The academic year began in earnest this week, and start-of-term events crowd in. After a September busy with conferences and alumni reunions Somerville springs to life in a new way. Freshers and their families throng the college, trundling trolleys laden with luggage through to their rooms and submitting to all the bureaucratic necessities of registration and induction. Not all of the summer’s building work is finished, and this year a tall white crane towers over the west side of the college. As I write I can see from my windows huge concrete blocks suspended alarmingly in mid air above the library. The new building will be ready for its first student residents a year from now, and for the first time in decades nearly all the Somerville undergraduates will be able to live in college accommodation. This year’s JCR committee will be the last to grapple with allocating rooms in college fairly to the few second-year students for whom they are available, a recurrent irritant at the start of the year; and the freshmen now entering Somerville will be the first to look forward to three or four years when they can expect to have college accommodation, if they wish, throughout their undergraduate career.
The building work going on at the side of the college is an augury of great improvements. Even more auspicious, though, is the arrival of a great intake of freshmen. On Wednesday I gave my first First-year dinner Speech to the assembled freshers, new graduate students and their tutors and advisers. It was a challenge to distil into just a few words some of the excitement of this college and the commitments that new students are entering on. But I needn’t have worried: the students themselves supply all the excitement that could be needed.
One of the great pleasures of a First-year dinner is the chance it gives to introduce the students to some of the college staff who make their undergraduate existence possible. We applauded the catering and pantry staff long and loudly. Equally indispensable are Somerville’s porters, known throughout Oxford as just about the friendliest and most helpful there are, and the housekeeping and maintenance staff, who’ve toiled long and hard to get ready for term. Among them are our two gardeners, whose efforts keep the whole college looking beautiful, including the famous frisbee-friendly lawns. As part of my own induction to the college I have now met almost all the Fellows and staff, not forgetting the nursery staff who look after a cheerful group of babies and toddlers, mostly children of Somerville.
When, I wonder, will these freshers and I cease to feel new? My week included a fabulous dinner hosted by Bodley’s Librarian Sarah Thomas in the Old Divinity School in honour of new heads of house, myself included: at the end of a crowded day for Sarah, who had just presided over the opening of the Oxford University libraries’ great new storage facility near Swindon. Being new at Oxford is terrific when it includes hospitality like this. I think I’ll go on being new for a bit longer, and savour every moment.