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Some Somerville Saturdays

October 14, 2012

Students are back, the first full week of term is over, and the College is filled with energy: staff, fellows and students all extremely busy, and my own diary filled with meetings and student appointments. I love this time of year. It helps that as I look out of my window (from my redecorated room and seated now so that my desk faces anyone entering, with the view of our main quad to my left) I can see people outside enjoying the crisp October sun.

We started the term with two very special events celebrating Somerville’s alumni in different ways. Dame Kathleen Ollerenshaw, the distinguished mathematician and one-time Lord Mayor of Manchester, came for a lunch on 6 October to celebrate her one-hundredth birthday, which was five days earlier. It was a good reason to bring together some of the University’s and College’s leading mathematicians, with others, to honour this sparkling, dauntless lady. Deaf from the age of eight, she vanquished that misfortune and others in her life, and still speaks about her memories with brio. Her recollections of Somerville in the 1930s were not all complimentary: the smell of cabbage seems to have pervaded them; and she became an academic mathematician (returning to teach at the college during the Second World War) despite the fact that when she arrived as an undergraduate scholar, the College had no fellow in the subject and had to farm her out to other colleges for tutorials. One memory she shared with those of us who came generations later: that of being brought in for interview in what is now the private dining room, to be grilled by the assembled dons, the Principal at one end of the table and the luckless seventeen-year-old candidate at the other. Dame Kathleen scored, she says, because (knowing nothing about mathematics) they asked her what she had done during the summer holidays, and she was able to say she had been to observe a session of the League of Nations. After lunch she kindly sat down with Librarian and Archivist Anne Manuel to record an interview for our oral archive of Somervillians.
Later that same day, with the presence of the Chancellor and his wife, Lord and Lady Patten, we hosted a gala concert for our leading donors in the Ashmolean Museum, in aid of our campaign to fund Fellowships in Philosophy and French. Our great soprano alumna Dame Emma Kirkby and her lutenist colleague Jakob Lindberg generously treated us to a concert of exquisite music by Dowland, Bach and Purcell; seated in front of a superb Van Dyke family portrait in the Ashmolean’s Mallet Gallery. A Bach fantasia for lute was not only new to us but had seldom been performed before. It was a magical evening.

Saturdays are auspicious in Somerville. Yesterday was Matriculation day, and our largest number ever of first-year students, including nearly seventy postgraduates, lined up in sub-fusc for the first-year photograph. The photographer arrayed them on steps in front of the plain stone side of the chapel, with me in the college colours of red and black in the front row. I love the way we use our chapel in Somerville, for the choir, for multi-faith events, for plays and fashion shows and commemorations, and to honour the memory of fellows and alumni in oak and stone inscriptions; but I must admit I am not so enamoured of its external architecture. About the best you can say of the monolithic exterior is that it makes an ideal background for a group photograph. I have always been a bit uncertain about sub-fusc too. The mandatory black and white, with prescribed bow ties for men and black ties for women (now relaxed to be non-specific to gender)is a tradition that I have only encountered at Oxford. But most people seem to like it; when you see people walking and bicycling through the streets of Oxford in gowns and sub-fusc, it marks the rites of passage that betoken an underlying academic seriousness. Matriculation itself is a commitment by our students to their fundamental reason for being here, and a commitment by us in the senior ranks of the University, to giving them the best educational experience it is possible to achieve.

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