“Sir, it is a great thing to dine with the Canons of Christ Church.” Samuel Johnson, Boswell’s Life.

Though perhaps not with Canon Jenkins.

Universities are, or should be, the last refuge of great eccentrics who emphasize our humdrum norms. Such I discovered when I went up to Henry VIII’s 1545 refounding of Wolsey’s Cardinal College. The monarch’s action established Christ Church as an Oxford college, its Cathedral diocesan. There were thus a plethora of Canons about, who had no particular duties at all. These included in my time Claude Jenkins, Regius Professor of Ecclesiastical History, who used to pour soda water into his coffee, rimming his sleeves with a corrosive snuff that produced paroxysms in the Senior Common Room. The dons who descended to mere teaching were termed “students.” This occasioned me some minor embarrassment when applying to the philosophy department at Columbia University, whose dean of admissions (the late Hans Rosenhaupt) informed me that a letter of recommendation from a mere student wouldn’t do. My tutor, Frank Taylor, was well into his 70’s when he signed himself “Student” on mv behalf.

Aside from terminology, that Oxford came back to haunt me when my American students became infected with a vogue for J.R.R. Tolkien, author of Lord of the Rings, my language tutor whom I hoped to have forgotten forever. For, frankly, the lugubrious Tolkien was about the most boring man I ever listened to, though I must confess that his subject, Anglo-Saxon, didn’t exactly electrify one, with its vowel changes into Middle English which one had to regurgitate in one’s final viva. Tolkien perfected a sauve-qui-peut method of delivering his lectures in a whisper so that by the second week of term only about half a dozen Beowulf hysterics were left in the front row. I later tried the technique myself at City College and it didn’t work, finally compelling me to put a notice on my office door: NO MORE ELVES. C.S. Lewis has also been resuscitated, thanks to a recent movie about his extracurricular activities with Joy Gresham. Together with Ken Tynan and Martin Routh (who carried a hooded falcon on one elbow), I sat in at his lectures too, mostly flat jokes about Screwtape. None of these, however, held a candle to Canon Jenkins, a man my father, an old grad, enjoined me to listen to even if I did naught else at Oxford. Then aged 92, Jenkins was not only inaudible but incomprehensible.

The man died in Tunbridge Wells in 1959 with two teeth in his head and some 40,000 books strewn in disorder about his palatial rooms overlooking our main Tom Quad, quarters into which he had somehow contrived to secret his senile mother, disallowing any servants (scouts, in our term) in to clean. “His mind, like his house,” Dean Mascoll put it, “resembled a vast wastepaper basket.” In the garden outside it, equally unkempt, he installed a bird sanctuary and, as pet, a vicious stoat (subsequently dealt with by the dean’s cat). Eventually, his chambers became so disgusting the college authorities had to force in workmen on the grounds of correcting dry-rot.

I saw something of this establishment when, returning from war service, a fellow undergraduate and I wished to use the court tennis facility in neighboring Oriel College (one of a mere 20 in the British Isles), only to find it encumbered by the Canon’s vast library which he had stored there to avoid bombing. At considerable labor we harrowed the books over to him, shoving through the blocked main entrance and dodging cascades of them in various corners. The bath was a repository for secondhand Victorian parish histories and the like, a number clearly “porrowed” (my portmanteau word for permanently borrowed) from sundry libraries. It was certainly some time before the afflatus of the bibliomane could be replaced by good honest sweat in that tennis court.

First and foremost the learned Canon was blessed with a prodigious appetite. Having said grace in Hall, under the gaze of Holbein’s Henry VIII, his wave of the hands would have adroitly secreted several spoils of the table into various pockets, for consumption in his rooms later. To the college’s buffet lunches he brought with him a large scarf for the same purpose. Equal grist to the mill, gorgonzola found its way into filthy handkerchiefs, already stinking of snuff, while his pipe was a prewar Woolworth article filled with an unspeakable mixture of rotting leaves and old street butts. Biscuits, nuts, olives were all fair game, for he was not constrained by the observation of colleagues or even the Governing Body. In fact, Dean Mascoll recalls him at a Vice Chancellor’s garden party “in his full doctoral scarlet, secreting cream buns in the pockets of his cassock.” A pile of food was once found under his High Table chair, clearly dropped from his gown pockets. He used purloined toast as a bookmark, sleeping through sermons and sliding off his scat in clothes secured haphazardly by large laundry pins. Royal visits he treated with extreme condescension while some of us will still remember attending a Cathedral service only to be alerted by the delightful giggles of the choirboys in front—at what? At Canon Jenkins, bent and frail, walking over to the lectern with pounds of sugar cascading from his cassock.

Whether he was an unselfconscious or planned eccentric surely hardly matters. For in an increasingly industrialized and electronic world, we must surely cherish his like.