High Table


The Dining Hall at Christ’s College © Jorge Royan / http://www.royan.com.ar / CC-BY-SA-3.0

One of our students, Anaïs Vittu, went on Wednesday evening to High Table at Christ’s College. Anaïs is roughly half-way through her PhD – she works on bioinformatics in the field of innate immunology – and she was invited by an associate of her boss at the laboratory in Strasburg where she works.

High Table of course is shorthand for dinner – the high table in the dining hall of a Cambridge College, frequently on a dias, is traditionally reserved for the senior college members, while the lower tables are, set orthogonally to high table, occupied by junior members.

There is a long association between scholarship and conviviality – in the case of a Cambridge college, one predicated on a monastic tradition that has become ritualised over the long life of the university. But the experience of High Table (or at any rate the Parlour experience which frequently follows it) also has historical roots in the dissolute gaming culture of the eighteenth century. It is not so long since Fellows of all colleges were known as one-bottle or two-bottle men (always men), reflecting how much port they could put away each night. And the Parlour records of Emmanuel College and Caius College contain meticulous notes of wagers between Fellows on any number of possible outcomes: on November 14th 1796, Mr Williams of Caius College bet Mr Stancliffe a bottle of port that Napoleon Bonaparte ‘is either taken prisoner, or dead at this time’ – the wager was lost, of course, and the debt of wine accordingly ‘posted’ in the college cellars rather than handed over directly. Another Fellow bet that the President ‘does not swim 100 yards within the first three times of bathing in the following season’.

The tradition of High Table is held by some to be in decline. Fellows of colleges now live mostly at home and eat with their families rather than in college, and dinner can be, by all accounts, a nonagenarian experience, retired or life Fellows making up the regulars. Two-bottle men are not held in such high esteem (or perhaps they just die young).

I cannot speak for Anaïs’s experience – I do not think she was expected to drink gallons of port or place bets on the whereabouts of Boney (or Edward Snowden). She did report however that it was an impressive, enjoyable, and above all singular experience.


Lunch in the Garden

I sat in the garden at OISE Cambridge yesterday lunchtime, for the first time in a long time. The garden, pleasant place though it is, has not been on my circuit for some time. I eat my lunch elsewhere, where I can use my laptop as I chew, simultaneously offending the gods of balance and digestion.

But yesterday I sat in the garden because over the weekend it had been spruced up, to great effect. We returned after the weekend to find the back fence and shed painted, with a planting of aliums, foxgloves, geraniums, delphiniums – all either purple or white. It seems that the director, Susan, was personally responsible, coming in on Sunday and getting to work with the paintbrush (although she had a little help with the digging).


photo by Anna Tesar

photo by Anna Tesar

photo by Anna Tesar


Susan’s planting scheme of white and purple flowers against the black of the fence is very much in the manner of the celebrated mosaics of Mrs Mary Delany.

Mary Delany was an amateur botanist and horticulturalist of the eighteenth century who in the last decade and a half of her life produced an extraordinary series of collages (or in her words, Mosaicks) of botanically accurate plants and flowers, made from various sorts of paper, a glorified cut and paste. In each case the background of black card makes a striking contrast with the forms and colours of the flowers.delany-4crudelany-2sdf

The thousand or more designs – notable, as I say, for their accuracy as much as their aesthetic appeal – are kept now for the most part in the British Museum, where a selection are on display in the recently refurbished Enlightenment Gallery. You can be standing in front of them within about 75 minutes of leaving the OISE garden, if you can tear yourself away – train to King’s Cross and one underground stop to Russell Square.


On the Run

The world, it seems, is cheering on Edward Snowden in his flight from the knuckle-draggers of the CIA. He was said to be in Moscow yesterday, en route for somewhere.

