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The trouble with Oxford

<strong>Maurice Bowra: a Life</strong>

<em>Leslie Mitchell</em>

Oxford University Press, 400pp

Some modern celebrities, it is said, have never done anything particularly notable. They are just famous for being famous. The same description would do for Sir Maurice Bowra, though his fame existed only among a limited, albeit influential, circle. He spent his entire working life at Wadham College, Oxford, where he became a fellow in 1922 and served as Warden for 32 years from 1938 before dying there at 73 in 1971; but, being resistant to change of all kinds, he attempted no great reforms or innovations.

He was a scholar of ancient Greek literature but, despite a string of books, produced nothing exceptional (one contemporary compared his prose to "a man writing luggage labels") and failed to get an Oxford chair. He was allegedly a great wit, but does not have a single entry in The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations. He was almost certainly homosexual and, to his friends between the wars, proclaimed himself a leader of the Homintern. Yet he ducked out of public backing for homosexuals, most shamefully in 1947 when he refused to support André Gide, as open a honorary degree. Many thought him the model for characters in Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited and Anthony Powell's Dance to the Music of Time, but it probably wasn't true in either case. Nor was it true that, on being greeted by Hitler with "Heil Hitler!" he responded: "Heil Bowra!" It was his friend (and possibly lover) Robert Boothby who shouted "Heil Boothby!" and he was responding, not to Hitler himself, but to a secretary. When the false version of the story circulated, Bowra implored Boothby not to spoil it. Which says, perhaps, all you need to know about the man.

So why should anybody read Leslie Mitchell's biography of this vain, apparently unimportant character, meticulous and elegant though it is? The answer is that it reveals a great deal about Oxford and how it moulded attitudes in a section of the English cultural elite. For at least 30 years, according to A J Ayer, he was by far the most influential don at Oxford, almost personifying the university's values. He had an extra­ordinary, close to hypnotic, effect on young men (plus a few women) and drew them into a "Bowra circle". Mitchell defends him against charges of social snobbery, but Bowra clearly had definite ideas about who was acceptable in his circle and who wasn't.

The Bowristas, as they were known, included Waugh, Powell, Ayer, John Betjeman, Isaiah Berlin, Kenneth Clark (art historian and father of the Tory minister and diarist Alan Clark), Stephen Spender, John Sparrow (later Warden of All Souls), Cyril Connolly and Cecil Day-Lewis. Clark described Bowra as "the strongest influence on my life" and many others would have said something similar. W H Auden, on the other hand, was not "in" - Bowra thought him full of "slapdash, superficial judgements" and "sham psychology" - but wished he was. As Auden wrote in 1967, what the Bowristas had in common was that, "at an age when most young men are floundering about, they were already formed characters . . . their interests, their outlook on the world, their manner of gesture and speech, were exactly what they would remain for the rest of their lives".

So powerful was Bowra's personality, so rigid his insistence on certain standards, so unbending his views on what was important and unimportant that, once admitted to the presence, few dared take intellectual or creative risks. Some, such as Connolly, Sparrow and Berlin, never quite produced the substantial work that might have been expected of them. If English culture and thought from the 1920s to the 1960s often seemed timid, insular, narrow and elitist - and still suffers somewhat from those defects - Bowra should bear a measure of responsibility.

His attitudes to science and scientists are particularly telling. His view was that "any writer who embraced science died to his artistic calling". Zola, Wells and Shaw, therefore, were not worth reading. He thought science would destroy Oxford and almost welcomed cuts in the university's funding, because it would stop "vast building schemes for science . . . and with luck some of the professors will commit suicide". Politically, he was on the liberal left: he opposed capital punishment, censorship, pre-war appeasement, colonialism, the Vietnam War and apartheid and, although he adored Greece, refused to go there under the colonels. But active political involvement, he thought, endangered the soul. As for the distribution of wealth and the condition of the people, it is doubtful he ever gave them a moment's thought. He paid lip- service to democracy but secretly doubted it was compatible with his cultural values and, in his heart, favoured an aristocracy of merit.

All this would be of little importance if Bowra had not exercised such a powerful, even smothering, influence on some of the most talented young people of their generation. The influence was not all bad, as this largely sympathetic biography shows. He believed in laughter, wine and good conversation, and challenged the social conventions that, in the 1920s, still lingered from the Victorian era. He clearly had some talent as a satirist and mimic - his spoofs of Kipling and Betjeman were genuinely funny - and he chose most targets well, poking fun at pomposity and self-importance. If his celebrated wit sometimes seems juvenile and even scatological, some epigrams - "Where there's death, there's hope", for example - still prompt a smile. And he was a firm libertarian who, to the end, defended students' rights to insult dons and express themselves politically and sexually as they wished. For most of Bowra's life, however, Oxford was one of a mere handful of universities educating the nation's future elite. His influence explains much of what was wrong with Britain in that era.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The New Depression