Our Age: Portrait of a Generation 
by Noël Annan.
Weidenfeld, 479 pp., £20, October 1990, 0 297 81129 0
Show More
Show More

The title of this large, attractive book needs explanation. It isn’t to be understood as a claim to deal with the times of all of us who are now alive. First, there is a chronological limitation. ‘Our Age’ is used in a sense defined thus by Maurice Bowra: ‘anyone who came of age and went to the university in the thirty years between 1919, the end of the Great War, and 1949 – or, say, 1951’, by which date all who had served in the war had returned to the university. So constituent members of Our Age need to be over sixty and could be over ninety. Secondly, there is an obvious social or educational restriction, since a very large number of people who would qualify by reason of age fail to get in because they never went to a university. Moreover it is distinctly preferable to have been at Oxbridge, and to have made a mark there, so the number of the eligible is really quite small.

Lord Annan makes it clear that he speaks of, and inevitably to a great extent for, this small élite, into which one got by being exceptionally clever, or well-born, or usefully connected, especially with that intellectual aristocracy which occupied the commanding academic and cultural heights in a previous generation – a class upon whose constitution and habit of intermarriage the present author long ago enlightened us. It is from such a cultural establishment that he himself speaks. He remarks that although there are allusions to his own life and work (and he has governed large institutions, sat on innumerable high-powered committees, and known the great and the good), his book is not a memoir. It is only ‘the impression I as an individual have formed of the part of my own times that I know something about, and it has no other validity’.

Yet he speaks in two voices, one detached, disinterestedly critical, the other attuned to many of the presuppositions of an establishment he now sees as slipping into the past, propelled there by death and by political and cultural changes beyond its control. There are passages where one can’t be sure whether he is voicing his own opinions or reporting those of Our Age in style indirect libre, but that ambiguous degree of identification seems appropriate enough. Fortunately the presuppositions include one that permits or even encourages the commentator to look askance at his peers, and another that requires him to be honest, candid and as lively as the case, sometimes a rather hard case, allows.

The panoramic scope of the book is such as to make one wonder that one man, however various his experience, could know so much about so much. Yet for reasons already hinted at there is a certain narrowness of view. For example, he can be critical about the public schools, especially as they were in his own day, when the syllabuses were so confidently and absurdly archaic, the rules and punishments so arbitrary and severe. (Incidentally, I am glad to learn from Lord Annan that the Latin verb meaning ‘to be beaten’ has an active not a passive form, and discover by follow-up research that vapulare, the verb in question, crossed over into English as the rare ‘vapulate’, though, when used at all, it tends to mean ‘to flog’ rather than ‘to be flogged’, so confirming the hint that there inheres in the process of verberation / vapulation the possibility of a measure of complicity.)

All the same, the author confesses that he was happy at Stowe. After a lifetime of more general experience, and despite his persistent advocacy of broader and more technological approaches to education, he still finds it natural to identify people by public-school typologies that many might consider somewhat privileged, somewhat arcane. Thus Lord Eccles is described as ‘opinionated, self-assured, a Wykehamist with the manner (so Etonians said) of a Harrovian’. Even if you find this account over-subtle you will still grasp that its subject is a very different sort of person from Richard Hoggart, ‘the grammar school extramural lecturer’ who at the Lady Chatterley trial succeeded, to the amazement and amusement of Our Age, in putting down ‘the Treasury counsel from Eton and Cambridge’.

The single most irritating thing about this book is the constant prosopopoeic repetition of the expression ‘Our Age’, which is always saying this or that, being found guilty of that and the other, contributing one thing, spoiling another, virtually running the show and having a lot of fun while doing so, being powerful yet negligent. However, all this does add up to a fairly full portrait of the imaginary person.

Our Age, who has so much to say in this book, was a gentleman, with the virtues and vices of that condition; if there was Schlegel in him there was also Wilcox. One thinks of Margaret Schlegel’s naive resolve, under Wilcoxian influence, to be less polite to the servants: but although Annan reports many gentlemanly activities with an air of detachment or even disapproval, he does not find it necessary to use the word ‘selfish’, and there are no cads in his book, at least nobody is so described, as some are in Forster’s.

