From Bar to bar-room floor

The Warden

January 15, 1999

Stefan Collini ponders an Oxford life dedicated to wit, wine and the status quo.

Readers of The THES could be forgiven for thinking that a book about a man who was head of an Oxford college for 25 years and who wrote several books might have something to do with higher education. But they would be wrong. John Sparrow (1906-92) was a moderately successful chancery barrister who dabbled in belles-lettres .

Sparrow's social tastes were conservative, not to say snobbish, his sexual tastes homosexual, and his concern for his own comfort and pleasure considerable. He had joined an extremely agreeable male club when he was 23, and when his fellow members elected him, at the age of 46, to its presiding office, he had no wish to see its agreeableness diminished. He therefore used his considerable social and intellectual capacities to frustrate change wherever possible, and when he retired 25 years later he could look back on a long list of reforms and "improvements" that had been successfully resisted. This probably would not have mattered had the club in question not been All Souls College, Oxford.

All Souls, of course, was not in any obvious sense an educational institution. It had (and has) no students, and only a proportion of its fellows were expected to engage in serious academic work. A fellowship was a prize to be invested or squandered as one chose, not the first step on an academic ladder. Even in the 1960s, half the fellows still, quite legitimately, resided in London, where they generally pursued legal or political careers, coming up to the college at weekends to eat well and vote badly.

When Sparrow was elected warden in 1952, his aim was to preserve the amenities of the club. As John Lowe, his friend and admirer, notes: "He had no plans for the academic future of the college since he had no interest in the academic life."

Books, however, were another matter, especially rare and expensive books, of which he built up a stupendous private collection. He said he wanted to be a learned man like Mark Pattison, a figure about whom he frequently imagined writing a great book (which just as frequently he found reasons for not getting down to), and about whom he eventually wrote an elegant set of lectures, published as "Mark Pattison and the idea of a University".

Sparrow's was the deep if almost unusable learning of the bibliophile and gentleman scholar - there was little he did not know about the Latin verse of the English Renaissance - but he was neither original nor disciplined.

At the moment of his election as warden he confessed to a friend, with attractive self-knowledge: "Have I any creative ability whatever? I think not - and if not, I ought to have stayed on at the Bar, which exercises the crossword puzzle and histrionic talents which I have ."

In fact, his abilities were primarily post-prandial; he clearly excelled at that mixture of wit, anecdotage and debating-society cleverness that old fashioned English male institutions seem, for some reason, to regard as the very hallmark of civilisation.

He bore the stamp of that weird culture in other ways, too: "In most respects his attitude to his sexuality was old-fashioned: on the whole, one loved one's friends and bought one's sex." The smoking-room candour is appropriate and, in this case, infinitely depressing. Still, one Sparrow does not a winter make.

The Warden is, as its subtitle accurately indicates, a "portrait", not a full dress biography; it is personal, affectionate, forgiving (to be Sparrow's friend was clearly to take an advanced course in forgiving). The narrative manner is anecdotal rather than analytical: the book is unfootnoted and bears little trace of recent scholarship about the topics on which it touches. Its main use to future historians will probably be to provide further examples of just how small and close-knit the overlapping worlds of the social and intellectual elites still were in the middle of this century.

There were few figures of significance in England's political, legal and cultural life between 1930 and 1970 with whom John Sparrow had not dined.

The book is also a reminder of what a peculiar place unreformed All Souls was ("reformed" is a relative term here).

The very name of the Committee on the Surplus indicated that the Oxford college with the greatest disposable income still took a robustly 18th-century view of institutional privilege. The Trollopian associations of the book's title come to seem disconcertingly apt.

Lowe's portrait is hardly a wart-free zone (how could it be?), but he concludes that the term Sparrow's personality demands is "lovable": "For anyone who knew John really well, no other word would do." I only met Sparrow once, when he was already deep in what was to prove a terminal, alcohol-fueled decline, but a roguish winningness and conversational dexterousness were still intermittently apparent. The pity of it all, as this engaging book makes clear, was that his undoubted qualities had been so heavily invested in trying to prevent All Souls from becoming a somewhat less indefensible institution.

Stefan Collini is reader in intellectual history and English literature, University of Cambridge.

The Warden: A Portrait of John Sparrow

Author - John Lowe
ISBN - 0 00 215392 0
Publisher - HarperCollins
Price - £19.99
Pages - 258

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