CAM 77 Letters

CAM 77 Letters

  • Dr Olenka Pevny, University Lecturer in Pre-Modern East Slavic Culture and Bublyk, a four-year-old Bichon Frise
    Image taken from 'at home and astray, CAM 77

Dr Olenka Pevny and Bublyk. Photography by David Stewart, winner of the 2015 Taylor Wessing portrait prize.

Dear Mother

I always enjoy reading my husband’s copy of CAM.

The article about the historical importance of ‘letters home’ (CAM 77) struck a chord as I have recently published my book, Nurses Never Run, based on the letters I wrote home from Cambridge between 1967 and 1970. Written as a memoir for my grandchildren, it is not only about my training as a student nurse and how I met their grandpa but is also intended as a record of everyday life in Cambridge during that era. I have been delighted to receive messages from many alumni who have relived their Cambridge days as the book triggered memories.

Eileen Gershon

Wife of Sir Peter Gershon CBE (Churchill 1966). Eileen Gershon is the author of Nurses Never Run: A Student Nurse in Cambridge, published by Silverwood Books.

The Dear Mother article (CAM 77) struck a chord. My mother has recently returned a pile of letters that I had written home every week from Pembroke between 1978 and 1982 while I did a Geography degree and PGCE.

I knew at the time that the act of writing was therapeutic and a quid pro quo for the letters that I so looked forward to from home.

Looking back, the letters describe the life of a diffident state school student coming to terms with an impossible amount of reading and the cornucopia of opportunities available outside studying. 

They capture impossibly beautiful mornings looking out over the Bowling Green from my room in Orchard Building, the plethora of famous speakers, trips round the Kite to find second-hand cooking implements, wondrous concerts in various chapels, idyllic summer evenings rowing for the college followed by ‘Boat Hall’ and even Elvis Costello at the Trinity May Ball.

Most importantly they describe the formation of a group of friends from Pembroke and New Hall via the good offices of a marvellous Director of Studies, Dr Robin Glasscock. This group and our offspring still holiday together nearly 40 years later; it is the most important legacy of my time at Cambridge.

Nick Tawney (Pembroke 1978)

My airmail letter-form left every Wednesday morning to my parents in India and I received their response – without fail – the following Monday. This spiral of weekly chapters captured much of my intellectual leanings and interests, and I realised gradually that my parents were scared that I would convert to communism!

The weekly rhythm was like a punctuation mark in a continuum, something to expect and enrichen. 

After graduation, to wash off any influences of intellectualism, I was packed off to labour as a ‘worker’ in a shipyard in Lübeck, Germany. From brain to brawn – the earliest expression of B2B?

Nawshir Khurody (Trinity 1955)

Dear Mother (CAM 77) extolled the social history virtues of the letter home, illustrating this with letters from the great and the good. Such letters are more likely to survive in archives than those of us then undergraduates, now graduates, with more humble achievements. Sadly, my mother did not keep any of my letters from the 1960s, although she did keep her own autobiographical notes from earlier decades.

This message is a plea to all your readers fortunate enough to have access to any such letters home. They are primary sources and would be of interest to both genealogists and social historians. Please do what I have started doing and reprint them for posterity on sustainably resourced acid-free paper. In my case I have recently reprinted documents and biographies for the benefit of my children and grandchildren, but have also lodged copies in the Library of the Society of Genealogists in London, who keep documentary records by surnames as well as by other criteria.

Barney Tyrwhitt-Drake (Pembroke 1966)

Lest anyone should suppose that in this era of electronic communications the letter is dead, I would like to say that I wrote proper pen-and-paper letters home throughout my time at university (2010-2013). My mother kept every letter, hoarding them away in the sideboard drawer. Not that we didn’t use email as well, for some purposes, but the unread message in the inbox isn’t half so pleasing as the envelope in the pigeonhole.

Rachel Calder (Queens' 2010)

I was interested to read the article about personal letters being a record of history which may well die as the electronic age takes over. My mother kept all the letters I wrote to her. They make interesting reading looking back, as my own memory is sometimes inaccurate! But most interesting are the things I did NOT tell my mother!!

