Mr C Law – Teacher of Economics
A vivid memory from my second year at university is of a phase when each day I rotated between the PPE libraries, whose offering was the likes of Mill, Hume and Friedman, and my college bedroom, where I devoured as many PG Wodehouse stories as I could lay my hands on. Brain-ache on the one hand; the frivolities of Bertie Wooster and Lord Emsworth on the other. Despite my enthusiasm I was perplexed by Wodehouse: such gorgeous language and such a talent, but why had it been deployed in the writing of stories that most people (especially women) find unattractive and deeply trivial?
Several years later I stumbled upon an essay, Hunting the Highbrow, that offered a little insight. Wodehouse dreaded the prospect of being labelled a Pseudaltifrons Intellectualis: a man who only likes what nobody else can understand; a writer whose opaque scribblings when rumbled are found to say nothing at all, or something essentially superficial or self-contradictory; a snob and a bore motivated principally by vanity and showing-off. So Wodehouse settled for the safe world of pranks at The Drones Club, narrow escapes from aunts and marriage, and the rearing of prize pigs. His terror of being thought phoney, of being ‘found out’, was and still is widely shared. People of my generation grew up with Private Eye’s Pseud’s Corner, which looks like fun but is meant to wound. And we suspect that cleverness is not only often a fraud but that it requires too much time and energy devoted to the wrong things in life; is it possible to think of Cecil Vyse in A Room With A View or Casaubon in Middlemarch without squirming?
What is my point? Being clever in a public space requires considerable courage. It invites the ridicule of others, and requires a person to have confidence in the intrinsic merit of a subject and to care little about recognition. Achievements in the world of sport are discussed reverentially, almost uncritically, and in crowds we pore over the minutiae of our champions’ lives, taking delight in every detail and nuance. Perhaps this is all well and good, but there is no Personality of the Year gala for intellectuals, people we often find intimidating and inaccessible.
So congratulations to all those who have contributed to this edition of Salutaris, as well as written work for The GSAL Journal. You are lucky enough to be at a school offering these platforms for serious academic work, but it is you who have seized the opportunity, and I very much hope that others will be inspired by your self-belief and share their ideas in future years.
And could I plead with you all to keep your enthusiasm alive. There are many sources of value in a well-rounded life, and even if at times it seems wearisome you should trust that doing battle with important and often intractable issues provides a very special kind of excitement and a lifetime of meaningful discovery. It is difficult not to be moved by these famous words of Sir Isaac Newton, no matter how many times you hear them
I do not know what I may appear to the world, but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the sea-shore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.
In the same spirit could I encourage all of you at some point in your lives to see some Tom Stoppard. I’ve never forgotten being dazzled by The Real Thing, my first time in a London theatre and still my favourite play, and recognising in Stoppard the distinction that Wodehouse struggled with, between the pseud and the authentic highbrow, dealing in genuine cleverness, uncompromisingly and with joy.
Mr C Law