John Carey is a respected academic, chief book reviewer for the Sunday Times for forty years, a critic, a commentator and an author. His works have included biographies and his controversial books, “The Intellectuals and the Masses” and “What Good are the Arts?” This, however, is something different – a warm, funny and enjoyable autobiography- taking our narrator from his early childhood in Barnes in the 1930’s to the present. It is the memoir not only of a life, but also of Carey’s relationship with books and, for a reader, it is a delight to have this incredibly learned man make his love (and incredible knowledge) of literature come alive.
The book begins with Carey’s early life in London, interrupted by the war and the blitz. As a young boy, after a night of bombing, Carey apparently asked his father whether they were “dead yet”? The innocent question prompted his parents to relocate to the countryside for the duration of the war. In Radcliffe-on-Trent, the author started school and began a love of reading; consuming comics and Biggles, among other treasures. Returning to London, the author started grammar school – a system he obviously believes in passionately (and with which I agree wholeheartedly). For this book is, among other things, wonderfully opinionated. Carey is an unapologetic socialist and a man who did his utmost at Oxford to help break down barriers of privilege and wealth and help admit students who did not come from public school. Himself a grammar schoolboy, Carey won an Oxford scholarship; beginning his many years at the prestigious university after an interlude of national service (partly in Egypt).
During his time at Oxford, the author muses on his studies and recalls attending lectures by J.R.R. Tolkien, among others. Tolkien’s lectures were apparently mostly inaudible and, if audible, incomprehensible. Green mildew grew on his gown, as though he has stepped out of a wood... As well as commenting that he often did not enjoy his reading as an undergraduate; reading to learn, rather than for pleasure, he also makes the interesting observation that people who spend much of their time reading may find that they actually prefer reading about things rather than actually experiencing them. He gives an example of Wordsworth, finding a visit to Mont Blanc a disappointment when he finally saw it and suggests that reading can deaden the world as well as enliven it.
However, there is much for readers to enjoy in this book. Carey enthuses about his love of poets and authors. There is the visit by Robert Graves, among others, and digressions into what almost become short essays on authors such as D H Lawrence and George Orwell. He discusses book reviewing, writing, book prizes and everything in between. I found this an extremely enjoyable read, written by an utterly charming and intelligent author. Of course, he is aware that almost none of his readers will have his knowledge, but he is so enthusiastic that you feel ready to try some of the writers he has mentioned. As John Carey himself says, we should all Read On.
I received a copy of this book, from the publishers, for review.
John Carey's memoir is part autobiography, part record of a life as an Oxford don, and part discussion of the books and poetry which have moved and affected him. Born in the 1930s, Carey is part of a generation of scholars who certainly didn't have easy lives (`in those days, before central heating, everyone was cold most of the time'), but who were liberated from the increased professionalisation of academia, and thus were able to slip into jobs and write books for which they were barely qualified. Anyone struggling today to get any kind of post-doctoral position in a literature department, let alone in Renaissance poetry, can, therefore, only read this with envy.
Carey is an amusing and self-deprecating writer, and is aware of how different his academic life was from that of today's students: his anecdote of a meeting with his doctoral supervisor, Helen Gardner, where he read out bits of his research while she sat in front of the fire knitting is very telling. And the fact that he was commissioned to write an essay on DH Lawrence even though, as he admits himself, he `knew almost nothing about him', locates this in a very different world from that of most academics today.
So this is great on scholarly gossip, and is an affectionate portrait of that lost world of eccentric academia when professors were more like dilettante gentlemen amateurs (and they were mostly male) than professional researchers and teachers.
Carey admits that his literary tastes are subjective and I tend to disagree with his judgements: Philip Sidney, for example, is dismissed as being `feeble-witted', and Thomas Nashe as someone in whom `ideas are in short supply'. Wuthering Heights, too, is `unexpectedly tiresome'.
But I'm more than happy to agree to disagree: however far apart our tastes and critical judgements might be, Carey ends his book on a note which will strike a chord with readers everywhere: `book-burners try to destroy ideas that differ from their own. Reading does the opposite. It encourages doubt... reading releases you from the limits of yourself'.
(This review is from an ARC courtesy of the publisher)
on 22 March 2014
I remember a conversation with a friend, about fifteen years ago. We'd just seen the Lindsay Anderson film If.... and were talking about the bits we'd liked best. I said that I'd liked the weird bits the most. He said, 'Yeah - the bits in black and white, all the surreal stuff?' I looked a little puzzled, and gave my answer. It was a list of all the day-to-day things that happen in a public school, which its inhabitants clearly seemed to think were ordinary. Ever since I've had an enduring curiosity about what actually goes on in The Great Universities (TM) - if only in the same way an anthropologist does about a tribe of humans previously thought lost to civilisation.
The book is a memoir of Oxford but also of reading, and the importance books have played in Carey's life. It is also, as he states from the outset, a tribute to the grammar school system, long since destroyed by the kind of socialist that enjoys leaving smoking holes in his own feet. That preface is also a warning to the reader. I've quoted these words from one of Carey's earlier books before, but they're just as truthful now:
'The reader has a right to know what sort of person will be laying down the law in the rest of the book - what his quirks and prejudices are, and what sort of background has formed him [...] This would save the reader a lot of time, since he would know from the start how much of the book's contents he could automatically discount.'
