CAM 70 letters

CAM 70 letters

  • CAM 70 cover

We have some fantastic responses to articles in CAM 70, particularly to Professor David Reynolds' piece on war memorials and to the Vice-Chancellor's address of 1 October.

Some letters may have been edited for clarity and brevity.

Don's Diary

I rate this the best don's diary so far, particularly the paragraph about setting exam questions.

I do prefer it when it explains something about the University than many of us may not know, or indeed not have thought about.

Richard Sage (Trinity 1984)

Professor Tong writes (Issue 70, Michaelmas 2013) that “...many graduates have pretty vivid nightmares about exam term.”

More than fifty years have passed since I sat Maths Tripos Part II, and I continue to dream of the experience, about three times a year. In my dream, I have never done any work and have not attended any of the lectures. I look at the paper in front of me and cannot understand a single question. I did once attempt one of them, and was rated Junior Optimes on that occasion, but I generally don’t bother to go along to the Senate House to read the results because I know what they will be. For fifty years I have let down my college, my tutors, my university, my parents, my school and, most of all, myself.

Recently, a Petrean contemporary found the full set of his exam papers in his attic. He lent them to me and, reading them, I experienced the same sensation of total incomprehension that I suffer in my recurring dream. Take this, for example:

“S and S' are two non-singular coplanar conics, Σ and Σ' the corresponding envelopes, Φ is the harmonic envelope and F the harmonic locus. Prove that, if Σ is apolar to the locus whose envelope is Φ, then S' is apolar to the envelope of F; and prove that the condition that this should happen is

  Θ2 + Δ Θ' = 0

where Δ, Θ, Θ' have their usual meanings.”

The italics are mine, and I still have no conception of the usual meanings of Δ, Θ, and Θ' (which, you will notice, take the stage only at the very end of the question). 

Far from being dismayed by this real-life acting-out of the dream, I am hopeful that my memory has now been purged of its bitter lees, and that I can go on to enjoy the rest of my life (I am 75) without having to sit and fail those damn’ Finals ever again.

Happy New Year

Adrian Williams (Peterhouse 1957) 

The borrowers

As an alumnus of Pembroke Oxford, I was interested to see the reference to Pembroke's art initiative in "The Borrowers" in the Michaelmas issue of "Cam". In addition to the lending scheme, the college has created an art gallery in its magnificent new extension. 

I offered to the Pembroke art committee an extraordinary painting of King's windows by talented Cambridge artist Isobel Stemp which they enthusiastically accepted, so a fine reflection of Cambridge now graces Pembroke's collection.

Miles Dodd (Pembroke Oxford 1958)

I loved the cover of your Michaelmas 2013 issue, with the Master of Trinity Hall and his wife and a painting on the wall between them. But the eye was drawn to the group of distinguished pots on the table in the centre of the picture.

Turning the pages with anticipation at discovering the name of the potter and more, what do I find? Nothing. Could they be by Cambridge’s most distinguished living potter, Edmund de Waal (also Trinity Hall), who featured in the same issue in “My room, your room”? Could they belong to the Cambridge Contemporary Art Trust whose story was told, again in the same issue, in “The borrowers”? I think we should be told.

 Alas, dear Editor, you have inadvertently revealed that the culture of Cambridge is still not very visual, as Sir Alan Bowness said was the case in the 50s when yours truly was an undergraduate. A fine piece of ceramics can be a worthier object of attention than many a painting.

Anthony Chamier (Trinity Hall 1956)

Ed note: The pots were made by Hortense Suleyman, a former apprentice of Edmund de Waal.

China works

I am writing to express my disappointment that a picture of a housing estate in Hong Kong was chosen to illustrate the article "How China works" in the Michaelmas 2013 issue of the Cambridge Alumni Magazine.

This juxtaposition hints incorrectly that Hong Kong is part of the change in labour-employer relations in China described in this article. In fact, Hong Kong has completely separate trade union and legal systems from the rest of the People's Republic of China due to its British colonial legacy.

In addition, the caption of the picture incorrectly used the Hanyu Pinyin transcription of the place name, "JiangjunAo", instead of the official Cantonese-based transcription of "Tseung Kwan O" used in all English-language literature published in Hong Kong.

Deryck Chan (Magdalene, 2009)

Lest we forget

The interesting article on war memorials in CAM 70 suggested that there is now an unbridgeable distance from the men killed in the Great War. Surely the collective alter egos of those memorialised were those who returned to live out their lives, though often damaged. Many older readers will remember that cohort who were their senior when growing up. I remember a decorated schoolmaster; a University lecturer each of whose very lucid lectures progressed into a struggle with a severe pain barrier; and a breathless man in a darkened hospital ward who relieve in a vocal nightmare a 45 year old gas attack. Also a survivor of Gallipoli who in the 1950’s still execrated Winston Churchill for the loss of lives there. These were the men alongside those killed.

The article mentioned women’s empowerment but said nothing about the obverse side of the losses – the large cohort of women who were forced to remain involuntarily unmarried. They ran hospitals and schools and were maiden aunts but under unchanged social conventions they could not have children or normal family lives.

I suggest that the memorials should now be seen in a representative way as acknowledging not only the battlefield dead but also the whole generation who sacrificed much in many different ways in both world wars.

Derek J Winter (Trinity 1957)

War memorials decorated with statues usually depict the valiant soldier and the glorious patriotic sacrifice of life made to save us all from tyranny. Very rarely is the terrible grief and pain that goes with war depicted.