Ecuadorean Embassy car at Moscow airport

Ecuadorean Embassy car at Moscow airport

The US authorities are furious with both the Chinese and the Russian authorities, who appear to be acting under guidance from a rarely seen (and, God knows, purely contingent) sense of humour; and are solemnly indignant at the possibility he will avoid US jurisdiction in Cuba of all places (forgetting in their righteous ire how well Guantanamo Bay has served them for precisely the same reasons).

It is to be hoped he will pop up next in Ecuador or Iceland or somewhere equally remote,  relatively free, drinking piña coladas and reading tattered Graham Greene novels.

Escape is an under-valued commodity. We value goals and achievement, sticking to it. But various studies have suggested that smarter and more successful individuals are likely not to persevere at all costs, but rapidly to readjust or abandon goals when they are revealed to be unattainable.

These studies do not go so far as to suggest that there is value in abandoning goals and goal-formation altogether, and neither do I – it would be a troublesome argument to defend. However, it is notable that one of the emergent but strongest benefits of a stay abroad in a language school (to take an example) is not a given quantity of grammar or vocabulary, nor a stipulated ration of practice, but simply a change of air. The mere fact of being away has value, a value which involves a subtle and usually invigorating shift of paradigm. We will not be doing what we imagined we would be doing.Our goals – if we can formulate them as goals – are no longer quite what we thought they would be.

I imagine that Edward Snowden – to return to an extreme case – will not be working in his chosen profession any time soon. He has irrevocably abandoned one career (IT consultant) for another (international pariah) He has bigger things to worry about. But there is no question that the world is better for the sight of him out and running about, so to speak, in the sunshine, an emblem if nothing else of the very freedom which for better or worse he acted  to protect.


Here is the interview Edward Snowden gave in Hong Kong when his identity broke.

Nuclear visit

One of our students, Takahiro Ohya (of French horn fame), made one of the more unusual student trips on Saturday, to Sizewell B nuclear power station on the Suffolk coast.Sizewell_B

Taka’s company (Japan Steel) is a world leader in massive steel founding, one of only four which can produce single-piece pressure vessels for nuclear reactors, and the only one which can produce them unwelded, increasing their tolerances.

One of their vessels is at Sizewell B, Britain’s newest nuclear power station, built and commissioned between 1987 and 1995 (it first started feeding the national grid in February 1995). It is the UK’s only pressurised water reactor.

Takahiro tells me that his journey to Sizewell B was suitably convoluted, beginning with a four-week security clearance process (touchiness about security extends to taking photographs – Taka was made to wipe a couple after he had taken them). On the day itself he had to take a train to Ely, a bus to Saxmundham, and a taxi from there to the power station.

These things are traditionally remote – just a few miles down the coast from Sizewell is the Orford Ness spit, used for all sorts of secret weapons testing during the First, Second World and Cold Wars – it was, for instance, the site of the first tests on what would come to be known as Radar (known at the time as RDF or Radio Direction Finding); subsequently, the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment had a facility on the spit, used for testing the very high explosive initiators for atomic weapons (the so-called pagodas, in which they were tested, are still standing; they were designed to absorb any accidental explosions and vent gases in a controlled manner).


Orford Ness is now a nature reserve, and can be visited, but they don’t make it easy – access is by boat, and only at certain times of the year. Sizewell B is similarly a friend to the animals – Taka was struck both by the vast quantities of sea water ingested by the power station, and by the care taken to filter out and return sea life to the sea. Perhaps they simply don’t want fish swimming around the reactor; or perhaps, like building a visitor centre, looking after the wildlife is just necessary PR.

English class as Chinese room

An interesting short conversation has just been posted on Philosophy Bites with Daniel Dennett, the American cognitive philosopher, in which he discusses a thought experiment invented by another philosopher, John Searle, called the Chinese Room (you can listen to the conversation here).

Searle devised the experiment over thirty years ago to argue that no computer, however sophisticated, could ever be said properly to understand a natural language.Turing_Test_version_3

The experiment goes as follows: Imagine a computer so advanced that it could pass the Turing test and convince an interlocutor that it was human. This particular computer can hold a conversation with a Chinese interlocutor in another room. The Chinese speaker types in a string of questions or remarks, and from the replies is persuaded that he or she is talking to another human being.