Thus we are told dispassionately about the Oxford set, the Children of the Sun, the Brideshead generation, especially Brian Howard and Evelyn Waugh, who is given special status as an important Deviant from Our Age; and also about Cambridge – about the Spies, of course, who escape being described as Deviant, but also about certain slightly less notorious gentlemen. There was, for instance, ‘the absurd, insanely touchy Oscar Browning’, a member of Our Age, though old enough to have been famously snubbed by Tennyson. Browning was, for quite usual reasons, forced to leave Eton and retire to King’s, ‘where he entertained the undergraduates and helped dozens of young sailors, soldiers, errand boys and others down on their luck.’ The correspondence of Browning, preserved in the modern archive at King’s, shows rather a strong if vicarious preference for the Navy. His habit was to send off his young proletarian friends to enlist in that service as Boys. Many of them wrote him interesting and on the whole affectionate letters from various remote stations, sometimes asking for money or for a new guitar to replace one broken in a storm, but sometimes saying they had frankly had enough of the service he had got them into, and would he kindly buy them out. There seem to be no letters thanking him for doing so.

If Browning and Guy Burgess, who ‘had the appearance of a man who had just stepped off the Golden Arrow after a night in the Rue de Lappe’, were gentlemen, there was a difficult Cambridge figure, another Deviant, who wasn’t, perhaps because his father sold pianos. This Was F.R. Leavis, for whom, not for the first time, Annan expresses an acute distaste, well-documented and in my view entirely understandable, though there no longer seems to be good reason to carry on about it at such length.

Still, it is natural enough for a Kingsman of Our Age, and so having an inevitable touch of Bloomsbury, to talk unsparingly about relationships and persons; and one of the strengths of this book is that the author’s career and his alert, receptive personality are such that he has known lots of interesting people, most in their way rather important, whether because they were clever, or powerful or merely charming. There is a parade of dons, civil servants and politicians, all taking some part in the running of Our Age’s great show, which included the introduction of Modernism, innovations in philosophy, sociology, anthropology and of course science. There was also the fighting and conduct of two wars, with a bout of pacifism in between; there were repeated disastrous failures to modernise the economy and the educational system. There was, moreover, the loss of empire; and the general if fairly gentle decline of Britain.

Although Our Age was obliged to take part in, even to manage, all this important business, it is here described as an age of ignorance – sexual ignorance especially, which is known to be productive of disaster. Homosexuals, rather numerous in Our Age, suffered partly from the ignorance of others, but also from their own: for public schoolboys, having been deprived of feminine society in their adolescent years, were the less able to enjoy it later, and were therefore prone to fall into what were still guilty courses. This can hardly be the whole picture, and anyway the whole picture changed in the Sixties, a decade Annan rightly though unfashionably thinks rather well of. In recent years he detects a new puritanism, not wholly bad. The official line on Aids is not that we should be chaste, merely that we should be prudent. Of course not all official lines are quite so permissive. Three years ago I spent a couple of months in Geneva and was impressed by the posters which said, Soyez prudent: STOP SIDA, the space in the O of STOP being filled by a condom. However, before I left they had been replaced by very similar posters saying, Soyez fidèle, STOP SIDA, with a wedding ring in the hole instead of a condom. Annan, one supposes, would approve the earlier version, but maybe the later one also, for, inveterately liberal as he is on such matters, he shows some concern about the way things are going, and expressly approves of Bernard Williams’s neo-Aristotelian ethics; temperance, and for that matter fidelity, might be called, in Williams’s terminology, ‘thick concepts’, like mercy and honour.

