CAM 75 Letters

CAM 75 Letters

  • Cover detail from CAM 75
    Cover detail from CAM 75

St John’s medieval graveyard

CAM 75 features St John's medieval graveyard and the skeletal remains uncovered by archaeologists. Earlier in the year there was a tourist publicity stunt in Leicester when the excavated remains of Richard III were reburied with elaborate ceremony. As one who, for well over 40 years, has been reverently burying the dead in cemeteries and churchyards, I find it all rather confusing. Is there an agreed lapse of time after which buried remains are fair game for anyone with prying eyes? Should I advise mourners that their loved ones will one day be disturbed? I recall my churchyard in Irchester in the late 1970s, where one tombstone bore a skull and crossbones – nothing to do with piracy, but an expression of the old belief that in the resurrection of the dead the essential bones were your skull (to house your brains) and your thigh bones (presumably to give you a sexual orientation). Perhaps the archaeologists could at least put these back where they find them?

Rodney Schofield (St John's 1961)

The turning tide

As a Christian myself, I was delighted – if not especially surprised – to read Prof Joel Robbins’ account (CAM 75) of the sudden transformation in the lives and fortunes of the Urapmin people of Papua New Guinea since they converted to Christianity in 1977. This phenomenon he, as a social anthropologist, attributes to ‘a primitive instinct for survival’. On the other hand, and particularly as the Urapmins’ sincerity is never called into question, one could simply take their own explanation at face value – namely, that as soon as they heard the good news of Jesus Christ, they received it with joy and were filled with (‘encountered’) the promised Holy Spirit, a life-changing experience repeated many times over in the New Testament.

Mike Shaw (Queens’ 1965)

This house

Your article about the Union (CAM 75) proudly mentions that it accepted Jews in 1850, before the rest of the University did – but it failed to mention the 2015 vote that "Israel Is A Rogue State". As the article stated, today's students are tomorrow's political leaders, and this vote has caused alarm throughout the Jewish world (the Jewish Chronicle bluntly told its readers: "You should be worried"). The Cambridge Union's honeymoon with the Jews would appear to be over.

Charles Heller (Trinity Hall 1965)

In your otherwise excellent feature on the Cambridge Union, and significant dates on its timeline, you left out the most important event there of my time at Cambridge (1960-63). For the best part of a century, women members of the University had been excluded from membership, for reasons that made no sense at all. Most people simply accepted this situation, although I thought it a great pity, as at a time when all colleges were single-sex, the Union could have been a very good meeting place for male and female students. But it was not to be, and the status quo seemed to be set in stone, until one evening in 1961. During a debate, three very brave young women undergraduates, one of whom I knew slightly from shared law tutorials, walked into the chamber and demanded that women should be allowed to become members.

If any reader doubts that this required considerable courage, they should try to imagine themselves outnumbered by about 80 to 1, in a somewhat frosty and very formal, unwelcoming atmosphere!

I would like to think that those in charge might have had the aplomb to invite them to sit down and take part in the debate, but unless my memory is entirely wrong, it did not happen quite like this. Perhaps that part of the story is best left to be told by the women undergraduates themselves. But it was intended to be a peaceful protest, and the point was made: nothing was going to be quite the same again, and although I do not think that any of the women became members in my time, their successors did become members not long afterwards.

They deserve a mention in your next issue: they had, to adapt the words of Bernard Shaw, thought of things that had never been, and had asked "why not". I salute them!

Robert Ribeiro (Fitzwilliam 1960)

So Stephen Parkinson, the author of Arena of Ambition: A History of the Cambridge Union, says: “The Union has actually been very progressive...and was ahead of the rest of the University and Colleges in admitting women [in 1963]...”

Progressive? Given that women had been full members of the University since 1948 (and Girton had been founded back in 1869), is 'progressive' the right word?

Mind you, even a decade after women joined the Union, many Cambridge undergraduates were still a long way from 'progressive'. A common conversational opener I heard from men there in the early 1970s was the same line: 'You are educating yourself out of marriage'.

