7 FEBRUARY 1987, Page 30

St John's revisited by a chocolate eater

Robert Blake


Thornton's Oxford, L5.95

John Mabbott was president of St John's College, Oxford from 1963 to 1969 and is still vigorous and fit at the age of 88. He was and is a philosopher, interested mainly in political and moral theory, brought up, as all his generation were, on the classics. When he was dining at St John's 'on approval' for possible election, he found himself next to a very elderly fellow called Bidder, who said 'Who are you and what are you doing here?' Mabbott replied that he thought he was being inspected for a post in philosophy. 'Oh dear, oh dear.' `Don't you approve of philosophy, Mr Bidder?' My dear sir, a philosopher is the sort of fellow who eats chocolates with his port.' It would be interesting to know the rationale for this claim. I have never myself met one who did. He has some enjoyable recollections of his college. Hugh Last who had been his tutor in ancient history was involved with a visiting American historian in mutual denunciation of a rival scholar. `The man's a twicer. I'd like to take his hide and nail it to the barn door,' said the American. Last replied 'You cannot flay a pachyderm'.

When Mabbott went up to Oxford in 1919 H. A. James, former headmaster of Rugby, was president. In 1909 the college had been split between electing W. H. Hutton, Dean of Winchester, an epicure famous for his seafood lunches, and the candidate for the anti-clerical party, Syd- ney Ball, a radical Fabian of the Manchest- er Guardian circle. Bitter passions raged. So the clericals and anti-clericals decided to compromise and agreed on James as an elderly stop-gap till passions died down. But, he had in Mabbott's words 'the last laugh because he reigned until 1932, by which time not only the passions but all those who felt them had died'. He was the last life-president. Someone once said in his presence 'I wouldn't like to live to be 100'. James boomed back at him 'Wait till you're 99.'

There are many enjoyable Oxford anec- dotes. Indeed the book is almost an anthol- ogy of them. His predecessor as philosophy fellow explained to him his duties thus. `You will be a college lecturer but you will have no obligation to lecture. You will be required to give tuition but you will not be a tutor.' These instructions were not quite as dotty as they sound. They were a survival of the past. A tutor in the old Oxford sense was a fellow who was a moral counsellor and practical adviser. He arranged tuition but did not do it. There were five tutors who divided the college revenues among themselves and got most of the teaching done by lecturers paid by the hour. It must have been an excellent system for the tutors. Colleges in those days were dominated by a bachelor coterie with a sprinkling of married men who had been there for quite a time before mar- riage. They all knew each other well and college business could be conducted quite informally since governing bodies were very small. Mabbott considers that six or eight is the ideal number for each discus- sion though it could rise to 12 if they were genuinely united in purpose and not repre- senting conflicting interests. The smallest Oxford governing body today would be twice that size and most much more. Small, however, is not always beautiful. A single cantankerous individual could do more harm concentrated among a few people than diluted among many. Trinity College Cambridge is less at risk than the St John's of Mabbott's early days, though it appears from his urbane good-humoured recollec- tions that no trouble in fact occurred.

His closest friend was William Conrad Costin, his predecessor as president and an historian of distinction. It is an interesting sidelight on past usages that they never used Christian names. They were 'Costin' and `Mab' to each other all their lives. Costin was a quintessential bachelor don and 'college man' — a now almost vanished species. He was entirely devoted to St John's and at heart felt that all fellows should be. When the author became en- gaged to be married Costin wrote to his fiancée to welcome her but added 'I am afraid to have to tell you that Mab is already married [turn over of page] to the college.' In their younger days there were joint deans responsible for discipline. The previous incumbent, Dr Douglas, gave them advice. Two principles should guide them: (1) If there was a row in the quad go out and fine the first man you see £5. (2) If anything is broken, replace it in more expensive material and charge it to the breaker. 'I had a vision,' Mabbott writes, `of the college ultimately built and fur- nished in platinum.'

On Saturday nights when riot was rife they would play picquet in one of their rooms awaiting what might be simul- taneous ebullitions in different areas of the college. A particularly noisy society was called the 'Venetian Blinds'. The aged president was invoked to dissolve them. He did so ending It has, however, been of some convenience to me and the deans that your society existed; for we have known where the dregs of the college would be gathered together'; forgetting, perhaps, that its membership included the captain of boats, the best undergraduate musician and his own great-nephew.

There is not much about the author's subject, but he tells one enjoyable relevant story. He was attending a conference at Nottingham University. On the steps of the hostel where they were meeting he met a youngish man in shorts and open-necked shirt with a rucksack. Assuming him to be a student unaware of vacation arrange- ments he said 'I am afraid there is a gathering of philosophers here'. The young man said 'I too'. He was Wittgenstein. Mabbott writes 'I thus became notorious as the reactionary who tried to eject Wittgen- stein from the only philosophic conference he ever attended.'

The book is great fun and ranges far beyond Oxford to the army, travel and the Foreign Office. Members of St John's will surely read it but it deserves a far wider audience than that.