|Oxford University Press|
the observer Sun 15 March 2009
One unintended benefit of this biography is that it gives those of us who were not around then a sense of what the campus agitators of the 1960s were reacting against. The cloistered stuffiness and class-ridden exclusivity of the world inhabited by Maurice Bowra demanded a window be opened. Bowra (1898-1971), classical scholar, warden of Wadham College, Oxford, for more than 30 years, and vice-chancellor of the university from 1951 to 1954, was the quintessential don. His learning across several languages and literatures puts most modern academics to shame. Yet this expansive erudition contrasts with the tightly knit provincial world in which he lived. Oxford was everything to Bowra ("I can't think why anyone lives anywhere else"). It represented the bastion of humane cultivation, a salve to the brutalities of the trenches in which he served during the Great War and an antidote to the materialism of the modern world.
However, Bowra had a commanding, narcissistic personality that, within the narrow horizons of Oxford, resulted in much distasteful social and professional manoeuvring. He compulsively selected acolytes. From his undergraduate years at New College, he insisted on dominating every gathering, imperiously surrounding himself with a fawning set. Even those who were favoured were racked with anxiety of imminent ridicule or exclusion.
Commissioned by the warden and fellows of Wadham College, this biography is sympathetic and exculpatory. Mitchell continually presents his subject's credentials as a "libertarian" who encouraged individualism, experiment and pleasure. But, despite Mitchell's suggestion that his snobbery was intellectual, not social, the impression remains of unedifying haughtiness. Intimidation, bullying, the vilification of the gauche: it was no wonder that aspiring Bowristas could feel so ill at ease. He was a great advocate of Greek models throughout his life, but his cultivation of an in-crowd often resembles nothing so much as an American campus fraternity.
It was a profoundly male society in which a dandified homosexuality was positively encouraged. Bowra revelled in his leadership of what he called "the Homintern", yet he avoided scandal by refusing to participate in a ceremony honouring André Gide. Though he never married, he does seem to have been in love with women in his younger life, and poignantly commented near its end that "life would have been happier if I had known any girls in my youth".
He had a provincial lack of interest in politics; the world would be saved through cultivation and the arts, not through anything as grubby as direct social change. It was a terrible disappointment when his student Hugh Gaitskell chose a political career. This lack of political sensibility meant that an essay Bowra wrote at the request of an initially admiring Theodor Adorno, exiled in Oxford in 1936, struck the German philosopher as naive and journalistic.
All agree that Bowra's writings never matched the brio of his conversation. His epigrammatic wit is frequently compared with Oscar Wilde's, but Bowra's one-liners, for all their cleverness, lack the warmth and wisdom of a Wildean paradox. His most famous is a riposte to one who queried the plainness of a prospective wife: "Buggers can't be choosers." Other famous adages include his self-description as "more dined against than dining" and his claim that Noel Annan's feelings ran "only sin deep". Ultimately, this wordplay amounts to little more than high-brow camp: a sort of Carry On Common Room.
There is a baby to be rescued from the Bowra bathwater, however. He clearly commanded the affection of generations of students and peers. His advocacy of humane learning, his insistence that "the object of education is not the accumulation of knowledge but the training of the mind to think", resonates still. Though deeply aware of his duties as a custodian of classical civilisation, he could be receptive to bold ideas. His decrial of utilitarian, economic and instrumentalist values in education pertains to battles still being fought. Bowra taught that living well was as important as living profitably. It remains a lesson worth learning.