My many mentors at Oxford, from Lincoln College to All Souls, linger like spirits in the mind
By Paul West
December 6, 2013
Because the face of one tutor gleamed with Vaseline, no doubt applied as an aftershave, I came to associate philosophy with sheen. Twice weekly, as his mellow, modulated baritone exposed the deceits in Plato’s Republic, I watched the well-fed expanse of his jaw and cheeks travail below the neat, vulnerable eyes in plain steel frames, and truantly mused on the polish of his jowl as a bouquet at which, before leaving home, he toiled before the mirror, thrusting his jaw this way and that to catch the light, renewing a smear here, thinning one there, until he glowed like a chalice or a brass coal scuttle. Perhaps he intended himself as a sample of appearance versus reality, and if so, his facial appearance became his all.
Among my first tutors at Oxford he is the most imposing, though the classical scholar with fine, tiny features and the curbed manner of a top-flight neurosurgeon haunts me because he was also a militant communist and wore red shirts, red ties. He taught a crash course in Greek so well that one of my happiest college memories is of speed-reading The Odyssey, Book Four. My tutor in English I recall best for his adjuration to me not to sit on hot water pipes lest I become sterile, which was charitable of him, since his attention to my essays was almost wholly destructive, in the main because he loathed and despised T. S. Eliot, under whose influence I was. He never produced his intended masterwork on John Donne because he lost a caseful of notes in a taxi, and Donne seems to have survived the loss. A tutor of a different kind was a professional figure skater whose coach advised her to have a thorough sexual workout before each competition, a ploy from which my education profited: her body throughout like best-quality eraser, her mind occupied in toto by skating and sex. I think my tutors would have profited from such extramural fruits themselves.
At All Souls College, Oxford, John Sparrow (a Fellow assigned to me as my supervisor) gave me the run of his superb private library, which included manuscripts of the furry sensualist Walter Pater, who composed sentences by writing likely phrases on slips of paper the size of calling cards and then, once he had enough, shuffled them on a table to see if a beautiful sentence would accidentally form itself. With Pater’s own slips I played the same game while the gas fire purred and whistled its fug through dark, dank afternoons and the ancient, empty-sounding college creaked brownly on through yet another sequence of assorted bells. On these occasions, Sparrow was away at his chambers in London, being a barrister as well, or in Wolverhampton watching Wolves play football. One day he came off the train with a broken fingernail, which, after some considerable fuss, the head porter had to trim with a laboriously produced pair of scissors. But by then my supervisor had been elected Warden of All Souls and could expect to be fussed over. I recall his treating me to a candid discussion of the semi-ecclesiastical chores that went with his new role.
A friendship of sorts grew. I was his only student, worth to him after supertax about a dollar a term, so money hardly corrupted us at all, and we had in common a taste for Pater, the 1890s, and the Roman poets. A prompt, witty, and gracious correspondent, with veering idiosyncratic penmanship like a vine having a seizure, Sparrow heard me out on such things as the poetry of industrialism and eventually lamented seeing a clever young man (as he called me) having to go through the same dull hoops as everyone else. “Gin or sherry?” he would ask before we talked for hours on almost everything but the topic of my thesis. He inscribed the books he gave me with donum datum (gift given); and, courteous to the last, always escorted me to the gate of All Souls and watched me out of sight with almost Buddhist punctiliousness, after giving his habitual compact gesture of farewell: an odd, downward motion of his right hand as if saluting with a sword. After all, he had been the British military attaché in Washington; from within his diplomatic immunity he had said farewell to thousands of callers and seen them off the premises with his footballer’s nimble march.
Forever exhorting me to sample everything Oxford offered, he got through to me, and I spread myself thin, did little enough academic work but reams of writing, mostly poetry, and played lots of cricket and squash. Thanks to Sparrow I read Rilke as well. He opened his mind to me as no other tutor had, but not when it came to the most notorious Fellow of All Souls, T. E. Lawrence, about whom no one there would speak, although they seemed ever ready to revile the Cornish poet A. L. Rowse, also a Fellow. Sparrow’s image remains with me: neat in double-breasted suits, his hair plastered flat-black, his mouth a wide line through which he half-whispered with a touch of lisp, his philtrum and cheekbones paler than the rest of his mildly aquiline face. After a while, his letters of recommendation became milder themselves, scrawled with raffish elegance from Venice or The Warden’s Lodgings, and his letters became stricter, shorter, less open. I left it at that, willing, as I think no Roman poet has yet said, to let dwindle what is bound to rot. I am left with a puzzle, trying to work out which, if any, of my tutors eventually seemed glad I had begun writing and publishing books; I can think of no one, and I persist in my scribblings, nonetheless.
