The Somerville London Group is the largest of the College’s alumni groups and its very active committee organises several events a year.
The SLG meets regularly for speaker events on politics, diplomacy, history, sociology and science, as well as private visits to London venues such as gardens, museums, art galleries and fashion stores. All Somervillians and their guests are welcome (irrespective of where they live!)
You can browse through recent SLG events (2020-22) here. Alternatively, you can explore the Archive of SLG events, 2011-20 below.
The Somerville London Group is pleased to support the ongoing work of Somerville College across a number of causes.
SLG Book Groups
The SLG has had a Book Group since 2017, reading books by or about Somervillians across a range of topics. At present, the SLG Book Group is full, but Somervillians wishing to participate can contact Liz Cooke to join a waiting list or find out about other Somerville Book Groups.
In the 2022 edition of the Somerville Magazine, Ruth Crawford wrote about the SLG Book Group and Gill Bennett about the Somerville Espionage Book Group.
Somerville London Group Events 2011-20
Please browse the full archive of SLG events via the links below. This includes lectures on politics, diplomacy, history, sociology and science, as well as private visits to London venues such as gardens, museums, art galleries and fashion stores.
Dressed for War: The Story of Audrey Withers by Julie Summers
In 1940 Audrey Withers, having risen through the ranks, became editor of British Vogue, producing her first issues in a cellar while bombs fell. Audrey had read PPE at Somerville, loving her time at Oxford, thinking the tutorial system an excellent preparation for her future as editor of Vogue: “like an athlete preparing for a race”. Julie Summers spoke of how Audrey made Vogue about more than fashion, bringing the war to its readers with both iconic images by Cecil Beaton and a tougher edge by Lee Miller: dispatches (which Audrey edited) and photographs from Normandy, liberated Paris, Alsace and in 1945 from the concentration camps of Altdorf, Buchenwald and Dachau (she was the first British magazine editor to publish a photograph showing the piles of bodies from the camps).
Audrey stuck with “more than fashion” after the war (contributors included Daphne du Maurier, Benjamin Britten, Henry Moore and Graham Sutherland), but after twenty years at the helm, she sensed that fashion was taking over and that there was less space for other features. She left Vogue in 1960 and spent her time travelling and meeting new people. Always curious, always looking forward, courageous, energetic and determined; life for Audrey felt “like champagne bubbling up inside”.
Clare Hastings on Anne Scott-James
For the London Group’s first online event during the pandemic, Clare Hastings spoke of her mother, Anne Scott-James: pioneering journalist, author, gardener and Somervillian (if somewhat in two minds about the experience). In her heyday as a Fleet Street columnist of the 1950s Anne Scott-James had a page a week to fill as she pleased. And fill it she did, writing pieces on anything and everything: on money and mothering, on fashion and politics, on travel and plastic surgery. She assumed her readers were intelligent and informed and wanted them to challenge her. From questions at the end we learned that Anne would have been a good Twitterer (the short, pithy turn of phrase) but would have loathed Facebook with its selfies and ‘all about me’ slant, that she devoured books – from Balzac to Agatha Christie, and that until the day she died, in 2009 aged 96, she kept writing, always wanting to keep in touch.
Swive at Shakespeare’s Globe
Queen Elizabeth I did not destroy her face by whitening it with lead in a vain attempt to conceal the effects of age. One misconception corrected at a richly informative and entertaining event at Shakespeare’s Globe! A talk by its director was followed by the play, Swive. Swive considers Elizabeth’s traumatising childhood and how it might have affected the woman who unexpectedly became Queen of England. It is a thought-provoking play, which accepts historical ambiguity and questions conventional perceptions of women and age – and in the words of one attendee, “is a lot more fun than Schiller’s Maria Stuart”!
Christmas carols and reception at the Savoy Chapel
In early December, 150 Somervillians and their guests gathered at the Queen’s Chapel of the Savoy for a wonderful festive concert by the Somerville Choir, led by the College´s Director of Chapel Music, William Dawes. There were old favourites and less familiar, more recent pieces,. The readings included extracts from The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper (1953), The Book and the Brotherhood by Iris Murdoch (1938), and Sir Gawain and the Green Knighttranslated by Bernard O’Donoghue, formerly a tutor to Somervillians. After the concert, Principal Jan Royall hosted a reception in the historic surroundings of the Lancaster Hall and Robing Room.
