21 August, 2016

Changing the World

Outside King's College
A couple of days ago Pat & I had a lovely day in one of our favourite places – Cambridge. We have visited the city many times over the years and it never ceases to uplift and in a way inspire us. It seems to me to be the very best of the United Kingdom: a place which says much about the story of our nation but at the same time an ordinary place, for the most part untouched by the glamour and trendiness of other tourist places like London. There are of course – especially at this time of the year – thousands of tourists, attracted of by the world renown of the University but to a large degree the place has managed to not succumb to the mindless aspects and cheap souvenir elements of tourism. There is a gentle faded elegance and quiet eccentricity representative, I believe, of the many academics who have populated the city for generations and for whom bling and consumer trendiness might be considered rather distasteful. In other words, I feel completely at home there!

That, of course, is not to say that Cambridge is a backwater or old fashioned. The city and its surrounding environs are increasingly filled with cutting edge scientific research institutes and laboratories. As we sat on the bus taking us to the centre of the city from the Park and Ride car park at Madingly we passed an endless number of hi-tech establishments their names internationally known for scientific research and advancement. But as one nears the centre and the streets narrow, recalling the city’s Mediaeval beginnings, the hi-tech buildings and modern University colleges slowly give way to the ancient colleges that comprise the University – their names synonymous with the great names and occasions of our island’s history. Cambridge is a place to quietly inspire – where one can be reminded and feel proud of the nation’s history  and at the same time be encouraged by the knowledge that modern Cambridge is still doing what is has always done – furthering knowledge and being at the cutting edge of academic achievement.
Darwin at Christ's College

As we drove into the city centre we passed a bus stop where one could catch a bus to Oxford – the other great University city of the England. Oxford, slightly older than Cambridge as a University city and famed for its “dreaming spires”, its Cotswold Stone colleges, and its endless capacity to produce the great leaders of our country has all the attributes that Cambridge has but, for me at least, is not as agreeable as Cambridge.  Where Cambridge seems, despite it Mediaeval heritage, forward looking and unpretentious Oxford I find rather claustrophobic, backward looking, pretentious and “touristy”.  Whereas Cambridge has a faded elegance, Oxford so often seems rather tawdry; there is a subtle difference. Like Cambridge, Oxford boasts (and maybe exceeds Cambridge in this) a list of the great and good of our nation (and indeed many other nations).  But for me,  where Oxford’s list of the great and good might be judged to represent the past of our nation Cambridge has consistently represented the future. Oxford’s suffocating atmosphere seems to be about preserving our wonderful past but Cambridge has always, and still is, about making a better tomorrow.

As we passed Christ’s College and popped our heads through the gate way to admire the beautiful college buildings I noticed on the wall a relief portrait of Charles Darwin a man who changed our understanding of the human species forever. When we walked from the Fitzwilliam Museum towards King’s College Pat noticed a blue plaque on the wall of one of the buildings. It recorded the mathematician Alan Turing who was instrumental in the invention and development of the computer as well as the man who, using his early “computer”, cracked the German Enigma Code during the Second World War. Turing is widely considered to be the father of theoretical computer science and artificial intelligence – his work during the Second World War caused Churchill to comment that Turing had shortened the war by about 2 years and thus saved the lives of millions by his cracking of the secret code.
Alan Turing and the Apple logo that we all know so well

