The very handsome Seamus Perry blesses us with a true masterpiece

It is always mildly encouraging to think how differently people experience the world: it must be some argument against totalitarianism that we are so stubbornly unlike one another.

These early weeks of the year, for example: a time of austere wintry beauty to some, no doubt; to others, but a fresh onset of Thames Valley Lung.

And for the don, whatever else, these are the weeks of the reference. Our brightest undergraduates, undeterred by the two-and-a-half years they have spent in our disheartening company, have put in for graduate schools across the globe, and we must write letters of reference that will help get them in.

It’s not my favourite part of the job, but naturally you want to see your students prosper, and, like anything else, there are peculiar satisfactions. I don’t know about other subjects, but in English literature these days references are pitched quite high.

Reading them always reminds me of the story of young Charles Lamb visiting a churchyard. Having read all the eulogies on the gravestones, the boy turned to his sister and enquired: “Where are the naughty people buried?”

Consequently, in both cemetery and reference, moderate — one might say, ‘rational’ — praise is typically interpreted as dispraise.

A student described as ‘assiduous’ will immediately be identified as a remorseless dunce; someone with the virtue of ‘inquisitiveness’ will be marked down as a pesky know-all who will occupy every office hour with irritating questions; and gestures of praise for ‘an independent mind’ will be taken to mean an unteachable obsessive with one idea. References were not always like this. Some years back, a student of mine foolishly prised open the corner of a sealed envelope just enough to catch a glimpse of the reference that a senior colleague had written for him: “...and his levels of ignorance are sometimes extraordinary.”

Ah, the old style. My own lamented tutor, to whom the word processor was always one of God’s more ambiguous gifts, would write startlingly succinct references in a thick, black italic pen, usually of the form: “I would give this person a place and I think you should do so too.”

Which is all a positive reference ever says, I suppose; but it does not do to be quite so minimalist.

Like many excesses that we happily indulge while being quietly embarrassed by, the hyperbolic mode of reference is usually attributed to the influence of America, which seems shameful ingratitude when evidently we enjoy it so much too.

American references, it is true, sometimes strike a note of personal epiphany which the British cannot often pull off: “She has changed my view of Middlemarch forever by a term paper that on its own has justified my career in teaching.”

But otherwise we can hold our own with the superlatives, and since everyone understands the idiom I cannot think anyone seriously misled. And now, forgive me, I must get back to writing a reference, due today.

Where was I? Ah yes. ‘Not since Maimonides has so prodigious a gift... ’.

Seamus Perry is chairman of the board of the Oxford English Faculty