Tim Marshall: Walls
Thousands of walls divide countries all over the world. At least sixty-five countries have built barriers along their borders. Half of those erected after WWII were built since 2000. Tim Marshall is a former diplomatic editor and foreign correspondent for Sky, an experience which informs his latest three books, Politics of Geography, Worth Dying For…. The Power and Politics of Flags, and Divided: Why We’re Living in an Age of Walls. Division shapes politics at every level – personal, local, national and international, and building walls, ‘doing something’, assuages anxiety about migration, and represents a backlash against globalisation and a resurgence of nationalism.
Professor Armand D’Angour: Socrates in Love
The Somerville London Group went back to Periclean Athens; a world in which a grown woman could be “an Athenian wife”, a prostitute or a slave. But there was one woman, at least, who was different: Aspasia. She was born not in Athens but in Asia Minor, in Miletus, where, unusually, a girl could be educated. Aged about 20, she came to Athens and became Pericles’ lover (and possibly his wife). More than that, her house became an intellectual centre in Athens, visited by prominent writers and thinkers. One of them was the younger Socrates. Going deep into the sources, Professor D’Angour argues that Aspasia was more than a salon hostess, that she taught Socrates and that, through him, she influences the whole of western philosophy and lies at the root of its traditions.
Beneath the waves with Dr Alex Rogers and Dr Lucy Woodall
While almost every inch of land on earth has been mapped, the depths of the world’s oceans remain a mystery and have only recently become explorable with the aid of crewless underwater vehicles.
By way of coral in the Seychelles, penguins in Antarctica and hairy-bellied Yeti crabs, Professor Rogers and Dr Woodall spoke of the positive: places never yet explored, photographs that may show undiscovered species, the wealth of creatures living in properly protected areas of the ocean, and of the negative: the need for urgent action on climate change and pollution and what individuals can do (drive less, eat less meat, avoid sunscreen – it washes off in the sea and contains chemical toxic to sea creatures and harms coral).
Visit to West London Synagogue
Rabbi David Mitchell was our host and guide to an evening at the West London Synagogue. We saw its grand panelled entrance hall, its sanctuary and its magnificently decorated Torah scrolls. David spoke of the seven centuries of Jewish history in Britain history, the Corner of Remembrance, D-Day, the many lives lost during the Holocaust and the current work of the Synagogue and its place in the community.
Reception at the Contemporary Applied Arts Gallery in Southwark
The Group´s pre-Christmas event this year was an evening reception at the Contemporary Applied Arts Gallery in Southwark. There were champagne and canapés along with beautiful ceramics, glass, textiles, metal work and jewellery to admire (and buy), plus experts on hand to discuss and explain their work.
Dr Frank Prochaska: Queens are easier to love than Kings
In October 2018 Dr Frank Prochaska gave an excellent talk at the Oxford and Cambridge Club on the Feminisation of the Monarchy covering the shift in royal roles over the past 150-200 years: philanthropy in place of power. The subject gave rise to an enjoyable and lively discussion.
Tour of Roman London
In September 2018 a group of Somervillians and their guests enjoyed a superb walk around Roman London. Guide Marilyn Collis entertained and informed the group about the earliest activities in the area through the 400 years of Roman London. The group went underground to the amphitheatre below the Guildhall and visited the Mithraeum below the Bloomberg building. The walk vividly brought across just how important London was 1800 years ago.
Luke Harding: How Trump Walked into Putin´s Net
What could explain Trump’s strange deference to Putin, both on the campaign trail and later? In June 2018, Guardian journalist and author Luke Harding gave the Group a fascinating insight into the story behind his book “Collusion: How Russia Helped Trump Win The White House.” A tale worthy of an exciting John Le Carré novel, but true and unfolding.
Luke Harding´s analysis, that Putin’s endgame appears to be the end of Western democracy leaving only powerful leaders who can roll over smaller nations (a return to 19th century geo-politics) remains tragically robust.