Oxford was a pandemonium fueled on South African sherry. Nurses from the local hospitals surrendered us their bodies (or pieces of them anyway) and stole patients’ butter rations to strengthen us for the deed of kind. At Lincoln, my own college, novelist Wilfrid Sheed, then an undergraduate reading English, kept score for the cricket team, reeling amiably about on crutches and polio-blighted legs and, I think, yearning to play in white flannels on the pampered turf with red ball and willow bat. In later years he took a developed interest in boxing but still remembered his cricket enough to point out that the Australian fast bowler Lindwall was only of medium height. Lincoln had nothing but eccentrics, from David Flower, a wealthy Egyptian with a grand piano in his room, who flew girls in for weekend picnics, to young suave or flushed homosexuals upon whom, connected in sigmoid ways, you kept stumbling after knocking and entering. There was a Welsh Diogenes suckled on Orwell, and a South African rower who bit girls’ ears on buses, kept an ornamental nude from St. Hugh’s College supine under a towel on a table in his room, and in between times in London dated a German-born English actress (by way of South Africa) called Dagmar Wynter, later Dana. He had also danced with Princess Margaret on some hopelessly imperial occasion at which, perhaps, he had let forth with his habitual cry of simba!, warning everyone in the vicinity that a lion was on the prowl. There was an enigmatic Cypriot who kept hinting heavily that he was in some political danger, perhaps from the Turks. There was a fair-haired, almost angelic-looking law student, now a distinguished professor, whose bed collapsed one night during exertions with a notorious but delicious Welsh co-ed. The fall of the bed woke me up, since I was only next door, but you soon got used to crashing woodwork, screams of ruined honor, and shuffling sounds as windows opened at dawn. In fact, no one ever seemed to sleep—only the Americans and the Zulus.
Dining at All Souls in black tie, as we moved from room to room for successive courses, I met Isaiah Berlin, whose brilliant rumble I could never decipher, G. D. H. Cole, an effigy of withered, world-weary flax, and Lord David Cecil, jovial epigrammatist in tweeds who wore colors I had never seen previously combined and used a candy store as a bank (“London, today, Mrs.—. Five pounds, please!”). The food, however, consisted of awful curry and caterpillar-infested greens, the college just about abolishing pleasure at the board. We fought back by not wearing gowns. Our rector, at whose title some aimed puns, played the cello with selected undergraduates, and the college students “sir”-ed us nonstop in our light-blue–striped dark-blue scarves and silver-miter–headed blue ties.
A sloppy, democratic college, Lincoln in the early 1950s had the best cricket team in the university and a name for heartiness that belied somewhat the pupation of budding literati in its midst, from Sheed to West, from Derwent May (novelist and subsequently an editor at The Sunday Telegraph and The Listener) to D. J. M. Cornwell (whom I never met), alias John le Carré. Composer Egon Wellesz was in residence, as was the son of critic F. R. Leavis, the latter the former’s pupil. The college was full of music, to which the Americans, svelter and better mannered and worldlier and more fragrant than the rest of us, contributed an exotic nasal burr to which I, for one, became accustomed and during vacations missed. Into our midst they brought Time magazine, cartons of cigarettes from Brize Norton Air Force Base, and such outlandish surnames as Votaw and Srb, reminding us that the world was much wider and more complex than Oxford or England. One American, called Polonkski, was doing degrees simultaneously at Oxford and the Sorbonne, like some caricature of the open society’s go-getter; but I found him a beguiling opportunist, almost an object lesson, and I suppose he is now a doctor three times over, armor plated in credentials that only a donkey could not relish.
In those irresponsible few years I discovered that I was part of a generation, I who had never expected to belong to anything at all. Several times a year, the Lincoln College Record reminds me of the fact with obituaries of former students whose college-arrival dates were incongruously close to my own. I smile wanly when I read how the college library has shifted to a church next door and how the Mitre Hotel now belongs to “us” again and accommodates students. It seems a century since I held Elizabeth Jennings out a window while she vomited into the quad the foul punch someone had brewed, or first heard John Bowen’s mellifluously resonant voice and wondered at the care lines cut in his forehead. Bowen went on to a year at Ohio State, returning with a thick tan and subtly faded jeans; but my most vivid memory of this playwright-novelist is of an Oxford belle, Phina Allfrey, stroking his arm to show him how to soften up a girl (a process he claimed not to understand too well) and exclaiming, after he tried out the technique on her, “Stop, John, please, you’re so mechanical!” A future U.S. poet laureate smoked thick cigars and spent most of his time in Harry’s New York Bar in Paris, mostly to be able to postmark his postcards there, but also Gallicizing the spite with which he would later review his friends’ books. Even his acquaintances he never stabbed in the front, and you cannot say that of every popinjay.
