I have spent parts of the last month in New York, New Haven, London and Paris, with good long spells in between, enjoying the glorious April and now May weather that has graced Oxford with a profuse early spring; roses blooming in late April, and wisteria in the Somerville quad cascading down the walls.
New York was enlivening as it always is, with meetings and dinners with alumni, including the bountiful hospitality of Nazee Batmangelidh, one of Oxford’s and Somerville’s most loyal and generous alumnae. A quick trip to New Haven to speak at a conference on ”Art and Antiquities in Times of War and Shock”, arranged by Karen Foster under the auspices of Yale’s Near Eastern department, recharged my academic batteries. Engaging with scholars in the interstices of archaeology and cultural history encouraged me to think there might be a book to be written out of the research I’ve been doing in odd moments (plus six months of study leave last year) on the ethics developed by the Allied Monuments, Fine Art and Archives unit in World War II. Their heroic tale has been told in riveting narratives by Lynn Nicholas, Robert Edsel and others, but there is yet more to analyse on this background to existing modern policies on international heritage. More on that perhaps, in a later blog. Meanwhile, my week in the US reconnected me enjoyably with old friends and reminded me of one of the effects of moving to a new job: an affectionate detachment from a place that will always feel a bit like home, as Yale does for me.
Back home in Oxford, there have been trips to London, for instance to work on the Research Excellence Framework (REF)whose terminology and underlying principles still feel new and obscure to me, but becoming less so. And then there has been more of the extraordinary hospitality in other colleges that has welcomed me in my first year as Principal of Somerville. I was quite mistaken if I thought I had discovered all there was to know about the variations on Latin grace and the different permutations on serving “dessert”. The sung graces at St John’s and Keble colleges were both in their different ways delightful; they made me reflect on the possibilities for involving our own college choir more when we wish to impress our guests.
Paris brackets the end of my month of travels. Returning now from the Oxford European reunion, my sense of the lifelong community that Oxford builds for its alumni is as strongly reinforced as it was in New York. We met in some of the most impressive venues Paris has to offer (with yet more glorious weather) including the great, late 19th-century gallery of the Sorbonne whose president, addressing us in French, reminded the Oxonians of his own university’s greater antiquity. A good academic programme at the Ecole Militaire included some scary and profound reflections on the future of Europe from the St Antony’s historian Timothy Garton Ash. You have to be extremely well informed, shrewd and wise to engage the palpable respect and interest that this audience including expert diplomats, economists, historians and political scientists paid to this lecture. Oxford alumni, like so many others, retain from their university training a lifelong appetite for intellectual engagement. It was piquant therefore to find, reading The Observer in the Eurostar waiting room, a short list of Britain’s leading intellectuals. How many of the company from our reunion would be scanning this list with amusement or disgust, I wonder? Some must be gratified at finding their own names there, others who do not will be feeling wry or cross. Many an Oxford dinner party conversation could be fuelled by this list, and I’m sure some of mine will be. At least it’s a way of selling newspapers. What would a European-wide newspaper – if such a thing existed — produce by way of a comparable list? We spent some time in Paris discussing what European union means, and here was a good example of what it is not.
…. And a reason to celebrate for Somerville students:
It would be wrong to dwell on my own travels without mentioning one great Somerville project that is the outcome of years of serious work and planning and is now coming to fruition. I have spent some of my time in meetings with alumni describing it. Thanks in part to donations from over one thousand alumni, and thanks in even greater part to the work and foresight of my predecessor and colleagues at Somerville, our new building on the Radcliffe Observatory site is nearing completion. It has been perhaps the greatest highlight of recent months for me to attend meetings of the project steering group, and better still, to walk around the building site. This October, sixty-eight students who otherwise would be paying year-long rents for accommodation out of college will be saving literally several thousand £s by living in college rooms. The new building, designed by Niall McLaughlin, provides bright, spacious rooms each with its own bathroom, and now it is taking shape it is possible to see what a transformation in the fortunes of our students this building will represent. It will help the college community to come together without the disruption of most second-year students living out. It will establish Somerville right on the site of the University’s most exciting development for decades. And it will help us to make Oxford life that much more affordable for our students. That, after all, is part of what running an Oxford college is about.