Sadly, this gentle, nervous, quiet, unassuming but outstandingly brilliant man was also a homosexual – a thing illegal at the time. He was chemically castrated when his condition was discovered by police in Manchester where he lived after the war and as a result of that dreadful punishment he committed suicide in 1954 by eating an apple laced with cyanide. In 2013 he was granted a posthumous Royal Pardon which although a gratifying salve for the national conscience seems to me to be an unfortunate reflection upon our behaviour as human beings towards such a man who had given his country and the world so much. If the Royal Pardon is supposed to reassure us that we are so much wiser and understanding today and that no similarly hateful and ethically bankrupt act could ever occur today in the name of "justice" one only needs to read the pages of right wing and popular tabloids such as the Mail, the Telegraph or the Sun. One would soon realise that the mob can, still today, even in these enlightened times be whipped up into a frenzy with lurid headlines and can subsequently force a government to take actions that would otherwise be judged quite unacceptable. In recent months the clamour for severe punishments and restrictions by right wing newspapers, huge swathes of the population and extremist politicians against refugees, Muslims or economic migrants bears witness to our capacity to hate and pick upon those who are different in body, mind or culture. Alan Turing in his brief, brilliant but tragic life left an enduring legacy from which we each and every one still benefit every minute of every day. A world without computers and all that goes with them would now be quite inconceivable; they are not simple toys to engage us and with which to write trivia on social networking sites or in blogs like this. They govern and impact upon our every waking and sleeping moment in some way or other. Turing was the lynch pin and most important piece of the jigsaw in their development. It is the stuff of legend that his role in the development of computing today is allegedly remembered within the logo of the mighty Apple Corporation.  The logo depicting an apple with bite taken out which decorates our I-pads, lap tops and I-phones – the great “must haves” of our generation - is,  it often asserted, a silent homage by Apple to Turing and his tragic suicide.  Apple neither admit or deny this story, but whatever, it’s a  reminder to us of how cruel mankind can be towards those who are different either by choice or birth. Royal Pardons are an inconsequential salve - no more no less  - a sticking plaster to cover the misdeeds of our nation and relieve our national conscience but they do little in the end to make us better as a species. As a nation the Royal Pardon's most important value is perhaps to make us all hold our heads in shame - sadly as a look at the Mail, the Telegraph or the Sun will prove, we have not and will not learn the lesson.

Remembering Crick & Watson a The Eagle
A little further along and up a side street is a pub, “The Eagle” where the scientists James Watson and Francis Crick would meet as they discussed their ground breaking work on DNA. When the University's Cavendish Laboratory was still at its old city centre site the nearby “Eagle” was a popular lunch destination for its staff. So the story is told that it became the place where Francis Crick interrupted the lunchtime repast of the patrons on the 28th of February  1953 to quietly announce that he and James Watson had "discovered the secret of life." The event  is commemorated on a blue plaque next to the entrance, and two plaques inside by the table where Crick and Watson lunched regularly. Today the pub serves a special ale to commemorate the discovery, dubbed "Eagle's DNA".
The Eagle's Blue Plaque

The list is endless: people who have changed our world in their respective fields.  Fighting our way through a large group of Japanese tourists, all busily recording their visit on their mobile phone cameras we popped into Peterhouse College  and enjoyed  the Chapel. We discovered that the Chapel was built by Matthew Wren who was Master of Peterhouse in the 17th century and the uncle of Christopher Wren who rebuilt London after the great fire of 1666. Sir Christopher Wren used his uncle’s ideas when he designed the chapel for another Cambridge College Emmanuel College and in 1666 adapted many of his uncles plans when he fulfilled the orders of King Charles II following the the Great Fire of London of 1666 to change the London skyline and “fill the sky over London with great church.” His design and building of St Paul’s Cathedral still today fulfills that function, filling the London skyline. In another field, ask anyone on the planet to name a famous scientist and it wouldn’t be long before the names of Isaac Newton and Stephen Hawkins are mentioned – two men who lived three hundred years apart but who have both changed our understanding of science, astronomy and mathematics. Both are alumni of Cambridge and inextricably associated with its story. In the arts and literature it is the same ground breaking narrative: in the twentieth century John Cleese and the other Monty Python characters, all Cambridge alumni, changed our perception of comedy while poets like Rupert Brook and Siegfried Sassoon changed our feelings about war as two of the Great War poets who recorded their horror of the First World War. At the end of the nineteenth century and early years of the twentieth century a group of Cambridge friends increasingly had their effect upon the literature and art establishment and at the same time developed ideas that increasingly changed the way we operate as individuals and as a society: Virginia Woolf, John Meynard Keynes, EM Forster , Lytton Stracey  and others became very much the “shakers and movers” of social and intellectual change. As members of what eventually became known as the Bloomsbury Set their beliefs, ideals, way of life and intellect very much shaped  the world that we inhabit today. All were alumni of just two Cambridge Colleges – King’s and Trinity.
Peterhouse College & Matthew Wren's Chapel

In all, the University of Cambridge has provided 92 winners of the Nobel Prize since 1904.  Cambridge has provided 29 Nobel prizes in Physics, 26 in Medicine, 22 in Chemistry, 10 in Economics, 3 in Literature and 2 in Peace; there have been Cambridge recipients of the award in every one of its categories. Trinity College has the most Nobel prize winners (32) and the University as a whole has more Nobel Laureates than any other institution. Whilst it is true that both Harvard and the University of Columbia record more Nobel prize-winners than Cambridge these two institutions use a different recording system including the names of prize winners who might only have had a brief stay of a few months at the university. Cambridge figures, however, are based only upon full time undergraduates, researchers or members of academic staff.  Cambridge is, and always has been, a place of change and thinking the unthinkable in order to effect change. Where, for me, Oxford represents the status quo,  Cambridge has sought to constantly change the status quo in every field of academic, scientific, social  and artistic endeavour.
The Fitzwilliam

