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Glimpses of other worlds

1 February 2011

One of the great privileges of being at Somerville is that one gets glimpses into so many walks of life. Looking back on my calendar for January is like reliving episodes that take me out of this world and into totally different environments.

Burns Night, 25 January, was one such occasion. Part Scottish though I may be by ancestry, I had never participated in Burns Night before, but the tradition of a special dinner was established at Somerville by my predecessor, complete with piper and a virtuoso reading of the Ode to the Haggis by a Scottish colleague and friend, not to mention the whisky and neeps. It seems to be wildly popular, with the hall and its overflow spaces completely filled: an occasion when the college’s warm sense of community is well on show. Our guests for the evening seemed to share in the spirit. This is definitely a tradition to continue.

Then there are the special gatherings of Somervillians. This month the Somerville London Group, who have already given me a warm personal welcome, invited the former British ambassador to Afghanistan, Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, to speak to them at the Oxford and Cambridge Club about his view of events there. Sir Sherard has attracted controversy with his frank opinion of the state of the war in Afghanistan, and this meeting was held under Chatham House rules. Suffice it to say that his large audience heard him with rapt attention, and I think all of us in the room felt a heightened admiration for the public servants (Sir Sherard himself and the officials, diplomats and soldiers who have served in Afghanistan, including Somervillians and children of Somervillians) who strive to do the right thing in this proud and ravaged country. Over dinner I found myself seated next to a more recent Somerville graduate who returned from filming in Afghanistan to pursue further studies and is now doing a doctorate at Oxford on the topic of Afghan books and publishing. As I remember from my own contacts with library digitizing projects, the first books in Pashto were not printed until the beginning of the twentieth century; and that in itself is a striking reminder of the contrasts between the antiquity of civilisation in that part of the world and the recent nature of modern communications and literacy. In Europe, “rare books” in print date back to Gutenberg and Caxton, Aldus Manutius and the other pioneers of the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. In East Asia they stretch further back still, to the origins of printing on paper in ninth-century China. In Afghanistan printed “rare books” will date back to about 1901.

…closer to home

A small encounter in the University Parks on Sunday reminds me of the way that university towns can embrace unusual and eccentric individuals from all over the world, often very naturally and unobtrusively. As I walked the dog along his familiar pathway, there was an elderly lady well bundled up in hat and layers of coat and scarves, drawing a tree. She had pasted together multiple sheets of paper to create one large one which she held folded over, standing as she drew. Conversation was evidently welcome. She spoke in a middle – European accent (but wouldn’t say from which country) and has lived in Oxford, clearly, for decades. She turns her portraits of trees into cards and illustrations for her own poetry and children’s books. From the plastic bag on a nearby seat she took out a lovely drawing of a ginko leaf to give to me and then showed me a picture recently drawn for her by a child. She explores some of the colleges to find interesting trees to draw, she told me; so I hope before too long she will look in on Somerville and choose a subject.

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