Being at Somerville, past and present

As the weeks pass I am getting to know the college better and better.  Until you have spoken to students individually in considerable numbers, it is difficult to feel you really know it.  That is what I’ve been doing over the past few weeks: I must have spent at least a full week’s worth of that time in ten-minute interviews with each student in the second and first years at Somerville (and still counting).  For the most part it’s been a joy to hear so many accounts of work enjoyed and lives lived to the full.  A hitherto unimagined wealth of extracurricular activities occupies Somervillian students, from Dancesport to netball, badminton, fencing, singing in the college choir and acappella groups. Irish dancing to rock bands to playing the harp, rowing, football, rugby and a long list of other sports. The Finance society, Oxford Union, theatre, film-making and an impressive roster of voluntary work.  Quite a few of the college’s students give support to distressed fellow students through Nightline; others teach children in underprivileged parts of Oxford, or do social work through their churches or the Christian Union.  Several plan to help of have already helped, with the annual Admissions process, looming at the end of this term.  It is clear from the answers many students give to my question about why they liked the idea of coming to Somerville, that this friendly welcome can make a huge difference.  Several others have returned from summers spent in Ghana on the Somerville Orphans’ Library project or working in other projects in different parts of the world.  Among the travel scholarships handed out by our Education Committee are some for medical students going to work in hospitals in Uganda, South Africa and other places where their contribution is desperately needed and they will enrich their clinical experience at the same time.  

Sometimes, problems emerge.  They can be deeply worrying, like depression and other disorders, or finances strained to the limit.  Housing is a problem for some who have been unlucky enough to rent from one of Oxford’s more negligent landlords – there are too many in this category, and it’s a relief to know that our new building will be ready next autumn to ensure that the great majority of our students can live in college throughout their undergraduate career.  Lower on the scale of concern are tastes in food.  Most of the negative comments about Somerville’s food come from Asian students, and some from vegans.  We must try to do better for all of them, though I must confess that I myself have been impressed by the high quality; too much so for the good of my waistline. (I promised myself I would ignore the puddings; but what can you do when you’ve discovered the college’s extraordinary chocolate soufflé with black cherries?) Generally the college has a great support network: it takes only a word to tutors, deans, the college doctor or the domestic bursar to attend to people in trouble of one sort or another.  The University Counselling Service is there for more serious cases. Sometimes the problem is one of persuading a student to talk about the difficulty in question, be it large or small; and often it is fellow students who can do the most to help.  I have found it helpful to hear about some of these problems and gauge the mood not just of a particular student but of a group or year.  Being at large in Oxford at the start of one’s adult life can be an exhilarating experience and for most people it is.  The few who run into problems deserve all the help we can give them to ensure they can work with unalloyed pleasure and success.

These weeks have also seen some excellent events for people from all age groups in the Somerville community.  The college’s James Bryce Memorial Lecture this year was given by the eminent psychiatrist Professor Sir Michael Rutter and a week later came the Monica Fooks Memorial Lecture, devoted to the study of depression and bipolar disorders, addressed by the distinguished American social scientist and scholar of psychiatry Professor Ellen Frank from the University of Pittsburgh.  Some of our lawyer alumni gave up a Saturday to come and talk to current students about careers in the law, and interestingly this session was attended by a good number of undergraduates reading subjects other than law, who are thinking in terms of law as a career after spreading their intellectual wings first in other directions.  Jane Robinson (Somerville 1978 and author of Bluestockings) delighted a large audience in the dining hall this past Saturday with her talk on the early decades of women’s struggle to gain the right to higher education. 

It was a special privilege for me, just before this session, to meet the Somervillian Kay Davies, a former principal of higher education colleges herself, who had been a close friend of Indira Gandhi, then Nehru, during her undergraduate time at Somerville in 1937-38 and for the rest of Mrs Gandhi’s life.  Ms Davies recalled the quiet, self-contained but friendly young woman, still mourning the recent death of her mother, who preferred not to refer to her extraordinary background and the numerous world celebrities she had met.  (Another member of that year was much more vocal about the fact that her own father was a miner.)  From time to time the young Indira Nehru would change from her customary tweed suit into a sari and travel to London for a diplomatic dinner with some of her father’s friends.  Back in Oxford she worked hard at history and the Latin that was compulsory for history students at that time, and sometimes took her college friends back to her room on the ground floor of the Library building for tuition in how to wear a sari.  Ms Davies’s diary for that year records Indira’s frequent colds and respiratory illness, and another Somervillian who attended Saturday’s lunch recalls how the young Indian undergraduate seemed constantly shivering and suffering from the damp climate.  The letters between Indira Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, edited by her daughter-in-law Sonia Gandhi under the title Freedom’s Daughter, give Indira’s side of that year, ranging from her discussions of the political scene that was her father’s life, to vignettes of her own college life, including a night-time fire drill, and the worry of approaching prelims.  It was touching to know that the great stateswoman in later life still valued the friendships she made at Somerville, wrote regularly and made a point of seeing Kay Davies each time she came to London.


I must close this week’s blog with a personal note of sorrow.  It would be wrong to record the pleasures and excitements of my first term as Principal without noting that last week two good friends in Connecticut passed away.  Margaret Brooks, who welcomed us to New Haven in her role as estate agent and became a dear family friend, died peacefully but quite unexpectedly, a tragedy for her children and young grandchildren.  Similarly unexpected, and a tragic shock for his wife Ellen and innumerable colleagues, was the death in hospital of Professor Frank Turner, the distinguished Yale historian who succeeded me as University Librarian.  Frank had taken over in an interim capacity first, enabling me to take my first semester of study leave in thirty years, a gift that I will always remember with gratitude.  RIP to them both.


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