We had visited Cambridge for a specific purpose – to enjoy an exhibition at the Fitzwilliam Museum. The Fitzwilliam is the art and antiquities museum of the University. It was founded in 1816 with the legacy of the 7th Viscount FitzWilliam. It has five departments: Antiquities; Applied Arts; Coins and Medals; Manuscripts and Printed Books; and Paintings, Drawings and Prints. There is also the world's  largest collection of 16th-century Elizabethan virginal manuscript music written by some of the most notable composers of the time, such as William Byrd, Orlando Gibbons and Thomas Tallis. The Fitzwilliam is a joy: beautifully set out, exquisite works in wonderful galleries, bright and modern yet serious and reflecting its important role as a repository of important academic and artistic items and research. There is a museum shop filled with gifts to inspire and appreciate (very definitely no “tat” here!) and a very pleasant restaurant. And......it’s all for free! Had we been asked for a substantial entry fee I would not have quibbled in any way. As it was, there was an opportunity to make a donation - £5.00 was the suggested amount; I was delighted to drop my £5.00 in the box. For the price of one and a half pints of beer I had enjoyed 2 hours of the best that our nation (and indeed many other nations and cultures) is capable of. What a bargain!

We had come to see one special exhibition that the Museum is currently hosting: “The Art & Science of Illuminated Manuscripts”. The exhibition contains  some of the finest examples of illuminated scripts of Mediaeval times from this country and beyond  – all beautifully displayed, with hi-tech computer graphics to illustrate and explain the artistic, technical and historical  etails. This was not only an exhibition with the wow  factor of how good it looked but one that makes us appreciate the unbelievable skill of these masters of a thousand years ago.  How puny it made some of our efforts today seem – no lap tops, computer programmes or touch screens for these craftsmen of old. Just their eyes, the skills of their fingers, their knowledge of the medium - and perhaps a candle to light their way. Looking at each of these awe inspiring, minutely and beautifully produced works was a reminder of the huge pride and devotion that these Mediaeval artists possessed . And, to my eyes at least there was another quality: these were not only brightly and beautifully decorated pieces of art, nor were they simply bits of religious devotion and the glorification of God. They were also and often pointed and profound social, historical and religious commentaries that would not have looked out of place in our modern political newspaper cartoons.

A couple stand out from the many. One depicts Fate dressed in a long gown. Half of the gown and Fate’s face is a dull muddy brown colour. The other half of the gown and her face is brilliant white. She stands serene and unmoving and around the edge of the illustration are beautifully worked and richly coloured  lace works interspersed with  cherubim and seraphim. A pretty, ornate illustration one thinks at first glance. But when one looks closer you see that in the brown murk at the side of the brown side of the dress is a ragged family looking gaunt and hungry, their clothes little more than dirty rags whilst on the bright white side Fate’s figure and bathed it its brilliant glow stand a family well fed, richly clothed and filled with joy. The two sides of Fate and a social comment that would not look at all out of place today in the centre page of my daily Guardian newspaper: how our well being is so often determined by the uncertainties of Fate and things outside our control. This thread was continued in another illustration (see picture above). Two pages of a book showed on the left a picture of well fed, well clothed, prosperous huntsmen and on the facing page three skeletons each carrying a scythe – the harbingers of death. And the comment from the skeletons?  “Your are what once we were and we are what you will become”. The sub message was clear: “Your wealth and prosperity is meaningless – in the end we all die”. In our celebrity conscious world where material excess, trivial entertainment and having a good time has become the name of the game, the ideal of a good life and the defining goal for so many it is a cautionary tale of some merit.

Having eaten our sandwiches in the grounds of the Fitzwilliam we wandered through Cambridge to enjoy and revisit places that we knew, popping our heads into the gateways of colleges to admire the quadrangles or the chapels. At last we came to what is without doubt the biggest tourist draw in the city – King’s College and the world famous King’s College Chapel, a place we have visited many times and that I have blogged about previously (see blogs for March 5th & April 9th 2014).  We sat on the little wall outside Kings College Chapel, Pat eating her ice cream, catching what might be the last of the summer (it was a beautiful day following weeks of hot sunny weather but as I write this blog the weather seems to be slowly changing).

