Russell Davies unearths from the radio and television archives the voices of men and women who were, for many years, a staple of the broadcasting diet. Some, but by no means all, have university pedigree but all have a breath-taking breadth of learning and the facility to deliver it, albeit to an audience who were prepared to give them time and were, it would appear, happy to be dazzled by learning.
Russell's examples from the Men and Women of Letters trove is gathered round his very personal association with John Gross, of whom he writes:
'In 1969 an author in his early thirties published his first book. The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters won the Duff Cooper prize, delighted the reading public, introduced them to the name of John Gross, and marked the beginning of what would be an illustrious and fascinating literary career. It ended with his death on 10 January 2011, a great sorrow for the many people who loved and admired John.'
No doubt, I read at the time, but had forgotten until coming across it again, since I quite lack his total recall, something he wrote here in 1983, an entertaining review of a biography of Sir George Lewis, the famous and immensely influential Victorian solicitor whose clients included the Prince of Wales. In an aside, Gross gently wondered why the biographer hadn't mentioned that Lewis 'appears by name in Conan Doyle's "The Illustrious Client" — a pretty broad clue to the client's identity'. Yes, he had read everything, high and low.
Since his death, I've thought often about John, and reread him. The breadth of his reading and his memory made him the perfect anthologist, and he edited half a dozen Oxford Books of..., from Aphorisms to Parodies. He also wrote three books of his own, and I wish he had written more. Shylock is a learned and highly original study of that singularly problematic character and his play, while A Double Thread is a beautiful short memoir of Gross's London childhood, 'double' because both English and Jewish. But I now see that the defining point came with his brilliant first book.
Although he and Kingsley Amis were disparate personalities, to say the least, Gross would have shared Amis's contempt for anything which 'makes a statement', and his disdain for the idea of 'importance'. But I believe that The Rise and Fall is a truly important book. It wasn't just an item on Gross's list of publications, it was part of his own story, and it made a statement of its own: a repudiation of the attempted monopoly of literary criticism by 'the university' and the larger academic appropriation of our common culture.
Producer: Tom Alban
Russell Davies charts the receding impact of what were once known as the 'men of letters'.