However there are some rare examples of what can be interpreted as pacifist statues. One example I find far more moving than a “standard” war memorial is to be found in the village of Termignon, Savoy (France). It is of a woman in traditional costume crying for her dead. It is very rare to find a woman represented in a war memorial statue. It was made by Luc Jaggi-Couvert (1887-1976) a sculptor from Geneva whose family came from Termignon.

Chris Shorrock (Pembroke 1957)

Ed. note: Space constraints prevent us from including an image of this memorial, but it can be viewed here

The first thing we've forgotten is what we were supposed to remember - and it was not the dead of the World Wars. The phrase was lifted from Rudyard Kipling's poem Recessional. This was a remarkable poem by any standard. It gives the lie to the popular impression of Kipling as a simple jingo imperialist. It was written for the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria, at the high point of imperial power, but it is a solemn call, more in the manner of an Old Testament prophet than a bard of national self-glorification, for repentance and humility. It can hardly have struck a popular chord when it appeared.

The poem is well-worth reading or reading again. What Kipling urged us not to forget was not the glorious dead but the glory of God – something which, despite our constant repetition of his words, we have indeed comprehensively forgotten.

Martin Down (Jesus 1959)

University matters

The Vice-Chancellor's address proposes that Cambridge's 'valued freedoms of organisation' 'allow us to take the long view' (CAM 70). This may well be true in the areas he instances, but not so true where individual research in the humanities is in question. The pressures and demands of the REF make no allowance for the fact that a scholarly edition or monograph may take 25 or 30 years to complete, if it is to be of first-rate quality. Thanks to the REF, hastily assembled books and articles are pouring from the presses, making it even more difficult to keep on top of one's field. Can Sir Leszek convince the powers that be that this is no way to encourage first-rate research?

Professor Jill Mann (Clare Hall 1969)

I have enjoyed the latest Alumni magazine as much as ever and there is no question about the great academic and scientific contributions the University makes to the wide world and its humanitarian approach to all things.

However, although this is well laid out in the Vice-Chancellor’s article entitled “Taking the long view”, I was amazed that there is hardly mention, either in his article or in the rest of the magazine, of the precarious situation that our planet finds itself in today.

If we are realistic it is not unreasonable to even suspect the possibility of a collapse of our civilization. Many historians state that such collapses have generally been very sudden.

Our society generally is immersed in a culture of denial and ‘business as usual’ and a blind acceptance that ever increasing economic growth is the only way forward. Our political leaders naturally play along with this game either ignoring or even denying the threats of economic and environmental collapse which are well on the way to befalling us.

If anyone had said in 2006 that the UK would be bailing out its banks or that we were in for a recession that would last more than five years, they would have been locked up as insane (or simply a revolutionary rebel). But what has happened? Exactly this.

There is no question about the high level of pollutants in the atmosphere, our waters and the oceans. There is no question amount the increasing frequency and severity of extreme weather conditions. There is no question about global warming and the disappearance of glaciers and the Arctic ice. There is no question about resource depletion and related problems of over-population and over-consumption. There is no question about the extinction of wildlife both animal and vegetable. There is no question about the fragility of the economic system which is based on expansion of the global corporations and is funded by ever-increasing and un-repayable debt.

If our civilization wants to survive it has to face the reality of these threats. Ever continuing growth and the accompanying destruction of nature and our planet on which we depend is simply not realistic.

It is most reassuring that extensive work is being carried out within the University in these areas. So why are they not given more publicity – especially within your wonderful magazine?

Anson Allen (Christ’s 1962)

It is good to consider the future of the university; I'm sure that all of us who have benefited from Cambridge University care that future generations will as well. As the world around us is changing more than ever, it is an apt time to consider the question.

However, Professor Borysiewicz (CAM 70) has asked the wrong questions. Whilst it is clearly important that the University's growth is healthy and its philanthropy is successful, these are concerns of the moment, not the future.

The rate of innovation within technology and within enterprise is growing exponentially. Barriers to entry to innovation have almost disappeared, and addressable markets have grown to global scale. Innovators now come from all countries and walks of life, and the rewards for innovation are massive.

This is bringing waves of structural change within how we live, work, learn and play. We've seen a couple of waves already: computers have brought new sciences, simulations new experimental approaches, the internet has changed the face of research and information dissemination. Mobile means our society can organise itself faster and more effectively than ever before.

This is only the start. Within our lifetimes we'll see entirely new models of trade, communication and organisation.

To take a simple example, where something can be more convenient, faster or more efficient, technology will step in eventually. Universities suffer many things that are inconvenient, slow and inefficient, and it is a matter of time until these are changed. Change may come from internal progress, or external challengers.

External challengers need not be (new) universities, quite possibly they will challenge just one part of the University - for example, business schools now compete with startup accelerators, and the University has experimented with creating its own accelerator.

Another example are MOOCs, massive open online courses. These use the internet to deliver lecture courses much more efficiently, essentially for free to the participants. Participants form themselves into tutorial groups, and the course is organised in a decentralised, distributed manner.

These are just two small examples of what we've seen so far. With this in view, one could imagine a future where the greater part of the University is a global network of engaged learners, working together without necessarily ever all meeting. One could imagine that philanthropy becomes crowd-funding, and lecturing is performed by a broad section of the alumni network, beside their work lives. These are not predictions, just encouragements to imagine bold futures.

The world is changing, and Cambridge University is well placed to be at the forefront. To be so, it needs not only to embrace change, but to lead and bring about the next waves. The University has been highly successful at innovating in external industries, it now needs to harness these energies and apply them to itself.

Therefore, I offer three questions of my own:

  • How can the university make its teaching radically more efficient, and of greater quality?
  • How can the university accelerate its own innovation?
  • What is the scale of the university's global ambitions

David Mack (Jesus 2006)