Sunday, 22 January 2012

Howard Kirk - one of the most accurate and loathsome creations of 20th Century satire

Anthony Sher as Howard Kirk
The English author Malcolm Bradbury, who died of a dicky heart in 2000, deserves to be celebrated by all right-thinking people on two counts: in his 1975 satirical novel, The History Man, he created one of the great comic characters in 20th Century British fiction; and he defused the threat of Sociology becoming the academic über-subject to which all other subjects would be subservient : Bradbury’s achieved this by making Sociology appear ridiculous (which, of course, it is).

The sad thing is that he didn't manage to stop Kirk and his poisonous ilk from gaining control of the commanding heights of Britain's cultural life.

At the time, Howard Kirk, the red-brick sociology lecturer whose main aims are to get his leg over as often as possible and to further his own career by creating as much resentment-fuelled chaos in his university as possible, struck me as too damned real to be truly funny– his type were everywhere back then. When Anthony Sher portrayed him brilliantly in the 1981 TV adaptation, Mrs Thatcher was in power and it seemed that selfish, Zapata-moustached nihilists were in retreat (they weren’t really - they were just quietly taking over everything that doesn't need to make a profit). 

Of all the myriad hypocrisies of our left-wing elite, whether in academia, politics, the civil service, the arts or the media, I find its beady-eyed careerism the most nauseating. Back in the 1970s, college academics would routinely enhance their career prospects by encouraging their students’ endless, ridiculous demands -  free love, no exams, the right to choose their teachers, a veto on guest speakers, and a major say in running university affairs (simply in order to achieve their other, non-negotiable demands). The Pied Pipers amongst the – mainly – junior reaches of academic staff, having made themselves unsackable by ensuring their popularity with these silly young fascists, then took on the role of mediators between the authorities and the students, thereby guaranteeing themselves academic preferment and second careers as media commentators or quangocrats into the bargain. (Fellow-academic and author, David Lodge, summed the atmosphere at the time in a 2008 appreciation of The History Man: “Students, herded together and suddenly removed from parental control, were ripe for ideological awakening and sexual experiment, which sometimes turned into indoctrination and exploitation by their teachers.”)

Any harm done to their young charges by Kirk and his ilk in their pursuit of power was of no consequence: they'd advanced their careers, which was all that mattered. They had no genuine desire to destroy the  “structures” they routinely railed against: they merely wanted power to shift in their direction, so they - rather than  older, more traditional traditional, conservative academics who thought their job was to actually teach kids something rather than use them for their own purposes - would end up in charge.

The History Man captured this phenomenon perfectly.

That excellent quarterly journal of Conservative thought, the Salibury Review, surprised me by featuring Malcolm Bradbury's masterpiece as a “Conservative Classic” in its Winter issue. When I first read the book soon after it came out (I presume my brother bought it – I was too poor and mean to buy hardbacks back then - I still am!) I initially assumed Bradbury to be a crusty old Tory academic. But, despite the evidence of the book, his subsequent appearances on the media and the tenor of some of his later work revealed that I’d got it wrong. Besides, he was himself a lecturer on a classic lefty glass-and-concrete campus at the University of East Anglia: he even ran the creative writing course which produced Ian McKewan and Kashuo ishiguro! Evidently not a Thatcherite.

As far as I can tell, Bradbury was a typical 1950s liberal humanist, a man - one presumes - of the civilised Very Soft Left. That’s what makes The History Man (and I hate to use this term) a braver book than if it had been produced by a Tory. For instance, Kirk’s literary ancestor, A Dance to The Music of Time’s Kenneth Widmerpool, who, after serving as a Labour MP, ends up as the chancellor of a redbrick university, where he supports rebellious youth, was created by arch-Tory, Anthony Powell (dubbed the HDF or “Horse-Faced Dwarf” by Amis and Larkin). 

In an article written shortly before his death, Bradbury had this to say about his greatest creation: “Howard Kirk was a rogue of rogues… No doubt in 1979 he would have voted for Thatcher, and in 1997 for Blair. He would be enjoying his vice-chancellorship at Batley Canalside University, and the life peerage has been a source of the greatest pleasure.” 

I very much doubt that Kirk would have voted for Mrs Thatcher in '79, as that wouldn’t have helped his career at all - but it’s not hard to conclude that he’d have ended up as a keen supporter of Tony Blair, whose government and its hangers-on appeared to consist almost entirely  of unscrupulous careerists who hated their country’s past and would tramnple over anyone to "get ahead".

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