in Pop Culture, Scholarship, Skepticism

Pseudologus: Bowra in the buff

Christopher Hitchens, who (I must confess) is a personal hero, recently used an anecdote about the venerable (and notorious) C.M. Bowra (Slate: ‘Anatomy of a Scandal‘), who was a real-life member of the real Order of the Phoenix (unlike that Harry Potter character).

The anecdote is one of those great stories that people like to tell about distinguished types. It’s humorous and humanizing and suits his reputation as a wit. And as one of those stories that people like to tell, Hitchens has told it before (Slate: ‘The Cult of ID‘):

At Oxford, where two rivers meet, there is a private stretch of the bank (or there used to be) called “Parson’s Pleasure.” Since Victorian times, this shaded resort was reserved for male dons who wished to swim and sunbathe in the nude. A barrier prevented any stray punts or boats from interrupting this idyll, and women and girls understood that this retreat was off-limits. One day, however, while the river was higher and faster than usual, a ladies’ boating party was swept through the barrier and into the all-male backwater. Shrieks and giggles from the boat, and a sudden, protective downward reaching of the hands on the part of all bathers on the bank. All but one. The late Sir Maurice Bowra, Hellenist and epigrammist, raised his hands to shield his craggy visage. There they all stood or sat until the fair intruders had sailed past, whereupon a general outbreak of sheepishness occurred, punctuated by Bowra saying: “I don’t know about you chaps, but I’m known by my face around here.”

You needn’t look very hard to find the anecdote here and there, with the quotation changed, or even the subject. It’s been told of others, for example Dundas, whom ‘Mercurius Oxoniensis‘ provocatively referred to as ‘the late Master Robin Dundas, of Christ-Church and Parson’s Pleasure.’

(Try googling +”Parsons’ Pleasure” +”my face”. Then try the same search on Google Books, though not all references include the supposed words of the don.)

In Leslie Mitchell’s biography, Maurice Bowra: A Life, we find a very good explanation, that includes this:

Wadham men found it ‘pleasant to hear all the Jowett stories being told about you.’

The Parsons’ Pleasure story is briefly mentioned as one of the many apocryphal tales ascribed to Bowra as ‘oral myths intended to describe what a great academic might have done.’

It’s still a nice story, but let’s be skeptical.