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When dons were still happy to be egregious

A new book about Magdalen College takes Paul Johnson back to his own Oxford days and the eccentric but brilliant characters who taught him

13 January 2010

12:00 AM

13 January 2010

12:00 AM

Before the advent of Political Correctness — the system of censorship which has settled over the English-speaking world like a dense cloud of phosgene gas — clever people were unashamed of being eccentric. This applied particularly to dons. I am reminded of this by browsing through a gigantic book, Magdalen College, Oxford: A History, edited by L.W.B. Brockliss. How lucky I was to go to that magical place when the people who ran it were still totally self-confident, and not afraid, as Belloc put it, ‘to shout the absolute across the hall’. This magnificent book, probably the finest college history ever put together, is a threnody for the weird personalities of the learned over more than four centuries.

My indulgent father, an artist, forbade me to follow in his footsteps (‘a bad time is coming for art, Paul: frauds like Picasso will rule the roost for the next half-century’) but was anxious I be educated in beautiful places. When I was eight, he showed me, from the top of its mile-long approach avenue, the transcendent early 17th-century façade of Stonyhurst, its pale-green domes topped by golden eagles, and said ‘I will send you there if I can afford it’. And he did so, though it meant giving up claret.

Later he showed me the 15th-century tower of Magdalen, the culminating masterpiece of medieval Oxford, and said ‘You must go there, too, but under your own steam.’ So in December 1945, just after my 17th birthday, I found myself being interviewed for a place, in the book-filled room of Bruce McFarlane, the Magdalen history tutor. His colleagues were an amazing collection: C.S. Lewis, whose brilliant book, A Preface to Paradise Lost, I had (luckily) read; A.J.P. Taylor, who had just produced an anti-Teuton diatribe, The Course of German History, which could not legally be published today under Labour’s hate-laws; the philosopher Gilbert Ryle, then editing Mind; and the archaeologist ‘Tom Brown’ Stevens.

My interview was enlivened by a ferocious dispute between Lewis, recently ‘Born Again’, and Ryle, a Humean agnostic, on the existence of God. To prevent them coming to blows, McFarlane asked me to arbitrate, so I said: ‘Well, the Jesuits are all pretty sure about God, and they are very shrewd fellows. Those at my school were the only people I know of who were unanimous that Labour would win the election by a landslide.’ That brought a general laugh, and a squawk of delight from Stevens, for the Magdalen Senior Common Room Betting Book shows that he was the only fellow to win money on the defeat of Churchill in 1945, which came like a thunderclap to most people. That jollity won me a place, and an exhibition to boot, worth £80 a year — a lot in those austere days.

‘Tom Brown’, whose Wykehamist nickname was of unfathomably obscure origins (his real cognomen was Courtenay), was chiefly famous for inventing the wartime V for Victory sign. He spent the long vacs ‘peeging it’, as he put it, with French charcoal burners in the Massif Central: he believed they would like it, and so would others in occupied Europe. Its Morse code symbol, three dots and a dash, echoed the opening lines of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, and the BBC adopted the idea with enthusiasm. So did Churchill.

As a boy, Tom Brown had once beaten pheasants for the Archduke whose murder started the Great War, he had been bought cream buns by the sinister Esterhazy, villain of the Dreyfus Affair, and he had been kissed by Pavlova. He was often drunk but that did not stop him tutoring 40 hours a week, then a record. He told me that, despite the war, Magdalen had over 60,000 bottles of vintage port in its cellars. He was also in charge of the SCR ‘port railway’, and when Annie Fleming, the great hostess, dining there in March 1958 as the guest of A.J.P., bossily (as was her wont) tried to work the railway, and upset the Madeira, Tom Brown stuck his finger up her nose as a punishment. Her husband, ‘Bond’ Fleming, said: ‘Serves you right. Never interfere with male alcohol rituals.’

A.J.P. was not so much eccentric as a dynamic force, sometimes a destructive one. In 1948 he wrecked the Wroclaw Congress of Intellectuals, carefully engineered by the KGB to glorify Stalin, by making a defiant speech exposing their crooked ways — the first time the fellow-travellers revolted against their masters. When he got back to Magdalen he told me: ‘I had to take it out of somebody.’ This mysterious remark referred, I think, to the infatuation of his wife, Margaret, with the sponging Welsh poet, Dylan Thomas, whom A.J.P. rightly hated. The Taylors lived in a college house within the grounds, which had a dilapidated summerhouse, and for some time Thomas and his blowsy wife Caitlin actually lived there. I think this was just before I came up, in spring 1946, but I remember the poet mooching about the college, looking for drink. He would dearly have loved to get his pudgy hands on the port railway, let alone the cellars. Thomas was probably the most prolific writer of begging letters since Wagner, and in some of these he abused Mrs Taylor, while greedily soaking up her handouts (she was rich).

A.J.P was jealous of Lewis, his only rival as a popular lecturer. A.J.P. spoke at the unheard-of hour of 9 a.m., and attracted only men. Lewis lectured at 10 a.m. and lured all the pretty girls from Somerville and LMB as well as Miss Sprule’s Typing Academy (mainly ex-debs). Both filled Magdalen Hall to overflowing, in Lewis’s case the girls reclining at his feet, showing their nylon stocking-tops, and diverting attention from his analysis of Beowulf. He looked like a big, confident farmer watching his prize bull get to work, and I enjoyed our frequent rambles in the college deer park and around Addison’s Walk. He loved teasing Ryle, reputed to be still a virgin, and certainly censorious. When Ryle and I were talking once, leaning on the deer-fence, he spotted the sprightly figure of A.J. Ayer tripping across the New Buildings lawn. He said: ‘There goes Freddie Ayer. Might have been a great philosopher. Ruined by sex.’ Lewis said: ‘The trouble with you, Ryle, is that you only read difficult books. I don’t suppose you have ever read a novel in your life.’ Ryle: ‘You are wholly mistaken, Lewis. I read all six every year.’ Lewis eventually puzzled this out to mean Ryle thought only Jane Austen produced novels worth reading.

In May 1947, Ryle brought a strange man in to dine at High Table. I was sitting in the body of the Hall with John Cooper and Karl Leyser, then still undergraduates but later both distinguished fellows of All Souls. Cooper said: ‘I say! You know who that is with Ryle?’ ‘Yes,’ said Leyser, ‘it’s Wittgenstein!’ I had never heard the name before but I was sharp enough to say ‘Good God!’ What struck me about this smallish man was his staring eyes, and the fact that he wore an open-necked shirt — an unheard-of breach of sartorial protocol in those days.

Ryle was hosting a meeting of the Jowett Society, which duly took place in a dingy Magdalen lecture room. Mary Warnock noted in her diary: ‘Practically every philosopher I’d ever seen was there.’ Wittgenstein spoke to the text of Descartes’ cogito, ergo sum, and he was so provocative that the elderly Professor Joseph Pritchard, doyen of Oxford orthodoxy, burst into angry abuse, returned in good measure by Witters. Within a week Pritchard had dropped dead. Isaiah Berlin said: ‘It was an execution. I would not have missed it for worlds.’

This monumental book, which everyone who treasures intellectual history should buy or at least read, is a reminder of the rich feasts we have lost, but
which those of us who enjoyed them still savour in our memories.

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