It has been an ebullient month for Somerville with the landmark opening of our new buildings; a telethon campaign in full swing; an unexpected Indian summer compensating for the miserably cold and windy months that were meant to be summer; two celebratory degree days; and a golden reunion for those who came to Somerville in 1961. In the midst of all of this came two short pauses for reflection and commemoration in my own working life, celebrating two individuals whose life stories could hardly have been more different from each other.
Early in the year I mentioned an encounter with Zoe Peterssen, the “tree lady” of the Oxford Parks and colleges, who drew trees and made notecards from her drawings, as well as writing poetry and children’s stories inspired by the natural history of the University Parks and quite a few college gardens. She came to draw in Somerville at my invitation. At the end of August, Zoe died of cancer. It turns out she was a long-term resident at Pusey House, where the community gave her a room, she in return providing flower arrangements, prodigious quantities of biscuits and other gifts. She was, as Father Barry Orford said in his funeral address, not only a very private person but positively elusive in response to any enquiries about her background. The fathers at Pusey House discovered only after her death that she had been born a Lebanese Christian, studied economics in Beirut and later at St Hugh’s College in Oxford, and that Zoe Peterssen was almost certainly not her original name. In hospital in her last days, she told the doctors she was Swiss. The Anglo-Catholic funeral communion service at Pusey House was beautiful. It movingly honoured this enigmatic homeless lady whose gentle spirit had touched so many of the people she met. Quite a few members of the large congregation wore green in Zoe’s memory. May she rest in peace.
This was also the weekend when Oxford held its own memorial service for the late Lord Bingham, who died a year ago. Tom Bingham, as he was simply styled on the service sheet, is widely held to have been the greatest English lawyer of the twentieth century. The list of his honours and the positions he filled is a testament to his exceptional abilities and standing: Master of the Rolls, Lord Chief Justice, Senior Law Lord, a Knight of the Garter, High Steward of the University of Oxford, and the list goes on. The qualities that marked him out included not just intellectual brilliance but humour, gentleness and a truly exceptional and totally genuine modesty. All of these were commemorated in the service organized by his beloved college, Balliol, in the University Church. The humanity of this great man was underscored by his family’s participation in the service, including three of his six grandchildren playing the andante from Schumann’s Piano Quartet opus 47. I hardly knew Tom Bingham but I remember him for his love of history and archives and the attention he gave to the Royal Commission on Historical Manuscripts, which he chaired – a sideline compared to all the work he did for the law and human rights, and yet it really interested him, as did the people he worked with. Tom’s link to Somerville was through his wife Elizabeth who read History at Somerville. Just on Friday she delivered another heavy box of Tom’s books, which are being shared between Somerville and Balliol libraries. It’s good to know that the College has its own share in the legacy of this extraordinary man.
And, thinking of end notes…
As our College porters gear up for the start of term, directing hundreds of new and returning students to their new rooms, giving out keys and sorting out problems, it’s fitting to remember one of their number, Will Lainos, who died last month. Will, who retired a few years ago, is remembered by them and many others in Somerville as unfailingly helpful and good company. He even helped out with teaching colleagues his native language, Spanish, when asked, and generally added greatly to the College’s friendly reputation.