Raymond Carr by María Jesús Gonzalez - review

31 August 2013

9:00 AM

31 August 2013

9:00 AM

Raymond Carr: The Curiosity of the Fox María Jesús González, translated by Nigel Griffin

Sussex Academic Press, pp.509, £69.95

This is an unusual book: a Spanish historian writes the life of an English historian of Spain. In doing so, as the historian in question is the extraordinary Raymond Carr, still with us at 94, María Jesús González also writes about the rural West Country of his childhood, the English class system, educational opportunities in the 1930s, social mobility, Wellington College, the Gargoyle Club, Rosa Lewis at the Cavendish, four Oxford colleges, Giraldo and his orchestra, G.D.H. Cole, John Neale, Hugh Trevor-Roper, A.J. Ayer, John Sparrow, A.L. Rowse, Oswald, Diana and Nicholas Mosley, Isaiah Berlin, Margaret Thatcher and even the Queen. In academia and society — mostly high — here comes everybody.

The book has been smoothly translated from the Spanish by Nigel Griffin, and part of its interest for the English reader is that its detailed researches make one realise how peculiar so many of our institutions look to foreign eyes. The author gets a few things wrong — the title FRHS is about as exclusive as membership of the RAC — but what foreigner would not? Would an English author writing about a long-
lived Spanish academic — an enterprise hard to imagine — show the same patience and tenacity, and get so many things right?

The thoroughness of this biography has probably dismayed its subject. He would, I guess, rather regard his life as a chapter of accidents, to borrow the title from Goronwy Rees, another farouche friend and near contemporary who makes a number of appearances in these pages. Like any source of anecdote, true, embroidered or invented, he will have tired of some of the stories. The bohemian camaraderie went along — goes along — with a need to keep most people at a certain distance. As one Oxford observer put it, ‘Raymond was not so much drunk as he was the cause of drunkenness in others.’ He also has a streak of melancholy, and though he constantly denies it, a capacity for introspection.

Simple phrenology can find the bumps of joie de vivre, eccentricity, of the ability to place himself en rapport with all sorts of people. More difficult to locate precisely the bump of seriousness, what has made him a formidable and important historian.

As a tutor he was marvellous: voluble, argumentative, completely engaged — ‘no side at all’. Not all good history tutors leave their mark as historians, but one of these qualities is always present in his writing, and that is argument about something that matters, and novel argument: he never leaves a subject the same as he finds it. Another is the curiosity referred to in the book’s sub-title. Few things do not interest him, and he is endowed with uncommon intellectual energy; the work ethic instilled by his father never left him, at least never before six o’clock in the evening on weekdays. (It cannot be called Calvinist: his father was loyal C of E.)

One chapter of accidents turned him towards the history of Spain, to which he devoted these consistent virtues. As Paul Preston writes in his foreword:

He managed to transform the way the history of an entire country is written, to the extent of finally persuading Spaniards to perceive their country as ‘normal’… Like Napoleon, he believes that ‘Spaniards are people, just like any others’.

Carr had a passing taste for bullfights, but his approach has been anything but romantic: no excessive lisping, no castanets. He rejects the designation ‘hispanist’, as he thinks that it implies agreement that there is some rare essence in the Spanish character. It is easy now to underestimate how exceptional this was in the 1950s, despite the pioneering work of Gerald Brennan and Hugh Thomas, and how difficult too, especially for the despised 19th century and the early decades of the 20th, the principal focus of Carr’s studies. There were few accessible or well organised archives, the bibliography was scant and the Franco regime extremely restrictive. Carr’s rise to fame in Spain anticipated the regime’s demise, and it is surely fortunate that when that came many Spaniards had such an unaligned authority to hand. Though he has had many pupils and followers in Spain and elsewhere, Carr has never sought to found a school. The idea would not have appealed to him: no dogmas.

Most readers will find here rather too much about the misères of academic life. Some of it is amusing: the author has unearthed the spectacularly boring and unconvincing Swedish research project Raymond submitted to the austere
Warden Sumner of All Souls, when as one friend described it, he was ‘going down for the third time’ with debts and distractions:

Such a work would try to show the failure of the Gustavian state and the change of system adopted by Karl XI, with the creation of the ‘indelta hár’. It would include such problems as the absorption of Scania and the influence of toll policy on the foreign policy of the Regency of Cristina.

No wonder Sumner suggested a move to Calgary, Alberta. Raymond was saved by his marriage to Sara Strickland.

Some of it is depressing. He would not have survived in the modern academic world of assessments, form-filling and making endless applications for research grants; he only ever applied for one of those, and was turned down. As Warden of St Antony’s College, Oxford, he had status, but he was never a power in university politics, and can consequently be absolved of responsibility for all the changes for the worse, feebly resisted, that have taken place in the last decades.

As Warden, he was hospitable and diverting, and went to great lengths to help anyone in real trouble or distress. Accosted by those merely fed up, he had the annoying habit of anticipating them by swift reference to his own travails. Reading the account here of the treadmill of fund-raising for a poor college, in retrospect one can hardly blame him.

Finally, there comes to my mind a question once raised by Jowett: ‘We have sought truth, and sometimes perhaps found it. But have we had any fun?’ When we remember Raymond Carr, we must answer, yes.

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Malcolm Deas is a fellow of St Antony’s College, Oxford, and a historian of 19th- and 20th-century Colombia.

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