of Misrule was only one of his roles.

After all, he is Sir Raymond, the founder of a new department and a new branch of English learning (the history of Latin America), the author of two excellent books (Spain, 1808-1939 and Modern Spain) and some very readable ones among the ‘too many to list’, a significant defroster of Anglo-Hispanic relations at the intellectual level. He has been the Warden and reinvigorator of a graduate college, St Antony’s. He has played up, and played the game. The Royal Historical Society and the British Academy have welcomed him among their fellows, and the Grand Cross of the Order of Alfonso the Wise sparkles on his breast, alongside the Order of Dom Henrique of Portugal. And he still writes for The Spectator. Such distinctions don’t always win friends, because they often come with a stiffening of the neck and a loss of devilry. Not in this case.

When he was young they asked: ‘How does he get away with it?’ Now they ask: ‘How does he do it?’ He has forced a gasp of admiration from the pursed lips of censure without making concessions to the new moralisms. He has kept friends and made new ones despite the ribbons that hang from his coat. For many years after he retired he brought comedy and intellectual edge to the country folk of North Devon and West Somerset, where the deer and the recusants play. Now he rises to the challenge of deepest Hammersmith, and the personality or act which was launched in the West End of the Thirties remains current and congenial in a world as far from that one as the moon.

How does he do it? He no longer has Sara, the wife who supported him throughout; but ‘Some day we shall get up before the dawn/And find our ancient hounds before the door.’ His weaknesses have been his strengths. May he live for ever!

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated

Tags: Biography, Education, Non-fiction, Oxford