Monday, 15 August 2011

Poem of the week

Taken from 'The Rattle Bag', edited by Seamus Heaney and Ted Hughes.

'Since there's no help, come, let us kiss and part'

By Michael Drayton

Since there's no help, come, let us kiss and part -
Nay, I have done: you get no more of me;
And I am glad, yea, glad with all my heart
That thus so cleanly I myself can free.
Shake hands forever, cancel all our vows,
And when we meet at any time again,
Be it not seem in either of our brows
That we one jot of former love retain.
Now at the last gasp of love's latest breath,
When, his pulse failing, Passion speechless lies,
When Faith is kneeling by his bed of death,
And Innocence is closing up his eyes, -
Now, if thou wouldst, when all have given him over,
From death to life thou mightest him yet recover.

Saturday, 13 August 2011

Black Lamb and Grey Falcon

When I was doing my MA in Life Writing (the study of biography and autobiography) at the University of East Anglia a few years ago, one of the set texts on the Autobiography module was Rebecca West's 'Black Lamb and Grey Falcon'.

I remain bemused as to why exactly it was on the reading list, for at 1,150 pages, it is a massive tome. As it was set halfway through the module, I also found it impossible to finish if I was going to read the other texts as well. Somehow, though, I managed to write an essay on it. I don't think it was very good.

The book still fascinated me though. Part travelogue of Rebecca West's journeys through Yugoslavia and part social history of how the country came into being and what shaped it's people, it is truly an epic read.

I've decided that the time has come for me to finish it (I seem to be reading a lot of books on or by strong women at the moment), and therefore I plan to take you on the journey with me. I've no fixed plan on how this will take shape (I'm not entirely sure Rebecca West did either when she sat down to write ....) but hopefully it will give insight into what is a powerful book about a powerful and enthralling country.

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Appreciating the little things

There's so much in the news about the darker, depressing side of life at the moment. The riots in London and further north have got everyone (whether it be the professional journalists, or just people on facebook) in a negative frame of mind.

Here's the chance to turn that around. Partly inspired by a piece in the Washington Post, I have decided to think about why today was a good day ....

1. It was sunny
2. We had an email from an alumni that reinforced why our students think we rock.
3. A friend came for lunch

Why was today good for you?

Poem of the week

I thought I'd reinstate the poetry posts, and in honour of my previous post about Somerville, here is a poem from Gerard Manley Hopkins, one time preacher at St Aloysius, the church next door to the college.


Nothing is so beautiful as Spring —
When weeds in wheels, shoot long and lovely and lush;
Thrush's eggs look little low heavens, and thrush
Through the echoing timber does so rinse and wring
The ear, it strikes like lightnings to hear him sing;
The glassy peartree leaves and blooms, they brush
The descending blue; that blue is all in a rush
With richness; the racing lambs too have fair their fling.

What is all this juice and all this joy?
A strain of the earth's sweet being in the beginning
In Eden garden. — Have, get, before it cloy,
Before it cloud, Christ, lord and sour with sinning,
Innocent mind and Mayday in girl and boy,
Most, O maid's child, thy choice and worthy the winning

Tuesday, 9 August 2011


Oxford can be a strange place. The University is, without a doubt, famous and draws many people to visit it's streets each year,* but it's identity is very much in the hands of the person describing it. Is it town or gown? Is it a place of great learning, or an old market town that has grown with the years? It is many things to many people.
I have always been conscious of the University part of the town, although until I went away to University, the colleges always seemed to be separate from me. I never went in them - indeed I hardly ever wanted to. They were just courtyards with briefly glimpsed gardens and I was quite content with that. I gradually started to move inside the warm stone of the outer walls: A series of concerts at The Queen's College, the literary festival at Christ Church, showing visitors Merton, but it wasn't until 2009 that the two sides of Oxford finally merged into each other. In 2009, I went to work for Somerville College.

The history of Oxford colleges is long and complicated. Balliol, Merton and University College were the first founded (and dispute amongst themselves over which came first) and thus a long tradition was established, finishing with Kellogg in 1990 (although Green and Templeton merged in 2008). Quite a few colleges have rivalries - I was told during my induction that the rivalry between Balliol and Trinity (who stand back to back) is particularly intense, and there are frequent proofs of this in the university papers and other little battles (apparently Balliol's tortoise, who was born the year Queen Victoria died, was stolen by Trinity at one point ....)

So, leaving these fascinating rivalries to one side, I shall take you back to a time when Oxford as a place of education was the haunt only of men. It wasn't that long ago, either. In the early 1870s, the wives of the dons** (and their daughters, and indeed women's suffrage campaigners as a whole) were getting restless. They wanted the chance to study the things their husbands taught, and believed themselves perfectly capable of study (contrary to popular opinion at the time). Things came to a head, after almost a decade of classes and public lectures, in 1878 when the proposal to form a permanent hall of study for women was agreed and Lady Margaret Hall (LMH) came into existence.