They told me flatly that they wouldn't socialize with girls who'd failed to end their education earlier than I had...and I'd just turned seventeen.

Anne Thackray (Girton 1970)

Best speaker - Arthur Scargill. Impassioned, moving, clever and persuasive. Wrong maybe, but terrific. Funniest speaker - Magnus Pike, the TV scientist. Pluckiest speaker - Joe Mercer, manager of Manchester City, no intellect but his passion and warmth moved the audience. Football is indeed a matter of life and death - now that sounds like an excellent motion!

Wishing the Union well for its next 200 years.

Mark Stocker (King’s 1975)

Phantom evidence

Dr Michael Hurley’s article about Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (CAM 75) brought to mind some reminiscences of my late father Edward Wilson (Fitzwilliam 1923). He would have graduated by the time of the address to the John Ray Society, but he told me that, a year or two earlier, one student booked a room at which he told everyone Conan Doyle would be giving a talk on Spiritualism. After the audience had assembled, the student then entered and said: “Unfortunately, Mr Conan Doyle has failed to materialise.”

Richard Wilson (Trinity 1957)

Following the article on spiritualism and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and his lecture at St.Catharine's in 1926 (CAM 75), I would like to tell the readers about the visit of Shri Mataji Nirmala Devi, the guru of Sahaja Yoga, to Cambridge in 1982.

Shri Mataji visited Cambridge several times and gave a public programme on 9 October 1982. I was a fresher then and saw the poster advertising the venue, which was to be in New Hall, outside the JCR at Selwyn. I had just come from five months voluntary work in India before starting at Selwyn and I was curious to know more about Indian spirituality and religion.

Shri Mataji talked of "vibrations" rather than "ectoplasm" and there is nowadays a great following of Sahaja Yoga. The event at New Hall was my introduction, how I came to meditation and a more fulfilling inner life.

Andrew Low (Selwyn 1982)

The piece on Conan Doyle's visit to Cambridge (CAM 75) lacks important context. The society for psychical research was founded by Henry Sidgewick, Professor of Moral Philosophy at Trinity and his student Frederic Myers. It included a number of distinguished Cambridge scientists including Lord Rayleigh, the physicist. At the time of Conan Doyle's visit, and beyond that time it was still going strong.

The date of Conan Doyle's visit 1920 was only two years after world war one. Probably most of the audience had lost relatives or friends, it is not surprising that they hoped that there might be life after death.

Marion Bower (Homerton 1972)

Michael Hurley, in his interesting account of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s visit to the St Catharine’s John Ray Society in 1926, expresses surprise that Doyle should have been invited to ‘lecture scientists’ at Cambridge on psychical research. This, according to Hurley, was a ‘thoroughly bizarre event’, in view of the fact that he had ‘come to champion supernatural phenomenon (sic).’

Hurley fails to recognise that Doyle was an entirely appropriate choice to address Cambridge academics on this subject. Several leading Cambridge scholars, such as Henry Sidgwick, Frederic Myers and Edmund Gurney, had been pioneers in establishing psychical research as a subject for serious, rigorous study, founding the British Society for Psychical Research in 1882, of which Conan Doyle was an early member. This Society is still active and thriving today and Cambridge personnel have contributed over the years to many of its most significant investigations. So an open-minded attitude to the subject is just what one would hope for in a Cambridge scientific society.

Nor can Conan Doyle be dismissed as ‘not without scientific training.’ His medical studies at Edinburgh had led to an MD, almost ten years of general practice and a short period as a London consultant. Moreover, in all areas of his varied life he personified the true scientist par excellence in his willingness continually to ‘think outside the box’ and to develop what Karl Popper saw as the essence of science – bold and risky hypotheses that invited testing and falsification. Even when these hypotheses involved psychical or theological matters, he still insisted that they should be based on reasonable evidence and argument and never on blind faith.

