‘The Unexpected Professor – An Oxford Life in Books’ – Review by Dan O’Neill
John Carey is one of the pre-eminent communicators of literature of the last 30 years. His memoirs show him to be a thoroughly decent, if
intellectually intimidating, man of letters. He was Professor of English at Merton Oxford but was active in the public sphere almost as much as a lecturer and scholar. This is his story.
Carey turned 80 last April and this is as good a stage as any to take stock. He looks back on his wartime childhood with great affection and
with a nostalgic glow; growing up in Barnes in London, the family moved to outside Nottingham during the war. Carey writes movingly of his brother Bill, who nowadays, the author observes, would probably be diagnosed as on the autistic spectrum. The author’s background was
lower-middle to middle class; solid and kind parents who ensured that even in Austerity Britain, he never felt that he was missing out.
Carey’s descriptions of the Luftwaffe’s bombs exploding will remind the reader of John Boorman’s take that for many a lad growing up from 1939-45, war provided a great playground, both physically and for the imagination. Apart from Bill’s condition, the other main blight on
young John’s adolescence was his mother’s treatment of his first girlfriend which was uncharacteristically cold and distant.
Carey was bright enough to attend an enlightened Grammar School. It was here that he started to take off academically. There’s a lament throughout for the loss of the Grammar School system; that opportunity has worsened since the heyday of a selective schooling that allowed
bright but poor boys and girls to advance. He sees misplaced ideology as having destroyed what was a better educational avenue than both Comprehensive and so-called Public Schools.
It is in Oxford where Carey takes flight. University life in the late 40s/early 50s had not changed that much from the 19th Century. This was Oxford of, or close-enough to, the time of the ‘Inklings’ – CS Lewis and JRR Tolkein roamed the campus quads; this was the Oxford of Jude the Obscure and the bastion of tradition further refracted in the ‘Morse’ and ‘Lewis’ TV serials. Carey was a born moderniser and tried to make Oxford Faculty lecturing and scholarship more relevant and less deliberately obtuse.
His Oxford career was interrupted by National Service in Egypt; conscription was a shared experience for British men of his generation and Carey enjoyed his time in the desert as much as he could. National Service seems to have given these men a belief of ‘being all in this
together’ and this sense of solidarity is something he seems to have kept, despite the temptations of high academic office.
The extent of Carey’s scholarship and knowledge is gargantuan; from Milton (one area of expertise) to TV reviewing in the 1970s, he was
never afraid to cast his net wide. His journalism for the Sunday Times has always been essential reading and he has served that paper with
distinction since being recruited by Harry Evans; what he makes of Rupert Murdoch is left unstated but for someone who has many
Labour/Liberal instincts, we may be free to speculate on this.
Among the more stimulating of Carey’s works are ‘What Good are the Arts?’ and ‘Intellectuals and the Masses’. Both books are critical of
the cannon and much of the literary elite but from an egalitarian and democratic perspective rather than a revolutionary one.
This account is an engaging mix of literary assessments and memories of times and well known Oxford and literary characters; an essential
primer for anyone interested in books, writers and how we see them.