Yes, I know, this doesn't seem to have anything to do with the college I intended talking about, but believe me, the reference to LMH is entirely relevant to the way in which Somerville came to exist, because out of LMH's restrictions, we were born. LMH (named after Lady Margaret Beaufort (Henry VII's mother)) was opened to the daughters of Protestant families only. A group of men and women (including T.H. Green and Mary Ward (Thomas Arnold's daughter)), who had long since campaigned for women to be allowed to study at Oxford, were opposed to this restriction, believing that if education was to be offered to women in the first place, there ought to be no restrictions placed on eligibility. To this end, in 1879, with the spirit of non-denominationalism and openness being the driving force behind its inception, Somerville was founded and moved into a property on the Woodstock Road.

The name of the college is an interesting choice, as rather than choosing a religious link (Trinity, St John's, Jesus) or powerful benefactor (Balliol, Wadham, Merton), the college was named after a renowned female scientist, who had died in 1872, Mary Somerville. An ideal role model for the higher education of women, Mary had taught herself science from her brother's textbooks, her father believing that the female frame was not robust enough to cope with the demands of learning. She proved him wrong, without a doubt, and was so well respected that her book 'The Mechanics of the Heavens' was used as a textbook in Cambridge 50 years before the college was even thought of.

The life of of an Oxford female undergraduate was not without its trials. Although officially allowed to attend the University, they were only permitted to attend lectures when accompanied by a another female student or chaperone. It was not until 1920 that women were permitted to actually take the degree for which they had studied so hard. Another restriction has actually served Somerville quite well: for when women were first admitted to the University, they were not permitted to use the facility of the Bodleian at all (whether they had chaperones or not). This meant that the college was required to make its own arrangements and the library is now the second largest, with over 120,000 titles. It's also stunningly beautiful, which helps!

When one thinks of Oxford colleges, the immediate images that come to mind involve cloisters, students in black gowns, Morse and Harry Potter. If you were to stop the average person on the street, they might term the place 'stuffy'. This is an image that Somerville works hard to refute. Openness is one of the predominant characteristics of the College - not for us the secret cloisters known only to the special few, or the grass so revered it is not to be stepped on. Somerville's lawns once played host to tennis games and a donkey, and are now the ideal place in Summer for tutorials. Like many colleges, the site was requisitioned during both wars, and soldiers (including Siegfried Sassoon and Robert Graves) recuperated beneath the shady trees on the main quad. Our location has been considered awkward (although not being bang in the centre has its positives, being therefore less on the tourist trail) but it complements our ethos, as whilst we are rich in history, we also rub shoulders with the vibrant communities of Jericho and Little Clarendon Street. Cardinal Newman and Gerard Manley Hopkins preached on our doorstep (we are, ironically for our non-denominational standpoint, next door to the Catholic church) whilst our back gate leads directly to the bohemian bookshops and cinema that help keep a studious soul fresh and lively.

Somerville has always been a welcoming place, and in 1994 it finally opened its doors to men. Admittedly rather late in this aspect of Oxford history (the first women were admitted to previously all male colleges in 1974, and LMH celebrated its centenary by going co-educational), we made up for it by admitting pretty much equal numbers of men and women from the beginning. Being told on the potential pitfalls men could bring, the college was advised that men would eat more food and break more furniture. Perhaps that's why the bike shed was turned into a gym!

Like any other college, we are proud of our students and alumni, always wanting to know where they are, and what they've done. Ever since the college's inception it has produced ground breaking and pioneering women who have helped prepare the way for their successors. Cornelia Sorabji was not only the first female barrister in India, but she was also the first woman to read Law at Oxford (although admitted to read English, she impressed the dons and managed to persuade them to let her change her course); Dorothy Hodgkin (student and later tutor) became the first British woman to win the Nobel prize for science; Indira Gandhi and Margaret Thatcher became the first female prime ministers of their respective countries; Philippa Foot (Philosophy Fellow) was instrumental in setting up Oxfam; Shirley Williams followed in her mother's footsteps and honed her keen intellect within our walls.

Our artistic talent is prestigious too, for we can boast of many fine writers, including Vera Brittain, Winifred Holtby, A.S. Byatt, Iris Murdoch, Margaret Forster, Dorothy L. Sayers, Penelope Fitzgerald, Matthew Skelton and Kate Williams. Our male alumni are beginning to make a name for themselves, and already we can talk of an MP in Surrey East, an HR manager of Innocent Drinks, a playwright and a past winner of University challenge (who is also the first male student to have become a Somerville Fellow).

