Capability Brown in Cambridge

“‘Now there’ said he, pointing his finger, ‘I make a comma, and there’ pointing to another spot, ‘where a more decided turn is proper, I make a colon; at another part, where an interruption is desirable to break the view, a parenthesis; now a full stop, and then I begin another subject.’”

Hannah More on Capability Brown (1782)

The Cambridge Backs might have looked very different to their current, meandering jumble. In the 1770s there was a plan to allow the great landscape gardener, Capability Brown (1716-1983), to redesign the whole riverside. His proposals included straightening the river, creating a small lake, removing the bridges, and focussing attention on the Classical Gibbs’ building at King’s College by obliterating the very unclassical gothic and assorted English medievals of the rest with trees.

Lancelot Brown, known almost universally, also in his lifetime, as ‘Capability’ Brown from his habit of telling his aristocratic clientele that their land had ‘capabilities’, was the greatest gardener of his age, although his teacher, William Kent, might have had something to say about that. He developed and extended Kent’s apparent informality, which sought to blend garden with farmlands and rolling champaign beyond in an idealised landscape, not unlike something out of the painting of Claude Lorrain.


Claude Lorrain, Pastoral Landscape with Lake Albano and Castel Gandolfo, 1639 – Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

The plan came to nothing. The Backs remained a picturesque higgeldy-piggeldy of gardens, bridges and odd buildings, just as the architecture of the colleges is an agglomeration of styles from every century between the thirteenth and the twenty-first. Capability Brown might have brought a certain sort of rationality to proceedings, but there are probably enough grazing cows in Cambridge, and if you want to see something by Claude Lorrain, you’ll have to visit the Fitzwilliam Museum.



Cambridge has once again trounced Oxford and all non-American universities in some league table or other of puissant universities (Cambridge came 4th after MIT, Stanford and Harvard; Oxford came a measly sixth). I’m never sure how these tables are compiled, but feel sure that reputation, whether consciously or unconsciously, plays a part. Oxford and Cambridge have been going for a while and have acquired a gravitational mass which outweighs their more tangible endowments.

It might all, however, have been so different. Oxford and Cambridge were founded in the thirteenth centuries, and stood peerless in England for the next six hundred years. Or nearly so. Only one university in England has lost its charter, and that university was also founded in the thirteenth century. The university of Northampton.


Teaching at Paris, late fourteenth century


We do not now think of Northampton as a great seat of learning (the current university of Northampton was founded in 2005), but for a brief period in the 1260s it was highly rated in the league tables of the day, alongside Cambridge (where scholars were now congregating but which did not institute its first college until 1284) and just a smidge behind Paris, Bologna, Padua and Oxford.

It was Oxford, in fact, which oversaw the demise of its midland rival, not without the help of those rivals themselves. Northampton gained its royal charter in 1261, having already attracted such high-powered academics as Geoffrey of Vinsauf and Roger Vacarius, but lost it only four years later when it got tangled up on the wrong side in one of the various Barons’ Wars of the mid-thirteenth century and was effectively relegated to the non-league (which would I suppose in university terms mean generations of inhabitants pottering down to the local lending library of their own accord, which, now that I think of it, pretty much describes my own university education).

The letter from the King to the town announcing the fate of their institution cited the threat to Oxford as the principal cause. Oxford, we can conclude, did not rise to its current heights (sixth!) without a bit of cutthroat politics here and there.



For academics these days, it’s all about Impact!™

Impact is a ‘measure’ of how the work of academics ‘impacts’ on the world beyond their institutions. Popular science books, blogs, lecture tours, and above all broadcasting work, all score highly for impact. An academic who scores low on impact is a poor sort of academic.

This, I suppose, explains events like the Cambridge Festival of Ideas (rather a nice festival, as I have mentioned elsewhere), and the fact that a ‘record number’ of Cambridge fellows will be setting up a tent (not in person, although that would be a sight to behold) at the Hay Festival 2016 (25th May-6th June), presenting aspects of their work and, if they’re lucky, selling a few books.

There is of course nothing wrong with academics considering how what they do will be read in the ‘real’ world (some would argue that the world they inhabit is realer or anyway as real as any other). Universities are to some degree publicly-funded, and they also need to attract private money, and the connection between rather introverted university research departments and industry, say, has always been a tricky one to manage.

But the relevance of research is determined in sometimes very distant outcomes. What someone in a white coat does now may very well not emerge into the ‘real’ world until that person is dead and the coat gone to the moths. It is occasionally prudent just to let people get on with stuff, for years at a time if need be. Who knows where their burrowing will lead them, if they are not obliged to make regular reports at the Hay Festival?

Mountains of Greenland

I read that twenty-eight of the mountains of Greenland are ‘named’ for Cambridge Colleges. A 1963 expedition organised by climbers at St. John’s College pioneered a number of peaks in the Greenland Alps and, in the great but by 1963 rapidly fading tradition of European explorers, named those peaks for the colleges of their alma mater.

I do not know that the names persist, or were ever used in anger. A cursory Googling throws up a lot of Inuit name for mountains in Greenland, and a handful of Danish ones; not a lot of Cambridge colleges.

These things are lost in time. Naming what is, to you, a wilderness, but is, to the people who live there, assuredly not a wilderness, is a futile business.