David Buck (Emmanuel 1954)

I have all the letters I wrote to my mother over four years from Caius, except for the three months I spent in Papworth as a TB patient (I was famous in Caius, as 1 West Road had to be fumigated!). My letters show the anxieties of an ordinary student from Wales cast into the exciting but worrying life of a Caius historian, with the ups and downs that included serious illness and the death of my father soon after my 21st birthday. I cannot re-read them as the Proustian angst would be too painful but the Caius Archive – to whom I have left them – will, I hope, appreciate them.

PS I’m glad a Caius historian is editing CAM – always something to read!

John Trice (Caius 1959)

I couldn’t be in greater agreement with Peter de Bolla (CAM 77) when he asserts the medium of communication determines not just the style, but also the substance of what we communicate to others. I still love writing letters, however anachronistic this may be, because of all the intangible pleasures this activity provides, they are lacking in all forms of electronic communication of today. I find it a pity that we find convenience to be the measure of everything – this convenience seems to be a paltry gain placed against what we are losing.

Daniel Schorr

The big sleep

As a long-time and continuing resident of Japan I was intrigued by the piece on inemuri (CAM 77) and its possible cultural significance. Only once during my 30-odd years of working in Japan was I blessed with a colleague who practised inemuri religiously, from sitting down to standing up three or four hours later. We others saw this as emblematic of their well-known total uselessness at absolutely everything.

Martin Bonar (Sidney Sussex 1964)

Dr Brigitte Steger shrewdly analyses Japanese napping – inemuri – and I can testify that it was already rife in public transport in 1956, when I was teaching in Tokyo.

But there was also something more disquieting. On the university campus, my students respectfully avoided stepping on my shadow, because I was their sensei (I was only 22!), yet during my classes, which were compulsory for them, several would always be stretched out on benches at the back of the room, indulging in real nemuri: deep sleep.

Why did I tolerate such behaviour? Because those boys desperately needed sleep. Living on rice and pickles, wearing their buttoned-up student jackets all year round because they could not afford shirts, working at ill-paid jobs at night, they only managed to subsist by selling their blood to the hospitals – and selling it far too often. Anaemic, ill-fed, overworked – they occasionally slept in class. Who was I to blame them?

I hope they got good jobs later on.

Susan Biver (née Wilson, Newnham 1953)

Folk story

The Four Marys

It was fascinating to read the article about the St Lawrence Folk Song Society, which brought back many, probably confused, memories of folk singing in Cambridge in the 1960s and early 1970s. I remember meeting in an upstairs room in the Horse and Groom. There was a lot of unaccompanied singing in those days and much enthusiasm for long ballads like Matty Groves, as well as left-wing songs which the article mentions. I remember harmony singing There was a Lady all Skin and Bone with a post grad called John Perry. I also remember singing with a Richard Thompson, who was a keen guitarist. Whether he was the Richard Thompson I do not know, but he had piercing light blue eyes and an earnestness about his guitar playing. He used to crush matchboxes to strengthen his fingers for barrés.

There was not a great emphasis on instrumental playing as the mantra then was the importance of projecting the words, so the accompaniment needed to be simple. Indeed, I remember after I had bought a guitar in 1963 being told to stick to unaccompanied songs, advice I didn’t take (I now play in four folk dance music bands)!

I also remember concerts in the colleges, especially Clare, where I heard Shirley Collins, Peggy Seeger and Ewan MacColl. Some concerts may have been organised later by the Cambridge Folk Club – at the latter we sat on the floor of the Portland Arms (I think) in loads of cigarette smoke. The Cambridge Crofters sang sea shanties in their Arun jumpers (they later became a Ceilidh band).

I also still have my old record collection, which includes Topic Records such as: The Watersons’ A Yorkshire Garland (pre Martin Carthy); Troubled Love by Peggy Seeger; Folk Roots, New Routes by Shirley Collins and Davy Graham on Decca, and lots of Joan Baez In Concert on Fontana. I discovered that I still have a collection of yellowing papers on which there is a variety of handwriting. We avidly collected and exchanged the words of songs – I didn’t own a songbook until I bought the famous Penguin Book of English Folk Songs in 1963 (printed in 1959 and reprinted in 1961). I attach a sample song (The Four Marys) written on two diary pages with a note at the bottom of the second page which says 'one more verse'. The latter is written on the back of a folded bill from A.E.Clothier for Dunlop Red Flash! 

