A college community
Yesterday evening was the first service of the new year in the College Chapel. A varied programme for the term began with a Quaker meeting, led by members of the Friends Meeting in nearby St Giles and bracketed at beginning and end, unlike most Quaker meetings, with some lovely singing by the Somerville choir. They are in good voice after the winter break. Their big project will be a St John Passion which I hope will be sung in its totality later in the year. Meanwhile we are getting pieces of it at different services. The Quaker part of the evening was a good opportunity for all those present to reflect on this community and their part in it: at least that was part of the purport of some of the introductory speakers.
The College Chapel is a new experience for an over-occupied sceptic, and one that I enjoy and greatly respect. A good size of congregation gathers each Sunday, including about forty students in addition to the choir. I know from my meetings with individual students that they number among them many different variations of faith, and it is one of Somerville’s great strengths that it welcomes and encourages every shade of belief equally. It was good to hear one of our Quaker speakers explain that she chose to come to Somerville years ago as a postgraduate because of the College’s reputation for progressive thinking. One of her colleagues spoke to me after the service about his long friendship with one of Somerville’s Fellows commemorated in gilt lettering on a panel in the Chapel: Dorothy Hodgkin OM, the Nobel prize winner – and much loved tutor — whom the college also honours in its Dorothy Hodgkin Quad.
Now, I know that bicycle transport is just about the fittest and most environmentally friendly way of getting about. I’m looking forward very much to getting my own bike into shape for some enjoyable weekends exploring Oxford’s lovely hinterland. When living in that quintessential North American college town, New Haven Connecticut, I would be amazed at the lack of discipline shown by people riding bikes the wrong way up one-way streets, on the paths and sidewalks, coming up silently from behind the innocent pedestrian, and generally endangering life and limb. Here in Oxford, bike lanes are designated carefully all over the city, students register their bikes with the College porters, and people of every generation just take it for granted that this is how they get around the city. The other side of this estimable and well regulated culture is a sense of entitlement on the part of bicyclists that I do not remember from my own student days. Cyclists proceeding up bike lanes along narrow streets righteously berate the hapless pedestrian who might inadvertently step into their lane when greeting a friend on the equally narrow pavement. Bicyclists angrily thump the bonnets of cars that are even suspected of having strayed across a bike lane in order to turn left. And the other day, walking my dog on a peaceful Saturday morning, I crossed an otherwise empty road well out of the way of an oncoming bicyclist, only to hear the rider swear loudly at me “Didn’t you see the red light….IDIOT” as he passed, yards away. I suppose it’s pointless to reflect on the equivalence between peaceful walking and peaceful bicycling and the space that people using either form of locomotion might normally allow each other. I’ll just have to get a move on and take up the weekend bike rides I’ve promised myself. Then I too can thump cars with gusto and curse ordinary walking folk with moral fervor.