Carey makes it clear what sort of background formed him. He was an accountant's son (incidentally, something he and I have in common), an occupation the Bloomsbury set loved to despise as 'clerks', as if further consideration were somehow unnecessary. As with Larkin, post-war austerity and deprivation seem to have entered his soul. Seemingly innocent objects - a mangle, a cucumber frame - stand for rare glimpses of luxury. He reads the magazines of the time -Chums, Biggles and, though not mentioned in this book, The Wide World - but never forgets the writers he discovered at Grammar school, the vivid clarity of their images.
After arriving at Oxford on a scholarship, he recalls the peculiar rituals. One involves being thought a rather spiffing sort for smashing more panes of glass than your Daddy did when he was there; another involves being carried out in a coffin in a mock funeral procession after getting expelled. The calculated rudeness, too, and what it tells you about an entire world of thought:
'One night I was sitting opposite him at dinner when he had a guest, for whose benefit he was identifying the various notables seated round the table. I heard his guest ask who I was, and [Sir Roy] Harrod replied, quite audibly, "Oh, that's nobody".'
Call this score-settling, if you like. I call it reportage, and I'd like to point out that no attempt at improving things that ignores or excuses away exchanges like this is likely to go far. The same might be said for Carey's warnings about watching more green fields vanish under concrete and sewage pipes.
From here, additional work finds his way. He tutors with 'military' robustness, determined to update and improve the syllabus. Additional work - editing Milton, moonlighting in Grub Street, judging prizes - seem to arrive almost out of the blue. A cottage is bought and renovated in the Cotsworlds; bees are lovingly kept. He writes books of his own, edits anthologies. He also meets living writers that he admires - Larkin, Graves, Heaney. Thankfully, these pieces are kept fresh, and free of hero-worship, especially the parts on Graves' rather dotty assertions.
I enjoyed the book for its outsider's take on Oxford and for Carey's punchy, vivid style. Not all of the material is fresh - some comes almost verbatim from earlier essays - but if it ain't broke, don't fix it. Throwing crusts of bread from the Hammersmith Bridge results in a 'swooping, screaming tornado of beaks and feathers'. During an exam, the sheets of paper 'flared up at you like arc lamps'; a house damaged by bombing 'lost its entire wall on the street side, exposing all its rooms with their furniture still in place, like a doll's house with the front lifted off'. Bees land in the darkness of their hive, the orange pollen on their back legs 'shining like brake lights.'
He can surprise you, too. Although Carey owns up that book awards are well-meaning lotteries, not infallible exercises in recognising merit, he is honest enough to share his feelings on being awarded the James Tait Black Prize for Biography, and this touching bit of self-depreciation: 'Academic matters apart, I had not won anything since the Richmond and East Sheen Grammar School for Boys cross-country run some fifty-eight years before.' Curiously, his favourites among the thousand or so books he has reviewed for the Sunday Times are largely non-fiction. Among those are John Osborne's virulently angry autobiographies, rather than Kazuo Ishiguro's The Unconsoled, or Clive James' Unreliable Memoirs.
Now the flaws. They're few, in truth. Attractive as Carey's anti-luxury stance can be, I like to think I'm not the only one who finds it a bit much when he savages aftershave as 'foppish', as if not stinking is an affront to basic human decency. When mentioning the work of the 1994 Nobel Laureate in Literature, Carey gets his name wrong. When Carey complains about the reviews for The Intellectuals and the Masses, I recall more sympathetic reviews than he seems to (such as Ian Hamilton's). While I've described Joyce's Ulysses as a handful of diamonds sprinkled over a slag heap, I haven't forgotten that Orwell couldn't read it without feeling 'an inferiority complex', nor that he aped its multiple-style approach in his second novel.
These minor gripes aside, if reading punctures 'pomp' and and 'makes you see that ordinary things are not ordinary', Carey has excelled at both here. I sincerely hope this will not be his last book.
on 28 June 2015
Some years ago I bought Carey's 'Pure Pleasure'. I then read all fifty books recommended in it, bar two. One was Seven Types of Ambiguity - I couldn't imagine what that was doing there - and the other was by S J Perelman, which I couldn't obtain. It was a worthwhile experience and I've always enjoyed his reviews and all-too-few appearances on TV.
So I was always going to read his autobiography.
The early chapters I thought poor and almost unworthy of inclusion, and even later on I winced at some of the anecdotes. This man needed to get out more, I thought. But as the book progressed, it became more and more interesting, even engrossing. Carey writes with total, simple, clarity. He may not expand on matters about one wishes to know more, he does exhibit a certain vanity and even self-satisfaction, and he rarely, if ever, writes a killer sentence. But he is 100% honest, and when he writes about his research and, especially about his reading, he is excellent.
