Keep off the Grass

Today we have a guest post from a former teacher at OISE Cambridge, Dr. Corinna Russell, now of Emmanuel College, Cambridge.

keep off the grassI am, on the whole, rather sorry that the first thing most visitors will see as they walk into my College is a sign telling them to ‘Keep Off the Grass’. I can’t apologise on behalf of the College in any official capacity, though I have been a Fellow and Lecturer in English Literature at Emmanuel College for the past eleven years. What I can say, though, is that we genuinely don’t wish to be inhospitable or bossy to our guests: we just really, really, love that patch of grass.

Domestic gardens, municipal parks, tennis courts, football grounds and cricket pitches have their place in the sacred geography of the English mind, but the front court lawn of a Cambridge College is a peculiar category of holy ground. It belongs to nobody in particular, and is used by no one in particular: its function is to be cultivated and maintained in a state of emptiness. It is there to be kept off of. Just as you can end a sentence with two prepositions if you’re a Cambridge English don, you are, theoretically, entitled to walk across the grass if you’re a Fellow of the College. The truth about both these licences, however, is that people will think a little less of you for exercising them.

I do have colleagues who walk across the grass in Front Court, on their way from their teaching rooms to lunch in the Hall. I can only assume they’re hungry, because only the call of the celery soup could drown out the inner voice that tells the British Middle Classes not to Show Off. What is more striking, perhaps, is how few Fellows of the College make full use of their privileges in this area. I don’t think I’ve ever seen the Senior Tutor on the grass except at General Admissions, when students graduate and their families are invited to an informal lunch on the lawn. The former Master did once encourage me to join him in cutting directly across the Court: ‘You’re entitled’, he said, courteously, but I think he just wanted company in his transgression.

There may be reasons, other than diffidence, for Keeping Off the Grass. The empty green square we protect with such politeness may be the opposite of what land managers, and philosophers of space like Gaston Bachelard, call ‘desire paths’, or ‘desire lines’. A desire path is carved out by tramping feet taking the most convenient or desirable route, regardless of the pavements, crossings or tracks laid out by city councils and other official bodies. I use a desire path every day on my trip to lunch, across another, freely traversable piece of College grass, called the Paddock. A newly laid path of paving stones from a gate to the Paddock lies side by side with a worn, muddy track, mimicking the trajectory of the official path, but more conveniently, and pleasingly, aligned with the contours of the lawn and the archway through which most people wish to pass. It has suited most people walking that way to trace and retrace the line of their choice, until the grass is first trampled, then balding, then reduced to bare earth.Paddock

The only lines traversing the grass on Front Court are the variegated dark and light green stripes left by the gardeners as they mow the surface. We still call these lines ‘swathes’, from the Old English word for a track, or for the span of a scythe mowing down grass for pasture. There’s been a long association in Western literature between grass, mowing, and mortality. We have frequently figured death as a Reaper, scythe in hand, perhaps mindful of the beautiful lines from Psalm 103, used in the Anglican Office for the Burial of the Dead:

15 As for man, his days are as grass: as a flower of the field, so he flourisheth.

16 For the wind passeth over it, and it is gone; and the place thereof shall know it no more.

If, by sternly guarding the grass, the College can be seen to resist or proscribe the natural desires of people to walk directly across the Court, perhaps we are also protecting a space where the grass is not so ephemeral as in the lines of the Psalm. It is artificially maintained in the blade, rather than the flower, so it doesn’t appear to be part of the same cycle of life and death as it would in a natural state; similarly, the attritional loss caused by foot traffic is Kept Off, maintaining the Court as a place symbolic of what seventeenth-century scholars called ‘the intertraffic of the mind’. Generations of students come and go, Fellows are elected and fall into decrepitude, but the thinking space remains.


Last Chance to See…

iCharles_Darwin_-_Jan_VilímekThe Cambridge University Museum of Zoology, which holds a permanent collection that includes a large proportion of the collections of naturalia made by Charles Darwin, is about to close for major refurbishments for an estimated two and a half years.

Darwin embarked as naturalist on the H.M.S Beagle in December 1831, and in the course of nearly five years took in wide tracts of South America, returning via the Galapagos islands, Tahiti and Australia. It was in the Galapagos islands that he assembled his collection of eight finches, which have since become the emblem of adaptive radiation. Also on display are the bones of a rhea named after him (the rhea darwinii), his megatherium and glyptodon fossil remains, the beetles he collected as an undergraduate at Christ’s College, Cambridge, and the barnacle slides with which he proved his credentials as a professional zoologist rather than as a mere naturalist.

The museum will be closing its doors from Monday 3rd June. Don’t miss the opportunity to visit if you are in Cambridge – entrance is free, and the museum is open between 1000 and 1645 Monday to Friday, and 1100 to 1600 on Saturday.

