My room, your room: Peter Bazalgette returns to Fitzwilliam

My room, your room: Peter Bazalgette returns to Fitzwilliam

  • Fitzwilliam College, Sir Peter Bazalgette and Joseph Cant

Photograph of Sir Peter Bazalgette and Joseph Cant by Laura Pannack. Photograph of Fitzwilliam College by Sir Cam.

Peter Bazalgette (Fitzwilliam 1973) and second-year geographer Joseph Cant talk staircase politics and the merits of green tea.

"He came by once before,” says geographer Joseph Cant of the esteemed visitor he’s expecting today. “But he only put his head round the door to say ‘hello’.”

This time, when Sir Peter Bazalgette arrives, he steps eagerly inside and the conversation flows. “We were all very happy here,” recalls Bazalgette of his 1973 cohort. “But the College was small and underfunded. There was no chapel, no theatre, no library and no gardens. When I reconnected with the College in the 1990s, through the Development Committee, I was totally amazed by the transformation of the place.”

Coffee with chicory and mint green tea

Bazalgette, who had spent a year teaching before coming up to Fitzwilliam, arrived with a relatively sophisticated haul of possessions: “Three posters, 25 books, my coffee machine and a record player.” 

Cant was more minimally laden. “Just my computer, some clothes, my bedding,” he recalls. No coffee is drunk in N12 now. “Whittards Moroccan Mint Green Tea,” Bazalgette says, studying Cant’s shelf approvingly. “I used to buy coffee with chicory because it was half the price of the real thing. It was disgusting.”

People of different opinions need to not only debate, but to co-exist.

Sir Peter Bazalgette

Staircase politics and the soul of the nation

Staircase politics, too, is not what it was in Bazalgette’s day. He recalls: “There was one chap who’d go shooting, and come back and hang ducks and pheasants outside the window to mature. Somebody down the other end of the corridor was pretty leftwing and he regarded these birds hanging up as a sort of provocation. That’s my abiding memory of this staircase. The political struggle for the soul of the nation.”

These days, Cant says, smiling, “it’s just me trying to convert everybody into a Labour supporter. I’m not doing a particularly good job.”

The people who live around him are friends, who snaffled rooms together in the ballot. Next year, Cant will live out with friends – including one housemate with political views distinctly different from his own. “That’s rather wonderful,” says Bazalgette. “That gives me hope. Because people of different opinions need to not only debate, but to co-exist.”

I had misconceptions about what Cambridge would be like, but here has been even better than I imagined.”

Joseph Cant

Seeking talent from all backgrounds

The two talk with passion and pride about Fitzwilliam’s identity and in particular, its commitment to broad access. “When I was here,” says Bazalgette, “the undergraduates were about 60 per cent state-school educated – a very high percentage for the time. This College has a tradition of seeking out people of talent from whatever background.”

Cant occupies N12 thanks to just this tradition. “I went on a summer school for people from deprived bits of London, to help them see Oxbridge,” he explains. “We toured Fitz, so I knew it when I applied. I had misconceptions about what Cambridge would be like, but here has been even better than I imagined.”

The changing face of Fitzwilliam

There’s only one respect in which N12 today doesn’t quite match its 1973 incarnation – the view from its window. “The art room wasn’t there. Those fir trees hadn’t grown up. And that modern building hadn’t been built. The garden opposite was kept beautifully by one of the Colleges. I used to sit here when I should have been working and watch the gardener. He was a splendid sight, in a yellow waistcoat and a bowler hat and a red handkerchief in his top pocket. It was like a secret garden.”

Sir Peter Bazalgette (Fitzwilliam 1973) is Chair of Arts Council England. Joseph Cant is a second-year geography student.

Interview by Victoria James

This article first appeared in CAM - the Cambridge Alumni Magazine, edition 78. Find out how to receive CAM.