The prevailing tone of the book is genial, but there are occasional severities in its treatment of persons. Among its heroes are Isaiah Berlin and, with a good deal of qualification, Michael Oakeshott; on the Left there is the author’s contemporary Eric Hobsbawm. Others’ heroes – Raymond Williams, for instance – are sometimes harshly dismissed (‘a nonconformist spellbinder, rhetorical, evasive and vacuous’). These judgments are made by an author whose discipline is the history of ideas. Like Berlin, he is ‘hostile to the pretensions of technocrats and revolutionaries’, and he borrows Berlin’s favourite quotation from Kant: ‘Out of the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing was ever made.’ Consequently a natural geniality is tempered by a slightly morose anti-utopianism, as if the experience of Our Age had shown that most initiatives go awry and come to rather little in the end. Like that of wild horses, Our Age’s is a record of failure.

The most depressing part of that record is the political. Annan thinks of politics as having very little to do with ideas or morality; unlike some of their opponents, the Conservatives, though some genuinely if vaguely wanted to do something about unemployment and poverty, were sophisticated enough to know this. There is, regrettably, a knee-jerk reference to knee-jerk ‘progressives’. The Left is credited with an unacceptable mythology, enshrining such errors as the belief that in the Thirties virtually all intelligent men and women leaned to the left. Left-wing politicians and trade-unionists generally get fairly rough treatment. In the interests of balance, the author remembers, and continues to feel, his youthful disgust at Chamberlain’s ‘insolent self-righteousness’, for which not even his interest in the arts could compensate.

Some readers, who harbour quite similar feelings about the present prime minister, may be surprised by the closing chapters of this book, in which she emerges as on the whole an admirable figure with some venial shortcomings, such as a lack of concern for the arts. She was, we gather, much needed. Britain was, in 1979, even more evidently in decline, and if it was Our fault, we have paid the price: ‘Our Vision of Life Rejected’ is the title of a late chapter. Not getting into Europe at the very beginning is the worst mistake of all, and that seems to have been Our fault. There were others: all the educational muddles of the epoch are here expertly described, including Crosland’s fatal spending spree on polytechnics, the refusal of the UGC to behave sensibly when dealing between the cutting government and the wailing universities, the dimness, indolence and selfishness of dons, now at last forced to learn ‘Bitter Realities’ from the Education Act of 1988 – one dismal failure after another of organisation and imagination. Clearly by 1979 it was time somebody should take things in hand, and, to adapt what Marvell said apocalyptically about Cromwell, ‘if these the times, then she must be the man.’

So the Thatcher administrations come quite well out of this enquiry. Since there had to be a Falklands war it was as well that somebody competent was around to run it (‘no man could have handled the war better than she did’). ‘The most remarkable leader Our Age produced’ sought remedies for the decline Our Age had helped to produce. Her methods were not truly congenial to Our Age; now a little weary and ready to comply, it was still too hedonistic to sympathise totally with her spirit. Yet it could not but admire her resolution. She was subjected to criticisms Annan regards as inept and puzzlingly violent; he tries to explain them as due to her personality, to her manner and style, perhaps to her lack of ‘magnanimity’ – but that, he thinks, may be an exclusively masculine quality anyway. She preaches self-reliance and some of her critics seem unable to distinguish that virtue from greed.

Thatcher, as well as being fairly sound on education, was also right about the miners, right about the GLC, right about the poll tax, right about the bias of the BBC, wrong only on some minor issues such as Cheltenham. Eventually, after a roll-call of her intellectual supporters we at last hear the question: ‘But had Margaret Thatcher turned the country round?’ Well, possibly not, it seems. Crime, unemployment, miserly administration of social benefits, cardboard cities in filthy streets, disordered schools, high inflation, unprecedented deficit, wanton privatisation, low manufacturing capacity, prohibitive bank rate, the oil wasted, the police suspect, the health service jeopardised, the ... All this rapidly in a page or so, and not firmly attributed to any failure of will or performance on the part of government.

This partiality, however qualified, is surprising in an author who surveys the rest of his immense field with such independence of judgment. Nothing escapes his interest: achievements and failures in economics, philosophy, anthropology, history, literature, are knowledgeably and briskly surveyed. There are inevitably some off-the-cuff judgments that provoke disagreement, even some misunderstandings – for instance, an apparent failure, or lack of space, to distinguish structuralism from post-structuralism. There is, on page 89, a sentence of twenty or so words that contains three factual errors: but to borrow a quotation from Forster, they arise from ‘inattention rather than arrogance’.