Much of my information comes from a book written by our former librarian (and Somervillian) Pauline Adams, 'Somerville for Women'. It's a truly rich source, and coupled with her trademark wit, makes for lively and interesting reading. On the rare occasions when the office is quiet enough for me to dip in to it, I have found some great pieces of information, which occasionally get dropped into the tours I do. For instance, it took four years for the chapel to be agreed upon and built, because the alumna who gave the money wanted it to be called Christ's House, which went against our non-denominational outlook, and once that was sorted out, there were further discussions on where it would be, and who would build it. Somervillians have never been known for being easy!

I could ramble on in this way for ages, sharing stories of the past, which have become an inspiration for the present. Every day I learn of new alumni to boast about (like the woman who was ordained in 1917 and became a congregational minister in the East End) or another story which fires my imagination (Dame Janet Vaughan (then Principal of College) requesting all the students here to have wine at dinner when Indira Gandhi became Prime Minister). Everything I learn helps to prove what a truly inspirational place Somerville is, and makes me want to share it with a wider audience.

*It is heavy tourist season at the moment .... you can tell, because the people that actually live here are walking in the road, the pavement being monopolised by a sea of well meaning, but very slow walking persons who stop every few seconds to take a photo. I shouldn't criticise - I do the same in Florence.
** That's tutors to those not familiar with Oxford jargon

Monday, 8 August 2011

Chasing history down the road

I've recently returned from France, where I've been visiting a friend who I used to live with during my MA year in Norwich. She lives in a wonderful house, which has a minstrel's gallery and wooden beams everywhere, in the Saint Dizant are of the Bordeaux region which used to be part of the Duchy of Aquitaine.

By happenstance I have picked up an old biography of Eleanor of Aquitaine before leaving (written by Marion Meade, published in 1977), so suddenly found myself in the confusing position of travelling through modern day towns and villages, whilst reading about their medieval counterparts at the same time.

As I journeyed down straight Roman roads, through miles of vineyards and fields of sunflowers, it was so easy to be able to settle into the countryside and imagine how it must have been for that twice crowned woman to have travelled around defending the Aquitaine's interests from the acquisitive Louis VII or Henry II and how she set off on crusade, riding through the very countryside I was seeing. I had the line from The Lion in Winter (fantastic film, staring Katharine Hepburn) running through my head: 'I made Louis take me on Crusade. I dressed my maids as Amazons and rode bare-breasted halfway to Damascus. Louis had a seizure and I damn near died of windburn... but the troops were dazzled.' Not historically correct perhaps (she allegedly only rode from Paris bare breasted) but it's that kind of image that history has handed down - Eleanor the rebel!

Another thing that she and her family have given history - more tangible and therefore more real - are some spectacular churches. I had forgotten how much I love the spectacle of the great caverns these early churches truly were - no doubt fearfully cold, but a more imposing and awe inducing symbol of God it would be hard to imagine. In both Saintes and Bordeaux, one is faced with some truly stunning Romanesque and early Gothic pieces of architecture and in Talmont there is a beautiful Church set perilously atop a rock, which looks like it could topple into the sea at any moment. It was here, on a hunting trip shortly after his marriage, that Louis VII almost lost his life when a recalcitrant baron who refused to pay homage to his new overlord (those Aquitaines were a proud bunch - in the end only Eleanor would be able to control them) took some of his party hostage and forced Louis to fight for his life. How different would history have been then?!

There were, of course, vast parts of Eleanor's life that have been lost to time, because she was 'just' the wife of the king, and therefore undeserving of attention for part of the time. The fact that she was able to keep her mettle and prove her worth when it was needed is testament to her strength of character. It does present a problem for the biograoher, however, who has to resort to the 'this is what she must have felt' line of authorship whenever the facts get a bit hazy.

It was a lovely break - just what was needed to recharge the batteries after a very long term and I've come home with my head full of ideas for new reading themes. Oh, and I want to live here please ....

Friday, 5 August 2011

Getting your money's worth

When you work in higher education, you become highly attuned to everything written on the subject. As the A levels release date comes ever closer, I can be sure of one thing: that when they are released, newspapers will claim three things: A levels are getting easier, it's becoming more expensive to study at university and Oxbridge are discriminating against state schools.
I don't know enough about the first to be able to comment properly, and I would likely go into rant mode if I were to try and discuss the third (although it's not true, by the way!); but the second observation is one that i can talk about - here goes!

