Magazine article The Spectator

Raymond Carr at 90

Magazine article The Spectator

Raymond Carr at 90

Article excerpt

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!

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 qthe 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. …

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