Several years ago, when I was a research student at Oxford, I was invited to a celebratory dinner at one of the university’s most venerable and academic colleges. As is sometimes the way with these affairs, guests were shifted around between courses, presumably in the hope that no diner should be stuck with anybody too dreadful for the entirety of their evening. A noble objective, in a way, but I have never been keen on the arrangement. It seems to graft on to an event that is already likely to be at least slightly awkward a mechanism for guaranteeing an experience in which awkwardness is destined to be king ‒ at least until the drink on offer has taken effect. On this occasion, however, I was glad of the custom. Each of my companions was pleasant and convivial; each seemed to recognize intuitively the most effective moment at which to ask rhetorically ‒ and only slightly too loudly ‒ whether we had run out of wine. And one fellow guest (who proved himself a master of that rhetorical question) had a conversation with me for which I am still grateful today.
He was a charming old don of a particular but familiar kind: direct yet gentle (‘I’m going to introduce myself now’); well-to-do but not pompous. He had pulled off the trick of contracting his quintuple-barrelled name to something like ‘Bill’, yet spoke so aristocratically that he had almost managed to reduce his pronunciation of ‘Thackeray’ to a single syllable. During the course of our conversation, he told me a story about the attempt in the late nineteenth century to establish an Anglo-Saxon-based school of English at the university. It was an initiative to which there was much opposition. The example ‘Bill’ gave, which he relayed with a gravity to rival that of Churchill in his wartime broadcasts, was offered by the moral philosopher Thomas Case. Admit the study of Anglo-Saxon to Oxford, said Case, ‘and an English School will grow up, nourishing our langu
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