I began reading C. P. Snow’s ‘Strangers and Brothers’ series of novels in 1980. I had just started my first serious job in local government and, although I didn’t know it, I was about to live through a brief golden age. The managerial future was on its way but hadn’t arrived yet. I’d never even heard of a performance indicator. Still in my twenties, I emerged quickly as a bit of a legal expert (most of it bluff ) and a policy adviser (most of that calculated charm). In other words, I was enjoying myself and, rather foolishly, I fancied myself as a miniature version of Lewis Eliot, Snow’s largely autobiographical narrator.
I loved those books. Admittedly, there was something portentous about their sense that Eliot’s endless conversations in Cambridge and Whitehall were supposed to be holding up a mirror to European history in the middle part of the twentieth century. And people certainly didn’t speak like that any more, not in any circles I moved in. But of course I wished that they did.
The Masters (1951) – the fourth book in the series, and surely the quintessential tale of academic politics – was always my favourite. Rereading it during the summer (which wasn’t ideal because, to begin with at least, it’s definitely a winter novel, full of quadrangle lights falling on snow and panelled walls glowing softly in firelight), I was reminded how, in the course of all the talking, Eliot goes in for observations about his interlocutors (and himself ) that are so compositionally rounded that you wonder if anyone could really accomplish such nuanced understanding in the midst of what is often some sort of conversational miasma. First time round I had doubts about this. But now I think it’s one of Snow’s finest achievements. He persuades us that these fleeting understandings do happen – even if they could never be as elegant as his portrayals of them.
I said it was a winter novel. Here’s what I mean:
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