A few more niggling points: if it is true that Our Age behaved sensibly in 1939 by giving intellectuals more suitable jobs than fighting, it was presumably true only of those who were accredited members of Our Age; perhaps it could not be helped that the unknowns evaded consideration. Can it be right to say that ‘when the Crown failed to indict Inside Linda Lovelace it became clear that literary censorship ... had gasped its last’? Rather did it find other and simpler means than the 1959 Obscenity Act when it proved too fair to defendants. Oddest of all, because uncharacteristically provincial, is the statement that ‘there had been no butchery in the battles of the Second World War’; also pretty weird is the remark that ‘people welcomed the extension of rationing’ in the post-war years because they saw it as ‘a way to dish the rich for eating in restaurants and getting preference in shops’. Apart from the fact that the rich continued, undished, to eat in restaurants, the rest were too busy getting preference for themselves, in their own shops, to bother much about the eating practices of their betters.

Still, these may have been the reactions the gentlemen of Our Age attributed to the People who were its contemporaries but didn’t belong to it. An impression one retains from this covertly sad but vigorous and highly-coloured book is that Our Age had a pretty good time during the half-century or so when our world was in their charge; that despite remarkable achievements in science, technology and even art, they failed because, as Annan puts it, they were more interested in knowing what than in knowing how. In the end their burden had to be assumed by a deviant from their manners and standards, one who really seemed to care about how as well as what, and had a go at turning the country round. Almost their last act must be to approve of this person, even though they cannot help noticing that the country quite soon (if it had ever really turned) faced about once more and continued on what they now know to have been all along the primrose path, the road to ruin.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address, and a telephone number.


Vol. 12 No. 21 · 8 November 1990

So Frank Kermode (LRB, 11 October) shares with Noel Annan an ‘acute distaste’ for F.R. Leavis. This must be the twentieth sideswipe at Leavis which I’ve noticed in the papers over the past five years. Each time the unargued jab has almost roused me to defence. Does Leavis need defending? His books remain in print and must continue to inspire and educate. How disappointing that the man now regarded as our senior critic should find it so natural to bad-mouth his great predecessor.

I say ‘great’ advisedly. Leavis’s writings, and his conversation, teemed with the vivid insights of someone selflessly immersed in literature, exceptionally able to see it anew, to feel the rhythm and nuance of remarkable writing and to focus his perceptions in prose of rare and unforgettable intensity. I wish Professor Kermode would look again at pages 175-91 of the hardback New Bearings in English Poetry, on Hopkins; or pages 26-33 of Revaluation, on Marvell and Dryden; or pages 275-80 of D. H. Lawrence: Novelist, on ‘Mother and Daughter’. By the Fifties Leavis was a little more inclined to assert his judgments, a little less supple or sensuously alert in his evoking of the whole effect of a work. But what original judgments they still were! How many of us would certainly be reading Lawrence’s shorter fiction had it not been for Leavis’s advocacy? Or Conrad’s political novels? How likely would Olivier have been to emphasise Othello’s vainglory had Kenneth Tynan not brought Leavis’s essay to his attention?

I suppose I spent hundreds of hours in the Leavises’ company, in lecture and tutorial rooms, in their house, in our lodgings. I wonder if even one remark they made was empty, or mean, or anything other than acutely illuminating. This is not the sort of boast about knowing the famous that Mrs Leavis used to call flank-rubbing. There was nothing bland or buttery about the association. Leavis so disapproved of my left-wing politics that in later years he showed a disinclination to meet or acknowledge me at public events. At Gregynog in Mid-Wales, when we were both speakers at a conference, he simply refused to debate with me on my challenging his view of the British past, which struck me as idealising. In a friend’s garden at Cambridge I took him up on his assertion, in the reprint of Scrutiny, that ‘we [the Scrutiny group] were Cambridge’ and said to him: ‘What about Rutherford and the Cavendish?’ His black eyes flashed their defensive resentment and after some seconds he came back with ‘That was a calculated hyperbole …’ After his death I visited Mrs Leavis, who had been in effect my research supervisor when nobody in the English Faculty had had the sort of commitment I needed to seeing literature in its historical situation. Over the usual delightful home-baked tea she did not scruple to repeat to me her son Robin’s judgment that a book of mine on education typified the forces ‘ruining English in the new universities’. Such were the tonic disagreements that flourished in our part of Our Age.

