How a gift for puncturing fads left one academic lonely but right

The academic George Watson was an anti-Marxist but never a conservative.

King's College, Cambridge. Photo: rnddave via flickr.

George Watson’s memorial service, in Cambridge this Saturday, celebrates his career as an English lecturer, literary critic and historian. He was a scholar but a generalist, an elitist and yet a liberal, a staunch anti-Marxist but never a conservative; his most consistent quality was a gift for alienating all tribes roughly equally.

No doubt some NS readers will know Watson’s work as an essayist and bibliographer. But he had fewer general readers than he deserved. He was more erudite, more readable and more often right than many other academics who were more celebrated. That underratedness owed much to just the kind of paradox that Watson delighted in analysing. Instead of being conveniently persuaded by intellectual fashions, he was irresistibly drawn towards puncturing the academic and political fads of the moment. A lifetime of exploring uncomfortable truths may have left him without a natural constituency but it reinforced the innate bravery of the outsider, the instinct that informed the central themes of his career.

Watson was a lifelong liberal and stood as a parliamentary candidate in the 1959 general election. His literary career, however, was anything but political, at least not in the careerist sense of the word. He caused deep offence to the left by reminding it of what its intellectual advocates (including the founders of this magazine) had actually said and written. This did not go down well with people who liked to gloss over the more uncomfortable aspects of socialism’s past.

Yet he was equally enthusiastic about debunking conservative myths. He was baffled by what he called “the conservative contradiction”, the sudden attachment of the Conservative Party to the free market. “The free market is not a conservative idea, and for most of its history the Conservative Party was openly against it,” he observed. “Try asking any Tory leader to point to a single social effect of the market that is conservative. Of course there are none, and in their hearts they know there are none.”

Not content with confronting political positions, he set about combatting his own profession. During the upheavals within English studies in the 1970s and 1980s, he was among the first and most strident opponents of deconstruction. He also charted, with mischievous delight, the migration of ex-Marxists towards new creeds that helped them to avoid dealing with awkward wrong turns in their pasts. “There is one important respect in which politics is more honest than academe,” he wrote in 2005. “In politics, when you are shown to be wrong, you have to change your mind to survive. Professors are unfortunately under no such compulsion . . . Ex-Marxists took refuge in subjectivism: no perception is false, all values are merely personal. It turned out to be a cosy place for the disillusioned.”

In person, Watson could be awkward, even gauche. He had good friends but was undoubtedly lonely. Yet this unwillingness or inability to learn easy sociability coexisted with a deep grasp of manners and etiquette. He understood that no amount of egalitarian good intentions could replace the natural human instinct for status. “If you totally abandon conventions,” he wrote in a piece about formality, “you find conventions re-entering the back door.”

Watson was long retired when I got to know him as an undergraduate in the late 1990s. He would send me his eclectic essays, published in a dizzying array of American journals, and I invariably found something new and surprising in them. Above all, they were fun, elegant and witty. “He had many wives,” Watson wrote in a memoir of his friend and colleague Hugh Sykes Davies, “four of them his own.”

A few years after graduating, I realised I’d kept 30 or so of his essays and hatched a plan with John Gross, formerly the editor of the Times Literary Supplement, that we might collect Watson’s best pieces in one published volume. Gross died before we’d managed it; now Watson, too. Sadly, this column will probably be the closest I ever get to curating his talents and ideas.

Yet he would have celebrated my failure: despite being a prolific writer, Watson despised workaholism and regretted the demise of idleness. He felt it sustained the civilising tradition of conversation. “The lazy talk well,” he would say. Conversely, Watson was suspicious of what he called the Achievement Age. “In earlier ages people overworked, to be sure, but commonly because they were forced by poverty or impelled by a sense of duty. Now work can be a neurotic addiction.” Watson realised that workaholism was more about style than getting things done. Workaholism is just inverse-sprezzatura.

He also identified and skewered celebrity culture long before it became a common intellectual curiosity. He realised that the obsession with hard work strangely legitimised those who worked simply at being well known: “The Achievement Society can be faintly perverse in its judgements, and what it esteems above all else is fame. I once attended a concert at the Royal Albert Hall which happened to be televised. Sitting by chance behind the piano soloist, I was caught by the cameras and found myself congratulated for weeks afterwards as never before. Even being famous for nothing is apparently a great achievement.”

Everyone can see that now, after Big Brother and all the rest, but Watson was writing in 1991. As with many of his positions, he suffered from being ahead of his time, then tired of repeating his own stance just as it became popular. By then, it was time to attack the next voguish mistake. All the way to the end, he remained often right but rarely savvy. The opposite arrangement, after all, is very well-occupied territory.

Ed Smith’s latest book is “Luck: a Fresh Look at Fortune”(Bloomsbury, £8.99)