Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Oxford Reunion

Jesus College, Oxford: my old room was on the ground floor in the corner

This weekend past Joan and I attended a “North American Oxford Reunion” at the Waldorf Astoria hotel in New York. It is not without its irony that I have in fact become pretty enthusiastic reunioneer, since I spent the first three decades of my professional career making light of the annual Princeton class reunions. The Princeton reunions, which take place just before Commencement each year, are famous for their exuberance, and especially for the wackiness of the “P-rade”, the hours-long parade of the costumed alumni in their chronological phalanxes.

For many years we lived at the very edge of the campus, in a vast Victorian house that had belonged to the Class of 1914. One eminence of that class was Allen Dulles, an early head of the CIA, and legend has it that during reunions he would erect a temporary radio tower in the back yard of 39 University Place to facilitate the execution of his spooky duties. By the time we moved in, the classmates were nearly sixty years out and too thin on the ground to make use of the house; but its sprawling basement was full of poignant memorials. They included a half dozen maple wood tables of a rathskeller sort, and a luxurious twenty-foot mahogany bar with brass railing. There was one very moving trophy: a huge photograph, probably five feet across, of the youthful class gathered before Nassau Hall in June, 1914. How many of them would be claimed by the great slaughter announced by the guns of August only two months later?

The world of Princeton reunions seemed fascinating to me, but also anthropologically distanced. In fact, I thought it was fairly ridiculous. Then two things happened. I became active in APGA (the Association of Princeton Graduate Alumni), and for the Centenary of the Graduate School in 2000-2001 the graduate alumni themselves started getting serious about participating in the P-rade. Shortly thereafter (2004) I attended the fiftieth reunion of my high school class in Mount Pleasant, Texas, and then (2008) my fiftieth class reunion at Sewanee. Both of these were terrific events, and I emerged from them a convert. Thus “fools who came to scoff, remain’d to pray,” as Goldsmith says in a slightly different context.

The venue for the reunion: the Waldorf Astoria

The Oxford North American Reunion is a very classy affair, and it is appropriately located in the Waldorf Astoria in New York. For me this has a private significance. My parents, neither of whom ever saw New York, were nonetheless sufficiently aware of its fabled luxuries that they regularly referred to the outdoor privy as “the Waldorf”.

The Waldorf, Baxter County, Arkansas

We ourselves are now half a century away from our undergraduate days in Oxford and could hardly expect to run into many—or any—of our contemporaries. But we did have a chance to meet and talk at some length with the “new” heads of our two colleges. The current principal of Jesus College is Lord Krebs, an eminent civil servant, and about as cool and unhaughty a peer as one is likely ever to encounter. Joan’s college, St. Anne’s, an all-girls band in her day, is now headed by one of Britain’s great journalism experts, Tim Gardam.

The British universities have been going through a bad patch. So far as the two ancient universities go—I mean of course Oxford and Cambridge—there has been a particularly bruising confrontation of ancient evolution and contemporary fiscal challenge. There is unquestionably a process of “Americanization” going on, but I had just about concluded that the Brits seemed to be adopting all the worst aspects of the American academic model and none of our best ones. If such things interest you, you will probably want to search out the recent essay in the New York Review of Books by my colleague and friend Anthony Grafton. It’s entitled “Britain: The Disgrace of the Universities.” In this context the reunion proved very reassuring. The Oxford presented by the reunion struck me as confident and energetic, its spiritual eye fixed on the challenges of the future rather than the hoary comforts of the past.

Perhaps as many as a third of the Oxford faculty and administrators whose names had been printed in the program were unable to travel, victims of the abrasive clouds of Icelandic volcanic ash. This meant that those who had escaped in time had to do double duty. One such was the new Vice-Chancellor, Andrew Hamilton. He pretty well typifies the new Oxford outlook. He is a distinguished chemist, British born, but with a rich experience in North American institutions, most recently as provost of Yale. He was very impressive, though in one respect rather annoying to a Princetonian. I heard him in two venues, and in both he did go on and on about how Oxford had just successfully lured Andrew Wiles, who may be the most famous of living mathematicians, back to his native England. This would be Sir Andrew John Wiles, KBE, FRS, the guy who solved Fermat's last theorem. The annoying part, of course, is that the place he lured him from is Princeton. Yes, I know, this guy proved Fermat’s last theorem. But remember—mathematicians are over the hill by age twenty-three.

The new V-C against the Dreaming Spires