I first came across John Carey a few years ago when I picked up his book The Intellectuals and the Masses, a study of the literary world in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The book shocked me: I’d had really no idea about the sheer totalitarian nastiness of the ideas that circulated in the Bloomsbury group at the turn of the era, nor of its failure to recognise the huge economic and social changes that were going on in the country. In his autobiography, The Unexpected Professor, Carey revisits this earlier book:
I pointed out that the huge increase in the population of Europe in the nineteenth century caused consternation among many observers. In Britain the situation was complicated by the Education Acts of the 1870s which created, for the first time, a mass reading public and mass-circulation newspapers. Among British literary intellectuals the response to these developments was almost universally hostile. They resented the ‘semi-literate’ masses, despised their pretensions to culture, and detested newspapers. The more extreme among them, such as W B Yeats, D H Lawrence and H G Wells, considered ways in which the masses, or large sections of them, might be exterminated. Others, more moderately, argued that universal education was the mistake, and should be stopped. Though the intellectuals could not actually return the masses to illiteracy, they could exclude them from high culture, and that is what they did. They created what we now call modernist literature, which cultivates obscurity and depends on learned allusions, comprehensible only to the highly educated.
Out of context, your mind pictures the author of the above para: a kind of rural curmudgeon with a Land Rover and lots of great big dogs and an obsessive hostility to anything modern or youth-orientated or other: inward migration, the Turner Prize, world literature, higher education, the European Union, energy-efficient lightbulbs. On publishing The Intellectuals and the Masses, Carey says, ‘It was alleged that I hated culture and wished to condemn the population to ‘an endless diet of television soaps, the Sun newspaper, and royal scandals’. I was a commissar, an ally of Mrs Thatcher in her war against the arts, a lackey of the Murdoch press.’
But although Carey can be critical of intellectual culture there is nothing ugly or philistine about his prose, and in fact his work offers a passionate defence of the practical teaching of the humanities in this country. It’s often said that Carey has working class roots, and an allegation of ‘chippiness’ hangs over him, as it does over all state-educated people who succeed. Really Carey is from the ‘clerking’ class that he wrote about, with such eloquence and love, in Intellectuals and Masses – bright young working class men and women who could do middle class jobs, people who worked hard to earn drink money for Friday night, people with little formal education but who read constantly and eclectically, the ‘clued-up working class’ that Irvine Welsh began writing about in the 1990s.
We go through Carey’s childhood, his marriage, his years as student and teacher at Oxford, but what animates the book is Carey’s abiding love of literature. He can challenge D H Lawrence over the novelist’s letter to a friend in 1908, in which he fantasised about constructing ‘a lethal chamber as big as the Crystal Palace… then I’d go out in the back streets and main streets and bring them in, all the sick, the halt and the maimed’ but there is nothing censorious about Carey’s appreciation of the novelist, in which he admires Lawrence’s writing while conceding nothing to the insane beliefs that animated it. Carey has that rare ability of writing about books you’ve never read and actually making you want to read them. His style is open without being plain, a triumph of subtlety and distillation.
Although Carey hates snobbery, inequality, and bullying of the weak (he describes Don Quixote as ‘boring and hateful’ because ‘The whole idea of making a joke about the delusions of someone who’s mentally ill seemed disgusting to me’) he saves his contempt for standard academic writing: ‘how awful most of it was – ill-written, obscure, full of misplaced erudition and calculated to repel any sensible ordinary reader.’ He adds: ‘A new custom that had mushroomed… was for authors to preface their terrible tomes with pages of effusive thanks to all those – teachers, academic colleagues, friends, parents, partners, children, childminders, and as like as not the family dog – without whom the volume would not have come into being. I cursed them all fervently in my heart.’
A criticism I’d make is that this book is all very English Canon: Milton, Shakespeare, Marlowe, Orwell and C S Lewis, with little European literature, nothing beyond the continent and almost no mention of American writing. At times you feel like Carey has swallowed the old Oxford custom of never studying anything published after 1830. Still, The Unexpected Professor is a brilliant memoir of a life in reading, as well as a fine riposte to those elitists on the philistine side of this argument who say that nothing can be learned from books.