From the postbag

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The big junket

April 2014

Your account of Blücher’s visit to Oxford (Trinity 2014) offered a highly amusing portrait of Regency England and also evoked a personal association stemming from my time as an undergraduate in Modern Languages. In 1963–4 I took a year out to teach as an English assistant at a German Gymnasium in the town of Lippstadt, Westphalia. There I lodged with the family of a Lutheran minister, a dispossessed nobleman by the name of Graf von der Schulenburg, whose family was implicated in the plot against Hitler. His countess turned parson’s wife was a member of the Blücher family. As refugees from the Russian occupation at the end of World War II, the Schulenburgs had managed to bring with them a few treasured artefacts from their mansion, including a portrait of the illustrious Fürst Blücher von Wahlstatt, which hung incongruously on the wall in their modest new home.

My landlady spoke with pride of her family connection but did not, as I recall, mention the behavioural and mental excesses noted in your article! A few years ago I self-published a translation of this lady’s memoirs which contain a chapter on the Blücher family. During my follow-up research I discovered more about the Marshall’s immense popularity in England, including the fact that George Stephenson named a locomotive after him and that there was in fact a ‘Blücher boot’, which rivalled the species of footwear named after his ally the Duke of Wellington. If the former had prevailed no doubt we would now be talking of taking our ‘bluchies’ with us on inclement days.

On an unrelated topic, but one which has also come up in a recent edition of Oxford Today (‘Rendezvous with death’, Michaelmas 2013), Countess Schulenburg (geborene von Blücher) brought me the news of the assassination of President Kennedy and remained convinced that the Russians were behind it!

Norman Diffey

Queen’s, 1961


The rise of lab-lit

May 2014

As I read Dr Maxwell’s article about laboratory literature (Trinity 2014) I was disappointed not to see reference to a couple of very old friends. I was assigned in my science-oriented high school to read Sinclair Lewis’s Pulitzer-awarded 1925 novel Arrowsmith (Harcourt, Brace & Co). The anonymous writer of a Wikipedia article on this book says, ‘Arrowsmith is arguably the earliest major novel to deal with the culture of science.’ Although required to read and comment on it, I found it tragically compelling. And then, while in college, I read voluntarily CP Snow’s The Affair, a 1960 (MacMillan) member of his Strangers and Brothers series. Although the series was structured around the human conflict as seen in an Oxbridge college, the main plot device in The Affair was an investigation into alleged scientific fraud. Timely then and timely now.

LW Saperstein

Queen’s, 1964

Michaelmas 2013

September 2014

This issue was, to my mind, the best ever.

Women at Oxford never received such good coverage before, with Margaret Thatcher, Barbara Pym, and Jennifer Cole featured. Now, if we only had more than one woman out of ten musicians in ‘The sound of changing music’; Elizabeth Eva Leaches was sort of lonely there.

Men at Oxford received a brilliant linking together of disparate individuals in ‘Rendezvous with death’, on the deaths on the same day of Aldous Huxley, CS Lewis, and JF Kennedy. I think Oxford Today does the same thing in every issue, bringing disparate topics together in a single issue. ‘Eye of the beholder’ on Oxford architecture and ‘Varsity wine-tasting’ may well bring more letters to the editor than all the ones which particularly attracted the attention of an English Language and Literature student.

John Willoughby

Wadham, 1952

Get it right

April 2014

I’m a bit late with catching up on reading Oxford Today, but I wanted to let you know that I was surprised to read in the Michaelmas issue 2013 that ‘a weather vane shows a member of the college peddling a bicycle’ (p 55). I’m used to such confusion in less erudite publications — but in OT? I’m disappointed.

Angus Johnson

Christ Church, 1976


May 2014

According to the second paragraph of the very interesting article ‘The big junket’ (Trinity 2014), the great dinner occurred 13 June 1814. How then can the day after, when ‘there was more to come’, (p 40) have been Wednesday 15 May?