We were once recorded singing English folk songs for Norwegian radio – I sang Reynardine. Whether this was with the St Lawrence Folk Song Society or The Cambridge Folk Club, I can't remember. At the first Cambridge Folk Festival I attended there seemed to be lots of empty space, with a friend Robin Jacobs driving his car in to record some of the artists who included The Watersons and Cyril Tawney. By the time I left Cambridge in 1976 the festival was in full flow with hugely popular and successful groups such as Pyewachet and Steeleye Span performing with loud electronic music some of the same traditional songs that we sung in the St Lawrence Society.

Jill Bransby (née Dobson, Homerton College 1961)

I was interested to read the article on the St Lawrence Folk Song Society (CAM 77), since I knew nothing of its early history. I joined the Society just after coming up to Cambridge in 1964, primarily because of my love of bluegrass and of what in the American South is known as ‘old time’ or ‘mountain’ music.

Had he ever met me, Ewan MacColl, would not, I fear, have approved, since my political views were, if anything, rather reactionary. Fortunately, most members seemed fairly broad-minded. At the first meeting I attended, doubtless emboldened by a pint or two, I responded to the request for songs from the floor with a rendition of Innes Randolph’s paean to the Confederate soldier, Oh, I'm a good old rebel. I took the precaution of announcing in advance that the sentiments of the writer of the song were not necessarily those of the singer, but in fact I was given a respectful hearing and some applause, the band on stage at the time accompanying me from the second verse on and joining in the chorus.

Not all members, though, were quite so reasonable. At another meeting that year, I was approached by a girl who invited me to join a party going up to London to protest outside the American Embassy. When I explained, mildly, that I had American cousins, that on the whole I liked Americans and that I was not interested in taking part in the demonstration, she flounced off in disgust, exclaiming “God!  Some people are so intolerant!”

Charles Priestley (Trinity 1964)

One thing I still remember about the Society is that they had a record library from which one could borrow LPs. I can still recall taking out one by The New Lost City Ramblers that included the wonderful Jonah and the Whale.

Alan McMullen (Trinity 1962)

The delightful article Folk story (CAM issue 77) brought back many happy memories of my weekly visits to the St Lawrence Folk Song Society during my undergraduate years at St John's.

St Lawrence was delightful for being a co-operative venture between town and gown. Some townies would display dazzling virtuosity as flat-pickers on the guitar, as I recall, while the more effete (and probably drug-free) gownies contented themselves with offering up renditions of Cocaine, all around my brain.

How appropriate, then, that your article carried a picture of an album cover for The Best of Rev Gary Davis: Live in concert. It was Rev Gary, a blind black musician originally from South Carolina, who had honed his skills as an itinerant street singer in New York, during which time he made Cocaine his own.

Since Cambridge days I've soaked up all the information I can about Rev Davis, have spoken at length to many of his former pupils, such as Woody Mann, Stefan Grossman and Roy Book Binder, and have tried – with an abysmal lack of success – to play some of his guitar performances, each one a tour de force from one of the greatest guitarists of his generation. Never did I imagine that I would ever see one of his albums featured in the pages of the hallowed CAM magazine!

An album by Peter, Paul and Mary, is also illustrated here – appropriately, as it happens, because it was the royalties received by Rev Gary as a result of his song Samson and Delilah being recorded by Peter, Paul and Mary that allowed him to be financially self-supporting, to buy a modest house in Jamaica, Queens, and to leave behind his life on the streets. Yet the deal almost never came off; when asked by a record producer whether he had written Samson and Delilah, Rev Gary replied with disarming honesty: "No, sir. It came to me by the spirit…"

It was lovely to see Ewan MacColl described in this article as a "cantankerous old purist", which indeed he was. MacColl was born James Henry Miller, but changed his name to something more Scottish and folksy; how purist and authentic is that?

