I remember a conversation with the historian Lord Dacre (Hugh Trevor-Roper), not long after he had taken up residence as Master of Peterhouse in Cambridge. He was commenting, as he often did, on the provinciality of Cambridge social life and the stunted intellectual life of Cambridge dons. The surest sign of their inadequacy, he said, was that they needed to have a "guru" - someone whose doctrine, imposed by means of a mysterious personal charisma, had to be accepted without question. (F. R. Leavis was the main example he gave, followed by Ludwig Wittgenstein.) The phenomenon of the guru, he said, was quite unknown in Oxford.
"What about Maurice Bowra?" I asked, thinking of all the stories I had heard about this dominant Oxonian figure (Warden of Wadham College for 32 years), who had mesmerised generations of students there from the 1920s to the 1960s. "What?" he said, with a look of astonished amusement, "Bowra? Anyone less like a guru would have been hard indeed to imagine." At which point, knowing that this was an argument I could not win - I had kicked the ball dangerously far into his home ground - I let the matter rest.
But now, after reading the first ever full-length biography of Maurice Bowra, I wonder whether I was right to give up quite so easily. Here was a man who magnetised Oxford, with some people being powerfully (and deliberately) repelled, but with many others lining up like iron filings in a force-field. The metaphor was used by Sir Isaiah Berlin at Bowra's memorial service, when he commented: "His unique accent, idiom, voice, the structure of his sentences,
became a magnetic model which affected the style of speech, writing, and perhaps feeling, of many who came under its spell." Habits of speech were not the only things that had rubbed off on Berlin himself. Twenty years earlier, reminiscing in a letter to Bowra, he had written that "I owe to you a transformation of my entire mode of life and attitude toward it."