Lester O’Shea

Pembroke, 1959

Class of 2012

May 2014

I read Tom Doak’s letter (Trinity 2014) in ‘Class of 2012’ and can completely support his views on the lectures and tutorials in Modern Languages. I read Classical Honour Mods in 1957/8 and had excellent lecturers and a great tutor at Jesus, John Griffith, who later became Emeritus Professor of Latin. I then transferred to read Russian, and both the syllabus (which included etymology, phonology, etc.) and the lecturers were awful. There was a shortage of transcripts from the Cyrillic bible, Dr Unbegaun was a distinguished but uninspiring lecturer and the majority of the tutors — scattered at various homes in the Oxford area to which I had to travel — were more interested in writing books on aspects of Slavonic language and literature than inspiring their students. It was with an enormous sense of relief that I escaped with a decent degree into the working world.

Jack Jagger

Jesus, 1957

Tutes and tech

August 2014

I was at BNC from 1953 to 1958, and I read Classical Greats, with Maurice Platnauer as my tutor, a fine experience. In your last issue (Trinity 2014) I read three versions of My Tech Diary. Here is my own version:

6am. I rose (in digs in Juxon Street — I was in college for my first two years). 1–1½hours of work (prose, essay or text) followed by breakfast.

8am. Breakfast & cycled to BNC.

8.30-9.30am. In college JCR. I read Daily Telegraph and Racing Post (occasionally followed by a visit to 30 George Street – my bookmaker, Fred Bailey)

10–11am. Usually work in the BNC library or in the Sheldonian, or early lecture.

11am–1pm. I cycled to lectures

1–1.30pm. Lunch — usually in college hall

2–4pm. Athletics training. In winter for cross-country (we won Cuppers for 3 successive years — Olympic athlete Ian Boyd was our captain). In summer for athletics at Iffley Road. My coach was Franz Stampf, the coach of Emil Zátopek, Roger Bannister, my orienteering friend Chris Brasher and Christopher Chataway.

4–5pm. ‘Recovery’ — usually tea and dripping toast in Oxford Market!

5pm–7pm. Work usually in college or the Sheldonian

7pm–8pm. Dinner — either college, where I read grace in my turn and enjoyed beer our silver tankard; or in the Stowaway café (south of the High Street).

8–9pm. With friends in Turf, Turl, King’s Arms, Bird & Baby or Gardener’s Arms (max. 2 pints).

9–12am. Work in Sheldonian.

12–1am or later. Further work at Juxon Street.

Once a week I enjoyed a cello lesson in Norham Gardens; and once or twice a week rehearsals with the Oxford Bach Choir (B Minor Mass and Judas Maccabeus) instead of the pub. About every month I went to Snowdonia to climb with friends for a weekend, and in the long vacations mountaineering with our Oxford University Mountaineering Club in the Alps and elsewhere. I also enjoyed concerts (especially under Sir Thomas Beauchamp) and occasionally films (I remember The Wages of War, Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday, and we all liked Brigitte Bardot!).

I cannot help thinking that in some ways our lives were more interesting. Your three writers make no mention of music or sports, and their lives are much taken up with emails and their computers — necessarily I realise. I achieved a good ‘Second’, and enjoyed myself immensely.

Ted Norrish

Brasenose, 1953


All images by Sebastien Wiertz via Flickr under Creative Commons licence.


By Alexandra Stara

Sir, I am in complete agreement with you criticism of the lazy cultural relativism and flabby so-called tolerance that we experience today, which is patronising and ultimately destructive to everyone, including the people it purports to support. By dumbing down something, you do not make it more 'open' or 'democratic' or 'accessible', you kill it and defeat the purpose. Our culture and education should aspire to educate everyone properly so they are able to enjoy or at least understand and have an informed opinion on opera, though they may ultimately still dislike it, not to diminish or destroy opera because not enough people get it. It is exactly the same as with education, higher and otherwise, where the lowest common denominator prevails and thus destroys the possibility of anyone actually improving themselves, including, I repeat, those unfairly disadvantaged for whom, allegedly, such 'anti-elitist' measures are taken. Give everyone the chance to get higher, don't lower the 'higher' so everyone has an illusion of having got there!

