Category Archives: cambridge

Selling a soul

With the news in of Lord Sainsbury’s election as chancellor of my Alma Mater, the phrase Faustian Pact sprung to mind. But only fleetingly: Faust sold his soul not for gold but for (according to variants of the legend) knowledge, experience,  youth, and a bit of totty. Sainsbury is unambiguous: £127 million so far to the University (Wikipedia), and many eyes doubtless focussed whence that came.

The Chancellor is a purely ceremonial role, with the chief executive post being that of Vice Chancellor.  So it is, one might reasonably argue, well-suited to a man born to the highest privilege with the effortless self-assurance that brings, and accustomed to habitual ceremony.   Sainsbury’s predecessor (who was Chancellor in my time there) was the very embodiment of that role: he is of course married to the Queen.  But whereas the Duke of Edinburgh was a neutral/inoffensive choice for the post, Sainsbury is anything but neutral.  He is famous for having bankrolled the most blatantly corrupt UK government in modern history, which awarded him a peerage and a post as Science Minister.  Before that, his chairmanship of Sainsbury’s supermarkets saw its decline from our undisputed biggest and most successful grocer to a shrinking third place.

Call me a sentimental old fool, but I still care enough about the old place to find this mildly upsetting.

What was, in a sense, more interesting about this event is that it was a contested election.  The story is that a local grocer popular among some university folks was first nominated to stand against Sainsbury: I can only presume that his supporters feel as I do about ones soul.  I know nothing about Abdul Arain, though the quotes from him that have appeared in the national press sound like a splendid fellow!  His left-field candidacy drew in two other high-profile candidates, both of them well-qualified for a top ceremonial role by virtue of their careers in public performance: Brian Blessed as a splendid actor, and Michael Mansfield as a top QC.  If Arain was no more than a stalking-horse then Blessed was surely the most acceptable candidate.


I’ve been too busy and/or knackered to blog from Cambridge, but now I have a spare moment.

I’ve just been to Cambridge with members of the Plymouth Philharmonic choir, who went for a summer jolly and gave two concerts – one in Ely Cathedral, the other in the chapel of St Johns College.

For me, this is a nostalgia trip.  I stayed at my old college (Girton) where long ago I spent four formative years, two of them living in the main building itself.  I took the time to wander the extensive corridors and grounds, and find reassuringly that very little has changed since my day.  Except, being outside term-time, the regular students aren’t around, and the place is busy with japanese students instead.  Where there is refurbishment it’s pretty superficial (carpet, lighting) and definitely not an improvement: the new lights are motion sensitive, and rather uncomfortably bright compared to the old ones.

In-town is also of course a nostalgia trip.  Apart from St Johns (which is one of the colleges I knew reasonably well, having had friends there as a student, sung in the chapel, dined in the hall, and partaken of the joys of a far better cellar than Girton could boast), I wandered the grounds of several other colleges.  But the summer is not a good time for this: many of the best places are closed against the tourist hordes (and you can see why, as you do battle against the crush to get from A to B).  My camcard got me past basic guards, and notably spared me touristy entrance charges, but only up to a point.  Clearly better to revisit in term-time.

One observation was that I really felt surrounded by academia.  Strikingly so.  Of course in my youth I really was at the heart of academe, but there was nothing striking about it: this was just the natural environment to be in after leaving school on an academic life path.  Or if you prefer, career path, though it’s been a big downhill since Cambridge.

Also in Cambridge, I went out for two nice meals.  One with pctony, at a veggie place he recommended and which turned out excellent: I need to find excuses to work through much more of their mouthwatering menu.  The other with the choir at a Cafe Rouge: again a very pleasant meal.  I think Cambridge restaurants have improved since my time, but it’s a little hard to judge because my budget back then wouldn’t have extended to these places.  Saw, but didn’t eat at, an old favourite: the old fire engine house in Ely.

In a final twist of nostalgia, I wandered down to the site of my old department (DPMMS) and main lecture halls, and found that the site and building of DPMMS from my time now appears to host CARET, pctony’s workplace!  I even recognised the carpark onto which the Part III (basement) room’s window opened, and recollected how we would curse drivers who ignored the signs telling them to park forwards, and pointed their exhausts straight into our room.

I must revisit in term time.  I even have a should-visit excuse: my oldest nephew is now an undergraduate!  Though I expect a young chap of his age to have better things to do with his time than entertain an old uncle.