As we sat there, the modern world was passing us by.  Flocks of Asian tourists all with their cameras clicking and a teenager on a skateboard passed us. A large group of smartly dressed people each wearing identification cards around their neck emerged from the main gateway of King’s  – many were from Middle Eastern countries, their skin colour and the hijabs worn by the young women giving them away  – they were obviously attending a conference of some kind in King’s. A family of Spanish people sat on the wall at our side – parents, children, grandparents, each enjoying their ice creams and chattering away in their native tongue. An elderly man - looking every inch the Cambridge Don - dressed in a striped blazer strode along the pavement, a sheaf of papers under his arm and a brief case in his hand whilst innumerable other people many speaking in foreign tongues passed – some smartly dressed others in shorts or tee shirts emblazoned with logos of various kinds. One woman walked past speaking rapidly into her mobile phone as she went whilst another dressed like a 1960’s hippy with a huge flopping canvas sunhat pushed a baby’s push chair, both she and the baby devouring ice creams. A non-stop stream of taxis passed by some depositing passengers others looking for custom and across the road from us a rather more sober establishment Ryder & Amies: “Tailors, Shirtmakers & Gown Makers” - their windows filled with the colours, academic gowns and academic paraphernalia of Cambridge. Ryder & Amies has stood on the site and been official supplier of academic dress to the University for almost 200 years; countless thousands of undergraduates, graduates and academic staff have stepped through its doors.  Now, the shop jostles with a host of shops all, like Ryder & Amies, facing the great buildings of King’s College but these more modern businesses are aimed at satisfying the needs of the million tourists who increasingly flock to this city each year: Cafe Nero Coffee, the Old Sweet Shoppe, Benet’s Coffee & Crepes, the Cambridge Chop Shop – and, of course, the ice cream stall where Pat bought her ice cream cone to enjoy sitting on the wall of King’s.
Ryder & Amies - get your gown here!

And I wondered what all those great names from Cambridge’s past would have thought if they returned to sit with us on that wall? They would have recognised King’s and many of the old buildings that house the shops but what would they have thought aboutt what they saw? The crowds of tourists the many languages spoken, the intermingling of different cultures on the street, the tourist attractions, the informal atmosphere and dress of people, the mobile phones, cameras and skateboards that we take as so much a part of everyday life today? Henry IV and his Queen Margaret of Anjou who founded King’s College and the Queens’ College would, I am sure, have found the whole thing quite alien. I suspect, too, that Henry’s Flemish glass makers Bernard Flowers and Gaylon Hone – the two finest glass craftsmen of the Mediaeval world – would, too, have been mightly perplexed as they worked on the magnificent stained glass of King’s College Chapel. What about the great religious scholar Erasmus or the  philosophers Ludwig Wittgenstein and Bertrand Russell – I’m sure they might have had one or two incisive and profound comments to make at what they saw. Or Virginia Woolf and others of the Bloomsbury Set; I wonder if she would approve of how society has changed – a change that she and her friends were so instrumental in bringing about a hundred years ago. And John Cleese and his fellow “Pythons” they would surely have something pithy to say as would  Samuel Pepys have had some pertinent observation to write in his diary. So, too, poets Samuel Taylor Coleridge and John Milton would have some thought provoking comments to make; and what about the great republican Oliver Cromwell – would he have approved of our modern society or would his firmly held religious beliefs cause him to decry the pleasure seeking world that we now inhabit?  Charles Darwin might have seen our modern society as proof of his theory of evolution but would economist John Meynard Keynes be pleased or disappointed with our society’s obsession with wealth and with spending? Isaac Newton, ever the great scientist, would surely be intrigued by the scientific wizardry the modern gadgets that we all today think nothing of whilst Crick and Watson might well look warmly at the healthy passers by and feel a certain satisfaction that their discoveries about DNA might somehow have helped to bring us healthier lives.
The Bloomsbury Set - moulders of our modern world - 
in their Cambridge days
And finally, Alan Turing – what would he think? His work as the father of computing was instrumental to the world that we now take so much for granted. What would he have thought to see even young children carrying and operating mobile phones or tablets that each have more computing power than the huge machines that he worked so long and hard to develop in the 1940s. What would he think when he heard that computers will shortly be driving cars on our streets without the need for a driver? And in a different sphere what would he feel about our modern society?  How cruel it was that he was born at a time when the fact of his homosexuality indirectly brought about his death but now our society and our legal system have such very different ideas about the issue.  On Friday night (August 19th) Pat and I sat and watched England Women win the Olympic Gold medal for hockey after an exciting game against the Netherlands. At the end of the game the England captain Kate Richardson-Walsh stood with her arms around the England goal scorer Helen Richardson-Walsh – the two are married. What would Turing have thought about that. In his day gay people hid away and were vilified and punished in the severest manner but today they marry and are rightly accepted as valued members of society, their many achievements in every field of endeavour rightly applauded. Today, Alan Turing would be treated completely differently by society and the establishment. Surely he would never have believed that in such a short time attitudes could change so much. In 1954 Turing, a man who had, under the most difficult and trying personal and professional circumstances, done his country some great and mighty service was hounded by the press, the police  and the establishment. He was disgraced, then chemically castrated, and ultimately driven to take his own life. I am unsure if Turing would have laughed or cried, been pleased or angry, at how the world had changed since he so cruelly died and been the victim of the hypocritical, fickle but always hateful world of his time. I would like to believe that we have a better world today - I'm not too sure, however, that we are any less incapable today of the hypocrisy, fickleness and hatefulness of Turing's generation. Certainly looking at the popular press and the extremist views at large in contemporary Britain I have no reason to be confident.