So why should Conan Doyle’s lecture to Cambridge scientists be described as a ‘thoroughly bizarre event’? On the contrary, the reasons and justification for his invitation can be seen as purely elementary, my good Hurley! 

Roger Straughan (Peterhouse 1960)

I read with interest Michael Hurley’s article on the visit of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to Cambridge in 1926 (CAM 75). It reminded me immediately of a story told by Jack Pritchard (Pembroke 1920 – long time champion of the post-Bauhaus modern in furniture and architecture, founder of Isokon) – luckily for my memory it is found in his autobiographical memoir, View from a Long Chair (RKP 1984), complete with a photograph of the event dated c. 1920. Jack wrote: “Another time we hired the Guildhall for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to speak on ‘Materialisations’, to be followed by a discussion on ‘Spirits in Everyday Life’, and ‘Sex Equality after Death’. … the Guildhall was full and there were even some dons on the platform. After five or ten minutes my job was to pull the string that lowered a large notice … ‘We very much regret that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle has failed to materialise.’ He was, at the time, in Canada.” Though he was no doubt present in spirit.

Simon Emmerson (Clare 1968)

As an ex-forensic scientist with 33 years' experience, the illustration of an evidence bag on the front cover of CAM 75 immediately caught my attention. I was very interested to read the article "Phantom evidence" which was illustrated by further pictures of evidence bags. However, I note that in the illustration of the bag on the front cover, and of the same bag (Bag number U0670909) on page 30, the blue backing tape covering the adhesive strip of the bag had not been removed, meaning that the bag was unsealed. This being the case, the integrity of the contents of the bag could not be guaranteed. Furthermore, none of the evidence bags in the article were labelled to show their contents, from where the contents had been recovered and by whom, and none of the bags had been signed to show additional persons who may have handled the bags. Thus, there was nothing to demonstrate continuity of the evidence, meaning that the so-called "chain of custody" had been broken. I fear that such lack of demonstration of correct procedures would be likely to render any evidence contained within the bags inadmissible in a court of law or, at the very least, lead to extremely close scrutiny as to the reliability of the evidence.

Michael Merryweather (Peterhouse 1972)

Naked lunch

I was amused, but slightly dismayed, by the article Naked Lunch in the most recent edition of CAM.

Dr Greenbank comes to the interesting conclusion that the photographs published in the article (moments from an intended movie camera sequence) represent a friend of the phtographer trying to stand in front of a servant so that he does not appear in shot. This conclusion is based on the fact that in two of the shots the friend is right in front of the servant and that in another shot the servant appears to have moved very slightly.

What Dr Greenbank appears to forget is that Lady Kendall is trying to take a moving scene, or at least a series of stills showing movement. What the pictures suggest to me is that Lady Kendall wanted a scene with some movement and asked the friend to move around a bit among the other guests; or perhaps the friend just happened to move about.

This explanation seems far more likely in terms of what we know about relations with servants. Most obviously, if Lady Kendall had not wanted the servant to be in the film, she would have told him to move. There would have been in those days no question of the servant refusing! Dr Greenbank's conclusion is that Lady Kendall would instead have asked one of the guests to block the servant - "Agatha, Stand in front of Mustapha and make sure he isn't in shot!". This verges on the sily. Dr Greenbank's further conclusion that in response the servant shifts his position so that he is back in the picture tips us over from near absurdity into a P G Wodehouse version of British class relationships in the 30s.

What the pictures perhaps remind us, though it is a point which verges on the obvious, is that in those days servants were in a sense invisible. To Lady Kendall the photos are of her friends having a picnic, and if one of them moved in front of a servant, Lady Kendall would not have even noticed.

Dr Greenbank might well have a look at the effect of slow motion videos of alleged infringements in sport. The mere fact of showing an event in slow or stop motion creates an imprssion that the action being considered is deliberate. In two stills the friend is right in front of the servant, but this gives no reason to conclude that that is her sole aim.