I find it hard to believe that Professor Kermode’s considered view of what Leavis contributed to the literary culture of this country puts it as low as he allowed himself to imply in that glancing phrase.

David Craig
Burton in Kendal, Cumbria

Vol. 12 No. 22 · 22 November 1990

I can entirely understand that Frank Kermode would find Noel Annan’s expression of ‘acute distaste’ for F.R. Leavis ‘entirely understandable’ (LRB, 11 October). But why bother to mention it? The man has been dead 12 years, his critical influence, though not defunct, is no longer potent. There must surely be some alternative to the extremes of hagiography and personal animus Leavis still evokes. And I believe that one is at last emerging. There is the excellent monograph by Michael Bell in the Routledge Twentieth Century Critics series: sympathetic yet detached, fully informed by contemporary theoretical perspectives. And above all there is Raymond William’s memoir collected in What I came to say, the penultimate paragraph of which shows more insight into Leavis – man and critic and the connection between the two – than anything else I know. It also illustrates why Williams himself, despite occasional faults of windy vacuity, is the major critic in English of the generation after Leavis.

Michael Lee
University of New England,

We were interested to read in David Craig’s eulogy of the Leavises (Letters, 8 November) that neither Frank nor Queenie ever made ‘even one remark’ that was ‘mean’ in all the author’s years of acquaintance with them, and to learn three sentences later that Leavis ‘Showed a disinclination to meet or acknowledge [him] at public events’, while Mrs Leavis insulted him over tea, calling him a representative of the forces ruining English in the new universities. One is irresistibly reminded of the character in Monty Python who was emphatic that it had been necessary for Doug Piranha to nail his head to the floor (‘He didn’t want to do it; I had to insist’).

Jonathan Bate, Hilary Gaskin

Vol. 12 No. 23 · 6 December 1990

Defending F.R. Leavis’s contribution to English literary culture, my colleague David Craig (Letters, 8 November) wonders whether Olivier’s performance of Othello would have been possible without the critic’s interpretation. As one who frequently heard Leavis’s side of this matter at York University in the Seventies, I found this an ironic piece of pleading. Leavis’s story was that Olivier had had the temerity to write a letter of thanks to him for the influence of his essay, but that he was so appalled to be associated with such a production and film, and to be approached about it by a mere mummer, that he had not deigned to reply.

Whether true or not, this snarling anecdote explains why Leavis’s professorship at York was not nearly as congenial as the English Department had hoped, or as the dedication of his late essays, ‘To my students at York’, would suggest. The York years have been little discussed, but my impression is that they were a recapitulation of the old pattern of disappointment and alienation. And if Mrs Leavis was echoing her husband’s views when she inveighed against those ‘ruining English in the new universities’, as Craig recalls, then it is not surprising that his students and colleagues at York felt mutual distaste.

In a university with a strong dramatic, musical and artistic culture Leavis’s philistinism saddened us. But at a time of dawning sexual politics, what shocked was the casual, habitual and coarse homophobia with which he laced his literary discrimination and denigrated the ‘fancy boys’ of the Sunday newspapers or the BBC. He shared, he made clear on every occasion, Lawrence’s neurosis about the ‘horrible sodomitic beetles’ he found in Keynes’s circle at Cambridge. Scarcely a seminar went by without a jibe that ‘I may not be able to appreciate the civilisation of the Bloomsbury writers, Morgan Forster and Lytton Strachey, but then I am not in the habit of consorting with guardsmen.’

