At the very beginning of John Carey‘s enjoyable ramble through his life as a scholar, critic, literary prize judge, writer and professor, he admits that at first he wanted to write a history of English literature, rather than a history of himself. “Then I realised it would be a lot of donkey work,” he confesses, immediately striking the kind of straight-talking, warmly accessible tone that has characterised his career.
Not that Carey takes the easy option; he aims for a book that intertwines his admiration (and sometimes disgust) for literature with the major events in his life. A neat intention, but for the first third The Unexpected Professor is a pretty straightforward autobiography of growing up without privilege in south-west London, completing national service, and going to Oxford in the 1950s, which seemed as different a world to him then as it does now. Strangely this is when Carey is at his best; uninhibited by the Oxford life he both loves and rails against. The tracts on the great writers are to come, and while they don’t feel professorial, thankfully, it’s those vivid early days that really stick in the mind.