BBC Radio 4, 31 March - 4 April 2014
As former chief book reviewer
of The Sunday Times, author of books such as The Intellectuals and the Masses (1992), and a full-time career
as Merton Professor of English at Oxford, John Carey has had a long career in the limelight.
His origins, however, were much more modest. Born in the suburbs of London, Carey's
father was an accountant who lost his job during the mid-Thirties, leaving the family in what might be described as genteel
poverty. Carey had three siblings: one of them - his brother Bill - suffered from attenuated mental
development, which severely affected his future employment prospects.
During wartime the family decamped to Nottinghamshire, where Carey began his education at
the local grammar school, taking a Saturday job to provide himself with extra income. At this point his academic
performance at school could best be described as indifferent: when the family returned to London, he was placed in the "B"
stream, and only moved up to the "A" stream once he discovered the virtues of self-study. As a result he obtained
an open scholarship to Oxford University.
left him with a profoundly sceptical attitude towards privilege. During his days of National Service in Egypt,
he consciously distanced himself from the public school educated officer class with their strange manners and lofty attitudes;
and when he returned to Oxford to complete his education - and subsequently take a post as lecturer there - he adopted
a similar attitude. Early on in his career he worked at Keble College, which placed more significance on rowing ability
rather than academic prowess: undergraduates were admitted to study a variety of degrees (for example, forestry), so
long as they were competent rowers. Carey found their behaviour somewhat eccentric - especially their peculiar annual rituals,
such as lighting an annual bonfire.
On the other hand, Carey's book contains some fascinating vignettes of Oxford life. His first tutor
was the academic J. B. Leishman, a distinguished translator and scholar, who affected an attitude of lofty indifference, but
was actually very kind towards his undergraduates. He held open house every Thursday evening, where they could come
and visit him and drink coffee while listening to some of his large collection of gramophone records. On the other hand
Carey believed that Leishman was a lonely man, poorly treated by the Oxford establishment, who refused to elect him to a fellowship.
Read by Nicholas Farrell, The
Unexpected Professor is a witty autobiography of an academic of strong opinions; someone who has offended plenty
of people in his time (notably Ted Hughes), but who remains an influential critic, even in his eightieth year. The producer
was Jill Waters.