Claudia Sturt, Prison Security
“What are the chief challenges to prison” asked Claudia Sturt, Director Security, Order and Counter Terrorism, HM Prison Service. With some 86,000 people in the country’s prisons (double the figure of 1990 and more than any European country bar Turkey), many of whom are vulnerable and from troubled backgrounds; with most prison buildings dating from the Victorian era or the 1960s; with stakeholders – prisoners, victims, government, the media, the public/taxpayer – having opposing demands on the service; with recent budget cuts of some 26% (achieved in the main through reduced staffing levels), the challenges are legion. And against that background, the prison service endeavours to provide rehabilitation and dignity as well as the punishment of imprisonment. Claudia Sturt’s engaging, wide-ranging, thoughtful and thought-provoking talk on the realities and difficulties faced by the service in doing that was eye-opening to many and a salutary insight on a world few of us see.
Peter Bazalgette, The Empathy Instinct: How To Create A More Civil Society
In seeking to answer the questions: are we getting angrier? and why? Peter Bazelgette saw many causes: the increase of populism, that people feel less well off, that trust has been declining since the 1970s, and that since the 1980s, individuals increasingly use ‘I’ more than ‘we. He looked at the neuro-science behind aggressive behaviour and contrasted cognitive and emotional empathy, and tribal and prosocial empathy and commented on some specific topics: that some use Brexit to justify racist behaviour, that prison makes inmates worse, and that the internet giants should accept more responsibility. A thought-provoking evening.
Hilary Spurling, Biography of Anthony Powell
Hilary Spurling´s biography focuses on Powell’s early years: barely scraping a third from Balliol, the early, hard-up years in London, the quarter of a century that he dedicated to the A Dance to the Music of Time novel sequence; his marriage to Lady Violet Pakenham: “if Powell had set out to find the ideal wife, he could not have possibly done better than Violet”. Hilary’s talk left us in no doubt that Powell should rightly take his place as one of the foremost chroniclers of the 20th century.
Jane Austen, Happiness and Melancholy: Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles and Dr Jane Darcy
Jane Austen’s works are part of our collective consciousness: complex plots, universal characters and beautiful, balanced language. And as well as the happy endings, there is melancholy: the patient waiting and constant disappointments endured by Anne Elliot and Elinor Dashwood, Fanny Price’s sense of not belonging, Colonel Brandon´s suffering. A wide-ranging discussion with both speakers believing that Jane experienced being in love, Sir Sherard quoting a passage from Persuasion which describes Anne Elliot’s emotions so vividly that it surely describes Jane’s own feelings.
King’s Cross Development
A guided walk around the King’s Cross Development led by Michael Freeman (Co-founder and Non-Executive Director of Argent LLP) and Jonathan Thompson (Chair of Argent) who told us of the transformation of the former railway land, derelict for 30 years and now reimagined and rebuilt with modern architecture and attractive plazas, parks and walkways. There is both energy and tranquillity in the area´s mix of commercial, residential, educational and cultural uses, in its public squares and gardens with the Regent’s Canal winding its way through.
The Temple Church
Choral Evensong at Temple Church in the heart of legal London to mark the anniversary of its consecration in 1185 was followed by a talk by its master, Robin Griffith-Jones. Built by the Knights Templar, Tardis-like and echoing the church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, the church was granted a royal charter in 1608, survived both the Great Fire of London and the Blitz and throughout maintained a fine tradition of choral music. Afterwards a special view of an exhibition of Death Row art, curated by Samantha Knights (History, 1990) barrister at Matrix Chambers was both moving and informative.
Dinner at the House of Lords
At a gala evening at the House of Lords hosted by Baroness Margaret Jay of Paddington (PPE, 1958), former Leader of the House of Lords, over 100 guests enjoyed a drinks reception in the Cholmondeley Room followed by delicious food in the Terrace Dining Room overlooking the Thames. After dinner Baroness Jay chaired a wide-ranging and fascinating discussion on ‘The State We’re In Now’, focussing on the potential implications of Brexit, with Jill Rutter (PPE, 1975), Programme Director, Institute for Government, and Will Hutton, Principal of Hertford College and Former editor-in-chief for The Observer.