Trinity College - 32 Nobel Prize Winners have gone through its doors
- and in doing so influenced and changed our world
But this is the nature of things and  nothing is forever. Things can and do change and Cambridge has shown for almost a thousand years a continuing capacity to test the notion that what is immutable and uncahnageable can and will be changed be it in science, the arts, mathematics, literature, philosophy, society or any other field of human endeavour. If there is one thing that seems to define this place it is that the great minds that have been involved and the work that they have done has caused fundamental changes in our world. Keynes, Crick, Watson, Turing, Darwin, Woolf, Cleese, Erasmus and a thousand others thought the unthinkable and by doing so brought a new world. And I think that if any of these great minds had sat on that wall with Pat and I watching the modern world go by they might have found it all slightly unbelievable; they might, too, have had some profound and maybe critical comments to make.  But  they would, I am sure,  have been gratified  to know that they had played their part in building a different and ever changing world and that modern Cambridge is still carrying out their mission and dreams –  challenging the status quo, seeking to extend knowledge and in so doing deepen mankind’s understanding and relationship with his world.

01 August, 2016

A Quiet Reminder in a Desperate World

Broadcaster, critic, author & poet Clive James who is terminally ill has written a wonderful new poem - Return of the Kagorah Kid - published in this week's New Statesman magazine. James came from the Sydney suburb of Kagorah but has lived in the UK for most of his life. He is now too ill to return home but hopes that his ashes might be scattered in Sydney Harbour and maybe his poem put on a plaque there.

Clive James
In our desperate, shallow, violent and clamorous world where sound bites, profanities, drivel, text speak and tasteless hyperbole fills our media and the minds of so many we are increasingly becoming unable to discriminate the good and the worthwhile from the dross and the banal. Millions, apparently, think that people like Donald Trump and Boris Johnson are worthy of support to hold great offices of state in their respective nations; untold millions across the world see the acquisition of an i-phone or a Pokemon game as a desirable goal; and yet more millions see a selfie picture or a tattoo as high art. In a world increasingly populated by unthinking, uncaring, dumbed down and trivial Homer Simpson clones hooked on reality TV, Strictly Come Dancing, and the celebrity culture, mankind's awareness of his basic humanity and spiritual dimension are being obliterated from human comprehension; we are in danger of losing our very souls.  James' glorious, simple, and yet profound reflection and use of English is not only a clarion call to us all of the important, worthy and good things of life but a quiet reminder of all that it is to be human:

Return of the Kagorah Kid

Here I began and here I reach the end.
From here my ashes go back to the sea
And take my memories of every friend

And love, and anything still dear to me,
Down to the darkness out of which the sun
Will rise again, this splendour never less:
Fated to be, when all is said, and done,
For others to recall and curse or bless
The way that time runs out but still comes in,

The new tide always ready to begin.

Do the gulls cry in triumph, or distress?
In neither, for they cry because they must,
Not knowing this is glory, unaware
Their time will come to leave it. It is just
That we, who learned to breath the brilliant air,
And first were told that we were made of dust
Here in this city, yet went out across
The globe to find fame, should return one day
To trade our gains against a certain loss –

And sink from sight where once we sailed away.

Clive James

Click on the link to hear Clive James recite his poem:   http://bbc.in/2ail6mj