Above: The thriving Oxford streets in the 1960s
By Richard Lofthouse
Bill Johnson’s memoir of Oxford, Look Back in Laughter, is default reading if you went to Magdalen and delicious for anyone partial to High Table gossip told with pace, wit and grace. It’s full of the irreverent sound of smashing Coke bottles, the Rolling Stones and Procul Harum played at full volume, hideous debts and ill-gotten sports cars that blow up on the hill at High Wycombe, followed by stopped cheques and rowing (I mean shouting, not ‘on the river at 5am’). The author was a student and then Don so you get both sides of the coin. Everyone’s currently rehearsing Charles Moore’s second volume on Margaret Thatcher and the bit about the honorary degree row, but Johnson’s chapter – he was a ring-leader for the anti-Thatchers – makes two very valid points that have been generally lost. The first is that Council had been scarred by Congregation’s chucking out of a proposal to award an honorary degree to President Bhutto of Pakistan a decade earlier. This may explain why they delayed the matter when Mrs T stepped up in 1979. Had they got on with it immediately, no one in Oxford would have blinked. By waiting until she had half destroyed the Higher Education sector they made the matter poisonous. There’s much, much more to be said about this brilliant book, but the humour, if not the lack-lustre cover, more than justifies it.
Above: Margaret Thatcher and her honorary degree row is explored in Look Back in Laughter
Martin McGee (St Benet’s Hall, 1992) a Benedictine monk based at Worth Abbey in Sussex, has published a timely reflection Dialogue of the Heart: Christian-Muslim Stories of Encounter. At the centre of the book is the relationship McGee forged with the two Trappist monks, Fathers Amédée and Jean-Pierre, who survived the kidnapping and subsequent killing of seven of their colleagues at the monastery at Tibhirine in Algeria in 1996. The story won a global audience in the 2010 film Of Gods and Men. You can see why it translated so well into Hollywood. The script is very stark. A materially poor but devout Muslim community has a great deal in common with a materially poor but devout Trappist community. Both are threatened by fanatical violence. Dot dot dot…
McGee’s treatment is much deeper, and the overall quality of the reflection here is very moving. The reader gets to unpick why, and how, the monks felt obliged to stay put out of an unspoken bond to the Muslim community around them, rather than leave. But as a result most of them lost their lives in 1996, although to this day it isn’t known whether they were accidentally killed by the Algerian army, or by the extremist group who kidnapped them.
The monks were confronted with their own ‘martyrdom’, another source of contemplation and irony. But all said and done, locals considered a religious person to be one who “prays, believes in God, fasts and gives to the poor…” Against such clarity, theological abstractions are a curse. At the point of an assault rifle they are an absurdity.
In a strange way, this insight is precisely why the book may appeal to the instinctively non-religious (or anti-theological!). The confessional objectives of the author seem entirely reasonable when positioned against the sorts of fanaticism that gave rise to tragedy of Tibhirine.
Next, we have Glenn Martin’s (Wadham, 1967), slender paperback 7 Successful Stock Market Strategies. Publishers Harriman-House present it as a ‘self-help/get rich’ book – I mean the cover - but the content is very lucid indeed. The author had a long career in the City and rose to Chief Information Officer for various investment banks. His approach to ‘beating the market’ is conveyed with emphatic anti-enthusiasm. Investing is not gambling and there are no silver bullets, he contends. However, he argues, it is possible to value the whole market using a series of data points entered into a spreadsheet. He tells you exactly how to create and maintain that spreadsheet. Currently (by which I mean the FTSE 100 above 6,000) the market is poor value. Martin’s seven strategies range from buy and hold to spread trading that will only appeal to seasoned hands.
For my money, pun intended, you can learn a lot from the book without upending your SIPP strategy. Martin repeatedly makes the point that even the first, simplest strategy (buy a tracker fund and do nothing) will still beat cash hands-down, and not just in an era of low interest rates.
On his website, Martin refers to a similarity between the Nobel-prize winning Black-Scholes formula of valuation, and his own (although they are not the same). Keen readers of Oxford Today will recall that a certain descendant of Black is the librarian of Blackfriars Hall in Oxford, and that he had something to say about his Uncle Black and Myron Scholes.
Finally, and very unfairly given the constraint of space, two further books to consider. The first is another Oxford-on-Oxford book, Social enquiry, social reform and social action: One hundred years of Barnett House. Barnett House, originally near Exeter College, opened in 1914 and eventually became today’s Department of Social Policy and Intervention. This excellent history, written by George Smith (St Edmund Hall, 1960), Elizabeth Peretz (Associate Fellow of the Department) and Teresa Smith (St Hilda’s, 1960), could almost be seen as an indispensible annex of the eight-volume History of the University of Oxford that OUP published a few years ago. It fills a big gap – not least because, as Oxford historian Sir Brian Harrison notes, Oxford deeply influenced British social policy.
Above: Engraved map of the celestial hemispheres by the Venetian Pietro Scattaglia from the late 18th century at Oxford's Museum of the History of Science
Finally, Jim Baggott’s (Jesus, 1978) Origins, a grand narrative, scientific history of 14 billion years of creation, “from the Big Bang to the beginnings of human consciousness.” The author was a chemistry lecturer, turned Shell oil man, turned freelance science writer. This volume, expertly rendered by OUP, is a reminder that independent scholars can turn their hand to grand narratives in ways that over-specialised Dons rarely do any more. Don’t allow that to fool you into thinking that this is short on substance. It’s full of molecular orbitals, dark energy and astrophysics. An incredible achievement.