I was born in Barnes, South West London, on 5 April 1934. My father, Charles William Carey, was an accountant who had fought in the first world war as an officer in the Warwickshire Yeomanry, a cavalry regiment that, later in the war, parted company with its horses and became a machine gun battalion on the Western front. My mother, the daughter of a blacksmith with a thriving practice in Hammersmith, had been a secretary-typist in the firm where my father worked. They had both left school at 15.
The first child of the marriage, James William, was slightly handicapped mentally and physically, though able to earn his living and live at home. Then there were two sisters, both of whom were to have successful careers. The elder, Marjorie, became Personnel Manager of Barclays Bank; the younger, Rosemary, headmistress of a Girls’ Public Day School Trust school. I was the youngest child. One of my earliest memories was being carried by my father to a bedroom window to see a glare in the night sky. This was the Crystal Palace burning down on 30 November 1936. Four years later, on 7 September 1940, I was carried to the same window to see another glare which was London’s docks burning down – the start of the Blitz. It seemed that Barnes was a good vantage point for watching the rest of the city on fire, but events proved otherwise.
The day war broke out the Careys had sat ceremonially in their drawing room – a sanctum otherwise seldom used – wearing their gasmasks and waiting for the end. Nothing happened, and continued to happen during the period known as the phoney war. Then came the air raids, with nights spent sleeping under beds in ground-floor rooms or in the newly dug shelter in the back garden. An incendiary bomb fell in the garden one night, but was quickly extinguished by air-raid wardens. Its tail fin was kept as a trophy. My parents’ decision to take their children out of danger was, I later learned, prompted by me. After a night of particularly noisy bombing I (I am told) said to my father “Are we dead yet, daddy?” This line, foreshadowing my later interest in Dickensian melodrama, so affected my father that he took the family to live in Radcliffe on Trent, a country village near Nottingham.
My sister Rosemary and I attended the local council school, took and passed the recently-introduced eleven-plus, and then went to West Bridgford Grammar School. Rosemary won prizes but I was a slow developer and did badly. I was put in “Daily Report”, which meant that I had to get a form signed by the class teacher after each lesson to testify that I had not been daydreaming. When the family moved back to Barnes after the war I was given a place at Richmond and East Sheen County Grammar School for Boys, where things rapidly improved. The head, H.H. Shepherd, was a gentle, sceptical philosopher and the masters, especially in English, French and Latin, the subjects I was to take for A level, were exceptional. I owe my career to their teaching, and to the thoughtfulness of one of them, a French master J.H. Hyde, who took the trouble to call on my parents and tell them I should try for an Oxford scholarship. The Christmas before my A levels I travelled to Oxford, sat papers in English and Latin, and won the William Lambe Open Scholarship at St John’s College. (“Open” scholarships could be taken by anyone, as opposed to Closed Scholarships that were reserved for boys who had attended certain public schools).
Before going to university I did my national service. After basic training at Kingston-on-Thames barracks, depot of the East Surrey Regiment, and at Canterbury, I went to Eaton Hall officer cadet school, was commissioned, and joined the first battalion of the East Surreys in a tented camp at Tel-el-Kebir, Egypt. They were part of an infantry brigade whose main duty was guarding the vast depot of stores and ordnance, surrounded by a minefield and barbed wire, that had been left behind by the Eighth Army after the Second World War. Mindful of gaps in my reading, I got my father to send me parcels of Sir Walter Scott’s novels which I tried to work my way through in these incongruous surroundings.
Demobbed, I went up to St John’s in October 1954 where my tutor was J. B. Leishman, author of a pioneering book on John Donne, Monarch of Wit, and translator of Rilke and Horace. It was at one of Leishman’s lectures that I met my future wife, Gill. We both got firsts in English finals in 1957. Gill went on to do a Diploma in Education and after a career in school-teaching wrote a book on Shelley and became English fellow at Manchester (now Harris Manchester) College, Oxford. I did a D.Phil., supervised by Helen Gardner. My thesis was about imitations of Ovid’s erotic Amores written in English and Latin in the 1590s and early 17th century, often by young men at the Inns of Court such as Donne. In the course of writing it I discovered a previously unknown English poet, Nicholas Hare, whose poems are scattered in manuscripts in the Bodleian, the British Library, and elsewhere, and some of which have been attributed to Donne, who was Hare’s friend. I published Hare’s poems and an account of his life in the Review of English Studies in 1960.
While writing my thesis I had a year at Merton as a Hildebrand Harmsworth Senior Scholar, a year at Christ Church as a lecturer, teaching the students of J.I.M. Stewart who was away in America, and a year at Balliol as Andrew Bradley Junior Research Fellow. Gill and I married in 1960 and moved into a large freezing flat over the Warden’s Lodgings of Keble College, where I was Fellow and Tutor in English until 1964 (one of my first students was Ian Hamilton, later founder-editor of The Review and The New Review). Our cat Wigginton, a complete tom, achieved some repute in Oxford at this time since his amorous quests took him into several nearby, and some more distant, colleges, and he was made an honorary member of Balliol Junior Common Room where he had a special chair.
