If the Michaelmas term has passed like a whirlwind, that seems even more true of the past week. With only one week left before the end of term and the beginning of the strenuous Admissions process (which will bring thousands of aspiring applicants to Oxford), I have now met personally with virtually all second-year and first-year students at Somerville. The long chunks of time taken up by this process are worth every moment. It is a privilege to spend a little time with each student, asking about their work and their lives at Oxford. My interviews have added to my stock of knowledge about Oxford pastimes, from Bridge and poker to sailing, horse-riding, ballroom dancing, fencing and all the usual sports. The boat club has been augmented this year with a good supply of first-year talent, and so has college football. Drama, journalism and debating all thrive, as I would expect.
Most of all, I love to hear about their passion for their subjects. One first-year student described his love of nineteenth-century literature, filling in the gaps between John Clare and Joseph Conrad; he described to me why these two very different authors appealed to him, and put me on to some new reading. Another very articulately described his exploration of classical literature, moving on from Homer, which was where his love of the classics had begun. One second-year history student is intrigued by the Glorious Revolution and finding it helps him think about modern government; others are enticed by medieval history in ways they had never expected. One of our modern linguists is taking the unusual combination of French and Czech, and we conversed enjoyably about Czech literature which I have read only in translation and he, enviably, is beginning to enjoy in the original. I was reminded of the elegant and ironic style of Ivan Klima, Josef Skvorecky and Milan Kundera, and the profoundly moral essays of Vaclav Havel. A biologist introduced me to the “slow food” movement. Physicists and mathematicians have helped me understand the intellectual beauty of their subjects, even though I am never going to be able to do more than marvel at it. At least one Chinese student explained that she had opted to come to Oxford because she wanted to learn how to think independently. Some of her compatriots – and many others– have spoken of the attractions of the tutorial system with its intellectual challenges. I have met students who chose Somerville because it was Margaret Thatcher’s college and others who are attracted by our liberal traditions. The student community, in other words, is a mosaic of differences.
Now is the time for festivity and celebration. Last night we had our College carol service, with the dining hall packed, and some wonderful singing by the choir. Thursday was the night of our Michaelmas dinner, my first, as I was traveling on business at this time last year. A full-blown Christmas feast, celebrating a whole season of forthcoming festivity. For Americans it was Thanksgiving, and I have had many a wonderful Thanksgiving dinner; but this College tradition really was something special. Mary Somerville’s portrait at the end of the dining hall is completely obscured by a Christmas tree, floor to ceiling. The choir were in fine voice, with a truly exquisite solo soprano, and our chef Paul strode in with the Christmas pudding aflame and a huge dagger for me to plunge ceremonially into it. Seated at high table, the president of the Junior Common Room and I were both expected to give speeches. The volume of sound from the hall and the sight of juggling acts with the fruit suggested abbreviation might be in order. (Satsumas thrown by good cricketers could do some serious damage.) Tom spoke first, gracefully and briefly, and I said a few words about festivals of the world, with a bit of Charles Dickens thrown in. There were roars of good humoured appreciation. As the high table party left for coffee and (yet more) dessert, Tom murmured how proud he is of the people he represents. So am I.