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English Eggheads

Absent Minds: Intellectuals in Britain, by Stefan Collini, Oxford University Press, 544 pp, £16.99, ISBN: 978-0199216659 Culture is always something that was Something pedants can measure, Skull of bard, thigh of chief, depth of dried up river, Shall we be thus forever? Shall we be thus forever? Patrick Kavanagh, “In Memory of Brother Michael”   Of all the known permutations of the shaggy dog story that have commended themselves at dinner parties through the ages, one alone seems to get funnier each time it’s told. The scene is a filthy building site in east London guarded by an old-school gaffer. A tattered figure approaches decked out in wellies and flat cap. In between sharp drags on the ubiquitous Rothman, this drifter asks for work, the more casual the better. The gaffer grimaces and says no, and for good measure tells the supplicant he looks “like a man who couldn’t tell the difference between a girder and a joist”. “I can too,” comes the wounded retort, “the first of them wrote Faust and the second wrote Ulysses.” Stefan Collini would have enjoyed this joke as it captures many of the problems which are discussed in Absent Minds. Intellectuals in Britain, his gorgeous, vulnerable tour de force, just published in paperback to general acclaim. Collini shows that intellectual life is as much a matter of fantasy, deception and desire as it is about simply doing one’s homework or keeping up one’s end in an argument. An intellectual may assuredly be something more complex than a chap with a briefcase, but Collini’s book shows that, at least as debated in twentieth century Britain, the species remains always and everywhere just out of reach. His book explores the “culture of denial” that has suffused arguments in modern Britain about the nature of intellectual endeavour and its importance or otherwise in our sad lives as we actually live them. This unusual book has essentially two parts, the first being a complex, reticular argument about why so many different groups in modern Britain have insisted ad nauseam that their country lacked “real” intellectuals, as opposed to say the dynamic breeds that only seem to flourish in those famous cafés across the channel in France. Collini then gives concrete examples of this tendency by exploring how several important thinkers in modern Britain have understood their roles vis a vis society at large. All of his chosen characters, from TS Eliot to Orwell and RG Collingwood have…

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