Friday, 15 January 2010

Civilised malice

A great discussion of Isaiah Berlin and academic bitchiness, obviously its highest form (fostered no doubt by the variously-attributed comment that 'academic politics are so vicious precisely because the stakes are so small.')

It's entitled 'Isaiah Berlin's Civilized Malice' and is mostly concerned with a TLS review by AN Wilson of Berlin's correspondence. It turns out that we have a bitch-fest on our hands: perhaps unsurprisingly as Wilson is a masterful exponent of jousting with stilettos.

One treasurable little anecdote is recounted by the post's author, Charles Rosen. It concerns AL Rowse, the Cornish historian and fellow of All Souls, whose 'pride in his humble Cornish origins and his subsequent intellectual renown were legendary':
One story often told about Rowse is that he came down one day to breakfast at All Souls, fulminating about a bad review in The Times of his latest book, and said, “You see the way the upper class resent that I have been able to rise into their midst entirely by my own merit.” John Sparrow, then the Warden of All Souls (he had been elected in 1952 over Rowse), looked up from his breakfast and said, “Rowse, whatever gives you the impression that only the rich detest you?”

This is from the often stimulating New York Review of Books blog where the indefatigable Tony Judt recently posted engagingly on the food he grew up with in an East End Jewish family and later at Cambridge. It concludes:
Were I ever truly to set out in Search of Past Taste I would begin with braised beef and baked turnip, followed by chicken tikka masala and pickled wollies swabbed in challah, Kingfisher beer and sweet lemon tea. As for the madeleine that would trigger the memory? Naan dunked in matzoh ball soup, served by a Yiddish-speaking waiter from Madras. We are what we ate. And I am very English.

9 comments:

Gadjo Dilo said...

Yes, I was in Academia I was slightly surprised to witness how vicious were academic politics and how small the stakes sometimes were. AL Rowse may well have been an arrogant git - see his Wikipedia entry, ha! - but if I were to publish a book I fear bad reviews might also trigger my recourse to some similar scapegoat :-(

worm said...

A cornishman chippy? Never! :/

Brit said...

Don't forget that AN Wilson was soundly thrashed by Bevis Hillier in one of the funniest academic hoaxes ever.

Gaw said...

Gadjo, the Rowse of the Carpathians. (Or is that 'Rose'?)

Worm: His book on Tudor Cornwall is supposed to be good though I've never read it. It sort of sounds as if it would be good...

Brit: Yes, I remember that particularly bitter feud. I think Wilson had the sweetest revenge though: selling well, or at least better.

dearieme said...

The rudest public statement I've ever heard:-

The scene: an academic dinner, in honour of a Bright Young Man leaving his Cambridge department to take up a chair at (let us say) Manchester. Also present, "James", an older man who has just arrived from Manchester to take up a Cambridge chair. After the food, a speech of thanks from the BYM: "I am told that the biggest problem I will face in Manchester is that I will be much the cleverest man in the department". He swings round to face the older chap. "Just the opposite of your problem, James."

ghostofelberry said...

i recall Wittgenstein, in a philosophical discussion about improbable events, saying breezily, of a colleague whose name i can't recall (some total non-entity): "Let us suppose that X has a mind"

Gadjo Dilo said...

Top hoax by Hillier, but we read that he "spent 25 years researching and writing his own magisterial three-volume biography of Betjeman" - hmm, maybe he should have got out more.

Gaw said...

Dearieme: I wonder: was the comment greeted with (a) a full-throated roar (b) desultory sniggers or (c) an embarrassed silence.

Elb: And then there was the poker incident. Quite a handful!

Gadjo: One can only imagine his rage when the fluently opportunistic Wilson pounced on the subject of his labour of love.

dearieme said...

Gaw, (d) people saying to each other "Did I imagine it? Did he really say that?"