In 1983 I received my Finals results, along with a note from Simon Hornblower, who had tutored me in Ancient History for a year, saying ‘Congratulations. Try for All Souls?’ I duly sat the exams for the All Souls Prize Fellowship, which I remember in some detail. One paper involved translating unseen passages from as many languages as one knew, so after Latin, Greek, French, and Spanish, I embarked on the Italian passage, an excerpt from an early 20th-century novel describing a scene at a seaside party. I understood most of it – women were shading themselves from the sun, men smoking pipes, children enjoying ices etc. — but I was puzzled by the phrase ‘cani fiutano sul prato’; what were those dogs supposed to be doing? The only Latin root I could come up with as possibly related was ‘futuo’, so I duly translated ‘dogs are copulating on the lawn…’ I avoided a cruder translation to spare the readers’ blushes, but those would have been pale in comparison to my own erubescence when I later learned that fiutare simply means ‘to snuffle’.
The exam also included a one-word title on which one was expected to hold forth in an erudite way, and I enjoyed writing on the subject of Taste – wondering in a quasi-Wildean way if one might fruitfully exchange the endings of two Latin proverbs de mortuis nil nisi bonum ‘about the dead [say] nothing but good ’ and de gustibus non est disputandum ‘about tastes there’s no point in wrangling’ (so I argued that while it’s not worth wrangling about those who have died, it’s worth insisting on good taste…). After one of the exam days all candidates were invited to dine at the College, and I found myself sitting in a place of honour between the Warden (then Patrick Neill) and the legendary Isaiah Berlin, who had heard that I was a cellist and regaled me with stories about famous musicians he had known or met – Pau Casals, Gregor Piatigorsky, Slava Rostropovich, Natalia Gutman…Artur Rubinstein, Vladimir Horowitz, Emil Gilels, Alfred Brendel….My interest soon flagged as he had no insights to offer about them, and his manic name-dropping put me off my dinner.
I was subsequently interviewed. At the viva, attended by around fifty gowned All Souls Fellows draped around the room like vampire bats, Berlin asked me with avuncular enthusiasm ‘As a practising musician, you will surely be keen to investigate ancient Greek music for a few years?’ My slightly pompous and over-confident response was ‘I’m afraid that the evidence is too slight for an extended investigation’. There was a sharp drawing-in of breath, and silence followed. The room seemed to grow colder and darker. Then one of the Fellows quietly remarked ‘All the more reason to do it, you might think’.
I realised at that moment that I had just talked myself out of a Prize Fellowship. Shortly thereafter I embarked on a career as a cellist. But my assessment of the situation regarding ancient Greek music was as wrong as it was brash. In 1992 Martin West published his masterly synthesis on the subject, Ancient Greek Music (OUP). And the 2-year project on ancient music which I conducted in 2013-15 has more than proved the worthwhileness of the inquiry that thirty years ago Isaiah Berlin thought I should have undertaken, had I been elected, as a Prize Fellow of All Souls.
Many apply but few are chosen. A letter published in the Times Literary Supplement of 7 Dec 2012 drew attention to one illustrious applicant who failed to achieve an All Souls Fellowship in 1926: T.S. Eliot. Eliot applied for a Research Scholarship with a research proposal on the Elizabethan Dramatists. He was rejected because the Committee felt that “the subject of research as interpreted by Mr Eliot himself is far too wide for any one man to undertake, and must lead to generalisations, the value of which must be doubtful, since the foundation of knowledge on which they are based must frequently be inadequate”.
Gilead Cooper QC, friend and pupil of the late All Souls Fellow and Chancery judge Michael Hart, tells me that the latter used to say that the reason Eliot was turned down was that Fellows were scandalised by the lines of his poem ‘Whispers of Immortality‘: ‘Uncorseted, her friendly bust/ Gives promise of pneumatic bliss.’ Hart will have relished quoting these lines. I expect he was joking about their being the reason for Eliot’s failure, but assuming the story has no foundation it is, as they say, ben trovato.