Terry Eagleton – The Gatekeeper


It’s Terry Eagleton’s  72nd birthday today so in his honour we’re repeating a post from our previous blog on his memoir The Gatekeeper (Allen Lane, 2001) Terry Eagleton is one of Gert’s favourite iconoclasts and has had the honour of being described by Prince Charles as that dreadful Terry Eagleton. His  memoir, The Gatekeeper, is a wonderfully funny and touching account of the quintessential scholarship boy, born in the unrelenting bleakness of 1950s Salford. Wearing a coat to school, which Eagleton did because of his poor health, “marked me out as sinisterly as if I had arrived at school in a Bentley with a caviar lunch tucked under my arm.” (49)

He progressed from here to Cambridge, arriving an eighteen-year-old working-class Catholic, as certain as a speak-your-weight machine and as ignorant as a fish and coming out the other end of the academic machine as a renowned scholar of literature, politics, culture and class.

The book is worth reading for the opening chapter alone, Lifers, a very funny account of 10-year-old Terry’s time as an altar-server and gatekeeper at the local Carmelite convent. Among other things, this involved lugging the elderly convent watchdog Timothy onto a turntable so that he could be passed in and out of the convent as though required for some secret bestial rite…. He would disappear from sight, lugubrious and rheumy-eyed, the only male creature ever to penetrate the enclosure (5). But it’s characteristic of Eagleton that he bounces off these anecdotes into a captivating reflection on the meaning of the enclosed life and the bizarrely heroic spirit in which the Carmelites confronted the cruelty, banality and injustice of the world.

Open the book at random for a taste of Eagleton’s flair:

of the eminent cultural historian and philosopher Raymond Williams, a Welsh grammar-school boy who retained his rustic personality even in the rarefied fields of British academe:

his very presence deranged the conventional categories, and his fellow dons gathered inquisitively around him like zoologists around a dolphin whose low droning might just be a recitation of the Iliad. (26)

of giving papers at conferences:

If your subject is the poetry of Northern Ireland some aggrieved audience member will enquire why you have been so churlishly silent about fin-de-siecle Bavarian orthopaedics (99)

of an upper-class twit:

He spoke his few words like a man trying out some fiendishly difficult language which he had picked up a smattering of but had not yet dared to practise in public (156)

It’s a book that bears many re-readings and always delivers something new to think about. And here’s a bit more fun with Eagleton’s contribution to The Guardian’s “If I were king for day” series.

My first move as monarch would be to tackle those grim institutions in which antisocial types are confined for years only to emerge as much a threat to civilised society as ever. Having abolished the public schools, I would turn to the question of language. On-the-spot fines will be issued to people who say “refute” when they mean “deny”, “fortuitous” when they mean “fortunate” and “floor” when they mean “ground”. People who tell you that they literally exploded with laughter will be literally exploded. Those who talk about their life as a journey will have their travels rapidly terminated.

Read on at


5 thoughts on “Terry Eagleton – The Gatekeeper

  1. Thanks for pointing me in the direction of ‘The Gatekeeper’. i did enjoy reading it and I remember the beginning especially. I think you’re right about how Eagleton combines humour and reflection – rather like Gert Loveday, if I may say so…

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