John Carey is a very big wheel in the world of Eng Lit, and its Oxford branch in particular. After taking a first at St John’s, he taught at a number of colleges before being made the Merton Professor of English Literature in 1975, while still in his early forties. But he is much more than a ‘remote and ineffectual don’. He made his scholarly reputation with his edition of Milton and Marvell, but from early in his career he was keen to combine academic life with literary journalism. He started out as the radio critic of The Listener and contributed reviews and articles to Ian Hamilton’s New Review, including the wonderfully waspish ‘Down with Dons’, in which he took some well-aimed swipes at the snobbery and self-regard of his fellow practitioners.
He was talent-spotted by Harold Evans, then editing the Sunday Times, who took him out to lunch and asked him to become the paper’s lead book reviewer. It was an inspired choice. Carey is