Jul/Aug 2014  •   Reviews & Interviews

The Unexpected Professor

Review by Ann Skea

The Unexpected Professor.
John Carey.
Faber. 2014. 361 pp.
ISBN 978 0 571 31092 0.

Unexpected? Yes, in a number of ways. Who would have thought that young John Carey, son of an accountant, put on daily report at his first grammar school for lack of interest in his lessons, would one day become an Oxford University Professor? Even he was surprised when, in 1975, he was appointed Merton Head of English Literature, and he felt guilty, he says, that he had never even finished reading the complete works of Sir Walter Scott.

Most surprising is that an Oxford don (i.e., a member of a learned, highly civilized but exclusive coterie) should be so genial, chatty, and open as he unfolds his very personal love-affair with English Literature: "how we met, how we got on, what came of it," as he puts it.

However, not everything in this book is about English Literature. In fact, in the early chapters it is incidental to Carey's memories of growing up in war-time and post-war England. His first memories of reading of any sort are weekly comics that he and his sister fought over, and some old annuals that had belonged to his father when he was a boy. Following these came the Biggles books. As a choir boy (he thought the outfit looked "dashing," and he was paid to sing) he was exposed to the King James Bible and to Hymns Ancient and Modern, but literature as such had to wait until he moved to a new grammar school and was exposed to the novels of George Eliot and Thomas Hardy, and to the poetry of Chesterton, Arnold, and Keats.

Once Carey starts to write about literature, his particular loves and hates become clear, but his memories of his life in general are often more interesting than his detailed reflections on particular books. His earliest memory is of an elephant in a parade for the Silver Jubilee of King George V when he was 13 months old (although he admits that the elephant may have migrated from later memories), then he remembers his father carrying him to a window to see the glare in the sky from the burning of the Crystal Palace. From recollections of family life, school milk, and a disaster with a trifle, he moves on to grammar school, then to conscription as a National Serviceman, where in Egypt as a Intelligence Officer, he almost managed to blow up the entire Intelligence Section. After National Service, he took up his place at Oxford University, met his future wife, and over the years, moved up the University hierarchy until becoming Professor.

Carey's reflections on his past are many and varied. He has a quick wit, a sometimes acerbic tongue, and is often very funny. His main subject, he says, is books. And he does discuss in detail certain authors and particular poems and books. George Orwell crops up regularly, and Carey seems to feel some affinity with him as a champion of the under-privileged classes. Carey's own experiences of the English class system stem from his time as an army officer after he was singled out as a "Potential Leader" on account of his grammar-school A-level passes, and, later, when he was a scholarship-holder at university. In both situations he mixed with men whose family and schooling were those of the status conscious "upper classes." Carey tells of hearing Sir Roy Harrod's response to a guest who asked who Carey (who was sitting opposite him at dinner) was. "Oh, that's nobody," responded Harrod. D.H. Lawrence is admired for his outspoken scorn for ideas and his ability to "show you the world with the grime scrubbed off." Conrad and Larkin are applauded for believing in nothing but their art. And Charlotte Bronte's novels are dismissed as "unexpectedly tiresome" with "feeble" characters and "tangled and disrupted" narratives.

Carey can be sharp-tongued, but he is always honest in his views. He pays tribute to his grammar school education, regrets the demise of grammar schools and stiff competition, and suggests that modern students should understand the "truth" that learning and fun "seldom coincide." Certainly, he worked hard for his many and varied achievements. His love of nature, his delight in his cat (wandering Wiggington), and his ongoing passion for bee-keeping reflect the breadth of his interests. Compared to the richness of detail in the early chapters, where there are some wonderful turns-of-phrase and lively expressions of opinion, the final chapters on reviewing and writing are disappointing and seem to be little more than an outline of Carey's many publications. The quotations with which he ends this book, however, beautifully answer his question "Why read?" And they explain, too, why books have been such an essential part of his life.


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