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Buildings and visits

I must not allow a whole month to pass again before resuming this blog. Let the August hiatus in academic life be my excuse. But in fact it’s not a very good excuse, as there has been a lot going on. The A-level results and their aftermath, prefigured in my last post, have passed and most issues are now resolved.  Somerville was fortunate in that relatively few of the candidates to whom we had offered places missed their grades. (For those who did not achieve their place at Somerville, we all hope they have found a great alternative.) We are looking forward to a great intake of freshmen and freshwomen (plus more than the usual number of graduate students) in the first week of October.

The celebrations of freshers’ week will include a barbecue to mark the inauguration of our new buildings on the Radcliffe Observatory Quarter. The count-down to our ceremonial opening on 17 and 18 September makes this a particularly busy time. The College now owns the buildings. It was fascinating to sit in on the hand-over at the time of “practical completion” with architects Niall McLaughlin and Simon Bishop, and representatives of the contractors and project managers . The process involved meticulous checking of every possible major flaw, before the College accepted delivery of two new buildings containing sixty-eight student rooms complete with en-suite bathrooms, plus laundry rooms, kitchens, lifts and infrastructure: all completed on time (a little over a year from ground-breaking) and with a healthy amount still in our budget. Now is the time for correcting numerous significant, though smaller, snags and bringing in the furniture. It is a challenging few weeks for the College’s maintenance and housekeeping staff. If there is anything a Principal can do to help at such a time, it’s probably best to keep a low profile, but stand ready to cool tempers and offer good explanations to the impatient. These two magnificent new buildings are undoubtedly the best yet built at Somerville.

I have been involved with other openings of buildings in other places. The monumental serial opening of the new British Library, with attendant angst-ridden press stories over many years, and a move of irreplaceable national collections that in itself represented an organizational triumph, has to rate as one of the most searing experiences in scores of people’s careers. Opening the first of the National Archives’ new buildings at Kew some twenty years earlier and then closing it a few years later for several months when it developed all the symptoms of “sick building syndrome” lingers in my memory too. In fact, I shudder at the thought of the misunderstandings and undeserved public brickbats that went with the accomplishment of those, now highly successful and functional, buildings. Happier memories altogether come from the years I spent at Yale, when the University Library celebrated some notable new spaces, including the triumphant underground Bass Library. From that I brought away a sense of both respect and pleasure, at working in the company of gifted architects, designers and project managers. It has been even more of a privilege, and a delightful one, to spend part of my first year at Somerville on a project marked by the professionalism and creative energy that have distinguished the ROQ buildings.

….and Somerville’s nonagenarians
August is a good month for catching up with Somervillians, in College and at home. If any of us in middle age are alarmed at the news that increasing numbers will live beyond one hundred years old, then meeting some of Somerville’s oldest alumnae is a great encouragement. This month Christina Roaf (1937), former Fellow and Tutor in Italian and an emeritus Fellow, visited for tea. Kay Davies (1937), a former college of education principal and undergraduate friend of Indira Gandhi, drove in for lunch and to talk about that friendship. And in London last week I had the enormous pleasure of seeing two Somervillians who also spent their careers in the service of education: Patricia Norman (1939, University of London examinations board) and Elizabeth Monkhouse (1930, a Proust scholar who became a leading light of adult education, government adviser and a vice president of the Workers Education Association.) Their individual stories of lives well lived and still enjoyed are important parts of the mosaic that makes up the Somerville community. It is such a privilege to enjoy their company and hear about their lives, the difficulties these determined ladies had to overcome, and the fun they had doing so.

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