Help me make it through the night – John Carey at Swindon Festival of Literature

9 May

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John Carey, ‘The Unexpected Professor’ of his most recent volumes title is less cagey when it comes to sharing his viewpoints about books.

Choosing to open his unabashed hour long delve into why literature is so great with a very recent quote from Michael Rosen, there was little doubt that Carey himself would not be mincing his words, ‘Don’t tell kids what to admire, let kids decide for themselves’.

Carey is a lover of literature but a fairly unique one, he has strong opinions and he expresses them, in addition he has actually read the books he is criticising or praising.

One marvellous sequence in his very enjoyable and honest memoir involves him confronting Ted Hughes about a book Hughes had written linking Shakespeare with cosmology, Carey dismissed this to the poet laureate’s face as nonsense and suggested that really only one of the footnote’s had any authentic Hughes in it, Hughes never spoke to him again.

Not that it has been Carey’s habit to fall out with fellow authors or educators, but hearing him talk in such a relaxed way with Festival Director Matt Holland it was obvious that he is just the sort of person who is incapable of not having an opinion and equally incapable of leaving it unsaid.

Indeed Carey in his 1992 book The Intellectuals and the Masses dared to suggest that my own personal literary gods, the Modernists, were no more than a bunch of sneering, insular, snobs. Maybe my celestial cream tea and bun with Ezra Pound, D.H. Lawrence and Mina Loy is off after all.

Carey seems to be a man without fear and this attitude certainly helped propel him to the very top, as he now holds the position of emeritus Merton Professor of English Literature at Oxford University.

It was hard work for Carey of course as he cheekily recalled benzedrine nights of study that kept him awake and functioning through to the following morning.

It is rare to listen to such an accessible intellectual, a man who loves literature for being literature and wants to talk to you about it, whoever you are and whatever opinion you may hold.

John Carey spoke at Swindon Arts Centre, 7 May 2014, about his book, ‘The Unexpected Professor’.
Words by Michael Scott. Photos by Calyx Pictures.

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