If you are interested in books, Oxford, or college politics, or preferably all three, read this book. Twice.
on 5 May 2014
Touching, well - written and unstuffy, this is a autobiography written by - at first - an unlikely Oxford Don. A grammar school boy from an ordinary background his career flourished through hard work, prodigous memory and an innate skilll in exploiting useful career openings at various colleges: a happy congruence of serendipity, diplomacy and intellect. Carey's attitude to colleagues and students alike was shaped by National Service before Oxford; this experience afforded him an informed sense or proportion in dealings with other residents of the " Ivory Tower " lifestyle that eluded many career academics of that time. A good read, often leavened by dry humour and unpompous regard for Oxbridge institutions.
John Carey is a respected writer and literary critic and some of the books he has edited (for example, on reportage and science) are a joy to read, but this one I found disappointing. It's a mixture of autobiography, literary criticism and a description of life as an Oxford academic in an earlier time before the harsh winds of reality swept through that university. For me, this mix doesn't work. The description of his early family life at the beginning of the book, with lists of uninteresting relatives who played little part in forming Carey's character, is dull. The bulk of the book is a series of commentaries on the writers, particularly poets that he has studied and admires. These are often far too detailed, technical and rather tedious; they out of place for a relatively short book such as this. They also add little to understanding Carey himself. The most revealing sections are the descriptions of his academic life at Oxford. They are not very flattering. All too often he boasts about his achievements: in being the driver for modernising the English Faculty, in getting excellent reviews for his books and articles, and some minor discovery in the arcane world of English scholarship. Although he likes to portray himself as left-wing and on the side of the common man, he also likes to drop the names of the great and the good, and let the reader know they are in his circle of friend. I suspect he always felt a bit of an outsider at Oxford and still harbours resentment to those who held their positions almost `by right'. Carey's life has the material for a good biography, but it needs to be presented more objectively, not as an autobiography.
on 25 November 2015
Truly enjoyable memoir and fascinating insight into Oxford life and Carey's subsequent career with the Sunday Times. I am an 11 plus failure as is my husband who also loved the book. (Both of us against great odds I may add, managed to make it to LSE and Reading respectively because we were both as young teenagers nevertheless beavering away reading and reading under the noses of people who could not recognise talent). Inevitably we are against selection and do not agree with Carey's views on Grammar Schools. I have always loathed the elitism of Oxbridge which even now still filters into public life and a sense of entitlement by Oxbridge politicians (The Bullingdon elite and for Labour, Tristram Hunt types), but nevertheless, it was a privilege to read Carey. I did not want the memoir to end. (I felt the same way about Harold Evans memoir). Carey is a lot older than us, but he spoke of an English upbringing that resonated. My husband has read the Canon of European literature, and appreciated the fact that he could agree with Carey on most of the poetry and literature referred to. I am less well read, but enjoyed the descriptions of how Carey managed to succeed at Oxford as an English academic.
on 16 March 2015
To me at least, I think that the author got wrong exactly what the focus of this book should be, starting off in autobiography and then going off into literary criticism - perhaps there should really have been two books in the end, one about his life and the other focusing on his views on books. For me the first half of the book rings truer with great descriptive power chronicling his younger years and reading very well also as a history of the times. The passages about ordinary life come across vividly, while I'm not sure I care too much about his in depth opinion on Donne or Beowulf and other literary musings which are the focus of the second half of the text. I think to be fair that the musings on literature will only appeal to a limited number of people, whilst his life story may probably appeal to a greater audience.
on 30 August 2014
"Reading is freedom," says John Carey. " It releases you from the limits of yourself." Well I was happily released during the reading of this "Oxford life in Books," and sorry for it to end. From The Dandy and Beano through Donne, Milton, Browning, Orwell, Larkin, Gunter Grass, Frank Muir, Kenzaburo Oe et al, John Carey's enthusiasm for reading ("vast, like the sea") and the opening up of other lives and points of view, is engaging and infectious, even when his tastes differ to mine. And interesting to read about his wartime childhood, the sad business of his brother's illness (friends were never invited to the house), his first love, settling in to Oxford and his work at various colleges there, marriage and children, horticultural development and fascinating snippets of university politics and academic shenaningans.
In his literary milieu, Carey naturally got to associate with some well known figures. The vignettes are of interest. When after a (rare) poetry reading by Philip Larkin, one of Carey's undergraduates questions the poet about the melancholy view of life expressed in his poems, Larkin replies sharply. "I didn't invent old age and death."
Victorian and modern literature had not been on the syllabus till the early sixties, so there are chapters on catching up with the Victorians, and with the twentieth century.
I have been left with re-kindled interest in books read and unread, and have reached for an old copy of the poems of Gerald Manley Hopkins, started on Orwell's 'Coming Up for Air,' and have ordered 'Leadville' a book about living on the Western Avenue, of all things. Have even had thoughts of looking for that neglected copy of Paradise Lost.
on 7 June 2015
I could not put this down! I really enjoyed discovering the human side of this well known academic, and some of the descriptions of life at Oxford were fascinating. But most of all I enjoyed the way he communicated his love of literature and especially the ending which summed up what books can do for us.