'Schlick-teasing' queen of Oxford

A Memoir
April 6, 2001

Had this intelligent volume been entitled Five Women, Two Men and Me , we should know sooner what it was about. It is not a memoir, but an autobiographical sketch and a disconnected set of pen portraits by Baroness Warnock, establishment woman, sometime Oxford don, headmistress of Oxford High School, chatelaine of Hertford College, Oxford, mistress of Girton College, Cambridge, and serial quango chairwoman.

It is a delightful book, even if its readership is likely to be somewhat restricted. Large tracts will not make much sense to those who have not known Oxford from the inside; other readers probably debarred from continuous enjoyment include non-philosophers and those who find the fine detail of Labour Party history tedious. Warnock sometimes forgets that people of immediate interest to herself are not automatically fascinating to outsiders. But mostly her enormous percipience and charm, and the plentiful fund of good vigorous anecdote, seduce the reader into turning the pages. She writes well, too, in a pleasantly informal and apparently unselfconscious style.

The objects of her scrutiny are four women philosophers (herself, Philippa Foot, Elizabeth Anscombe and Iris Murdoch); the English don Rachel Trickett; the politicians Peter Shore and Margaret Thatcher; and her brother, Duncan Wilson, diplomat and master of Corpus Christi, Cambridge. She gives us some enviably lucid summaries of important philosophical phenomena, especially Wittgenstein's "private language argument" - by which, however, she is taken in. She is merciless to politicians of whom she disapproves: Thatcher gets it wonderfully in the neck (what did the scourge of higher education make of her chapter, if she read it?), and so, more briefly, does Tony Blair.

Warnock is refreshingly direct and explicit, though selectively. Honesty, she claims, compelled her to reveal, at the risk of upsetting his family, that the great classical scholar Eduard Fraenkel groped his female pupils (though not his male ones, if my experience is typical). But the same honesty does not oblige her to discuss any non-marital sexual activities of her own, though she leaves us in little doubt of their appeal. It is not necessary to reveal identities, but the high profile she has had in her official ethical inquiries makes her handling of her own moral life a matter of public interest. Does she think adultery acceptable? Was it honest, moreover, to allow her husband to write most of her BPhil. thesis for her? Might she have revealed whether her full-time career required her to sideline her (five) children, or why Cecilia Ady was dismissed from St Hugh's (an event portrayed as crucial in the college's history)? She does not tell (or rebut) the story of her refusal to attend an interview for the principalship of Lady Margaret Hall on the grounds that the fellows already knew her. And is she deliberately tantalising us when she writes that her friend Imogen Rose was "for one reason or another, in deep trouble"? Or tells us that Philippa Foot was the granddaughter of a president of the United States without identifying him as Cleveland? Finally, to record the murder of a member of the Vienna Circle but not to name him is brazen Schlick-teasing.

There are other oddities. She tells off Isaiah Berlin for writing carelessly in his old age, but then approvingly quotes a book of late interviews (carelessly misspelling the interviewer's name). And she generalises unwisely from her own experience: how many wives would agree that it is "crucial to marriage" that one should "always want to talk to (one's spouse), to do things with him, and never feel bored in his presence"?

In Leningrad, she "loathed going into churches used as either museums or nothing at all". If memory serves, she once said on air that although she believed none of the propositions in the Anglican service of evensong, she thought it extremely important that it should continue to occur, and not just as a cultural relic, but as one of the practices of a living church. But if you reject the metaphysical underpinnings of a faith, you cannot lay claim to the fruits of its rituals - even if, as she recommends, you preface prayers and hymns by saying to yourself "Our religion teaches".

The book's title may be a relic of a time when Warnock planned to write a continuous account of her life, but it ought to have been ditched. Like the subtitle, it is pedestrian and inappropriate, and their conjunction inverts the natural order: "People and Places: A Memoir". Some other pitfalls of sloppy publishing are exemplified, too. Warnock has not been efficiently served by her copy editor (if there was one). She is not rescued from an erratic use of the comma or the occasional dangling modifier. The useful distinction between the hyphen and the en rule is ignored. And what ought to be footnotes, as well as being defective, are shoehorned into the text, presumably in deference to the strange view that general readers are alienated by footnotes, when in fact they are far less intrusive in their proper place. No one has expunged a smattering of stylistic banalities - too many occurrences of "as I have said", reports of deaths vacuously qualified by "sadly". She is allowed to say "Speculation is pointless" about an indeterminate but probably checkable hypothesis, and "There was a kind of weekly round-up" of The Archers , and so on.

Enough pedantry - Ed. Many readers will get a great deal of pleasure out of this gem-filled book. Warnock may seem, at times, evasive and smug, and slightly cerebral about matters of the heart, but one's overriding impression is of a human being who is extraordinarily intelligent, in many ways most attractive, and certainly unusually keen-sighted.

Henry Hardy (sometime editor at Oxford University Press) is a fellow, Wolfson College, Oxford.

A Memoir: People and Places

Author - Mary Warnock
ISBN - 0 7156 2955 7
Publisher - Duckworth
Price - £18.00
Pages - 256

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