No one could be long in conversation with Christie Davies without realizing that he was in the presence of a powerful, individual, and original mind. He had something interesting to say about practically everything, almost always from an unusual and unexpected angle on whatever subject came up, and drawing from a vast stock of information and experience of every kind. What he said was often simultaneously startling and obvious (obvious, that is, once he had enunciated it): his thought had a why-didn’t-I-think-of-that? quality about it. This is what gave a peculiar pleasure to talking to him. It was like going on a journey in which new vistas were likely to open up at any moment.
His thought had a why-didn’t-I-think-of-that? quality about it.
Readers of The New Criterion will be familiar with his art criticism, which was judicious, lucid, well informed, and properly opinionated. But art criticism was only a very small part of his protean activity and interest. If he was not a renaissance man, it was only because the expansion of human knowledge now makes the existence of such a person impossible. He could speak equally of cabbages and kings.
He started as an economist, obtaining a distinguished degree at Cambridge (he was also for a time the president of the Union there, as well as a member of the Cambridge Footlights, an amateur dramatic club famous at the time for its satirical spirit). After leaving university, he was a producer for the bbc Third Programme—the third national radio network of the bbc, dedicated to rigorous cultural pursuits—at a time when it was still permissible for that august corporation to run a service that appealed to an intellectually elite audience without undue concern for audience figures. There was still confidence in the existence of the good in itself.
Christie Davies then turned to academic sociology: not, it must be admitted, a field that generally attracts minds as capable and well-furnished as his. He was for many years Professor of Sociology at Reading University, an appointment that did the university much honor, but which one feels might be impossible today for reasons that no reader of The New Criterion will need to be reminded of. He took a somewhat jaundiced view of modern academia, not entirely welcoming its constant expansion into pastures new. At the end of his curriculum vitae, he stated that he had been “external examiner at many British universities, including excellent universities, very good universities, good universities, and universities.”
He was perhaps best known for his writings on humor (his most celebrated book, perhaps, being The Mirth of Nations). Unlike many writers on this subject, he knew it from the inside as well as the out: he was not like a writer on cookery who has no sense of smell. Indeed, almost everything he said was suffused with humor, and he never succumbed to the simultaneously dismal and superficial view that what was funny was necessarily less serious than the solemn, earnestness without seriousness being one of his targets. He was an immensely learned man, but he wore his learning not only lightly, but lightheartedly, which is a much rarer quality.
He was an immensely learned man, but he wore his learning not only lightly, but lightheartedly.
He was strongly opposed to the prevailing view that ethnic and national jokes told, almost universally, by neighbors about one another were but the prelude to conflict and war, if not genocide. This supposition is, of course, one of the pillars of political correctness: that if I joke about the tightfistedness of the Scots or the Dutch, I necessarily harbor a violent antipathy towards them that needs but a spark to ignite into full and uncontrolled hostility. Though Christie Davies clearly enjoyed the jokes that nations and ethnic groups told about one another (they are often very funny), his study of humor had a serious import. Christie Davies waged war on humorlessness, an ever-widening and deepening condition, as a brief survey of the contemporary world’s politicians, who nowadays hardly ever dare make a joke for fear of offending someone (even if they were personally capable of making a joke), attests. Thus, Christie Davies described an important social and political development (for personal freedom cannot long survive humorlessness) from a typically unusual angle.
But though he was an editor of an international journal dedicated to the study of humor around the world, and the president of a society dedicated to the same end, humor (which cannot be left to the Bergsons and Freuds of the world) was far from his only concern. He was much exercised by the relationship between religious belief or practice and everyday morality and civility. Given that he was a native of Britain—he was Welsh, and never entirely lost his accent, or wanted to—this concern was hardly surprising. His book The Strange Death of Moral Britain (an echo of George Dangerfield’s The Strange Death of Liberal England) recounts the transition of Britain during his lifetime from being a country of law-abiding civility to one of anarchic incivility, relating it to the terminal decline and near-total collapse of both the Church of England and what is known in Britain as nonconformist Christianity. No one would have predicted quite so swift a transformation of the myriad chapels of his native Wales into nightclubs and what the vendors of real estate insist on calling luxury apartments. And I think it fair to say that Christie Davies was not much pleased by the growth and spread of Islam in Britain as the one religion with any self-confidence.
He had extensive experience and knowledge of what is loosely (very loosely) called the Third World. I first realized this when he and I corresponded about my little satire on Tanzania under the dictatorship of Julius Nyerere (Saint Julius, as Peter Bauer called him), which I published under the pseudonym of Thursday Msigwa. Ever afterwards, Christie Davies called me Thursday (I called him Tuesday). To my surprise, he was very well-informed about Nyerere’s friend the Reverend Trevor Huddlestone—Bishop Herbalgoode, as he appears in my book—and his work in Africa. Huddlestone was a doughty opponent of apartheid, but some of his other activities in Africa were perhaps less praiseworthy, and Christie Davies knew the arcana of Tanzanian politics, as well as those of many other Third World countries that seem obscure and unimportant to the general public, but are actually very interesting.
He loved gossip of a pointed, though not malicious, kind, and he had a very good supply of stories. He was the perfect exemplar of Horace Walpole’s famous dictum that the world is a comedy to those who think, a tragedy to those who feel; and for him, amusement and morality were neither incompatible nor diametrically opposed.
He was a dedicated and prolific journalist who (so editors tell me) always handed in his copy on time. He did not despise descent into the public arena, but neither did he seek fame or even notoriety. He corrected his last article very shortly before he died.
As a sociologist, he never lost sight of the fact that it was human beings with whom he had to do. If there were generalizations to be made about large groups of people—he was never afraid of making them, some of them far from politically correct—he never forgot that it was their mentalities that counted. Not for him Man as a mere vector of forces or a feather on the wind of circumstance. For example, the rise of crime in Great Britain was for him certainly not caused by an abstraction (such as relative inequality) so beloved of a certain type of criminologist; it was a change in culture and mentality that counted. Of course, there is no final cause; mentalities must change for reasons too, but reasons cannot be analyzed as if they were simply semi-occult physical forces like gamma radiation.
As a sociologist, he never lost sight of the fact that it was human beings with whom he had to do.
Christie Davies was a believer in the necessity of a strong moral code, without being himself moralistic. He was certainly not censorious or puritanical, and he cheerfully accepted that men never lived up to their moral code (the only way to do so was to have none). His descriptions of the wretched plight in Britain of some of the Muslim girls of Pakistani descent were heartfelt and personal: he investigated their stories himself. His first book, published in 1973, was about miscarriages of justice leading to wrongful imprisonment. If there was a comic dimension to his conception of life, there was also a tragic one. In other words, to return to Walpole’s dictum, he both thought and felt.
When eminent persons die, it is a commonplace to say that we shall not see their like again. Since every human being is unique, this is in a certain sense true by definition. But in the case of Christie Davies it is no mere pious incantation. He was never afraid to say what he thought and (at least as important) what he thought was always worth saying. Such persons are ever fewer. George Orwell’s great encomium to Charles Dickens was equally true of Christie Davies and might well serve as his epitaph:
He is laughing, with a touch of anger in his laughter, but no triumph, no malignity. [He is] a man who is always fighting against something, but who fights in the open and is not frightened, the face of a man who is generously angry—in other words, of a nineteenth-century liberal, a free intelligence, a type hated with equal hatred by all the smelly little orthodoxies which are now contending for our souls.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 36 Number 2, on page 78
Copyright © 2017 The New Criterion | www.newcriterion.com