Eric Christiansen

Memoirs of an academic brawler  

It’s a misleading title, because there is nothing unexpected about Professor Carey, in any sense. He doesn’t turn up to parties uninvited, like some of his less organised colleagues. As for his appointment, he was tailor-made for the job. Right class (middle); right school (grammar); right military service (guarding sand); right religion (books). An unsullied

Building: Letters, 1960–1975, by Isaiah Berlin

This is the third volume of Isaiah Berlin letters; one more to go. Discerning critics have showered the first two with praise, and there is no absence of the laudable here. The plums are unforgettable, especially the brief character studies of Maurice Bowra, Enid Starkie, Randolph Churchill, Golda Meir and Stravinsky, should anyone want to

First pluck your crow

As fewer people write by hand, some of us who do venture to squeak a thin call of alarm, like mice behind the frescoes during the last days of Pompeii. Philip Hensher (novelist and university teacher) voices dismay more manfully in this eloquent account of what has been and will be lost by the ending

Hunting and working

Why are scholars so prone to melancholy? According to the expert, Robert Burton of Christ Church, it is because ‘they live a sedentary, solitary life… Why are scholars so prone to melancholy? According to the expert, Robert Burton of Christ Church, it is because ‘they live a sedentary, solitary life… free from bodily exercise and

Raymond Carr at 90

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

Doctor, diplomat, spy, philosopher

One of the best lectures I ever heard was given by Hugh Trevor-Roper nearly 50 years ago, and its merit was not in its delivery. He stood at a lectern in a ragged gown reading from a script with small gestures which hardly emphasised points but seemed necessary to keep the words coming, although they

A dreadful victory

The trouble with great historical narratives is the volume of detail they demand: tidal waves of personal and place names, of dates and sums of money, of CVs, menus, fashion notes, light brown hair and glacial moraines, which after 25 pages remind the untrained reader of the showing and telling of holiday snaps. Yet history

A continent on a learning curve

Welshmen will know what Le Goff’s name means. To mediaevalists it conveys not only Smith, but all that is gracious, gilt-edged, and grandfatherly among French historians. Or, as one of the blurbs puts it, rather unkindly, ‘He is among France’s “great” historians.’ That means great in the special sense of an institutionally sanctified professor doomed

Big Daddy of Europe?

It was one of his own poets who described Charlemagne as ‘father of Europe’, over 1,200 years ago. Pres- umably that is why the publishers call him father of a continent, although in this case the continent was more notional than geographical. About a third of the land-mass bowed down to the big man by

A rather ferocious person

Christina became queen of Sweden because her heroic father Gustavus Adolphus had been killed in battle, winning glory in Germany but having sired no legitimate sons. She was not quite six at the time, and they were not sure whether to call her king or queen; an ambiguity of roles, not of sex, which lasted

The love that dared to speak its name

As you went into the tower door of the church at Marsh Baldon (Oxon), there used to be two wall-tablets. One was to the relations of Sir Christopher Willoughby, who died in 1808, and the other was To the Memory of Friends, listed as John Lane, Elizabeth Lane, Phanuel Bacon, Margaret Bacon and Ann Barton.

When the consumer was king

Books as glossy as this are seldom as good as this. It is a sort of economic miracle in itself: fat, quarto-size, packed with illustrations, maps and plans, wide-margined, legibly typeset, efficiently proof-read, Hong Kong printed and priced under £25 hardback. It would almost be worth buying if it were a politician’s memoirs or a