The London Times Education section reviewing Oxford English Professor John Carey’s memoir, The Unexpected Professor: An Oxford Life in Books looks back admiringly at Oxford in the 1950s.
Oxford in the 1950s was a pretty strange place. The English syllabus stopped at 1832. Careyâ€™s finals happened to take place in very hot weather, so â€œpeople quickly abandoned their jackets, ties and gowns. Heaps of them littered the floor, along with other trash brought in by candidates â€“ teddy bears, smelling salts, wilting carnations â€“ so you had to wade through a sort of flea market to get to your place.â€ His interview to become a graduate student was conducted by â€œan old-style don who did not really believe in literary â€˜researchâ€™â€, followed by dinner â€“ and then it was out to the bowling green.
And there were also, of course, â€œtoffsâ€ everywhere. When Carey was asked to take over the teaching of English literature at Christ Church, then considered Oxfordâ€™s most aristocratic and exclusive college, for the academic year 1958-59, he says now, â€œit really was like Brideshead Revisited. The snobbery was astonishing.
â€œOne student told me about a night in the year when the idea was to break more windows in Peckwater Quadrangle than your father or grandfather had done. So it created a maelstrom of glass. He was quite innocently walking through and a piece from a tonic-water bottle bounced off a wall and blinded him in one eye. He was absolutely unresentful. He was a public schoolboy and regarded that as the kind of risk you take: young gentlemen will let off steam â€“ and if you were in the way, you were in the way.â€
Things have obviously changed since then.