The Unexpected Professor: An Oxford Life, by John Carey, Faber, RRP£18.99, 384 pages
I’m not sure John Carey and I would have been friends at university. “I spent as little time as I could in the world outside books,” he writes of his undergraduate years, “and for the most part it bumped along satisfactorily without me.” He was a workhorse – a rare thing among English literature students, who tend towards loafing and misguided attempts at creativity. And his industry paid off: Carey achieved one of the top firsts of his year and the promise of a fruitful career (another anomaly).
Carey’s new book is the story of that career, but it is much more than a memoir. The Unexpected Professor is a celebration of a lifetime’s devotion to literature and a manifesto of sorts: reading brings freedom, it “releases you from the limits of yourself” and equips you for life in the broadest sense – even if Carey’s own, geographically speaking, has been rather narrow. As the subtitle suggests, Oxford has been his near-exclusive location. After growing up in west London, doing his national service in the exotic reaches of Egypt and Trawsfynydd, Carey arrived at Oxford in 1954 and never left. He graduated from St John’s College, became a research scholar at Merton and then worked his way through posts at Balliol, Christ Church, Keble and St John’s before ending up back at Merton as professor, perhaps the most distinguished post in the country in the subject.
He isn’t grand about his professional trajectory. Instead, his memoir delights in the colour round the edges of an academic life. We learn, for example, of Carey’s dutiful defleaing of Chips, a shaggy cocker spaniel belonging to an elderly professor at Merton. There are also tangents on beekeeping, TS Eliot’s fondness for the questionable delicacy of jugged hare and Carey’s gently inept seduction of his future wife, Gill, a fellow Oxford student.
Throughout, Carey appears indefatigably enthusiastic. Teaching was so enjoyable he “felt it was wrong to be paid for it” and he would routinely let tutorials run well over the allotted hour if conversation was flowing. Carey relished the quirks of life as an Oxford don, even at its most idiosyncratic and comically bureaucratic. Perhaps this is because he remains grateful to have made it there in the first place. He writes candidly about his slow start at the local school and his debt to Richmond and East Sheen Grammar School, which propelled him, against the odds, to university.
He is honest, too, about the instinctive prejudice he felt towards the students who were automatically ushered into Oxford’s wood-panelled rooms from their private schools. Carey worked ferociously for his place (helped, amazingly, by a nightly diet of amphetamines, which allowed him “to read and read until dawn came and the birds started singing” as he studied for the scholarship exam). He has never taken privilege for granted and is unforgiving of those that do.
Those early experiences inevitably informed the later work. Carey is perhaps best known for his books The Intellectuals and the Masses (1992) and What Good Are The Arts? (2005), which wrestled with the elitism he has always found so distasteful. But he’s no droning polemicist. Carey’s aim, both in his work and this book, is to insist that literature is open to anyone and that reading should be a rich, joyful experience. He is a proudly unacademic academic – almost to the point of contrariness – and has little time for the scholars who churn out impenetrable tomes, written only to impress their peers with knotted prose.
Carey’s own style is more direct. As we move chronologically through his life, so we travel through the canon and witness his refreshingly brisk attitude towards poets, playwrights and, at times, whole periods of literature. Elizabethan writing, Shakespeare aside, is mostly “dull”; Edmund Spenser’s never-ending “The Faerie Queene” (the bane of many a first-year undergraduate’s life) is a mix of unpalatable “prurience and preaching”. When he likes an author, however, he is unstinting in his praise, and his writing on Donne, Milton and Orwell, among many others, is charged with devotion. It is also a perfect example of his own creed, that reading is both liberation and a limitless source of pleasure.
Letter in response to this article:
Solid foundation for a questioning life / From Mr Alistair Budd