I've just turned 42. In the year I entered the world, Cambridge-born writer Douglas Adams matriculated at St John's College, Cambridge to read English — a degree which equipped him, or otherwise, to make writing his career.
Adams penned three serials of Doctor Who which this month celebrates the fiftieth anniversary of its first television transmission. Though Oxford University hosts a thriving Doctor Who Society, Oxford has had negligible representation within the stories despite the show's hugely successful revival since 2005, instigated by scriptwriter, producer and Oxford graduate, Russell T Davies. By contrast, in an unaired episode entitled 'Shada', Adams bestowed a fictional Cambridge degree on the eponymous Time Lord (then played by Tom Baker) and was later to introduce Baker's former wife and erstwhile Time Lady Romana, actress Lalla Ward, to her future husband, Oxford scientist Richard Dawkins. The God Delusion (2006), written while Dawkins held Oxford's first Simonyi Professorship Chair for the Public Understanding of Science (from 1995 to 2008) was dedicated to Adams. Eschewing answers, I'm alternately encouraged and burdened by the knowledge that, according to Adams's multi-media, comic science fiction series The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, my years now number "the Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, The Universe, and Everything". Maturing I may be, but I still wouldn't presume.
I share, however, the impression expressed by Oxford educated diplomat Jennifer Cole in answer to the question of what she thinks of Oxford now (a question so brief, and broad, as to merit inclusion in the university's recently published list of sample interview questions for undergraduate entry). Pitting flippancy and sincerity head to head, she finds "there's always somebody who looks as if they've just discovered the meaning of life."
Though it isn't always, let alone even often, the outcome of university education, the point seems to me that it can be. Amongst the clichés attributed to Napoleon is the axiom that ability is nothing without opportunity. Who doubts that a university education can give flight to potential and engender lifelong growth in knowledge and understanding? In the same week as my birthday, the Oxford Union debated the motion that that a university education is a right not a privilege. Against the motion, Barnaby Lenon, Chairman of the Independent Schools Council and a former Head of Harrow School, argued that it was framed, in part, as a response to a post-Second World War mentality that "everyone must win prizes". It's a moot point, but that the motion was defeated by a margin of only 23 votes is an indication of the relevance and value of such debate.
A day later, on 1st November, Afghan President Hamid Karzai addressed the Oxford Union on the state of his nation. As I write, this nation remembers collectively, if not comprehensively, the Armistice and all those since lost in service. Observed or not, it is a day and date that's hard to ignore. Oxford's Quakers have issued a statement, included in the Programme of Service for the city's service on Remembrance Day, about their silent witness in St Giles. Contrast their quiet with the recorded peal (which juxtaposes the tune to 'Yankee Doodle' with 'The Star-Spangled Banner' in an irresistibly uplifting way) that can be heard day in, day out, issuing from the Chapel at Cambridge's American Cemetery, established by the American Battle Monuments Commission in 1956 on land donated by Cambridge University to commemorate nearly 9000 American servicemen.
Meanwhile, some of Cambridge's community of more than 300 Quakers meet in Jesus Lane, next door to the university's ADC theatre where I saw recently a fantastically loud and energetic production of Cambridge graduate Jez Butterworth's modern classic Jerusalem. During the Second War, when Jewish refugees and evacuees outnumbered capacity at the town's synagogue, the Friends' Meeting House in Jesus Lane was quietly placed at their disposal on the Sabbath. Forget prizes: I'm inclined to say this was neither a right nor a privilege, but a resonant, and transcendent, decency.