Geoffrey Wheatcroft offers an amiable but insightful check on the tendency for North Americans to be impressed by the learnedness of British writers like Amis, Hitchens, and Alexander Cockburn. As he points out — quite rightly, “Cockburn could deftly quote Marx and Wodehouse in the same sentence, but that didn’t make him a scholar, and while Hitchens was a marvelous literary critic, he was no historian.”
The key point that Wheatcroft makes is that the fantastic displays of erudition Brits use to intimidate the rest of us is largely an Oxbridge conceit, a more general instance of the debating-society tricks and Stephen Potter-esque gambits the Oxfbridge crowd uses to outflank one another over sherry. But often, there’s not much more to it than that:
If that sounds grudging, remember the saying that it takes one to spot one. All those Englishmen listed above had been to Oxford, where I went myself, come to think of it. What was true there was also true at Cambridge, where Simon Gray enjoyed brilliant academic success, in a way that that very funny playwright and diarist later explained: “I wrote all my papers with a fraudulent fluency that could only have taken in those who were bound by their own educations to honour a fluent fraud.” Anyone who has been through the same pedagogical process will have an inkling what he meant.