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The Unexpected Professor

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Carey, John. The Unexpected Professor

I first encountered John Carey through his book about Charles Dickens, The Violent Effigy, which I had read several years ago, so was soon browsing through this paperback in Pershore High Street last week. As I flipped through the book, the familiar names of TS Eliot, Charles Dickens, Helen Gardner and Christopher Ricks alerted me to the English literature I knew and loved. Here was an authority, a man respected for his criticism who had actually met and even shaken the hand of people who were to me ‘legends.’ I couldn’t put the book down and - there was no choice - I had to buy it. I found that Carey was born in Barnes, not so far from Putney where I used to live and that he had read and commented upon almost every writer I had ever read. Moreover he was an Oxford man, winner of scholarships, chairs and many awards including being a Booker judge. I too in my humble capacity had to some extent followed unknowingly in his path, attending a post-war grammar school and having my education interrupted by National Service and eventually taking up employment in teaching at an American University.

I was delighted to find that this learned man was so approachable, so easy to read, and that he was very far from being a stuffy intellectual, a quibbler or one lost in the clouds of academic pretense. Carey calls a spade a spade, has forthright and often controversial opinions, is neither Leavisite nor Marxist and obviously enjoys literature for its own sake. I felt that he understood not only the works in themself but the men behind them. Thus on Swift he says, ‘the fury he felt about how humans behave went far beyond local political issues.’ The Yahoos’ behaviour, so distasteful and ‘disgraceful’ as it seems to us underpins the human predicament, of being at base an animal, but one with ludicrous aspirations for immortality.

Carey is a socialist but not a starry-eyed visionary who believes that public education is not something that should be donated by right to anyone who feels like giving it a go. One has to earn the right to attend the higher universities, or rather, one should be allowed to compete for places based on one’s ability, not on one’s class background, and cetainly not on one’s ability to pay. Unsurprisingly one of his three top twentieth century novelists is George Orwell, the one whom he quotes as saying ‘the truth is that in a prosperous country left-wing politics are largely make-believe.’

It is appropriate that one of Carey’s most popular books is entitled Pure Pleasure, and his justification for reading and writing literature is simply that it ‘functions by making us imagine what it would be like to be someone else.’ Carey, who has read so widely and commented so wisely, deserves a knighthood for services to literature, although I’m pretty sure that, like Tony Benn, he’d never even consider accepting it.

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