German explorer Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859), in his voyage to the watershed of the Orinoco and the Amazon and his tracing of the Casiquiare which joins them, followed the river and recorded the position of small missionary stations or trading posts as he went. In May 1800 he and his travelling companions reached Esmeralda, last Christian settlement on the Orinoco. It was little more than a few huts, home to a few natives of the jungle and some missionaries and traders.

Humboldt dutifully marked it on his map. In 1958, two botanists who retraced Humboldt’s route found no trace of the place: it had been sucked back into the jungle, wholly effaced although, as they then noted, it is still to be found on every modern map.

The mountains of Greenland – Trinity College Mountain, Mount Corpus, Mount Sidney Sussex – persist, of course; but I assume the names are gone the way of Esmeralda.


Nobel Rotters

Today marks the beginning of the Cambridge Science Festival. Events will be taking place all over Cambridge between now and 20th March.


Experiment with a Bell Jar – Joseph Wright of Derby

Cambridge is a great centre of World Science – its undergraduates in various fields have won a total of 61 Nobel prizes, more than any other university (although not all of them will be for scientific subjects). It is, however, less well documented, but much attested anecdotally between scientists, that winners of Nobel prizes are often disliked and even detested by their peers. Last week, one of my students, Tatsunori, was telling us about William Bradford Shockley Jr., the leader of the team at Bell Laboratories that invented the transistor in the late 1940s, who went on to be awarded the Nobel prize (with two of his team, John Bardeen and Walter Brattain) in 1956. As Tatsunori related, Shockley subsequently found it difficult to persuade anyone to work with him, owing to his reputation for being an all-round ghastly individual. So generally disliked was he, that when he died in 1989, his children only found out by reading the morning papers.

And it seems to be a pattern. It is not, presumably, that the Nobel prize corrupts its recipients (although it probably does not help them with any narcissism issues they might have), but rather that in order to win one in the first place, not only do you have to do a bit of science, but you have to scratch and claw your way to the front of the pack.

Science is a strongly collaborative practice. Scientists will jointly write papers and conduct research; scientists work in laboratories. But the prize is awarded in the singular (or in the very low single figures). Usually it will be the head of the laboratory, or research project, who receives the prize. And naturally enough, as with most things in life, leadership of the laboratory or research institute will go, not to the best thinker, but to the most rabid self-publicist.

Bedders and Scouts

I hinted yesterday that to some jaundiced observers Oxford and Cambridge appear to be repositories of ancient and irrelevant and perhaps even outmoded practices, and I was thinking in particular of the culture of the bedder (or, as I believe they are known in Oxford, scouts).

A bedder is college slang for a bedmaker, a housekeeper in college responsible for the upkeep of students’ rooms. They empty bins, change bed linen, do a bit of hoovering, that sort of thing. More importantly, they see that the student is still alive after a night of heavy drinking, and perhaps get them out of bed before two o’clock.


…before two o’clock. Memmo di Filippuccio

I have only sketchy memories of having my bed made – perhaps by the time I was at Cambridge they didn’t make your bed any more. I do recall the sound of clanking bins coming along the corridor as a sign of their arrival, and I also remember that if you left your bin outside the door like a sort of do-not-disturb sign, they would leave you in peace.

I suppose in sum it is no more strange than having your room done in a hotel, or, for that matter, staying with a host-mother (a similarly arcane expression) during a language course; and the bedders (like our host-families) are often seen as a first line of defence in pastoral care. You bedder will know if you have not left your room in weeks, or have set up a moonshine still in your gyp-room (a small kitchen), or are running a small business or subversive political campaign.

As for scouts, well, who knows (or cares) what they do?

Benin Bronzes and Bedders

Like pubs and churches and the Queen, Cambridge and Oxford Colleges have accrued a great deal of unwanted, unregarded tat down the years. People give them gifts, they make unwise investments in art, and here and there (unlike pubs, perhaps) they pick up articles of real value.

Such as, for example, the Benin bronze which Jesus College JCR is now keen to repatriate. Benin was a kingdom of West Africa, now subsumed into Nigeria, which had the bad fortune to tangle with the British Empire at the end of the nineteenth century. In amongst the spoils carried off by Her Majesty’s servants were a large number of bronze reliefs (actually made of brass, not bronze) and sculptures created by the Edo people from the thirteenth century through to the seventeenth, and decorating the halls of the Kings of Benin.


Benin ‘bronze’, British Museum (photo: Michel Wal)

The Bronzes are now dispersed among the great museums of the world (by which I mostly mean the British Museum). And Jesus College, for some reason, has one, a bronze in the form of a cockerel. The students there have now voted to have the piece repatriated, in much the same way that students in Oxford have been pressurising Oriel College to remove the statue of noted Imperialist and enthusiastic exponent of apartheid, Sir Cecil Rhodes.

Perhaps they have a point. It is a complex argument. One argument against is that the Benin Bronzes, like the Elgin Marbles and the statue of Sir Rhodes, is just one end of a very complex thread; pulling on it will lead who knows where. We might even, heaven forfend, see the end of such cherished institutions as bedders and scouts (more on them tomorrow) and the rest of the cultural baggage that seems to persist in Oxford and Cambridge as the world roars by outside.

There are those who would go so far as to include in that category the Cambridge MA, although that’s quite a different thing altogether.