Seamus Perry on the don's need to preserve one's name

We are now in the depths of the vacation and the don’s life takes a new turn.

For those of us who have sold their souls to administration there is still some interviewing for jobs and the odd shortlisting meeting. But for the pristine don in the street, life has assumed a gracious new form.

Teaching is long over, apart from a few graduate students still to leave for their well-deserved time in the European sunshine. All the examining is done with. The brilliant undergraduates have been congratulated and the disappointed have been consoled.

That can be a stiff task, of course. A friend of mine, chaplain of my then-college, once consoled a student who had been given a 2.2. with the reflection: “Don’t worry about the 2.2. It really doesn’t matter.” And then, as he thought, an inspired move: “Why, I have a 2.2 myself.”

“Yes”, said the inconsolable student, “and look what happened to you.”

Anyway, such boosts to your self-confidence apart, the weeks ahead stretch out amazingly, an apparently immeasurable opportunity to release all those ambitions that first warmed one’s academic heart, well, it must now be about 14,000 years ago.

That big book about Trollope, or the medieval love lyric, or line endings in John Betjeman: the subject is irrelevant. It is just that thing that occupies the corner of your donnish ego that conceives what might be remembered one day by the grace title of your surname.

It is a wonderful piece of alchemy that turns someone’s name into shorthand for an authoritative work. Say “Hartman” to anyone who studies Wordsworth and they will not think at once of that great and humane and now lamented Professor of Yale, but of Wordsworth’s Poetry 1787-1814, his immense book first published by Harvard University Press in 1964, and still something to be reckoned with.

Well, that alchemy is an honour given to few of us.

My late friend Thomas MacFarland of Princeton was once dining as my guest and found himself sitting next to the distinguished figure of Nigel Wilson, a long-time Fellow of the College. Nigel introduced himself and Tom said in response: “Do you mean Wilson of Scribes and Scholars?” (This book, I should explain, is the authoritative account of the transmission of classical literature.) Nigel modestly confessed that he was indeed the said Wilson. “That, Sir,” said Tom solemnly, “is A Major Work.” How well Americans do these things, I thought.

Conversely, the story of Isaiah Berlin is cautionary. Invited to dinner by Churchill during the War, Berlin grew increasingly puzzled that he was being praised for his contribution to raising the people’s spirits with his heart-warming works. His landmark study of Marx was very impressive, he could concede, but he had not thought it likely to boost civilian morale.

Gradually he realized that Churchill had invited him on the assumption he was Irving Berlin, the composer of White Christmas. A sticky moment. But I believe he dined out on it for years, showing that even humiliation can be turned to advantage in the resourceful donnish breast.