Behind the Scenes with The Archers
On a rainy November evening, we gathered at the Oxford and Cambridge Club to hear Alison Hindell (English, 1979), Head of BBC Audio Drama and acting editor of The Archers talk about its recent storyline of Helen and Rob: love, coercion, violence and justice; how it arose and how it was developed, the liaison between the production team and charities working in the field (calls to them rocketed after certain episodes), and how the programme had had to deal with the new and untested legal background to coercive control cases such as Helen’s.
“Clinton v Trump-the most significant election of our era?”
Constitutional expert Professor Vernon Bogdanor and The Times’ Rachel Sylvester discussed the surprise success of Trump’s campaign, concluding that we are in an era of ‘post-truth politics’: an ‘age of unreason’. Rachel Sylvester argued that emotion, not rational self-interest, shifts votes in this era – but the complex, globalised problems we face demand reasoned thinking. Professor Bogdanor showed that the political split is no longer between left and right, but between the people and the “elite” with populism (a focus on identity more than ideology) having paved the way for significant political realignments.
The Romantic Seaside at Burgh House
Dr Jane Darcy (Honorary Lecturer at UCL specialising in the literature and culture of the 18th and 19th centuries) gave a scholarly, entertaining and beautifully illustrated talk on the origins of the British seaside holiday, ranging from innovations in theological thinking to the discomfort of putting on a wet bathing suit. The venue was Burgh House, built in 1704, and once the home of Dr William Gibbons who made his reputation from the supposedly health-giving waters of the area. Today it is home to the Hampstead Museum.
Another walk with Blue Badge Guide Marilyn Collis, this time around locations specifically associated with Shakespeare or which he would have known. Marilyn´s talk included later history too: the Guilds, the Great Fire of London and the real reason the Millennium Bridge swayed. The walk ended with drinks at the historic George Inn in Borough.
Luke Harding: A Very Expensive Poison
Guardian journalist Luke Harding spoke to the Group about his book, A Very Expensive Poison, which tells of events pre and post Litvinenko’s murder in London November 2006. A tale with a cast of global leaders, mobsters, spies, cooks and tourists, all locked in an apparently parallel universe where behavioural and moral norms were subverted. Luke’s book concludes with the public inquiry’s findings which were damning and illuminating, though not entirely public.
Freud’s House Museum
The Group held a private viewing of the home of Sigmund Freud and a talk from its Education Officer. The centrepiece of the museum is Freud’s study, in which sits his famous couch. Freud´s daughter, Anna, continued to live at the house for many years after her father’s death and continued to develop her pioneering psychoanalytic work with children. It was her vision that the house become a museum and be a place of discussion and learning for those interested in psychoanalysis.
Lord Peter Hennessy
In June 2015 Lord Peter Hennessy, Attlee Professor of Contemporary British History at Queen Mary University of London, spoke to the Group on the state of British politics in the aftermath of the General Election and the Scottish referendum, and with the EU referendum on the horizon. Surveying the scene from his vantage point in the House of Lords, Lord Hennessey looked back on a momentous few months and gave some predictions for the future.
Emma Sky on Iraq
Emma Sky spent years living with US troops in some of the most dangerous parts of a shattered, post-war Iraq where her forthright views and considerable expertise on the Middle East were noted by US Army leaders. She became US army commander Major General Ray Odierno’s special adviser. Emma had been against the war but answered a Foreign Office call to help rebuild Iraq. Her book The Unravelling covers her time there.
Gill Bennett: Espionage during WW1
Gill Bennett, specialist in the history of secret intelligence, spoke to the Group at the Oxford and Cambridge Club on the British secret intelligence during the First World War: the organisational developments which laid the foundations for today’s secret service, the invaluable role of networks of civilians who helped to gather intelligence and some of the colourful characters involved (Somerset Maugham and John Buchan among others).
Professor Joanna Haigh on Climate Change
Professor Haigh, sometime Head of the Department of Physics at Imperial College and President of the Royal Meteorological Society and an authority on solar variability and climate modelling, spoke captivatingly – and worryingly – on why global warming is happening and how very serious it is.
Walks Around St James
On two evenings in July 2014 the Group held specially commissioned guided walks, led by Marilyn Collis, Blue Badge Guide around Pall Mall, Piccadilly and St James, an area of great historic significance and one of the most interesting and surprising areas of London.