John Titford (St John’s 1964)

In his article Folk story (Cam 77) your writer is wrong-headed in calling Ewan MacColl “hardline”, “authoritarian”, and a “cantankerous old purist”. As a singer and song-maker MacColl was, in the 1950s and 1960s, the backbone of the folksong revival. His rendering of traditional ballads was unrivalled for sung quality and knowledgeable taste. His singing of political songs was electrifying. At Bradford in 1963, when he sang Crooked Cross, the room felt as though the fascist menace was actively threatening us. In the sequence of radio ballads which he made for the BBC, with Peggy Seeger and Charles Parker as producer, about (for example) the North Sea fisheries, the railways, the building of the London-Yorkshire motorway, and boxing, he pioneered a whole art-form, turning interviewers’ questions into lines of song and using site-workers’ words as the ‘script’ instead of writing prose about them.

He was also unfailingly forthcoming when approached. When I asked him to sing his Dirty Old Town, in Lancaster in the 1970s, he paused – then said: “The trouble is – when you’ve sung something a great deal, you can just go blank” – then sang it to perfection, accompanied by Peggy. His range was great. One of the most poignant modern songs about love, The first time ever I saw your face, was his work, and became a hit. It would not be too much to call him an essential figure in British culture in the middle of the last century and it would be a shame if he were now to be treated with grudge. When we heard Peggy sing at the Brewery Arts Centre in Kendal last year, along with their two sons, we knew we were still in touch with talent of the finest quality.

David Craig (Downing 1959)

In 1969, I was in my second year at Pembroke and listening to West Coast groups like the Jefferson Airplane and The Grateful Dead. On 24 September, I had a Damascene conversion to folk music when I heard Fairport Convention at the Royal Festival Hall playing the music that was soon to become their Liege & Lief album. As soon as I got back to Cambridge, I joined the St Lawrence Folk Song Society and went every week. I wanted to form a folk-rock band (I'm a drummer) and I soon noticed a lovely girl singer named Sue with a voice like Joan Baez.

In January 1970, I got together with Chris Birch, fiddler, guitarist and brother-in-law of the folk singer, Peter Bellamy, and went off to the St Lawrence to see if Sue would join the newly-forming band. She did. Forty-six years later we're still married.

My little blue membership card had 'Life Membership' printed on it, so technically I'm still a member of something which probably now has only virtual singers and a virtual audience.

Ian Maun (Pembroke 1968)

There was an unusually high NQ (Nostalgia Quotient) in CAM 77. I regularly enjoy the magazine for its thought-provoking articles, but it usually has a pretty low NQ. Even the My Room, Your Room article about a room in my own College rang very few bells.

But the My Room Your Room at Murray Edwards (CAM 77) article featuring Dame Barbara Stocking (with whose undergraduate years my own overlapped – though by only a year or two) reminded me vividly of my visits to New Hall in 1971-74. Student Bethany Evans even reminded me faintly of one of the occupants I used to visit. It's remarkable how little the décor has changed.

Then came the coup de grâce – Folk story. Most immediately striking was Jon Garvey's record collection; I even own several of the albums shown. In fact, I may well have been with Jon at the Red Cow appearance of Gas Works in the early 1970s, and he may even recall my Talkin' Ludwig Wittgenstein Blues (a bit of Martin Gayford juvenilia that the distinguished author and art critic may prefer to forget).

Bob Knowles (Corpus 1971)

Thanks for the article about the St Lawrence Folk Song Society. The tale of a slow fade of folk in the mid 1970s is perhaps slightly overstated. I recall Clare College folk club running in the Crypt 1976-79, with some fantastic performances, including a still memorable one by Vin Garbutt, as well as frequent not quite so folky appearances by the likes of local bands including Telephone Bill & The Smooth Operators, The Soft Boys, and The Waves. The club also acquired a Bose PA which used to surprise visiting performers as it was about the quality you'd expect at a major fancy venue (Ronnie Scott’s jazz club in London had the same), and not really at a College gig. Anyone else remember that?

Jon Crowcroft (Trinity 1976)

My friend Andrew Dickinson and I spent many weekends in London (at Les Cousins usually) waiting to hear Bert Jansch, but he always seemed to be somewhere else – despite the adverts in Melody Maker. But we ultimately caught up with Bert at the Red Cow in the late 60s. Well worth the wait, so a belated thank-you to the St Lawrence Folk Song Society (and Brian and Joe for a great article which woke many happy memories).

