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Tuesday, 28 October 2014

A Fortunate Man 2 - RIP Chelly Halsey

After reading the John Berger book I mentioned in my last post I looked up his age and was surprised: born in 1926 he is just three years younger than Chelly Halsey who died two weeks ago. Yet to me they seem to be part of completely different generations. 

How odd is our sense of time and how odd is our perceptions of class.  Berger's  plummy tones, now suffused with occasional gallic notes, still mark him out as a minor public schoolboy, as indeed he was (St Edward's, Oxford). I'd wager that Chelly's accent was unplaceable except to a linguistic expert. Educated, certainly, but not exactly BBC English, nor obviously regional. Maybe that is the fate of all us that come from the Midlands south of Birmingham, neither one thing nor the other. I've only ever met one person that could accurately place my accent. He was a professional linguist & identified my hometown with uncanny accuracy.

I've good reason to be very grateful to Chelly as he interviewed me for a studentship at Nuffield College. Turning up at the lodge I was directed to the office of the Bursar's secretary - at that time Chelly combined a University Professorship with the role of College Bursar and Keeper of the College Gardens! There I gave myself away. I had no idea how to pronounce Chelly's surname, so I opted for my regional default, Halsey with a short 'a'. The lady behind the desk looked down her nose at me and affected not to understand. After a short pause she said: "Do you mean Professor Hawlsey?". I knew I had failed the first part of the entrance test.

After that things could only get better. I sat in Chelly's room, Chelly behind his desk in jacket and tie and John Goldthorpe almost at right angles to me in a safari suit. The room was impossibly large - LSE and Imperial College academics inhabited rabbit hutches - but they seemed to have me trapped in a pincer movement. But then something strange happened. Chelly talked and talked and talked. I don't remember now what he talked about but I do remember thinking: "When is this going to end?" and "When will they ask me some questions?". They did eventually ask me a few questions but I don't remember what they were and then it was all over. Chelly saw me out and we chatted for a minute or so in the entrance to his staircase. It was a wonderful Spring day, the sun was shining and Nuffield looked like a Cotswold picture postcard. I think we were talking about student accommodation and suddenly he said: "And when you come here...". Only later did I realize the significance of that sentence. In Oxford things were done obliquely and the right sort of chap should understand  what is said and what is not said.

We were all in awe of Chelly. He and Eric Batstone presided over the Wednesday afternoon Sociology seminar which in those days was aimed mainly at MPhil students. Both were smokers and the upper reaches of the room quickly filled  with dense clouds of tobacco smoke. When Chelly gave a paper he talked without notes, in complete sentences without hesitation. His style was authoritative yet conversational. Listening to him was not quite like listening to a favourite Uncle, but there was an air of intimacy about it that drew you in and made you feel he was addressing you personally. Of course part of it was theatrical, but there was hard earned craft in it nonetheless and even in his eighties he could still give a pretty impressive performance.

As a student I didn't actually have much to do with Chelly and he retired shortly after I left the college. When I came back to Nuffield from time to time we'd share a lunch table and talk about LSE in the 1950s,  Palo Alto, Ed Shils, Cobbett and Conrad.

With the exception of George and Teresa Smith's appreciation, none of the obituaries capture much of the essence of the man and several contain glaring inaccuracies. The Daily Telegraph's unsigned effort is little more than the kind of bitter polemic one would associate with the Daily Hate Mail. Though several mention his work with Jean Floud and F. M. Martin none manage to refer to the fundamental insight of that work, that the fairness of selection for secondary school based on objective tests of ability is undermined as soon as schools start to  supplement test scores with interviews. An old battle in a long forgotten war? Admissions tutors at Oxbridge Colleges would like you to think so.

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