Magazine article The Spectator

A Don Who Embodies the Idea of a University

Magazine article The Spectator

A Don Who Embodies the Idea of a University

Article excerpt

Alan Duncan pays tribute to Jeremy Catto, the mediaeval historian and legendary Oxford tutor - but doubts that today's dons will carry on his glorious tradition

Sir John Betjeman gripped the sword and, with great gusto, sliced through the marzipan towers of Battersea power station. The party, nearly 30 years ago, was for the launch of 'Temples of Power', Glyn Boyd Harte's delicious compendium of unusual industrial paintings.

Such memorable occasions are not so unusual in the life of Jeremy Catto. He is the quintessential Oxford don - his portrait by Boyd Harte shows him in black tie and plimsolls, with his left foot shooting out of the frame. I can't detect Jeremy anywhere in his friend Alan Hollinghurst's novels, but if one were to devour C.P. Snow, Goodbye Mr Chips and Porterhouse Blue, there is a smattering of Catto in each.

This month the cruel dictates of age will force him to retire from Oriel College.

Oxford undergraduates, past and present, want to storm the Bodleian to prevent it.

With university lecturers having so recently threatened to strike ('Not so much red brick as breeze block', some might say) and with even Oxbridge becoming more uniform and systematised, the example of Jeremy Catto is a powerful antidote to the modern transformation of our universities. Some dons become pundits and take to television;

others forsake collegiate life and bicycle home every evening to north Oxford. Jeremy Catto, in contrast, is the focal point of college life and has devoted everything to the pastoral care of his charges. Rather like Fagin to the Artful Dodger, a tutorial might end with 'Now shut up and drink your gin.'

'Cousin Stephen' was governor of the Bank of England and a scion of Morgan Grenfell. Jeremy, on the other hand, enjoyed no such riches. His father had for a time managed a rubber plantation in Malaya, and his schooling in Northumberland, where he befriended the young Bryan Ferry, took him by sheer merit to Balliol. His contemporaries included Chris Patten, now Oxford's Chancellor, whose time in the Cabinet prompted many a Cattoesque quip about the lack of spine around the Great Lady.

Anyone wanting to read mediaeval history will naturally gravitate to Oriel. The subject comes alive in Catto's tutorials and no undergraduate emerges from three years there unappreciative of what it means to know how to think. The first two volumes of the mammoth History of the University of Oxford bear his name, and his lasting friendship with the late Hugh Trevor-Roper saw a powerful, sometimes hilarious axis in the incessant scheming of university politics.

Jeremy embodies the best virtues of the best teacher. He delights in quoting Harold Macmillan, who said, 'All Oxford need teach you is to know when someone is talking rot.' His approach is one of profound intellectual rigour combined with a broader appreciation of society, conversation and personality. 'The best bankers are historians, not economists. They know how to think strategically.'

Thus has Jeremy Catto always been a constant influence in other parts of university life. As a senior officer of the Oxford Union for 30 years he has steered countless ambitious students to greater things. 'Well, Alan.

I've pointed out to William Hague here that Pitt was already prime minister by 21. …

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