Enough: the phantoms also enliven the mosaic. I am more concerned to set down how my life is richer for having known the puckish cherub F. W. Bateson, a bibliographer-critic whose falsetto salvos have delighted me for many an hour. Gadfly, pundit, and freethinker, who was overjoyed when I told him his prose was like slate, “Freddy” Bateson typifies the Oxonian rebel, having been elected a Fellow of his college only upon retirement, at which point presumably he could do no further harm: a naïve view to anyone who knows him well. In all ways a 20th-century man, except in his edicts concerning fiction, Freddy tried to bring Oxford up to date, and to some extent prevailed; but that is his professional side, which you have to assimilate along with the camel dung–colored volumes of his Cambridge Bibliography of English Literature. The Bateson I treasure sits in a deckchair among a cloud of wasps, musing on the agriculture primers he wrote to help the war effort along; on the handfuls of aspirins he used to down to quiet the merest ache; on the sad fact that such nice creatures as Americans write such foreign English; on the miscellaneous idiots he has met on several continents; on his Viking ancestors, the hair that grows in his ears to such profusion, and how best to corner a rat in a cellar. Jan, his wife, is an opera singer turned magistrate and Freddy-keeper, assiduously steering him away from the second glass of wine he hopes to get by distracting everyone with talk of his relatives, who live in a kraal in wildest Africa, or of how, years ago, bad British food so wrecked his palate that he would prefer to eat as astronauts do.
Maestro of fiendish glee, which he orchestrates through an entire series of fake stutters, sibilant pauses, and falsely wheezing cackles, Freddy—with or without that second glass of wine—is a self-deployed fresco of fun, a first-rate mind with an eagle eye for goons, whom he loves to flay in ad hominem displays that join the sheer festivity of being alive to the cold eye of academic rigor. He writes with cursive stiletto, on postcards, a script that seems full of forward-aimed billows and fish-hooked g’s, j’s, and y’s. He was never my tutor, but my mentor, yes, and it took him years to get over his disappointment that I, instead of editing a Shakespeare play, was going to launch into fiction and other such stuff. “Hm, like Amis, Alvarez,” he pouted, mentioning two of his former pupils. Not long ago he told me that he had cleared his decks, God knows for what voyage, by throwing out all letters from novelists and poets, whereas he kept letters from critics and professors, in whom, by some reverse twist of affinity, he thinks all literary honor resides. Librarians have not forgiven him that, as I have forgiven him for concluding that 20th-century fiction ends with Arnold Bennett, but I think Oxford finally forgave him for trying to make it grow up.
Freddy’s images of his contemporaries are not mine, of course; but he never, as I did, upset a bottle of ink all over F. P. Wilson’s desk out of sheer nervousness at an interview with a man so famously unknown, so fat, mothy, and heavy-breathing I thought I would suffocate before one of his pudgy suckers clutched me to his watch-chain, over his navel, for fast consumption. “So … you … wish … to … study—” he began, and I rashly said yes before the verb became transitive. He thought this an intelligently medieval answer, or interruption, and then I upset the ink, trying to pass him a piece of paper. I think he had power to send me to Traitors’ Gate at the Tower of London, but instead he let me pass by, like a benign and useless growth that no sensible society could blame him for. At another near-contemporary’s ways, Freddy puzzled a great deal, unable to comprehend that Kenneth Burke’s prose style came out of his life style, such that large chunks of ideational masonry flying about had something in common with Burke’s formula for a cocktail party: two buckets, one full of ice, one full of gin, to be drawn upon at will. William Empson, however, he admired, as only a socialist can admire a Tory, and he quizzed me for news of a term-long encounter with Empson in the next office to mine. I could tell him little, other than that, before succumbing to his daily monsoon of cognac, Empson spoke in lively fashion of Newton, China, and Sheffield, usually in that order, and that his South African wife went around asking everyone, “Don’t you know who he is? ” We knew. She burned a hole in my bathroom mat and from time to time grabbed at me and several others; but a baboon in one hand, a hippo in the other would have suited her just as well, so puddled she became. Sober, she charmed; high, she belonged in her bathroom, which was a sump of rotting oranges, used tissues, and odd socks. “Slops,” Empson said when I asked him what food he preferred, and he cooled his soup by squirting it back into the plate as if trying to whistle. In the dead of winter he walked through slush and snow in ordinary shoes from his apartment to his office, about a mile. As it is, as Goethe said, I’m in an awful bind, the spirits I summoned up won’t leave my mind.
Paul West , who died in October 2015, was the author of more than 50 books of fiction, poetry, and essays.