It is no secret that university fees are going up astronomically. From 2012, many universities will be allowed to charge £9,000 for their degrees, and although many are putting support packages in place to provide for students who would otherwise struggle with this financial burden, the question still remains on how universities will be able to prove their courses are worth the money. Much has been said on teaching quality, research and lecture time for students, but one vital aspect appears - to my mind - to have been completely omitted from the discussion.
When I was at university (I did my undergrad at Keele and my MA at UEA in Norwich) my mother impressed upon me the need to visit the careers centre. I hardly ever did, for the very simple reason that they were rubbish. The staff never seemed very helpful and their layouts were ill organised and confusing. When i first started my current job in the academic office at Somerville College - part of Oxford University - I was invited, as part of my induction programme, to visit the University's Career service. What I saw there amazed and impressed me.
Real thought has gone into the layout of the rooms, so that a student can be guided through the various stages of thinking about and applying for jobs, so there's a section where one can get guidance on preparing a CV and covering letter, and once that's sorted, another section dedicated to every type of career - some I'd not even thought about. Of course the prestige of an Oxford education holds its own special significance and there are lots of summer internships available for those who are part way through their degrees. Each college has its own dedicated rep from the careers service who can come out and give help and advice to those who who are about to set foot into 'real life'. So much is offered and it truly is a great asset for the University.

The point I am trying to make (without letting my passion run away with me) is that with employment being as hard to obtain as it currently is, and with more and more companies requiring university education from their employees, the careers service is quickly becoming one of the more vital aspects of university life. To my mind, money should be invested in this service at every university, because the more help our students get, the quicker they grab hold of a job that pays well, then the better able universities will be to prove that spending the money was worth it, thereby ensuring higher education can continue for the next generation.

Hmmm .... I think I let my passion run away with my meaning! I'm slightly worried that I'm sounding snobby or elitist here, and I certainly don't mean to. I am more than aware that higher education is not for everyone - I certainly never agreed with the Labour party policy of a target of 50% in higher education. It always seemed to be such an arbitrary figure and something that might end up forcing those better suited to apprenticeships or vocational courses into a form of education that did not suit them.

I can't think of a decent way of wrapping up this post without getting overly passionate (and as I've just engaged in a heated discussion with my parents' next door neighbour about whether or not any arts degree is worth while - she thought not, and managed to term my entire 4 years at University as a 'Mickey Mouse degree' - I'd best not start ranting.) My main point is, as I'm sure you'll all have gathered, is that Oxford's careers service rocks, and other universities would be well served by using some of the £9,000 fees to improve theirs. It's the way forward - you heard it here first!

Black dog days

It's not a subject that people like to discuss that much - depression that is. we have instead developed a variety of euphemisms by which to express the feeling. In my opinion, Winston Churchill used the best one - terming it as being visited by the black dog, which absolutely manages to conjure up the bleak feelings one is subject to, whilst simultaneously allowing for the levity of spirit that can still be obtained when a bout of depression hits.
As I was wandering through Gatwick recently, on my way to France (on which more in a later post) I felt compelled to browse the airport bookshop and was drawn to a book with a silhouette of a large dog resplendent in top hat and cigar on its front cover.
'Mr Chartwell' by Rebecca Hunt is about the black dog that so torments Churchill. Alternating between scenes with the great man (about to retire - at 89 no less) and a young woman - Esther - whose husband killed himself two years before and whose life is about to become intertwined with Churchill's, the novel is a stark and poetic look at the subtlety with which depression can impress itself and the force of will that is required to overcome.
Mr Chartwell is, at the root of all, a dog. A very large Labrador, he trails in his wake all the chaos and destruction for which that breed is known. Esther may think she is just having to cope with the mess her canine 'lodger' creates, but in actual fact Mr Chartwell is slowly tapping away at her resolve, hoping to create a chink by which he can ingratiate himself and bring her into his depressive fold.
When Esther is called to be Churchill's secretary for the day, to help him write his retirement speech, the two sides of the story are drawn together and the battle to save Esther from Mr Chartwell's clutches begins in earnest. Churchill is portrayed brilliantly in this little gem. It is so easy to caricature the man that everyone is so familiar with; to reduce him to a cigar and profound words. In a way, this is what happens, but you get such a sense of who he is and what he has struggled with throughout his life that his essence shines through.
It's an uplifting book, for all its somber subject, and is well worth spending a few quiet hours with. For all I keep saying I don't need and more books, I'm very glad I succumbed this time!

More on the Churchill trail:
I've always thought him interesting and now, I think, would be the time to delve into his life. Heaven only knows that I have enough to keep me occupied - the massive biography by Martin Gilbert notwithstanding, I've got biographies of his parents and wife, as well as his letters to Clemmie. Perhaps I should start there .... there's the Cabinet war rooms to visit too, and Chartwell itself. Lucky I've got some holiday coming up, eh?!