I disagree however, with your use of the terms 'sacred' and 'off-limits' in this short text (though I do look forward to reading your book to understand your argument better). What I believe is at stake is achievable standards through aspiration and commitment, while these terms are prohibitive of such. Nothing in the field I believe we are discussing here should be 'off-limits', which suggests that something is axiomatically right and cannot be criticised or rethought. Such suggestions, I fear, are what have got people rebelling and going to the other extreme. My view is that we should be arguing for discrimination based on value, which is not a matter of mere opinion or whim, but something accessed through education in the broadest sense, as cultivation. This would mean that everyone could, potentially, question or re-intepret the meaning or relevance of this or that piece of art (so nothing 'off limits' or 'sacred'), but they should not be welcome to do so from a position of ignorance or to pander to ignorance, as is the case at the moment, in the name of some narrow-minded political agenda or an ill-conceived sense of 'widening participation'. If you want the latter, give people who have never been before tickets to a classical concert, don't 'pimp' the concert with pop songs. And teach children at school what culture really means, whether it is about the piano, the gamelan or the sitar.

By Leonard Atherton

It is good to see this note from Angus Kennedy.
For art music to survive (and to be understood), I feel that the term 'classical music' needs to be only used in conjunction with the art music of the Classical Period.
Entertainment music should be stated as such and people should be aware of the definition of entertainment.
Within the 'world music' scene, there is much 'new music', some of which is artistic and some is decidedly for entertainment. Music is a very flexible communication tool.
An art experience should be different (not 'better' or 'worse') than one of entertainment. We need both in our lives but if we do not understand what constitutes a valid work of art, we are likely to miss the reception the composer (or other artist) intended. By entertainment ads misleading potential new listeners with such unfortunate examples as 'out-of-tune' glass shattering sopranos as representing art music is not encouraging.
May Kennedy's words be heeded and put into practice............ starting with the young.

By Stephen Fisk

I probably ought to read Kennedy's book before making this comment, but I want to suggest a couple of distinctions may be relevant.

For one thing we need to separate public and personal discrimination. Kennedy may be right that the task of the art critic has changed and can now only be pursued with a lot less confidence. The art critic's role is to present views characterised by a degree of expertise, and on the whole we no longer seek such guidance. But perhaps we still form our own opinions about the quality of art. OK, books and symphonic music can be downloaded at the click of a button, but we make our own choices about which items to click on. Presumably some form of judgement affects those choices. I am one of those, mentioned in passing by Alexandra Stara, who do not like opera. To me it is a strange mix of second rate music and third rate drama. I prefer to spend an hour or two listening to the songs and chamber music of Schubert. But I accept this may not be a popular view.

My second distinction is between opinions that are held in a way that is understood by the person holding them and opinions that guide our preferences and actions while remaining largely unconscious. It is possible that the appreciation of art and music is enhanced when we can articulated our opinions in words, but on the other hand perhaps we enjoy them more when we become so immersed in them that we suspend thoughts and judgements. My internet research objective for the next day or two will be to look for evidence on this issue.

By Jonathan Chiswe...

It is about time the child among us cries out to the emperor:"Why aren't you wearing any clothes?". For too long an uncomprehending public have had all kinds of rubbish foisted upon us in the name of art. And since the 'experts' who manage publicly funded galleries have given their blessing to whatever is most disturbing of all we have been taught to admire, we have felt powerless to object. Perhaps the tide is beginning to turn. Clearly it is hard to define the limits of art. But if we simply give up the attempt, and agree that anything and everything can be labeled art, we collude in its destruction. Because without limits, we are left at the mercy of those with a vested interest in pushing whatever is new, or shocking, or outrageous, to persuade us to take it seriously. To abandon all standards is not to be open minded, only weak minded. I think the art establishment are usually wrong in this regard. They were wrong in judging the Impressionists, and now, they are making the opposite mistake for fear of being seen as reactionary and have got it wrong again. When the establishment becomes the avant guard, there is little left for artists to react against except all that was once held sacred, or of value. Is this the artistic expression of a culture in its death throes?