On the death of my former tutor Leishman in a climbing accident I was invited back to St John’s as Fellow and Tutor, and remained there until 1975 when I was elected Merton Professor of English Literature, succeeding Dame Helen Gardner. I was surprised, as were others, including Dame Helen, at this honour, and guiltily recalled that I had never finished reading Sir Walter Scott in Egypt. I made a new assault on the oeuvre, which (though it brought to light some very great things – Heart of Midlothian, Old Mortality) was never quite completed.
I began writing poetry reviews for Alan Ross in the London Magazine and Karl Miller in the New Statesman in the mid-1960s (a beacon moment was reading Seamus Heaney’s earliest publication, Eleven Poems, 1965, which Miller sent with a batch of review copies). When Miller moved to the Listener (then stationed in the old Langham Hotel opposite Broasdcasting House) I wrote radio reviews and then TV reviews for him (Raymond Williams was one of the other regular TV reviewers) and book reviews for the Listener’s literary editor Derwent May. In 1975 Harry Evans, editor of the Sunday Times, took me to lunch at the Garrick and offered me a contract to write fortnightly book reviews for the paper, which I have continued to do ever since. In the mid-70s I became a regular panel-member on Philip French’s BBC Radio 3’s Critics Forum until the programme was axed in 1990. Since then my broadcasting has largely consisted of guest appearances on BBC TV’s Late Review and its successor The Review Show and on Tom Sutcliffe’s BBC Radio 4’s Saturday Review. In 2004 I made a four-part Radio 4 mini-series, Mind Reading, produced by Julia Adamson, about the history of written as opposed to spoken language and its connection to brain development and such problems as dyslexia. In 2007 I presented The Menace of the Masses, a film version of my book The Intellectuals and the Masses, for Channel 4 TV.
In the early 1970s Gill and I bought two derelict farm cottages, probably dating from the 1790s (or so we like to think, though the title deeds are disappointingly unspecific), in a hamlet near Shipton-under-Wychwood in the Cotswolds, which we have converted, over the years, into our country home, planting fruit trees and growing vegetables. On the advice of one of my colleagues, who was a Professor of Zoology, we procured a hive of bees to aid pollination. I now have a small apiary of three hives, producing about 200lbs of honey a year (350lbs in 2009, a record) which we market through a friendly shopkeeper in Chipping Norton. Another interest is printmaking. Admiration for the work of master-etcher Irvine Loudon led me to take a beginner’s course at Loudon’s workshop, the Oxford Printmakers Co-Operative, of which I am now a member. Some of my prints can be seen under Works.
I have lectured in India, Japan, Hong Kong, Australia, New Zealand, Israel and America, as well as various European countries. I retired from the Merton Chair in 2002 and am now an Emeritus professor. I am also an Honorary Professor of Liverpool University, a Fellow of the British Academy and of the Royal Society of Literature, and an Honorary Fellow of Balliol and St John’s Colleges. I chaired the Booker Prize judges in 1982 (when Thomas Keneally’s Schindler’s Ark won) and the Man Booker judges in 2003 (when the winner was D.B.C. Pierre’s Vernon God Little.) In 2005 I chaired the first Man Booker International Prize with fellow judges Azar Nafisi and Alberto Manuel and we awarded the prize to the Albanian novelist Ismail Kadare.
Gill and I have two sons, Leo, an editor on the New Yorker, and Thomas, a solicitor with Slaughter and May.
My Wikipedia entry says that I am known for my anti-elitist tone and iconoclastic views on high culture. My own way of putting it would be that I write to stimulate and involve the general reader. To write exclusively for a learned or academic readership seems to me hostile to the spread of knowledge, and a bad thing for the survival of reading. The vital thing a critic should do, I think, is to get across how enjoyable reading is. This is what I attempted in, for example, Pure Pleasure, my choice of fifty books from the 20th century. For the same reason I am opposed to the deliberate cultivation of obscurity, whether by the early 20th-century modernists (whose prejudices I examine in The Intellectuals and the Masses) or by academic literary theorists. The idea that there are absolute, eternal values in art and literature, to which experts have access, is not one that I find convincing. I see it as a quasi-religious means of discounting the opinion of the majority, and establishing a cultural hierarchy. I question, too, the notion that art and literature make people better, and the allied belief that “high” art is superior to “low”. These are the subjects of my book What Good Are the Arts? Its conclusion (which I emphasize is subjective, like all opinions) is that literature, because it uses language, can provide us with the material to think with, as non-linguistic arts cannot.
Portrait photo courtesy of Matt Writtle.