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On References, Obituaries and “Personal” Statements

When I was a young man an elderly academic once took me aside and asked me if I had ever been required to write a Times obituary. It was a crazy question though not actually the craziest question an elderly academic ever asked me. That would be, “Lincoln, did you ever meet Winston?” The great man died when I was eighteen and the chances of an encounter having occurred in somewhere like the Old Bridge in Barrowford or the Miners’ Welfare in Burnley were slight indeed. Even so, the asker of the second daftest question was keen to instruct me on the technique involved. As it happened he knew a lot of very senior chaps and liked very few of them. It was no longer acceptable, as it had been when George IV died, to write “There never was an individual less regretted by his fellow creatures than this deceased king . . . ” No, one had to know the code.

The technique for the code begins with listing the vices and failures of the deceased. Then you re-express them as virtues or, if you can’t manage to do this you have to leave them out. He couldn’t teach a dog to chase rabbits becomes “his grasp of his subject-matter was appreciated by students who were both able and diligent”. Her writing was so turgid that nobody could get through three pages at a sitting can be summarised as “a style that was uncompromising in its scholarly caution”. He was an ambitious little sod who wouldn’t give you the time of day unless he thought there was something in it for him translates as, “he was enviably focused and did not concern himself with social niceties”.

Fifty years on and I’ve only written one obituary and that for a man so nice that no techniques of subterfuge were necessary. I have spoken at a number of funerals where the technique as taught has to be borne in mind. But it’s main relevance is to the writing of references. It is true that the etiquette of writing references precludes much subterfuge in most cases. Current advice to be found on the web exactly duplicates what I was taught a long time ago. The referred must ask the referee if he could support him in his application. The referee either answers with a polite refusal, saying something like, “I don’t think you would be a serious candidate for a post of that kind at this stage, but maybe others would be more optimistic”. Or he or she agrees to write it and does so in such a way as not to preclude the possibility of success.

But there was one form of reference which used to lend itself to fascinating and varied forms of expressive essay – the headteacher’s reference on an application for a place as an undergraduate. Of course, by the end of my working life these had become extraordinarily dull. Everything conspired to make them so including league tables, computers, templates, freedom of information regulations and the general blandness of the age. They weren’t even written by headteachers. So that one read, “Blackley High School is a co-educational comprehensive rated as “good” by OFSTED . . . James Smith has successfully completed (this, that and the other) . . . ” But back in the twentieth century head teachers thought it their duty to express an honest view on a candidate and whether they ought to go to university or not. So when one picked up a bundle of applications it was always with the expectation that some would be odd or interesting. In what follows the names have, of course, been changed.

“Gerald Haythornthwaite is a hawk-like cover point and an outside half of outstanding potential who who would catch the eye for selection in any varsity team I have ever seen.” Thus the headmaster of an extremely remote public school. But the remoteness seemed to go beyond the geographic. Who was the imagined recipient of this? A tweeded “don” who was president of both the cricket and “rugger” clubs? There was no mention of academic work anywhere in the reference and the facts of Gerald’s academic career seemed to preclude any kind of offer. Thus I never met Gerald, but for years I puzzled over why only his fielding was mentioned in the context of cricket. Could he not bowl or bat?

“Theresa O’Leary is a licentious and ostentatious young woman who should be rejected by all respectable universities.” This from the head of a convent, herself a lady in holy orders. The imagined recipient perhaps a bespectacled “bluestocking” whose loathing for licentiousness and ostentation would be predominant in her decision-making. Instead, it landed on my desk. Licentious and ostentatious sets us querying how generous an offer one could possibly make. But I never got to meet Theresa and I guess that the other universities to whom she had applied had invented scholarships and bursaries for her. Years later when fees had been introduced and parents had started turning up in numbers to open days I used to tell this as part of the tale of the changing admissions system. Invariably I could see the mothers, themselves of Theresa’s generation, nodding and smirking with approval.

“Jeffrey Davies is a very dangerous boy.” This was from a fairly ordinary school and it went on to describe how the candidate had behaved during the school production of Romeo and Juliet. He had played Tybalt and in the scene often called “The Death of Tybalt” (though Mercutio also dies in it) he had refused to allow Romeo to kill him and had launched brutal attacks on all the others on stage shouting, “And you, too, must die!” It was not clear how the performance had proceeded after that – it clearly couldn’t recover completely. This story is much longer because we interviewed Jeff. When I say “we”, there were seven of us, consumed by curiosity, a fact that must sound very odd to twenty first century academic ears. He looked rather scholarly and spoke quietly and explained his behaviour in terms of what he had read about theatrical improvisation. (Ah, Jeffrey, they may say they want you to improvise and think for yourself, but they never really mean it.) We accepted him.

He was expelled from the university, allowed back and then expelled again. He joined the civil service, rose rapidly through the ranks, became involved in arms dealing, gambling and embezzlement and was sent to gaol. On his release he studied for an Open University degree, got a first, went on to study for various degrees at other universities and became an academic. Non-ironically, he developed something of a niche for himself in the theatre and is currently, among other things, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts. Dangerous, perhaps, but very interesting. And that is the important point: the uncoded, uncensored reference is not necessarily bad for the candidate nor for those receiving the information. It was more likely to endear you to traditional academics looking for interesting students than a modern, bland reference would.

The references I detested most were not called references at all, but “personal statements” and they were primarily found on university application forms. At one point I was reading these by the hundred: the endlessly repeated tale of virtuous young men and women “passionate” in their commitment to the subject they intended to study, though with a healthy taste for physical endeavour and an absolute commitment to charitable work when time allowed. I compared these paragons to my own children and their friends and yearned for danger, ostentation and licentiousness. Since we were massively oversubscribed I welcomed the suggestion of a colleague that we should start the admissions process by rejecting all candidates who used the word “passionate” in describing their attitude to the subject. “Dispassionate is what is wanted,” he said in his quiet Welsh voice.

Then I went further and refused to read the damn things. That would have been fine, of course, because nobody would have noticed, but I announced my refusal in an article in a national newspaper. There was a storm of protest mostly directed at the vice-chancellor of my university. It came not from applicants, nor even from their parents, but from the various employees of schools who “guided” applicants on personal statements. I rest my case: I had described the personal statement as part of the induction into a “culture of deceit” which was taking over society and it all begins with these would-be functionaries from the Ministry of Truth – the “personal” statement isn’t even personal. The vice-chancellor felt constrained to announce that I was no longer permitted to be involved in the admissions process so yet another avenue of pleasure was closed off to me.

Since you may wonder I never personally wrote a personal statement. UCCA (as it then was) had come into existence, but the sole university to which I applied had remained aloof from it and was still operating some fairly traditional and informal procedures. Even though I’ve always aspired to a degree of bluntness, I’m not sure how honest I would have been. How might it have gone?: “I spend most of my time thinking about ladies’ bottoms and Burnley Football Club, but I am also interested in the causes of the English Civil War.” In fact, the nearest thing to such a statement I ever had to make was when something called “appraisal” was introduced quite late in my career. Invited to talk about future projects I said I was intellectually clapped out and should be offered early retirement. After that appraisals became selective and I was never selected.

At the risk of being accused of moderation I must end by making two concessions. The first is that very few people were in a position to be as arrogant and insouciant as I was and even fewer are now – though I would spin my arrogance as a spirit of freedom. The other concession is that of course I accept that society must contain a proper element of deceit. We must pretend to be better than we are and to rate other people more highly than we do. But we could be more honest than we are and we should be and we used to be.

Lincoln Allison June 2019

( An edited version of this article was published in Times Higher Education in August 2019.)