The past couple of weeks have been filled with the start of term: welcoming freshers, ensuring they can find their way around the bewilderingly complex life of Oxford, and helping to sort out last-minute visa problems. Visa difficulties are a sad fact of life in modern British Higher Education; why oh why can’t our government celebrate the arrival of talented students from overseas and welcome them to join in one of this country’s greatest success stories? I find Somerville’s international profile a cause for unmitigated celebration: how otherwise will British students encounter the best and brightest from other countries, and how otherwise will we provide the intellectual and cultural stimulation that comes with a student body of diverse backgrounds? Happily, this year’s students from overseas all seem to have overcome the problems of visa applications. I salute them for persevering, and I hope they now know how warmly and unreservedly welcome they are to Oxford and in particular to the embracing community of Somerville students.
The extended Somerville community, as I have written before, includes all living generations, and extends to memorialising those who have gone before. Patricia Norman, about whose generous legacy I wrote in my last post, was just one of several to be commemorated in the past few months. Olive Sayce, long-time Fellow and Tutor in German, was remembered at a service in the college chapel packed to overflowing; and a few weeks later her family gathered quietly to bury her ashes, as she had wished, outside the room where she taught for so many years. This month there was a memorial for Honorary Fellow Margaret Davies-Mitchell, a distinguished professor of French and expert on Apollinaire and Colette among other writers, where her professional flautist daughter led the musical tributes. Next month will see the memorial service for Jean Bannister, a celebrated Fellow and Tutor in medicine.
It will be a particular joy, however, to celebrate in November Somerville’s living tradition of educating some of Britain’s greatest women leaders. We will be naming our handsome new room in the Wolfson building in honour of Baroness Shirley Williams and her mother the writer and peace campaigner Vera Brittain. Lady Williams, Honorary Fellow, former Labour cabinet minister, Liberal Democrat leader, professor of politics, writer and tireless campaigner for good causes around the world, will join us to mark the naming of the room. She is a stalwart supporter of Somerville and a fount of wise advice. We plan also to help her honour the memory of her mother during the centenary year of the outbreak of the First World War, which Vera Brittain (who arrived at Somerville in October 1914) chronicled in her epic work, Testament of Youth.
Paying tribute to great careers and past lives is one part of the picture, but there is so much more going on in the college now, planning for the future, that it would be difficult even to list it in a brief blog post. Our new arrivals include two Indira Gandhi Junior Research Fellows and our three first Indira Gandhi Scholars, pursuing research degrees in subjects related to Sustainable Development. A new seminar series on sustainable development begins next week. Meanwhile new Tutorial Fellows have joined the college in Philosophy, Plant Sciences, and Statistics.
In the past ten days my own activities have included memorials and new arrivals – as well as planning for tributes – in almost equal measure. The first formal dinner of Michaelmas term is always devoted to freshers, and as before, I have tried to produce a new speech to welcome them. This was my fourth such speech as Principal, and given the enduring values and traditions of the college, it is a challenge to offer a welcoming introduction with fresh words. I felt it was important this term to reinforce the college’s rigorous academic values: alongside the friendliness for which Somerville is well known, it is worth emphasising our collective aspiration to excellence. The new Prospectus bears on its front cover the legend “A Place to Excel”.
Meetings with those who can help our plans has taken me to London more than usual in these first two weeks of term (and incidentally took the Director of Development and me to Oman for a flying visit last week, but that’s another story). One London event was a special ceremony at the Jewish Cemetery in Golders Green, in memory of Eleanor Rathbone (Somerville’s first Member of Parliament)and two others whose memory was also being honoured, whose brave work before and during the Second World War brought tens of thousands of Jewish refugees to safety in Britain.
So I found myself, having stayed overnight, taking one of my favourite morning strolls. The flat that Frank and I have kept in London since we left more than a decade ago to work in the US, is not far from St James’s Park. Throughout the years in America and now that I’m based in Oxford, it has been a balm for the soul to wander through the park on rare occasions, gazing at the wonderful profusion of trees and birds, and drinking in the views of Buckingham Palace at one end and Horseguards Parade and the towers of the Houses of Parliament and Westminster Abbey at the other. This time, I paused to read the captions on the history of the park: how in the thirteenth century there was a sanctuary for women lepers there, how Charles II built the long canal and how the Russian ambassador’s gift of pelicans began the tradition of keeping rare birds in the park; the Swiss- chalet- style cottage that used to be home to the Royal Ornithologcial Society; the island that has become a nature reserve for waterfowl; and how John Nash (Beau Nash the friend of the Prince Regent) produced a new landscape for the park, turning the canal into an informal lake, and introducing curved pathways and informal flowerbeds which survive today. Today’s pelicans were gathered precariously on their own rocky island as I walked past, and young swans sported a dappled plumage which in the next few weeks will turn to an adult white. For me, few sights are more renewing than this loveliest and most historic of London’s parks.