Humphrey Morrison (Selwyn 1968)

Cambridge soundtrack

I’ve just had my first skim through the current issue of CAM. Finding that the wonderful Art Themen was sharing his Cambridge soundtrack has more than made my day – it has cheered up the whole week! Many thanks for this act of discernment and generosity on your part.

Simon Fell (Fitzwilliam 1978)

Art Themen's 'Extracurricular' interview evoked many fond memories of University jazz in the 1950s. One other important musician who deserves mention was the late Dick Heckstall-Smith, (Sidney Sussex), one of the finest jazz musicians to have come out of Cambridge. He was one of the stars of a golden age of Cambridge University jazz and like Art was a saxophonist. At Cambridge he played soprano in a style that could have been mistaken for Bechet, but after turning professional he also turned modern: blues rock, post-bop and jazz fusion, mainly on tenor, and alto (sometimes played simultaneously!) and recording with many distinguished jazzmen. Contemporaries will remember that in the early 1950s the University band played first in a school hall in Newmarket road, before moving to the Union cellars, and for the big gigs the Rex Ball-room, adjoining the famous Cinema, which is, as Art points out, alas no more.

Geoff Morris (Jesus 1954)

Sporting life

I was interested to read in issue 75 of CAM about the Canoe Club. It was founded in 1958 by a number of us who were keen canoeists. We had little experience of the sport but we were helped greatly by someone who was a member of the very lively Manchester Canoe Club. Chris Sutton had his own slalom canoe, a collapsible version. First we had to find a convenient place to keep canoes, and very quickly we found an upstairs room close to the river near Magdalen Bridge.  We bought some old canoes and built one from scratch.

We paddled on the river Cam past the backs of the colleges and practiced slalom turns on the tail of the sluice at the Mill as in this photograph.

We thought that racing would be another facet of the sport to try and we somehow acquired an old K1 canoe. At just that time Oxford had also formed a club so they brought their canoes to Cambridge for a race.

We then devised a multi-skill contest against Oxford. There was a slalom event on the river Tay in Scotland, a rough water race on the river Dee, an extended race on the river Ouse starting at Bedford and a sprint race in the K1. Points were awarded for each event. We thought that a half-blue should be given to those who canoed for the University, but it was not possible at that time.

In one university vacation we went to the river Usk for a few days. The river was in furious flood but we survived several miles until a number of us capsized in the rapids.

The Cambridge Canoe Club, 1959.  Front row; John Chesters, Peter Fleming, myself, Chris Sutton and Phil Hastings.

John Haward (Clare 1958)

University Challenge

I watched avidly the successful progress of the Gonville & Caius College team through the BBC’s “University Challenge”, leading to its eventual and richly-deserved triumph. While this victory reflects well on the University, it is primarily a triumph for the college and its excellent team. A lot of alumni do care very strongly about the blue riband events including the Boat Race, the Varsity Rugby and Cricket Matches, all of which were lost to Oxford University during the past year. It has been a dismal sporting year for the University mitigated  by a gleam of light from Gonville & Caius College to whom heartiest congratulations are very much in order.

Jeremy Willings (Christ’s 1957)


Last month the university launched a working group to re-evaluate ‘ethical investment’ policies – a decision apparently spurred by concerns held by some students about investments in fossil fuels. Although there is a year before any guidelines are set, the assessment process is an important opportunity for alumni to let our voices be heard. Having seen how activist student groups pursue divestment strategies as a means to address climate change, I for one cannot support a policy that seeks to leverage our endowment (and harm returns for the university and the research that it can conduct) to win hollow, purely symbolic political points. As Drew Faust, president of Harvard University, explained in her remarks on her university’s decision not to divest, “The endowment is a resource, not an instrument to impel social or political change.” Cambridge would compromise its academic status and erode the primary purpose of endowments if we allow ourselves to be convinced that divesting a few shares would do anything to make carbon-intensive sectors to change their environmental policies. We’re better off supporting our own programmes in climate science, and leaving gesture politics to CUSU.  