Much of Leavis’s scorn was delivered with a demonic glee intended to scandalise, as when ‘Tom Eliot’ was pictured sitting in ‘a pile of ash this high’, or Bertrand Russell ‘fornicating like an alley cat’. But the homophobic disgust was more serious, as was the unease with which he introduced his memories of walks with Wittgenstein with the (to us mysterious) explanation that ‘he was a whole man … a whole man.’ There was, of course, a difference of tone between seminars and lectures, but the awareness that below-the-belt remarks were intended for the amusement of those who shared his idea of ‘wholeness’ made us all the more uncertain when he insinuated: ‘This is so, is it not?’ Leavis’s homophobia has not featured in recollections of his teaching. It was an ugly populist streak that survives in the jeers of his imitators at the Cambridge Quarterly against ‘the Marxist powderpuff Auden’. But outside such quarters, it is not, surely, honoured as part of ‘the literary culture of this country’.

Richard Wilson
University of Lancaster

David Craig writes as movingly and candidly about his personal relationship with F.R. Leavis as Paul Addison, in the same issue, does about his with A.J.P. Taylor. But isn’t the contrast between their two mentors illuminating? Taylor never sought to create a ‘Taylorite’ school. His verdicts on other historians never had the force of anathema.

When a group of us arrived at King’s College, Cambridge, in 1960 to ‘read English’ (what a fatuous expression that seems, as one writes it down), Leavis’s influence was at its height. Our tutor, John Broadbent, encouraged us to go to those famous seminars in Downing. I never made the trip. I’d been active in YCND and had there encountered the madder sort of Trot. (I should add that I’ve since known some very pleasant, sane Trots.) I already recognised a sect when I saw one.

At the famous occasion when – as the whole town knew in advance he would – Leavis recanted on Dickens, his lecture began, as I recall: ‘Dickens was, of course, the greatest English novelist …’ Coming from the man whose dismissive remarks in The Great Tradition had helped to veil Dickens’s abundance from a whole generation of critics, this was a breathtaking assertion. But like those which followed, it was delivered in a nasal mumble to a row of disciples at the front – the rest of us were merely ‘in attendance’.

However, the most serious charge against Leavis is not that he wielded the heresiarch’s weapon of sectarian paranoia so unpleasantly. Nor that his judgments were questionable – every citizen has a perfect right to construct, and even to publish, her or his own ‘great tradition’. (Myself, I occupy insomniac small hours trying to select the all-time best cricket XI to play Mars, and the results of my researches might yet find print …) The worst feature of ‘Leavisism’ was that it promoted a sociological disaster of Chernobyl proportions: the overproduction of intellectually vacuous English teachers, at all levels, who talked and wrote as if all ye needed to know on earth could be found in yer very own reading of George Eliot or D.H. Lawrence.

Leavis asserted that ‘English’ was, or should be, the queen of the humanities. In fact, it is – and should be – a mongrel discipline. In so far as it has involved the wholesome work of editing texts, annotating them, and exploring their contexts, it is, like ‘art history’, a thoroughly valuable area of historical studies. Where its practitioners venture aesthetic, ‘critical’ judgments these must, to be interesting, have some sort of worked-out philosophical basis.

There are essentially only two Arts disciplines: philosophy and history. Leavis’s wonderful Cambridge contemporary, Empson, showed how a clever yet ethically concerned thinker could bring the two basic disciplines together in such a way as to provoke clear thought about literature, and also about language, in which both as historians and as philosophers we are mortally, so to speak, incarcerated. Taylor was not, I suppose, like Empson in most respects. But each man clearly sought to provoke, not to dominate.

Angus Calder

Vol. 12 No. 24 · 20 December 1990

Bate and Gaskin (Letters, 22 November) don’t seem very good at reading. I wrote that the Leavises criticised my experimental English teaching and deplored my politics but were not ‘mean’. That is, they were not snide or underhand. They were candid. They were generous (with time, ideas, hospitality). They defended victims (e.g. of anti-semitism). They were not prone to the Bate-Gaskin Syndrome of treating tea-and-cake as a cosily genteel rite which debars you from saying what you think or enforces a mincing politesse. How I miss their salutary honesty.

