Howard is, unfortunately, also a columnist of sorts. The Independent publishes his piece - weekly, I think, though I'm not interested enough to check, let alone to know, and besides, the battle of the columnists , what Nick says about what Polly said about that piece by someone else, is part of the noise I'd rather avoid. But I did catch this, last month. It's Howard Jacobson on Cambridge, the civilising effect of improving literature, and women. His thesis, roughly, is that men who read won't rape. Yes, that's precisely what I wrote. He says that men who read won't rape.
It's worth reading in full, although in another way, it's not worth reading at all, but once started, it has to be finished just to see if he's really saying what you think he's saying. It's a meander rather than an argument, since Jacobson, whatever his skills as a novelist, can't really maintain a linear argument for the length of a two-minute column. Nevertheless, that two minutes is long enough for some startling passages to stand out. Here's one:
because my college was for men only – some joke, calling us “men” – there were no women around for us to abuse, supposing we’d been of a mind to do so.OK. Now in my experience, humour, even offhand humour, about violence against women isn't usually leading to a good place, but Howard's a proper writer and I am not, so let's follow him awhile before we make our judgements. Where are you going with that thought, Howard?
There’s more than one way of being brutal. But we never raised our hands to women. We could no more have date-raped than scored a try at Twickenham.All right, Howard, that sounds like self-deluding garbage about the past to me, but both of us are middle-aged men and we can be forgiven our lapses of memory, even when they are to our advantage. But why, since you raise the subject, would you and your contemporaries have been so trustworthy with women, compared to young men generally?
In the case of those of us who studied literature, the books we read turned us inward and kept us civil. It would have been hard to go from reading Jane Eyre to inveigling totty back to our rooms and doing violence on them.Now at this point, if columnists are still capable of making you angry rather than glaze over, this might be the point at which the anger rises. He is saying what he is saying. He is really saying that. He is saying that because you read English Literature, you would be much less likely to rape.
Jesus. Somebody actually wrote that in a newspaper. Scarcely anybody noticed, as far as I could see - it was a Friday column and the weekend went by without any particular public outrage - but somebody, a Booker Prize winner at that, wrote in a newspaper that rape is much less likely if you read English Literature at Cambridge.
Where to start with such a column? Where to start with such a claim? With my own personal experience of Oxford students, which - twenty years later than Jacobson - was that the men were just as boorish, just as beery, just as hateful towards women when they wanted to be, as any other set of men I've come across? With my recollection that English Literature at my college was in part represented by a chap who despite his doubtless sensitive and life-enhancing knowledge of the English funeral elegy from Spenser to Milton (though he, in fact, had played at Twickenham) had no particular reputation for keeping his hands to himself?
Here's Clive James, who, in comparison to Jacobson, had some idea of what power relationships on campus might entail.
Almost every university department I have ever heard of is haunted by at least one Lothario who sees nothing wrong with trying to screw the prettier students. The concept of academic freedom usually ensures that such conduct goes unpunished, even though it is patently unfair to the screwed and the unscrewed alike.At least Clive James could see what actually happened among his university contemporaries. Jacobson has, or claims to have, no idea.
Yes, we called them “totty”, but we would have died from embarrassment had the totty looked in our direction.Jesus. "Yes, we called them 'totty'". But...but nothing. You were afraid of women? Are you under the impression that being afraid of women means men are less likely to rape? Are you insane, Howard Jacobson? What are you thinking of? And what were they thinking of, whoever nominally edited the column and decided it was fit to publish?
Of course, what would probably have happened if James' "Lothario" had raped a female student, or if a young male student (who perhaps spent the rest of the evening reading Sons and Lovers or Jane Eyre) had raped a local girl, would have been that they would have got away with it - and not especially because of "the concept of academic freedom". They would have been believed and the female student, or the local girl, would not, and why? Because one of the people concerned would have been viewed as "totty" and the other would have been a man. And at that, a "refined" man. one who went to King's, who knew nothing of the "obscenities of the uncouth North", who had read DH Lawrence and Charlotte Brontë.
There's much more that could be said about the piece - try, for instance, getting your head round the claim that follows
I don’t say an MA in gangsta rap or business studies will necessarily make you a rapist, but there’s less mental distance to travel before you get thereor the immense, self-pitying, could-not-be-further-wrong stupidity of this
is it even possible that we have given up on the idea of being humanised altogether? Is the very word too fancy? We mistrust whatever isn’t egalitarian and look askance at people who appear to us to live in ivory towersbut to deal with it point-by-point might be to do more justice to it than it merits. It is a hymn to education, the text of which is soaked in ignorance. It is a set of falsehoods about rape, culture and education. It is a lie.
As I say, the lie came and went without a great deal of notice being taken. All right, the weekend after was the one Jeremy Corbyn was elected and nobody was much interested in anything else. The day of its publication was 11 September and there were more important things to pay attention to that day than the crass stupidity and snobbery of a two-minute column. And yet Jacobson's columns do get praised, passed on, embedded in tweets which recommend their contents. They get read. They are looked forward to. How could it be that nobody noticed, that particular day, what this particular column had to say?
I don't know. I don't even think I seek to know. But I do know that whatever Howard Jacobson's experience at Cambridge, and whatever mine at Oxford, although the both of us were silly young men who knew nothing about women, neither of us had to go through anything like the experience of being raped, nor beaten, nor that of not being believed afterwards. Jacobson doesn't think it happened, not back then when
we never raised our hands to women.I think they did, Howard. I think they did. But I think it was "refined" people that did it.