John Sparrow:
My Oxford Tutor

Part I

I often wondered about my relationship with Sparrow. I was surely far from what he might have expected: some glowing youth clad in premature sophistication, a pliable person whom nothing surprised, someone with at least one silver spoon in his background. No, Sparrow left things to chance, which argued in him a Gidean flexibility I rather admired.He was not intent on making a silk purse out of sow's ear, but had heeded the Latin verb educare and the verb it derives from, educere. Both can mean to lead out or bring up. Hence education.

He himself had had a splendid education at his public school; he seemed to want me to have one too. There were times when I felt adopted, learnedly attended to, as when we set ourselves up to have a true tutorial, on say the novels of Forrest Reid. One had to remember that as a mere schoolboy he had published with Cambridge University Press an edition of John Donne's Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, "with a Bibliographic Note by Geoffrey Keynes, Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons." At just seventeen.

He had penned a winning letter to Keynes, bibliographer and literary scholar, and they had met on the steps of St. Paul's, Sparrow grinning widely under his bowler hat. Fifty years after, Sparrow admitted in a lecture that "Geoffrey Keynes turned me from a book-lover into a book-collector." Alas, some will say. Many forces, impulses, and persons drew Sparrow away from what creativity was in him, even if only a creative response to the work of others.

I can only say he sympathized with fumbling youth so long as the youth was bright and eager and helplessly intellectual. You did not have to be precocious. I never saw the selfish, cruel or explosive side of him that others have reported, but an abundant sly humor, yes. In some ways he was a grown-up naughty boy who had enjoyed barracks life and platoon football.

I felt much the same when one of his neatly folded All Souls pages arrived in the mail, each adorned with cursive, almost histrionic script, executed in ink instantly blotted, which gave the letters an almost transparent, washed-out look, as if he'd tried to seal or capture the mental essence of each word as he set it down. Did he mop up, so to speak, after each word? As handwriting goes, it was contrary, with the accent on the second syllable. It would often soar away sideways, upward, never down, making wobbly what should be straight, and vice versa, with capitals grandly attuned to the emotion of the moment, and not anywhere a handover from orthodox writing lessons. It was all original, the hand of a consummately clever man, who always signed himself John. Several times I tried to mimic his swooping writing style, but gave up; I was a sumo wrestler aping Houdini, whereas I managed now and then a fair copy of Walter Pater's less theatrical hand. Sparrow the penman had style, although in his actual writings he settled for a prose style nearly austere, as if treading on stepping stones through No Man's Land. What was the jollity that seemed to infuse his penmanship? Merely the act of writing itself? I imagined him settling down at his small desk, to the sibilant plea of red-hot fire-brick in the All Souls gas fire, delighted to have a reason to write, blotting and canting, sometimes doubling the stroke or the serif so as to make its blot thicker, fashioning an aphorism only to shoot it down later: Whoever you have a clear view of has a dear view of you. Vidi est percipi. Or, this time, hoping for a mastery and concinnity wholly his own, scrawling Quisquis, then putting a line through it as he tried tisus videt, just playing with words, letters, dead tongues. I sometimes imagined him in his lofty chamber, out of the wind, above him a dandelion seed dropping vertical. Or a bookish, epistolary spider.

One conversation we had several times, coming to no agreement. I'd asked him why the word homosexual wasn't heterosexual, shifting the emphasis from what the homosexual favored to the sexuality he professed. Not a man like self, but a different form of sex.

Without a blink or a grin, he trounced the very idea, seeing --- granting --- my point, but then dismissing it. Therefore, I presumed, the word-makers and word-fashioners in their wisdom had chosen prey over practice, the physical over the categorical? The idea of calling all heterosexuals homosexual must have amused him, but his intimate, finely tuned Greek held him back, making him murmur something about herd instinct without once involving himself in the discussion, although his letters to the newspapers and Essays in Criticism (a John Peter essay had fired things off) were as frank and exact about male sphincter pleasures as you had ever read. Different horses for different courses, I thought. Perhaps I had been thinking of those "different" ebullient sluts, the taxed foreigners and freed-women consecrated to Aphrodite or sponsored by Solon, who mainly in Corinth and Athens lived a worldly life denied respectable women, from whom they stood out ("betairai" or "different"), who figured in Attic Comedy and sometimes, like Aspasia of Miletus, persuaded a Pericles to desert his wife for her and her resonant salon. Was I thinking of queens? For sheer outrageousness? Your respectable woman was allowed out with only the equivalent of a sandwich; hetairai had Follow me imprinted on their sandals.

Go on to Part II

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