It was an interesting time. The Second World War had gone on two years longer than the First, with resultant fatigue in England’s industrial north, which gave the Labour government its 1945 landslide. Such is admirably explained in Corelli Barnett’s The Audit of War, which shows how the appeal of the shadow Attlee government, particularly the full employment, cradle-to-grave promises of the Beveridge Plan, was understandably irresistible to this element, as it was also to the services underclass, war-weary and longing for demobilization. No politician, not even Churchill, could be against a guarantee of employment, any more than could a French politician be, two years later, for legal prostitution. But I can certainly testify that in late 1948, when I was working as press officer for ICI (Imperial Chemical Industries), and I visited 120 factories throughout the British Isles, ranging in products from plastics to paints to explosives, not forgetting a wonderful salt mine in Cheshire, almost without exception I was told by my hosts that the resident shop stewards were militandy Communist. They were the only men who would sacrifice their spare time for the task of organization and, after all, Russia was an ally.
Those of us who had been “up” at Oxford before the war—and by Oxford I also mean “the other place,” Cambridge—got preference in demobilization via the so-called “B” release. I was one of those returning to complete my studies at Christ Church. The war had had its rough times, of course, but it had introduced me to parts of the world I had never seen before (nor want to again), and during it we had been generally on the move. The static horrors of long trench warfare had been spared our generation. Nor had I, except for a period in North Africa, known undue hunger. We returned to an England that, in the first year after the war, had stricter rationing than during it. This rationing was exiguous. In 1947 the English were rationed to 1/2 lb. of meat a week, plus three ounces of bacon, two of butter, one ounce of cooking fat, and three of cheese (mousetrap variety). US spam helped out a lot, though I confess I can’t stare it in the face today. This was Crippsian austerity, with work or want posters everywhere, Bevin-controlled foreign currency allowing you just £25 a year to take out of the country (strictly supervised by customs officials). Colleges supplied their own ration tickets for Hall. During my subsequent job with ICI, I draped a topcoat over my knees under my desk, it was that cold in unheated London.
Half Cambridge’s size, 1946 Oxford consisted of 14 small colleges, most of them numbering only two or three hundred undergraduates or undergraduettes (as distaff students were officially known). It was far from elite. There were at that time only three colleges with a majority of public school men in residence; Christ Church, New College, and Trinity. These colleges were preempted by scholarships established for such schools years, centuries, ago, and legally impossible to unlock. Winchester virtually owned New College, and Eton Christ Church. There were thus two basic levels of students, the very young grammar school boys (like Kenneth Tynan, with whom I acted), and the rather surly service officers interrupted in their careers by six years in uniform and impatient with the dilatory, unpunctual, vague, sherrysipping dons who inhabited a rather exotic world of their own.
Of these, since I was studying (“reading”) English, I came to recognize that nearly all had involved themselves in some form of fictional fantasy life on the side, perhaps to compensate for the lack of reality allowed them in the Holocaust. C.S. Lewis (improbably enough. Ken Tynan’s lit teacher) had just published Perelandra and The Screwtape Letters. Charles Williams and A.E. Dyson, the Wordsworth expert, had also written what would today be called science fiction. There was B.E.C. David lecturing on Spenser, and of course there was Tolkien, my language (Anglo-Saxon) tutor. Though apparently known to have cracked a smile at home, Tolkien was just about the most boring man I have ever known, although the subject itself wasn’t exactly spellbinding (C.L. Wren was almost equally soporific).
Apart from his lugubrious tutes, Tolkien perfected a technique of virtually whispering in the lecture hall, with the result that by halfway through the term he talked to only about four or five students, Beowulf fanatics for the most part, sitting literally at his feet. I must say I indulged in similar self-protection from the Yahoos later in life when teaching at City College in New York; I found that if I scheduled my classes at a subway school like that at 7 or 8 A.M., half the students dropped out after a week or so. My Oxford lit tutor, and later Richard Burton’s, was the delightful Nevill Coghill, who had just published his modernized Canterbury Tales (to vituperative reviews); he spent much of the time I was with him directing Cielgud in London, but he used to josh me quite equably about Tolkien’s diminishing lecture audiences. I was less amused. It wasn’t what I was paying for. Lord David Cecil, who flunked Kingsley Amis a B.Litt. despite the intervention of F.W. Bateson, a curmudgeonly cripple of another social order, was more of the same, so light on his feet you scarcely saw him from term to term, yet a delight to read on the printed page. C.S. Lewis, a big, burly, ruddy-cheeked man given to flat jokes about cats, more or less read to us his Allegory of Love for his Magdalen lecture stint. Such lectures got you almost nothing for your efforts, but college butteries had some enviable vintages, and still do, so there were compensations.
Still and all, exasperatingly dilettante as I found most of my Oxford teachers after the war, I now realize that such men were, in essence and effect, the last humane professors. Without tradition you have no values and simply turn to public opinion. I lived through some of the worst academic riots of the 60’s in New York and realize now what irreparable damage they did to the liberal arts which today, in America, pick their topics off the streets—feminism, homosexuality, race, exotic religions, etc. The curriculum of the natural sciences, meanwhile, has remained unscathed. Two plus two still equals four. In some of the social sciences also less harm was done, notably in those with a dependency on math, physics, chemistry, statistics, and so on. I used to feel that essentially the psychology department was saying: two plus two equals four, but we hate it! During the City College riots the natural science professoriat simply went home and read the newspapers. In fact, at one point our School of Engineering was kept forcibly open by a group of black students anxious to graduate.
Of course, the nature of Oxbridge in my years there involved a respect for tradition, for the majority of the colleges were ecclesiastical institutions, my own founded by Cardinal Wolsey. Thanks to emoluments created in the 16th century, Christ Church was heavy in bachelor divines whose duties didn’t include much teaching or awareness of the world around them. I remember my father telling me that when I went up I shouldn’t miss the opportunity of listening to Canon Jenkins. This diminutive and venerable bedesman was over 90-when I got to Oxford, with two teeth in his head and the habits of a miserly crank; his rooms were indescribably filthy since he wouldn’t allow any scout (servant) to enter to clean them. And he was as inaudible as Tolkien.
When Heidegger was made rector of Freiburg University, the Weimar-supported Socratic stance in German academe came to an end and, as Allan Bloom puts it, “[t]he most sinister formula in his Rectoral Address of 1933 was, with only the slightest of alterations, the slogan of the Americans who collaborated with the student movements of the sixties.” Looking back, I realize that Atflee’s England was far from Nazi Germany in this respect. C.S. Lewis didn’t have to teach a course on gay rights, or kowtow to feminism, to keep his job. Edward Boyle, Tony Wedgwood Benn, Mark Bonham Carter, and other politically-oriented ex-servicemen all debated at the postwar Oxford Union without asking for any reform of the curriculum, or abandonment of Western culture. What pressures in this direction on Oxbridge have come, alas, from America and its increasingly “open” academe, its ears alert to the shouting in the streets.