Odium academicum and the rise of the open postcard

 

Hugh Trevor-Roper is an interesting man, not only for his graceful and lucid English, and his wit, but also because he was a classicist who got a First in Honour Moderations in 1934, won the Craven scholarship, was perhaps the best classicist in his year at Oxford, and then switched to Modern History, finally becoming the Regius Professor in 1957.

Adam Sisman writes:
‘Hugh’s wit was dangerous; his tongue could run away with him. On paper, the risk was greater still. [Maurice] Bowra was humiliated to receive a postcard from Hugh drawing attention to an error in his Oxford Book of Greek Verse in Translation (1938): he had mistaken a dirge for an epithalamium, confusing a funeral lament with a wedding-song. It was mortifying to have such a howler pointed out by one of his protégés, a man who wasn’t even a classicist—all the more so to have it exposed to casual scrutiny on a postcard. Bowra couldn’t bear to lose face in such a way…’   Adam Sisman, Hugh Trevor-Roper: The Biography, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2010

To any of our students now, a postcard means a picture postcard. But until 1968, when the two-tier system of mail was introduced, the blank white postcard was a preferred mode of quick communication. Collections and deliveries were extremely frequent; you could receive a reply the same day; it cost less than a letter to send; and telephone calls were expensive.

What you said was not private. But at the universities this was a godsend, in the golden days of odium academicum. With an extra-fine nib in your fountain pen, and economy of expression, you could write an assassinatory postcard that would make a good shot at demolishing your rival’s self-esteem: a mini-Philippic.

It could be read by the postman, passed around the porter’s lodge with rustic mirth and guffawing, and finally perused by the beady eye of the college scout who delivered it to the great man’s rooms: this being the worst, because the scout knew him personally; and since it was also the golden age of English literacy, not many words of obloquy were recondite enough to escape the savvy of a college servant.

This was the 20th-century equivalent of digital denunciation. It was, in fact, bullying, but then a tit would probably answer the tat.

One old don of our acquaintance opined that it was a good thing: if you knew that every word you wrote or said was being scrutinised by your rivals and detractors, you did not make mistakes. He quoted Hesiod, who maintains that there is a goddess of Strife that is beneficial to men and makes them compete to produce quality:

… ἀγαθή δ᾽ Ἔρις ἥδε βροτοῖσιν
καὶ κεραμεὺς κεραμεῖ κοτέει καὶ τέκτονι τέκτων.
‘…this Strife is wholesome for mortals,
and potter is irked with potter and craftsman with craftsman…’
                                     Works and Days, 24-25

  • Of interest, as well as Sisman’s biography: Hugh Trevor-Roper, The Wartime Journals, ed. Richard Davenport-Hines, I.B.Tauris, 2012

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