Peter Baker (Magdalene 1964)

Boundary run

The boundary run (CAM 74) was the concept of Dr Eddie Shire, who started leading a small group from CUHHC (Hares and Hounds Club) in the 1940s to beat the bounds at the very end of term in March. As a half-miler, it was too far for me. Dr Shire was a quiet unassuming don who ran regularly with CUHHC for fun and always gave a bottle of sherry – in breach of the then amateur rules – as a prize for the Christmas handicap. He retired just as the Cambridge public footpaths were officially registered so he decided to run all of them too.

I was quite stunned when an obituary written by Tam Dalyell noted that the inventor of the Soviet H Bomb always asked after “my old Cambridge colleague Eddie Shire!” As the website of Dr Shire's papers at Churchill College shows, among his immense contributions to the war effort was the joint invention of the proximity fuse. Nothing in his quiet easy-going demeanour gave any clue of his eminence.

We also celebrated, around 1953, the 50th year of the Presidency of the club by Charlie Woods, who got his Blue in the 1890s and kept on running well into his 90s. He easily defeated instructions to College porters to stop him participating. He just wore his kit under his clothes.

The prize-winning metallurgist, Dr Telfer, showed visiting runners from Thames Hare and Hounds his College coat of arms. It was made entirely from naturally coloured metals by his undergraduates of the time.

However, it was the annual visit by Thames, for the Roman Road Race and dinner, not the small boundary run, that provided the major closing event of the season.

Derek Cole (Jesus 1950, Committee member 1951-54)

CAM 76 - Society

We are pleased to announce that the awaited Ceilidh Band baby (CAM 76) attended its first pre-natal ceilidh at the Inter-Varsity Ceilidh in February.

Florence Lupton (Queens' 2007) and Rick Lupton (Pembroke 2005)

CAM 76 – Ticket to ride

The article Ticket to Ride (CAM 76) described the impact of hostilities between Pakistan and India in 1965 on the universities expedition, COMEX. It reminded me of an experience in India the same year, when I was waiting to move up to base camp at the start of a small climbing expedition in the Kulu Himalaya.

Three of us were staying at a farmhouse above Manali when a local policeman came up to interview me about a letter he had intercepted. I was serving in the Army at the time of the expedition and the letter was addressed to me by rank, written by a Pakistani officer who had been in the same company at Sandhurst. But, before mentioning the letter, the policemen asked to see my passport, which still gave my occupation as ‘student’. At this point, he was clearly suspicious, asking me to explain the reason for my correspondence with the Pakistan military. “Was I intending to visit Pakistan after we came down from the mountains?” Yes, in fact, as I had that in mind when I contacted my Sandhurst contemporary. But an evasive answer sufficed and we took the earliest opportunity to leave for base camp.

After the expedition, I did travel to Lahore, stayed with my friend Anis and we drove up to the Kyber Pass. Fascinating.

Robert Langford (King's 1959)


I am intrigued by the intentionality of Professor Marteau’s research (CAM 77). She finds her subjects may intend to change but do not do so. She therefore intends to manipulate the environment in order to bring about, at least in greater part, the changes both she and her subjects intend. Is this a cycle of intent or a cycle of environment? Is it her own environment which encourages her intent? And who or what is intending to manipulate that environment, etc?

James Malcolm (Trinity Hall 1956)

As a health communications specialist with many years of international experience, I was pleased to see Professor Theresa Marteau’s piece, The Force is not with you, in CAM 77.

Changing environments vs. relying on risk education to enable healthier behaviour is indeed important, and often crucial. However, physical cues such as smaller portions of food and drink or changing tableware or cigarette packaging, is likely to have far less impact than larger measures related to environmental prompting. For example, ensuring affordable, accessible, nutritious food is available at local markets within impoverished areas, or providing safe playgrounds and gyms in those areas, with school or community centre programs encouraging physical activity, would go a long way toward achieving healthful outcomes. So would having health centres open at varied hours, staffed by trained, compassionate staff who can offer health education and counselling.

These kinds of infrastructural environmental changes are labour-intensive and expensive, of course, but building community and corporate partnerships has led to sponsorship that facilitates such objectives. Health communication programmes in a variety of countries have shown that there is often a great deal more that can be done when we work creatively and collaboratively with organisations, NGOs, and businesses that share the goal of supporting healthy communities.