Supper Clubs in Cambridge

Contrary to expectations, given the poor reputation of British cuisine, (and in spite of the reputation for opulence of ‘high table’ at the Cambridge Colleges) Cambridge has some pretty good restaurants, including a couple with Michelin stars (the two-star Midsummer House, and the one star Alimentum).

However, reflecting the ever increasing interest in gastronomy, there are also a number of burgeoning supper clubs in Cambridge, among them Plate Lickers Anonymous.

A supper club is a sort of ad hoc restaurant with a fixed menu. You buy a ticket and are told where the club night will be held. You may be asked to bring your own alcohol. Socialising with fellow diners is part of the attraction, so for language learners there’s a double bonus.

Alternatively, Cambridge Food Tours offers a foodie’s guide to Cambridge, ranging from speciality shops to restaurants and supper clubs.

Let someone in the office know if you are interested in attending any of the supper clubs or food tours, or book directly by email (there is a link on the homepage).

Applying for a job at MI6

This week’s project at OISE Cambridge is a job interview with an ideal employer, and some students have chosen to interview for a job with MI6.

I do not know if MI6 now advertises available jobs like any other employer. It certainly did not used to. Along with its counterpart, MI5, it used to be such a secretive organisation that the government did not openly admit its existence. Since the 1980s, however, it has taken a much higher profile. The head of MI6 is now a public figure, and the headquarters are large and conspicuous building opposite Tate Britain at the end of Vauxhall Bridge.MI6

Recruitment used to be as covert as its operations and profile. Individuals were informally canvassed, often while at university or in the armed forces, by so-called ‘talent spotters’ – university dons, for example. It was the same the other way around – the KGB recruited British spies while at university, most famously the so-called Cambridge Five. Continue reading

Into the Valley

I’m reblogging this, mostly because I enjoyed it so much – thanks Jon – but partly because when I watched it I had just been trying to get my oldest to do his writing homework (he’s six), and remembering what doing writing homework at that age (and older) is like: an exercise, for the most part, in squeezing out enough sentences. In covering enough of the page. It is – or can be – eye-wateringly boring. And then you have to remember to do capital letters.

My six-year-old is incapable of writing more than two or three words with finding something to distract him. And yet he is great at writing – he spends many contented hours writing his own cartoons, newspapers, endlessly annotated drawings; the house is littered (literally) with evidence of his happiness and capability with writing; and yet getting him to write four sentences for homework was a Herculean labour.

Ken Robinson’s talk throws a lot of light on this experience. There’s also this brilliant animation of another short talk which Robinson gives on the same subject. He’s particularly trenchant on what he calls the false ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) epidemic in the USA and its correlation with standardised testing. I also like his description of schoolwork as low-grade clerical work.

No Umbrellas at John Lewis

One of our students, Iraida Petriashvili from Moscow, tells me that she wanted to buy an umbrella over the weekend, but couldn’t find one. Naturally, I asked her if she had tried John Lewis, and she said yes, that was the only shop she had tried. And I don’t know if I was more surprised that she couldn’t find an umbrella in John Lewis, or that I couldn’t think of any other shop in Cambridge she might have got one (although I suppose there must be many).John_Lewis,_Cambridge,_England_-_IMG_0619

John Lewis is a bit of a fixture – a department store in a small town always is. It used to be called Robert Sayle, and was a sprawling ramshackle shop that had clearly been put together from many other shops over many years, but a few years ago it had a major renovation and refit, and re-emerged as the cornerstone of a new shopping arcade (called, I think , The Arcade) just opposite Emmanuel College.

Robert Sayle always was John Lewis – the John Lewis partnership is a group of department stores and supermarkets, some of which share the name and others of which do not (Peter Jones on Sloane Square in London, for instance, and Waitrose). The group has an unusual ownership structure: it is a full partnership belonging to all employees, who take a share of the profits each year in proportion to their status and longevity.

It is reasonable to assume, therefore, that the staff care a great deal about their shop. I worked for John Lewis for a couple of months when I was 18 years old (at the store on Oxford Street in London, and not as a partner, of course). I remember that the staff were devoted to their shop (or at any rate to their bonuses), and that they addressed each other Partner (good morning Partner!), which I found a little bit cultish.

For many years John Lewis did not advertise but relied on word-of-mouth endorsements (again, a touch zealous, but refreshing in its way). They do advertise now, but they continue to use their original slogan never knowingly undersold – guaranteeing the lowest price on various objects within a certain geographical radius, a promise maintained in my day by the partners themselves, who would supplement their wages by noting prices in competitors’ stores in their off-hours.

I find it hard to believe that John Lewis does not stock umbrellas – if they do not, perhaps it is because they know there will be no more rain this summer. Let us hope for the best.