This has been a month for the Somerville community to celebrate and contemplate lives of achievement. At the beginning of term we arranged a special screening of The Iron Lady. It was heavily oversubscribed. Some two hundred students and alumni saw the film and then came back for tea. Students for the most part seemed impressed by the historical events portrayed in the film, more so than the older people there. We could remember Margaret Thatcher’s prime ministership and, many of us, would have liked to see more dramatic development of that part of the story. Everyone agreed that Meryl Streep’s portrayal of both the older lady and the politician in her prime was an amazing feat. There was an enlightening moment when the College porter Daniel Kurowski bore witness to the way Margaret Thatcher is revered in Poland for the stalwart support she gave to Solidarity and the rebirth of Polish democracy. It would be good to know more about how the film is received in other parts of the world beyond the UK.
A few days later the Somerville Association’s media group met in London to hear an inspirational talk by Tessa Ross, the head of Film 4 and amongst much else, producer of The Iron Lady, talking about her career in broadcasting and film. Two successful careers could hardly be more different, but she and Lady T, each in her own generation, both illustrate the potency of talent mixed with determination and some measure of self-belief. It is a mixture the college likes to think of as one of its defining characteristics; Tessa Ross’s talk also displayed the leavening Somervillian tendency to self-deprecation and the kind of self-questioning that shapes some of the greatest successes. As her audience listened enthralled to an account of how she developed her extraordinary instinct for commissioning unexpected talent, she stopped from time to time to check whether we were really interested in hearing all this. Only days later again, there was an opportunity to celebrate the career of Daphne Park, Somerville Principal from 1980 to 1989, with a literary lunch in college addressed by Gordon Corera, the author of a history of MI6, who spoke about Lady Park’s life as a spy in such hotspots as the Congo and Vietnam. Our guests included PD James, fellow peeress and long-time friend. She brought with her Daphne Park’s walking stick, which she has inherited.
The opening month of the year wound up with a glittering dinner at the House of Commons hosted by Sam Gyimah MP (Somerville 1995) for the Somerville City Group and their guests. Sam, who entered Parliament as MP for Surrey East in 2010 and, in addition to his committee responsibilities, is currently acting as Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Prime Minister, treated us to a quick tour d’horizon of the political scene, and was then pelted with questions about economic policy and the controversial decisions of the past week relating to bankers’ bonuses, rescinded knighthoods and the like. This being a City audience, the age group was relatively young compared with some alumni events and the questions reflected preoccupations of the financial sector. It was a fascinating glimpse into a world to which growing numbers of students aspire. As always happens when I meet groups of Somervillians, I was heartened to know that several members of this group have already provided generous help and support, including mentoring and internships, for Somerville students.
…and less so
Not everything is positive. A building project at one end of Somerville’s large main quad has been noisier, for longer, than predicted, and there has been far more disruption that we expected, with heightened stress levels, especially for students facing exams or dissertation deadlines at the end of term, and some remedial work to be done on the future plans. There was personal stress in my own small corner of the College too, with the demise of our venerable Tibetan terrier, “Buddha”, at the age of sixteen. He had been our family companion since he was three months old, and crossed the Atlantic twice with apparently little impact on his rambunctious personality. I have taken a few solitary walks along his favourite paths in the parks.