Achieving behaviour change on a large scale is indeed “a herculean task”. That’s why innovating and thinking outside the box of traditional health education and communication strategies is so vital. The challenge is a big one but success can occur when individuals and community leaders leave their silos of operation to collaborate for the greater good of those they sell to and serve.

Elayne Clift (Wife of Arnold Clift, Magdalene 1955)

At home and astray

I was pleased to see that Selwyn College has permitted its Master to keep a dog on the basis that it is a "very large cat" (CAM 77). When I was still at the Bar I often acted for the New Zealand Kennel Club (it had a slight tendency to ride roughshod over the rules of natural justice). Its show rules were perfectly clear:  "For the purposes of these rules, ‘dog’ shall include ‘cat’." In Cambridge, it seems the reverse is also true.

Stephen Kos (Sidney Sussex 1984)

University matters

In the Lent issue, just received, Nick Brooking, University Director of Sport, writes that sport is for everyone. I entirely agree. I was a college oarsman (LMBC) in the 1950s, and at that time the University Boat Race with that other place was rowed between two eights of undergraduates. Occasionally we even had a ‘blue’ who had learnt to row after coming up. This was indeed a ‘field marshal’s baton in every soldier’s knapsack’.

I am not sure if it was Oxford, or us, who started importing world rowing stars to fill most seats in their boat, but whichever, it was a tragedy. If it was us we should be ashamed and if it was them then we should have ignored such a policy and continued to select undergraduates. A win for Olympic oarsmen against such an eight would have carried no kudos, nor would it now.

It is not too late to reform and return to a true all-embracing eight with ne’er an ‘import’ in sight. Let’s do it.

Colin Robins (St John’s 1955)


It is only since I have become more retired that I read the content of your magazine. Was it always as good as this issue? If so I have missed too much. Thank you!

David Moore (Emmanuel 1960)

It was jarring reading the first sentence of Looking Up in CAM issue 77: “The data showed that light emitting from 51 Pegasi...” Light does not emit; 51 Pegasi emits light. "Emitted by" would have been much better.

Paul Loewenstein (Churchill 1968)

Editor’s note: You are, of course, quite right. We check, check and check again CAM’s pages for errors, but on this occasion I am afraid to say that we did not meet the standards that you rightly expect of us – we are redoubling our efforts!

Poetic flourish

This is only a slight embroidery of actual events and might amuse some old readers of CAM? Or not!?

Winter Sports at Cambridge 1963

Here, where icy wind from Urals blows

It seems but yesterday the Granta froze.

For weeks on end the river made

A highway hard as King’s Parade

And ancient dons risked fatal falls

By skating gowned to lecture halls.

We skated too, to Grantchester

With pink-cheeked girls wrapped up in fur:

Our spirits soared, our ankles ached,

Bright scarves with frozen breath were caked

And broken willows made our race

At times more like a steeplechase.

A curious twanging in the ice

Caused us to wonder once or twice

Whether in spring we might be found

Near Paradise all long since drowned –

But later in the smoke-ringed Arts

As blood seeps back to distant parts,

While sense returns to each cold limb

And just half way through Jules et Jim,

We hardly had begun to glow

When loosened bolts beneath the row

Allowed our seats to backward fall

Thus consternating one and all:

A domino effect began,

The lights went up and out we ran.

Shaken by this denouement grim

We all took refuge in The Whim

Where coffee and ring doughnuts serve

To stiffen sinew, glue up nerve.

Alas, from comforts flow unsound

Ideas! One said, ‘To castle mound

So temptingly decked out in snow

Let us at once with tea-trays go!’

Thence we went and there ascended,

Nearly there our lives we ended:

Our faithless trays refused to keep

To the spiral path less steep

And shot us o’er a cliff instead,

We thought that we were good as dead.

Our falls were heavy, Gadarene,

Our oaths were lurid, loud, obscene

But by some miracle we found

That all our limbs were still quite sound

And smiling Fate sent us from thence,

Not stiff, impaled upon a fence

But laughing, even dancing jigs

Down frozen streets to gas-ringed digs.

Mark Handley (Churchill 1961)