Absent Minds: Intellectuals in Britain by Stefan Collini - review by Michael Burleigh

Michael Burleigh

No Pointy-Heads Here?

Absent Minds: Intellectuals in Britain


Oxford University Press 536pp £25

Stefan Collini is what might be called ‘an academic’s academic’, although he clearly aspires to a larger role in ‘the culture’. He has written a couple of moderately diverting books on intellectual history, and a potted biography of Matthew Arnold. These modest achievements (and a lot of academic journalism) have enabled him to clamber up the first few rungs of being what the Americans call a ‘public intellectual’ while going through the (relatively undemanding) hoops of an academic career in a country where chairs are dished out like long-service medals on the railways. To counter donnish accidie, Collini pontificates about the state of British culture, or the fitfully cognate plight of the nation’s universities, in such journals as the LRB or Prospect. Judging by these wordy efforts, there may be a bit of a climb ahead if he is aiming for public recognition as distinct from the plaudits of academe. 

Collini is known, at any rate around Cambridge, to be an elegant inserter of knives – some achievement in a university where there are more bitches than in a dog pound. Of course, as a representative of the ‘Left university’, he is scrupulous over where he sticks his knives. Encounter

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