A friend showed me an article in a recent Oxford Gazette about Maurice Bowra, the legendary Warden of Wadham College, Oxford. I was lucky enough to be a student there when he was head of the College (I started there in 1966) and it brought back memories that seemed worth recording.
I remember him as a stocky man, not very tall, always in a smart grey suit. He had a broad chest and a thick neck, so his head seemed to join his body without transition – the outline recalled a sea lion. The slightest remark made in his deep, resonant voice would rumble around the quad like a brief clap of thunder. And he often was in the quad, because his home – the Warden’s Lodgings – was in the corner on your left as you entered the College.
Always interested in undergraduates, he would invite all new students to dinner in small groups of four or five. It wasn’t an easy evening: most of us were tongue-tied and petrified with nerves in the great man’s presence, so unless one of the guests was exceptionally precocious even by Oxford undergraduate standards, the Warden had to keep the conversation going almost single-handed (which he was well able to do). I don’t recall a single thing about my first-year dinner with him, except that I was paralysed with shyness throughout. In retrospect, I feel it was a little sad. Bowra genuinely wanted to know the students, but his personal charisma actually put a barrier in the way. He was dauntingly impressive, and – I now guess – just a little shy himself.
On further acquaintance, he turned out to be exceptionally kind and generous. He would encourage students in financial or academic difficulties; he supported student writing and drama keenly; he would bend the system as necessary for anyone who had been ill or notably unlucky. And – unlike many impressive university grandees – he was notably liberal – even left-wing.
He had long advocated co-educational colleges, and lobbied energetically to see that Wadham was the very first men’s college to admit women (just he had previously seen to it that the College went out of its way to admit talented grammar school boys when others were still focusing on the independent schools). Of course it was self-interest too: he was making sure that the College stayed ahead. But that was part of his genius – to find ways of combining generosity with his task of nurturing the College.
And in the wider world he did his best to support decent people and politics against tyrants. Once I saw him at an undergraduate play about Savonarola, which featured graphic on-stage scenes of torture. Bowra stayed until the interval, then slipped away. I heard him muttering ‘No, no. Don’t like torture.’ He didn’t come back. Too many of his friends, in the 1930s and since, had suffered or died at the hands of despots.
Not that he was a rigid egalitarian. Once when I won a University prize, I got a note of congratulation from the Warden, adding ‘To him who hath, shall be given’ and telling me that I’d find £100 to my credit at Parker’s bookshop, to spend as I chose. (I still have several of the books I bought.) Again, he was encouraging what he thought was good for the College and its status.
Once you overcame your nervousness enough to appreciate it, he was a memorable, aphoristic talker. His favourable judgment on an undergraduate was ‘That man’s not just clever. He’s intelligent!’ And his comment on desiccated literary theory, years before it wrought havoc in English schools, was prescient: ‘Books about books? All well and good. But beware of books about books about books!’
When we had our celebratory dinner with him, undergraduates en masse, after our final exams (‘Schools’), conversation turned to famous people he’d known. We began throwing names at him. Mao Tse Tung? T.S. Eliot? Chamberlain? EM. Forster? It seemed he’d met everybody. The climax came when someone asked ‘What about Lawrence?’ Bowra barked back, ‘D.H. or T.E.? Knew them both!’
When he prepared to retire and move to smaller lodgings (it must have been in 1969 or so, just before I left for Wolfson College) he gave most of his books away to students. I’ve still got Henry Vaughan’s Poems, the bulky and excellent volume he gave me. He died not long afterwards.
And of course there are the stories. Like Swift and Charles Lamb, like Wilde and Socrates, he was a magnet for anecdotes. No doubt many of those that gathered to his name were centuries old, the common adornment of many previous ‘characters’. It was generally assumed, in my time at least, that he was gay. But he was said to have been engaged, once; when someone commented on his fiancée’s homely looks, the reply had been ‘Buggers can’t be choosers!’ Apocryphal? Perhaps.
Then there was the story of how he and a group of friends had been surprised drying themselves at Parsons’ Pleasure, the male skinny-dipping pool on the river, by a misdirected boat full of ladies. His naked companions hastily wrapped towels around their waists. Bowra put his towel over his head. When the boat had departed, his explanation was ‘Don’t know about you chaps, but around here I’m generally known by my face.’
And of course there was the tale of the undergraduate, climbing into college one night long after hours (colleges were locked at 11 pm in those days and lateness cost a fine or worse) who, slipping in the darkness along a side-passage beside the Master’s lodgings, heard footsteps approaching. He dived through a convenient doorway to find himself in a lamplit sitting-room. But – horrors! Other steps were approaching, this time from inside the lodgings. Our hero duly took refuge behind a sofa. In came an insomniac Bowra, clad in pyjamas and dressing-gown. He sat down at a desk on the other side of the room and spent several hours reading and writing, whilst the fugitive tried not to breathe too loudly, and to be stoical about the effects of beer on an overtaxed bladder. At length the ordeal drew to a close: Bowra stood up from the desk and padded to the door. The fugitive, it seemed, had escaped detection. Then, in the doorway, the Warden paused; and the familiar voice growled: ‘Would you mind turning the light out when you leave?’