Alex Deane (Trinity 1997)

Your Easter edition carried a letter saying that until 1982 the Boundary Run was 25 miles. When I ran it in 1958, it was claimed to be 32 miles. I still have my “bounders” tie with a suitably marked milestone on it.

Charles Cann (St John’s 1957)

“My darling, what have you got there?”

“It’s a print of my College ⎯quite rare.

I remember it well,

And it is where I fell,

So in love with your lovely blonde hair.

I like to remind one and all,

Who otherwise would not recall.

It looks good on my wall,

And Trinity Hall,

Was the scene for that marvellous May Ball.

The artist was one, Roxby Bott.

Of College buildings he painted a lot.

In a style somewhat ham,

In one week by the Cam,

He once painted five on the trot.”

“You misty-eyed clot, I don’t care,

For your Blotts, whether bargain or rare.

That’s not Trinity Hall,

No, no, not at all.

It’s next door ⎯ th’illustrious Clare.”

“CAM” alumni magazine, Easter 2015 edition, issue 75. P.46, Contemporary Watercolours advert, College originals for sale. 2nd Clare print attributed to Trinity Hall.

To help maintain the balance in CAM between the serious and the light-hearted, I draw your attention to the advertisement, on page 46 of your Easter 2015 edition, for College Original Prints for sale.  The illustrations include one attributed to Trinity Hall.  I am moved to respond, as attached.

Jeremy Leighton (Clare 1958)

In 1959 I rowed for the Cambridge Coxes against CUWBC, the Oxford coxes and Imperial College. I still have the oar. Obviously women’s rowing was functioning on an organised basis between 1954 and 1964.

Fred Edgar (Sidney Sussex 1957)

May I draw your attention to two rather widely separated passages in CAM75? Their wide separation might explain why no editorial matchmaking has been reported.

On p.10:

Matt Rees is a first-year history student. Originally from Aberdare in South Wales, he says that he has yet to meet another Welsh person in his year at Cambridge. "Though I’m sure they must exist," he concedes.

On p.47:

Judith Musker-Turner ... [Queens’] … [b]rought up in Aberystwyth ... took up kayaking ... "...I did my first whitewater on the River Tywi in mid-Wales. I was instantly hooked ..."

If Matt were enterprising, he could perhaps acquire a kayak and paddle past Queens’. May the stars be aligned...

Neil Tennant (Clare 1968)

As a postscript to the letter from Antony Kay, my recollection is that Beating the Bounds, as it was then known - which in the late 1940s I tackled once,. without finishing - also included an uncomfortable stretch along the sleepers of a railway track. (In retrospect this seems surprising, for the Cambridge - Bedford line had not yet been closed.)

Patrick Field (St John's 1947)

Reading Ken Warner’s description  (‘Your letters’, CAM 75) of a glimpse into Cambridge life afforded by an old shopping list found years before reminded me of a similar detail that has stuck in my memory for half a century.

On my first day in Cambridge, I walked past a message scrawled in chalk on a corner near the bottom of Downing Street: ‘’Coffee in Bill’s”. If I thought about it at all, I must have assumed it would fade away in time.

But it didn’t.

People went over it in bolder handwriting, different coloured chalk... By the time I left, it was considerably more prominent than on that first day.

I never fulfilled my intention of returning to that spot to see if it had been engraved into the wall, or upgraded to a brass plaque...

Frank Trethewey (St Catharine’s 1964)

One of the objectives of CAM is to explain the ground-breaking and, sometimes, mind-boggling activities that go on in the University. Which it achieves with elegance and economy, not leaving me with a sense of the inadequacy of my own accomplishments and my limits of understanding. Why then does the magazine host the hardest crossword in the known universe? I am already humiliated as I fail to grasp the instructions.

At least you put it at the end, when I’ve read the rest.

Richard Harris (Christ’s 1972)