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Jeremy Lewis

Regulars | By Jeremy Lewis | March 2016

Why do so many modern academics seem such a craven crew, such inadequate champions of free speech and liberal values and so ready to cave in to the notion that history should be whitewashed or rewritten in the interests of political correctness? Is it because, living in a kind of time warp, often with little experience of the outside world, they cling to the views they held as students, and are far too eager to pander to an ignorant if idealistic younger generation? Or is it because, as some commentators have suggested, fee-paying students now see themselves as consumers demanding their rights rather than as humble seekers after knowledge imparted from on high? UCL’s sacking of the Nobel Prize-winning Sir Tim Hunt for making some old-bufferish remarks was a disgraceful business: I know nothing about protein molecules and the division of cells, but I’d be amazed if Sir Tim’s work isn’t of far greater value to the world at large than that of his former colleagues put together.

As I write, we wait to see what the dithering dons of Oriel College, Oxford, will decide to do about the statue of Cecil Rhodes. While on the subject of South Africa and statuary in general, I remember how, in the early Eighties, the bust of Nelson Mandela by the Royal Festival Hall was repeatedly vandalised: racists were blamed at the time, but I always thought the attacks reflected widespread resentment at the activities of high-minded local councils who were busy renaming streets all over London after Mandela, to the bafflement of postmen and local residents – among them Del Boy and Rodney in , who lived in Nelson Mandela House.

Nowadays Mandela should be untouchable, but it may be that extremists in the NSPCC are planning to campaign for the removal of his bust on the grounds that he was – not surprisingly – a negligent father.

One of the unappealing legacies of the Sixties are the plastic letters nailed to the side of buildings which then fall off one by one and are only replaced when the company which put them up in the first place moves on or goes bust. The best-known example of this was found above the main entrance to Sunshine Desserts in The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin, with each new episode marked by the loss of another letter, but I came across a fine modern manifestation on the walls of the Chiswick Rugby Club, which read ‘Chis Rugb Fo ball lub Found d 19 8’. Old-fashioned craftsmanship at its very best.

There’s a worrying tendency nowadays to confuse views on politics and social matters with competence in the arts, sport, scholarship or whatever. I’m sure the Chinese dissident Ai Weiwei is a very brave man, but does his standing up to the regime in Beijing mean that his rusting iron bars, nailed-together trees and peep-show models of his interrogation by the secret police should therefore be taken seriously as art? Tim Hunt was pressured into resigning from the Royal Society – a body set up to recognise outstanding achievements in science rather than monitor facetious asides – and the mob took to social media, the modern equivalent of storming the barricades, to protest against the heavyweight boxer Tyson Fury being shortlisted for the BBC’s Sports Personality of the Year Award on account of his views about women and homosexuals.

Had he been around at the time, Tyson Fury would have deeply disapproved of Sir Anthony Blunt but, in a bizarre way, the furore about his shortlisting reminded me of the row in the British Academy over whether or not Blunt should be expelled from that august organisation, with some arguing that his treachery put him beyond the pale, while others claimed that he had been elected on the basis of his scholarship and his work on Poussin, and that his political views – like those of Tyson Fury – were neither here nor there. Like Sir Tim at the Royal Society, he made life easier for everyone by resigning.

We’re always being told how we’re living longer than ever and how the world will soon be rigid with centenarians, but one of the more dispiriting aspects of life in one’s mid-seventies is that old friends keep dropping like flies. This leads inevitably to ponderings on mortality and whether or not one might encounter these old friends in an afterlife. The commonsensical side of me dismisses the very idea, but the size and the age of the universe are so astonishing and so incomprehensible that I suppose anything is possible. I have various worries about the afterlife. Most experts tell us that animals don’t have souls and therefore don’t qualify to go aloft, which is bad news for us cat-lovers. Will the crashing bores one knew on earth still be crashing bores, droning on ad infinitum? And when I think about it – bores apart – the whole idea of eternity and eternal life is so appalling that, given the choice, I’d probably take a deep breath and opt for oblivion.

This story was from March 2016 issue. Subscribe Now