Then imagine that a human, an English-speaker with no knowledge of Chinese, replaces the computer. This human, however, has access to the computer manual (written in English) and the code, which enables him or her to perform the same input-output operations as the computer. Continue reading

English wine

One of our students, Christine Dupuis, paid a visit to Chilford Hall vineyard last week – she is hoping to pin down a job in the wine trade in Bordeaux, where she has recently moved. Here are some pictures of her visit, with winemaker Mark Barnes.Christine-Dupuis-at-Chilford-Hall-Estate Christine-Dupuis-with-winemaker-Mark-Barnes-Chilford2Winemaker-Mark-Barnes-with-Christine-at-ChilfordThe English wine industry is not renowned for its extent or, say, the complexity of its reds – the climate is generally too temperate for full development of the best grapes. But it has a long history. It was introduced by the Romans, who produced wine as far north as Lincolnshire, and was widespread through the Middle Ages, when among other things it was in demand as a source of communion wine.

But the English have always looked to Bordeaux (with which there are long-established ties both commercial and dynastic – the Plantagenet kings of England had ancestral lands in Aquitaine) and from the eighteenth century Portugal and Spain for their best wines, fortified or otherwise. The English trade wine, drink wine, but do not really make much wine.

In fact, between the end of the nineteenth century and 1936 there were no vineyards at all in England. In recent years, however, range and quality have both improved, to the extent that an English sparkling wine was named in the top ten sparkling wines worldwide in the Effervescents du Monde (sparkling wines of the world) competition, 2007, beating any number of champagnes out of sight.

It seems that this growth has in part been fuelled by a misplaced optimism in global warming – misplaced, because any such warming is as likely to result in colder or more unstable weather patterns as much as warmer ones. Regardless, we should enjoy what we now have, and Chilford Hall – located near Linton, just a few miles from Cambridge – is by all accounts a good place to start.

Welcome to the North Atlantic

Tomorrow is midsummer’s day, and yet all the talk this year (as last year, and the year before) is of how there has been, will be, no proper summer.snefA conference of meteorologists convened in Exeter has concluded (after a full day’s cudgelling of their brains) that the warming of the Atlantic is to blame: a warmer sea has persuaded the jet stream to settle to the south of the country, rather than to the north. This phenomenon apparently accounts for below average temperatures and above average rainfall in several of the last summers. (You can read more about the conference here).

I don’t for a moment dispute the figures or the conclusion. But it is worth reminding ourselves that British weather does not have a reputation for capriciousness for nothing. As an article in yesterday’s Guardian pointed out, we inhabit an island in the Atlantic storm belt on the same latitude as Siberia – we could do a lot worse.

Here, for example, is the poet William Cooper writing in his journal for 21st June 1784:

“We have now frosty mornings,  and so cold a wind, that even at high noon we have been obliged to break off our walk in the southern side of the garden, and seek shelter, I in the greenhouse, and Mrs Unwin by the fireside. Haymaking begins here tomorrow.”

And here is Katherine Mansfield, writing on the same day in 1918, in Cornwall:

“What is the matter with today? It is thin, white, as lace curtains are white… went for a walk and was caught in the wind and rain. Terribly cold and wretched.”

Poor old Katherine Mansfield. Dr Johnson used to fly into a rage if anyone suggested in his hearing that mood or humour could be affected by the weather, perhaps because he himself was in fact so affected and regarded it as a weakness. We on the other hand are so convinced of the contrary that we have pathologised the condition as seasonal affective disorder. But perhaps in the end we just feel cheated, and those meteorologists were engaged in a public relations exercise, groping for a way to handle expectations which have grown peculiar and demanding, and which will inevitably be thwarted.

Welcome to the North Atlantic.