David Craig
Burton in Kendal, Cumbria

David Craig’s response (Letters, 8 November) to yet another ‘sideswipe’ at F.R. Leavis exhibited neither ‘hagiography’ nor ‘personal animus’ and might have been the alternative Michael Lee was seeking, but below Mr Lee’s letter (Letters, 22 November) you have printed a casual derogation which shows how easily sense may be traduced in the service of (Clive) Jamesian ‘wit’. The penultimate paragraph of Craig’s letter reminisces about an association which was not ‘bland or buttery’, and in illustration a few ‘tonic disagreements’ are described. These might have persuaded even readers unfamiliar with Craig’s books that his sense of the Leavises’ worth had more to do with their hospitality and intellectual integrity than ‘flank-rubbing’. With calculated malice or, perhaps more likely, a fundamental inaptitude for reading, Jonathan Bate and Hilary Gaskin compress and distort this passage to make an easy joke at Craig’s expense and sustain the usual slurs against the Leavises. No wonder, one thinks, looking elsewhere in the same issue, that Wittgenstein expressed dissatisfaction ‘with Cambridge, academic life and England generally’. In fact, this rather crappy little Cambridge emission makes salutary reading in the light of Ray Monk’s piece, which ably demonstrates how an apparently trivial biographical detail may be perpetuated until, whether true or not, it distorts the proportions of its subject.

One is of course aware that not everyone can make the kind of disinterested acknowledgment that distinguishes Mr Craig’s letter, but why, to echo Michael Lee, do they bother to register ‘acute distaste’ after so long? Clearly James, Annan, and their reviewer, Frank Kermode, aren’t expecting to awaken controversy; still less are they concerned with thought and judgment. Surely their ‘unargued jabs’ are little more than signs of belonging to or wishing to join the right gang? Consequently, especially given the rather limited reviewing connection in this country, I expect such nose-thumbings to continue, at least until that generation of establishment figures whose complacency was undermined by F.R. Leavis’s oppositional example has faded from the scene. This gloomy prognosis does, however, pull the rug out from under some of the more serious work in your paper, such as Christopher Ricks’s painstaking corrections of inaccurate quotation and inadequate scholarship. If editorially you share the concerns of Ricks and Monk, why on earth do you print letters which manifestly depend for their cheap effect on misreading English? David Craig writes that Mrs Leavis ‘did not scruple to repeat to me her son Robin’s judgment …’ and you let your correspondents get away with turning this into ‘Mrs Leavis insulted him over tea.’ Craig also writes that ‘in later years’ Leavis snubbed him because he disapproved of his left-wing politics, and refused to engage in a debate when challenged. This struck Craig as ‘idealising’. However differently it might now strike Jonathan Bate and Hilary Gaskin, I don’t think they have the right to appropriate David Craig’s recollection, ignore his essential point that despite such instances he never found the Leavises’ remarks ‘empty, or mean, or anything other than acutely illuminating’, and make him the butt of a Monty Python gag.

Evidently Mr Bate and Ms Gaskin are seeking approval so that they can join the gang. Stylistically, and in general irresponsibility, their effort seems to follow Clive James, but since Frank Kermode used James’s memoir to snipe at Leavis (LRB, 24 May), and Noel Annan’s for the same purpose (LRB, 11 October), it does seem to me that consciously or otherwise the London Review is pandering too much to pseudo-controversy and encouraging the abandonment of principles which, elsewhere, it seems to endorse. Editorial neutrality is tenable, and diverse views are welcome, but something destructively other is occurring here.

Robert Watson
Huddersfield, West Yorkshire

A footnote to Richard Wilson’s heated letter about F.R. Leavis’s ‘homophobia’ (Letters, 6 December): I remember Mrs Leavis pronouncing in a supervision that ‘actors, like homosexuals, were people to feel sorry for: victims of arrested development.’ But there were several representatives of both categories of person in the couple’s circle, and I don’t think that the prejudice – for people of that generation – could be called profound or particularly virulent. One might even say that the essays against ‘the Bloomsbury tendency’ rather scrupulously avoid scoring the sort of cheap point that Wilson’s letter quotes.

