Principal’s Michaelmas dinner speech 2016


Here we are, approaching the end of the year, a time of festivity and good cheer. I’ve been trying to think of all the jolly things that most of us generally say and think in the run-up to Christmas. But before the jolly, perhaps it’s a good idea to acknowledge the sober side, and so for a moment or two, rather than pretend that we are entering a season of unalloyed celebration, I’ll share a few of the reflections that I suspect will have been present in the minds of many of us in recent days.

Just over six months ago, I found myself reflecting that it would be lovely when 2016 was over. Then everything would be all right in the world again. Just let us get safely past the threats to European peace, of which the Brexit campaign and the migrant crisis seemed to me to represent the most worrying ones; and then let us pass safely through the US elections towards a reaffirmation of the world order in which we have lived, all of us, with many anxieties and disasters but at least some kind of a sense of navigable landmarks. Well it didn’t turn out like that, and this year of upheavals is drawing to a close, for many of us, with a sense of uncertainty and foreboding.

For members of what some ascendant politicians refer to disparagingly as “the liberal elite”, it has been a chastening and demoralising year. The year of Brexit, whose significance for us all is as obscure now as it was six months ago. The year when “Trumpism” triumphed in the United States, and what that will mean for the world is still also scarily unclear. This was the year too when the Oxford English Dictionary proclaimed that its word of the year is “Post- truth”. As Private Eye put it a couple of weeks ago, Grope triumphed over Hope.

Many members of this gloriously international and outward-looking college will be feeling unsure of your future path: whether you are hoping for a career without borders or fearing that your future in this country is threatened. For those who believe that a great education involves learning how to discern true from false, how are we to deal with the rubbishing of expertise or the blithe abandonment of promises, the assertion and then retraction of barefaced lies, that have characterised the national and international news in 2016? Where is the well-spring of morale and self-belief that we all need, in order to live useful and happy lives?

I don’t suppose many of us feel that we have the answer to those questions. But let’s think back to some of the other years ending in a six, and doing that does give me hope. From this point I will become unashamedly parochial, for after all, this is Somerville’s Michaelmas Dinner, and we have much to celebrate.

One hundred years ago, in 1916, the world was a much bleaker place. The Battle of the Somme had just come to its bloody and desperate end, and there was no end in sight for the Great War. Only last week we marked our remembrance of the millions on all sides of that war who lost their lives – many would say in a futile cause. Meanwhile, far from the front lines, Somerville was a completely different place from what it is now.  This dining hall, opened just three years earlier, had been turned into a hospital ward, the whole college was colonised by sick and recovering soldiers with their medical attendants, and Somerville’s small band of students who had not gone off to become nurses, or munitions workers, or members of the Women’s Land Army, decamped to a demurely separated hall in Oriel. When Oriel’s male undergraduates who had served in the armed forces started returning to their college in 1918-19, they seem to have regarded the presence of Somervillians as manna from heaven. On one memorable night, the Aurelians took a pick axe to the wall that separated them from the Somervillians and made a hole through which they could pass to and fro, partying. But my stern predecessor Emily Penrose, awakened to deal with the emergency, donned her second-best hat and stationed herself beside the hole in the wall to prevent any further impropriety. Next day, some of the Somervillians discovered the abandoned pick axe on their side of the wall and danced a war dance around it. Rather wistfully, they later named the new Somerville boat “Pick-Axe”.

One Somerville undergraduate of those days who later became a feared English don, Mary Lascelles, recalled the starvation rations that students then subsisted on. A verse in one of the Going Down plays ran:

Coconut and rice, coconut and rice,

It may be healthy but it isn’t nice.

Just think how lucky we are now, to enjoy what the student press tells intending candidates is one of the three best colleges for food in Oxford.

Move forward to 1946, another time of severe austerity. Somerville undergraduates had been ”digging for victory” on the chapel lawn throughout the second world war and subsisted on a diet heavy in home-grown carrots, cabbages and turnips. But this “six” year was one of hope.  The end of the Second World War did not bring an end to austerity or very basic rations. It also witnessed new threats, as Sir Winston Churchill would warn before long in his “Iron Curtain” speech warning against the ascendancy of the Soviet Union. But it did witness the creation of the United Nations, the trial of Nazi war criminals at Nuremberg, the birth of the European movement, and in Britain the construction of the National Health Service, which became a reality in 1948.  Here in Somerville, the new Principal Janet Vaughan had just returned from a stint as the first doctor to enter the Belsen concentration camp, and told her first-year students about what she had witnessed. That generation of Somerville students would go on to become pioneering doctors, ambassadors, social workers, politicians and teachers who would join in changing the world for the better.

I’ll mention one more “six” year, 1966. This was the era of the first generation of mini skirts (rather shorter from the rear view than our commoners gowns) the Beatles, Carnaby Street and “Swinging London”.  British pop culture held sway around the world. In Oxford, even if we weren’t as radical as some American universities, rebellion was in the air.  My own memories from that time, when I was in my first year at Somerville, are more socialite than socialist. I remember attending a meeting of the Humanist Society where the Daily Mirror’s agony aunt Marge Proops was speaking , and the Mirror photographer went  along the aisles taking pictures of female undergraduates who happened to be sitting at the ends of the rows, in their mini skirts. For some reason I bought six copies of the Daily Mirror the next day. 1966 and the next few years saw the stirrings of hope for a better world, among a generation of students of whom I was one: protest riots in Paris and the United States and across Europe, and eventually the tragically curtailed Prague Spring, brutally suppressed by  Soviet tanks. I could equally well have selected the darker 1956, year of the Hungarian uprising and the Suez crisis, as one of my “six” years, but I do believe that from 1966 and 1968 onwards, there was a sense that the world could be changed, and even if it took another twenty-three years to bring down the Berlin wall, the will was there and the power to bring about change was growing.

So now, in 2016, here we are in a time of profound uncertainty and questioning. But today is Thanksgiving Day, and Christmas is coming up, and if we think back to all those other decades in Somerville’s past, we can only remember thankfully that things do change for the better, and Somervillians have played a great part in making the world a better place.  We can do so again. Let us remember in this centenary year, the soldiers of the Somme, and the words of one of that war’s poets: “We gave our Today for your Tomorrow”. This festive season, let’s celebrate our own good fortune in living in a better place and more prosperous times than our predecessors, let’s celebrate a festive and joyous season and think about what we can do with our tomorrows.

Happy Michaelmas,  Happy Thanksgiving, Happy holidays from around the world, and Happy Christmas.

Alice Prochaska