By Yair Meshoulam

Very interesting debate, You can watch a 10 minite video to see what I think the function of art is.
Yair Meshoulam SEH 1982-85, RCA 1986-88

By Michelle Walker

"The triumph of multi-culturalism too means the art, literature and music of so many more civilisations than Western Europe are readily accessible and often elevated to the same level."

How outrageous that the culture of Persia, Arabia or the Andes might be 'elevated to the same level' as the culture of Western Europe. How outrageous that casual racism might masquerade as intelligent thinking.

"For the arts to survive they need to maintain a sense of being apart, of being to some degree off limits."

This sentence in and of itself has to be the most foolish, most misguided, most ill-informed attempt at articulating a valid opinion about the survival of the arts I have ever come across.

I am deeply saddened at how gravely Mr Kennedy's thinking undermines and devalues the very culture he claims to love and am surprised (ashamed) that Oxford Today feels his is the kind of thinking with which it wishes to associate itself and, by extension, the alumni community of Oxford.

Elitist? Us?

By Subarno Chattarji

I haven't read your book, Mr Kennedy, but your brief statement above is troubling. It is, as Michelle Walker points out, elitist and casually racist in its assumption that 'multiculturalism' is the cause of the indiscriminate expansion and availability of cultural products which are quite obviously not up to the mark as per certain Western civilizational standards: your phrase 'often elevated to the same level' is a dead give-away. That your argument is underpinned by an exclusive notion of culture is made clear when you write: 'It can seem that we have become alienated to the beauty of our cultural tradition — decrying it as snobbish, rarefied and elitist, if not imperialist — and, in our rush to bring high culture down to earth, we have jettisoned any sense of it being ‘off limits’.' 'The beauty of our cultural tradition' as you argue is an European one and while that is a beautiful, rich, and intensely complex tradition which I admire greatly, it seems to me problematic that you wish to exclude class and empire from the making and history and comprehension of the tradition. Cultural essentialism and exclusivism are deeply problematic but, I suppose, from your point of view until one recovers that elite cultural domain one will be left to deal with the inferior works created by multicultural societies. I live in a non-European multicultural society and am grateful that I have access to the finest in my cultures as well as of the world both in real and virtual realms. I have no wish to recover, as some of my fellow citizens do, a clean, original, beautiful tradition as opposed to the cacophony and trash that is available. It might be better to leave discrimination to the individual than to have cultural czars tell the uncultured what is good for them.

By William Clark

Ms Walker, as I read Mr Kennedy his description of multi-culturalism as a "triumph" is sincere. Far from casual racism, his view is that the (welcome) availability of art from various cultures brings with it a greater challenge for criticism: good criticism now requires both depth *and breadth* of knowledge, which generally speaking we have been too lazy to acquire. The result—according to his view—is a lack of discrimination which brings the troubles discussed by Mr Kennedy, and it could even be argued that this fails to show these various cultures the respect they deserve by refusing to accept they have any genuine standards of "taste, discrimination, beauty and truth".

By S Lancelyn Green

For me the enjoyment of an artistic offering is provided by the skill of its creator in producing something that is cleverly constructed, and perfectly executed, whether this be in words, as in a play, book, or poem, or in music, choral composition, or artistic composition and brushwork. In all the performing arts the skills of the performer must be good enough to convey the intended experience, and of course some level of discrimination is required to establish whether these qualities are present. Even if all these aspects are right, however, there is still the need for the art to affect us and move us. This is surely at the heart of the matter, and although not all art will ever have the same effect on everyone, it is surely the case that the better educated we are in the field of the arts the more we stand to gain from them. Just my opinion, and by the way Opera is wonderful, but so is Schubert, as are a few well chosen words by Shaw or Shakespeare, if delivered with taste, discrimination, beauty, and truth.