Florence Nightingale Museum
The Group had a private view of the Florence Nightingale Museum at St Thomas’ hospital with Mark Bostridge, Florence Nightingale’s biographer giving a talk about her life and work: heroine of the Crimea, social reformer, statistician and the founder of modern nursing. As an aside, he also spoke on the writing of biography.
Michael Moore: The State of the Union
Michael Moore, former Secretary of State for Scotland, spoke to the Group at the Caledonian Club. Having guided the Scotland Act 2012 through parliament and negotiated the Edinburgh Agreement which set up the legal framework for the 2014 independence referendum, Michael Moore gave his insider’s view of the future of Scotland in the UK and of the UK in the European Union.
In December the Group enjoyed two evenings of wine, canapés, browsing and pre-Christmas book buying, followed by a talk by Persephone Books founder and publisher, Nicola Beauman, on some of the Somervillian authors she publishes.
Peter Jones Fashion Evening
Champagne in a VIP area; a fashion show; chocolate tasting; beauty product testing: all made for a lively and enjoyable pre-Christmas event at Peter Jones in Sloane Square for members of the Group and their guests.
Six Moments of Crisis: Inside British Foreign Policy
Gill Bennett (Modern History, 1969), former Foreign and Commonwealth Office Chief Historian, gave a fascinating talk based on her book about how six critical post-WW2 British foreign policy decisions were taken: from sending land troops to Korea in 1950, to the Falklands conflict in 1982.
The Group enjoyed a private guided tour of the Foundling Museum. Established on the site of Britain’s first home for abandoned children, the museum tells the stories of the children who lived there over more than two centuries and of the Foundling Hospital’s founder, Captain Thomas Coram. Exhibitions of the works of artist William Hogarth and the London life of composer George Frederic Handel, both of whom were early supporters of the Hospital, completed the visit.
Josephine Bonaparte: Mistress of Empires
Kate Williams (Somerville, 1993) spoke to the Group at the Oxford and Cambridge Club about the extraordinary life of the first empress of the French, Napoleon’s first wife, Josephine. Kate’s biography of Josephine was published in October 2013.
George Leslie Hunter
The Group enjoyed a private view at the Fleming Gallery in Mayfair of the works of the early 20th century Scottish colourist George Leslie Hunter with a talk by the curator.
Security in an Age of Austerity
Vice Admiral Philip Jones, Deputy Chief of the Naval Staff, spoke to the Group at the Oxford and Cambridge Club on the role – and the changing role – of the British navy in the modern world and how it combines the use of military hardware and soft power to influence world events.
A Gala Evening at Strawberry Hill House.
On a summer’s evening the Group and guests visited this iconic gothic mansion. Drinks and a tour of the house and garden were followed by dinner in the gallery after which the Principal, Dr Alice Prochaska, gave an entertaining talk on Horace Walpole’s library, now at Yale University (where the Principal had curated it), but originally at Strawberry Hill House, Sir Horace’s home in the 18th century.
The London Library
The Group had a private tour of the stacks of this London institution in St James’ Square, followed by a drinks reception.
A Book of Liszts
The Group’s pre-Christmas event this year was at the Oxford and Cambridge Club in Pall Mall: an evening of words and music with John Spurling, author of A Book of Liszts, a novel written in celebration of the bicentenary of Franz Lizst’s birth.
Fashion Event at John Lewis.
In October the Group enjoyed a private fashion show, followed by personal colour analysis, chocolate tasting, wine and canapes at the Oxford Street Store; all making for a lively and enjoyable evening.
Stories of Extraordinary Women and How They Get Forgotten
A talk by Professor Ann Oakley (Hon Fellow of Somerville) centred on her biography of Professor Barbara Wootton, the renowned sociologist and one of the first life peers.
When Print was King
The Group had a private visit to the St Bride Foundation, its library and fascinating collection of early printing presses with a talk by Ursula Jeffries on the history and work of the Foundation.
Britain in Afghanistan
Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, the former ambassador to Afghanistan and special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan spoke to the Group about his experience of policy and reality in Afghanistan.