Rupert Christiansen
London SW9

Vol. 13 No. 1 · 10 January 1991

It is curious to see the variousness of one’s lived experiences assuming the simplicity of received opinion. Always more biddable than Angus Calder (Letters, 6 December 1990), I, along with others, made the trip from King’s to Downing to attend Leavis’s seminars. Rumour had it that there had been two-way traffic in the past, with Leavis’s students quietly encouraged to attend Dadie Rylands’s sessions on Shakespeare in performance. But, though polarities could be countered in this way, they still existed, and it should not be supposed that advice from King’s to visit Downing was either dispassionate or ingenuous.

What we found there was a performance that was in marked contrast to the lectures; no seminar, certainly, since the resident acolytes clearly disapproved of interruptions to the monologue, but a spritely and animated delivery that was clearly untroubled by the defensiveness engendered by perceptions of an anonymous or hostile audience. Although as interlopers we were seldom or never addressed directly, there were various indirect acknowledgments of our presence. In particular, we formed a kind of secondary audience that could be played off against the main one. Thus, while comparisons of Proust to Mrs Gaskell, to the disadvantage of the former, might be designed to provoke us, we seemed, without ourselves participating in it, to encourage Leavis to an auto-subversive kind of teasing, in which he would urge his astonished students to consider the neglected qualities of writers he was held to dismiss totally. The effect (since Calder speaks of a resemblance to Trot sects) was a bit like hearing Trotsky tell some Fourth Internationalists that Stalin had occasionally put democratic centralism to some very creative purposes, or (to adopt his other metaphor) as though C.L.R. James were to propose Mike Gatting for twelfth man in an all-time best cricket XI.

None of this, of course, can defend Leavis against the weightier charges that have appeared in your columns of late. But it is worth emphasising (because the contrary seems now to be generally believed) that there was no Leavisite hegemony in Cambridge in the early Sixties (you were advised that it was bad for your career prospects to be too publicly enthusiastic about him) and that what he spent most of his time opposing was not philosophy or literary theory (he was deeply ambivalent about the first, and there was precious little of the second around) but the kind of banal mix of scholarship and frivolity with intellectual and social conservatism that you did not have to look far to find. His tragedy was that he finally succumbed to this conservatism himself; Cambridge’s was that there was not a critical mass of Empson-like figures around any more to provoke his extraordinary sensitivity to language to new directions. But there was Raymond Williams, and the affinities between these two, which neither could properly acknowledge, would bear further investigation in your columns.

Peter Griffith
Droitwich, Worcestershire

Vol. 13 No. 2 · 24 January 1991

As co-author of the ‘crappy little Cambridge emission’ referred to in your mercifully evenhanded letters page (Letters, 20 December 1990), my first reaction is to feel that the best way of dealing with the Leavises and the attitudes that they spawned is humour, but since your correspondents obviously find humour about Leavis more wounding than anything else, I had better spell out one or two serious points underlying what may have seemed a piece of flippancy. The allusion to the Pythons’ gangsters was intended to suggest that there was something bullying, not to say thuggish, about the Leavisite tendency, and that David Craig’s original letter unwittingly demonstrated this. Although the anecdote about Craig, Mrs Leavis and the insult over tea was compressed, it was not misread: to repeat to a person in apparent seriousness an insulting remark which someone else has made about him is to compound the insult.

According to Robert Watson, even Noel Annan and Frank Kermode arc concerned with ‘belonging to the right gang’; they need no defence from me, a freelance historical writer who has no connection whatsoever with the Cambridge English Faculty, but I would suggest that Watson’s letter, with its misplaced accusations and its attempts to coerce the editors of this paper, reveals that if there is a ‘gang’ it is that of the Leavisites – which was precisely the point of the Piranha allusion.

Hilary Gaskin

I am sorry that David Craig and Robert Watson were not amused by the comparison of Dr and Mrs Leavis to the Piranha Twins. Rereading some Leavis recently, I was struck above all by its humourlessness. Johnson, Hazlitt and Empson are the greatest English critics of their respective centuries not least because they are the funniest.

Jonathan Bate
University of Liverpool

send letters to

The Editor
London Review of Books
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address and a telephone number

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences