London Group Past Events
Hilary Spurling, Biography of Anthony Powell.
In February 2018 the London Group was delighted to welcome Hilary Spurling to talk about her recent biography of Anthony Powell (AP). His popularity may have suffered in recent years, but the novelist as seen through the lens of his biographer Hilary Spurling was an exciting proposition that drew a large audience to the Oxford and Cambridge Club. 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.
Being a personal friend of Anthony and his wife Violet, was, according to Hilary, a significant disadvantage since a degree of detachment was needed to forensically strip away the myth and the literary mannerisms to get to the core of her subject. Which she has achieved in spades!
Her biography focuses on Powell’s early years, his hard-won successes and the quarter of a century that he dedicated to the series of novels written between 1951 and 1975 that make up the A Dance to the Music of Time sequence. Described by some as the English Proust, AP’s work is very different from À la Recherche du Temps Perdu, except for its dry sense of humour. PG Wodehouse was, however, a formative influence and the two men admired each other’s work and exchanged letters and encouragement.
AP was also a great friend and supporter of Evelyn Waugh, another writer whose reputation went into a trough before reviving.
Hilary offered us insights into the youthful AP, a budding artist whose collages wittily incorporated some of the vast collection of buxom Edwardian nudes he discovered in a secret hoard bequeathed to him by his father, the apparently strait-laced Colonel Philip Powell.
After barely scraping a third from Balliol, AP arrived in London. He was hard up and living in London on a small stipend from the Duckworth publishing house– a position Powell senior fixed up with an old army contact, publishing director Thomas Balston. On the periphery of a group of Bohemian artists and writers, AP was taken in hand by the artist Nina Hamnett, a sophisticated older woman. AP later took up with a young publisher’s assistant Marion Coates, the playful and promiscuous archetype for Nick Jenkins’ muse Jean Templar in A Dance to the Music of Time.
Yet it was his marriage to Lady Violet Pakenham, daughter of a large Anglo-Irish family – brother Frank became Lord Longford – that set the seal on his literary success.
But Lady Violet’s connections and literary ambitions weren’t her main contribution to nurturing AP’s genius. No. It was the way the otherwise diffident Violet would critique his writing frankly and fearlessly in language their son John would later describe as “excoriating”!
As Hilary observed, “if Powell had set out to find the ideal wife he could not have possibly done better than Violet.”
Jane Austen, Happiness and Melancholy. In November 2017 the Somerville London Group were treated to a witty and entertaining conversation between Jane Austen experts Sir Sherard Cowper Coles and Dr Jane Darcy – no relation although she has frequently been asked!
Both speakers grew up in Sevenoaks and shared their memories of its associations with Jane Austen and of other influences which led to their becoming dedicated Janeites. Sir Sherard even has a family connection: his great great aunt, Mary Pearson, was engaged for a while to Jane’s somewhat racy brother.
Sir Shepard praised Jane Austen’s complex plots, universal characters (each with their own distinctive voice) and her beautiful balanced language. Jane’s works have now become part of our collective consciousness.
Jane Darcy was asked to comment on the subject of her forthcoming book: the melancholic themes in Jane Austen’s work. She referenced the patient waiting and constant disappointments endured by characters such as Anne Elliot and Elinor Dashwood who could not know that their stories would end happily. Jane Austen’s own long period without a settled home is reflected in Fanny Price’s sense of not belonging. Male characters suffer too, Colonel Brandon being one example.
Both speakers believe that Jane experienced being in love. Sir Sherard quoted a passage from Persuasion which describes Anne Elliot’s emotions so vividly that it surely describes Jane’s own feelings.
Much more was covered, including banknotes, opinions on dramatisations and humorous accounts of Jane Austen Society goings on.
Thanks to Krystyna Novak and her husband John Brown, the event took place in the The East India Club whose origins and atmosphere reflect a world known to Jane and her characters.
Further thanks go to Rachel Kent for organising the evening and to Somerville’s Professor Fiona Stafford for introducing our speakers. For more information about our speakers, please click here.
King’s Cross Development. In May 2017, members of the SLG and their guests were privileged to enjoy fascinating and entertaining guided walks 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). It was inspiring to hear first hand about the transformation of the former railway land which had previously been mostly derelict for around 30 years. Two groups enjoyed pleasant strolls in spring sunshine amongst imaginatively converted heritage buildings (including former gasholders), striking modern architecture and attractive plazas, parks and walkways.
Crucial to the success was the vision for a thriving mix of commercial, residential, educational and cultural uses, combined with innovative design. The development has received many plaudits for creativity, use of heritage buildings, social responsibility and sustainability.
In line with this vision, the thriving University of the Arts London has moved to the Granary Complex and companies such Google, Louis Vuitton, Universal Music and Havas are choosing to locate to the district. Residential facilities include affordable housing and a children’s playground. Among plans still underway are a primary school, a possible Artificial Intelligence University, a theatre, and a shopping centre with an innovative roof design by the renowned Thomas Heatherwick.
A series of new public squares and gardens have opened, among them Granary Square with its spectacular fountains, Lewis Cubitt Park and Square and the new Gasholder Park. Regent’s Canal winds its way through the development and an ecological nature reserve has been preserved.
The result is a pleasing mixture of the energising and the tranquil. It was hard to imagine this had once been such an abandoned, blighted area.
The evening concluded with refreshments in Argent’s offices amid the stunning architects’ models and other displays.
We are grateful to to Clara Freeman (Jones, 1971, Modern History) for her role in organising the event, as well as to our hosts, Michael Freeman and Jonathan Thompson.
The Temple Church. On 1 February Somervillians and their guests joined others at Temple Church in the heart of legal London for Choral Evensong to mark the anniversary of the consecration of the church in 1185 by Heraclus, Patriarch of Jerusalem. The church, built by the Knights Templar, Tardis-like, and echoing the church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem dates from the 12th Century, was granted a royal charter on 1608 survived both the Great Fire of London and the Blitz and throughout has maintained a fine tradition of choral music. After evensong and drinks, Somervillians recongregated to hear the master, Robin Griffith-Jones, speak of the history of the church, its place as the church for two of the Inns of Court, its role in the birth of Magna Carta and much more. After that, a special view of an exhibition of Death Row art, curated by Samantha Knights (History, 1990) and barrister at Matrix Chambers was both moving and informative.
Dinner at the House of Lords. In January 2017 the SLG hosted a special dinner at the House of Lords. The event was a rapid sell out with a lengthy waiting list! The evening was 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. It was also an opportunity to thank Alice Prochaska at her last SLG event as Principal for her tremendous achievements in that role. She in turn thanked Sue Robson, who was about to step down as SLG Chairman (though remaining on the Committee) for her very successful leadership.
Behind the Scenes with The Archers. On a rainy November evening, some 75 Somervillians and guests 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.
While Alison battled rain storms and delays on the Great Western Railway, the group listened to that night’s episode then heard from two other Somervillians. Alison Skilbeck (Modern Languages, 1964) spoke most amusingly about her time playing Polly Perks in the early 1980s, then Elan Closs Stephens (English, 1966), BBC trustee for Wales, spoke of Radio 4 and Radio 3 now being the sole homes for radio drama and of Alison’s role in protecting and championing the genre. Both ably demonstrated a Somervillian’s ability to stand and deliver at a moment’s notice!
Then the main event: Alison arrived and spoke about how the Rob and Helen storyline arose and 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 cases such as Helen’s.
A memorable and enjoyable evening. There are many Archers’ aficionados among alumni with an impressive knowledge and clear affection for the longest running radio drama.
“Clinton v Trump-the most significant election of our era?” In October 2016 constitutional expert Professor Vernon Bogdanor and The Times’ political commentator and interviewer Rachel Sylvester spoke at the Oxford & Cambridge Club. Of the surprise success of Trump’s campaign, they concluded we’re in an era of ‘post-truth politics’ – an ‘age of unreason’-Trump was riding high on the latest wave of populism. 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 left or right, but the people versus the elite. His historical context showed how populism – a focus on identity more than ideology – has paved the way for significant political realignments and policies.
The Romantic Seaside. In May 2016 Dr Jane Darcy (Honorary Lecturer at UCL specialising in the literature and culture of the 18th and 19th centuries) gave a talk on the origins of the British seaside holiday. Dr Darcy’s scholarly and very entertaining talk touched on topics ranging from innovations in theological thinking to the discomfort of putting on a wet bathing suit, all illustrated by a range of informative and amusing images. 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. SLG guests were able to stroll around to discover the house’s charms. Its last residents were Rudyard Kipling’s daughter and her husband. Inside is much as they knew it in the 1930s. Part of the terrace was designed by Gertrude Jekyll. Today it is home to the Hampstead Museum.
Shakespeare Walk. In April 2016 the Group held a specially commissioned guided walk led by Marilyn Collis, Blue Badge Guide. The walk took in locations specifically associated with Shakespeare or which he would have known, but the walkers also learned much more, especially about the Guilds, the Great Fire of London and the real reason the Millennium Bridge swayed. From Roman remains to the latest modern architects, Somervillians and their guests enjoyed London at a leisurely place and could look more carefully at its buildings and vistas. The walk ended with drinks at the historic George Inn in Borough.
A Very Expensive Poison. In March 2016 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. He told a tale with a cast of global leaders, mobsters, spies and ordinary people, from cooks to 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 still not entirely public. Comments from those who waited to get their copy of the book signed were “Gripping”, “scary”, “fascinating” and “entertaining.”
Freud’s House. In September 2015 the Group held a private viewing of the home of Sigmund Freud and his daughter Anna Freud. Highlights included an amusing talk from the Museum’s Education Officer and the opportunity to wander freely around the home. Its centrepiece is Freud’s study containing his remarkable collection of antiquities and his famous couch. There guests had the opportunity to hear further short talks in small groups. Anna Freud 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 for the house to become a museum and to 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 at the Oxford and Cambridge Club 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. In June 2015 Emma Sky gave a fascinating and insightful talk about her time in Iraq. She 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, including how she became part of the US army’s team, yet built strong trusting relationships with various Iraqi factions. Emma received the OBE for her services and contributed to the Chilcott Inquiry. More recently she became Senior Fellow at Yale’s Jackson Institute.
Espionage during WW1. In January 2015, Gill Bennett, specialist in the history of secret intelligence spoke to the Group at the Oxford & Cambridge Club on the British secret intelligence during the First World War. Gill described the the major organisational developments that took place during the war which laid the foundations for today’s secret service. She also gave intriguing accounts of some of the colourful characters involved, some of whom went on to become renowned authors such as Somerset Maugham and John Buchan. Gill also noted the invaluable role of networks of civilians who helped to gather intelligence.
Climate Change. In October 2014, Professor Joanna Haigh spoke to the Group on climate change. Professor Haigh is recent Head of the Department of Physics and currently co-director of the Grantham Institute (Climate Change and the Environment) at Imperial College. She is President of the Royal Meteorological Society and an authority on solar variability and climate modelling. Joanna engaged her audience with convincing explanations of 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. This marvellous neighbourhood, which includes Pall Mall and Piccadilly, has great historic significance and remains one of the most interesting and surprising areas of London. The tours took in buildings, people and events of significance and finished with (optional) refreshments in a traditional public house.
Florence Nightingale. In March 2014 the Group had a private view of the Florence Nightingale Museum at St Thomas’ hospital and Mark Bostridge, Florence Nightingale’s biographer, gave a talk about her life and work: heroine of the Crimea, social reformer, statistician and the founder of modern nursing (and as an aside also spoke on the writing of biography).
The State of the Union. In February 2014, Michael Moore, former Secretary of State for Scotland, spoke to the Group at the Caledonian Club. Having guided the Scotland Act 2003 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.
Persephone Books. 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 (Somerville, 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.
Foundling Museum. 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 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) centered 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 (Somerville, 19 xx) on the history and work of 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.