April 30, 2011

How Many British Royals Have A Degree?

I was given to ask this question yesterday when I remembered that the Duke of Cambridge’s last title will forever be ‘MA’. Such a fuss was made years ago when Prince William opted for St. Andrews that anyone might have been forgiven for thinking he had broken with sacred tradition in snubbing Cambridge. In truth, William was probably the first to go to University according to merit (in the Blairite sense). Military careers have been more the norm for the British monarchy, not known for its intellectual nous, and in fact the royal degree remains a rare bird indeed.

Only six of the royal family ever have earned a degree. You can find out quite easily that Charles, current Prince of Wales, was the third ever royal to gain a degree, with a 2:2 from Trinity, Cambridge in 1970. Working out who the two before him were has proven challenging. Edward VII, then the Prince of Wales, seems to have been the first to attend university, most notably studying history with Charles Kingsley at Trinity, Cambridge, but he didn’t graduate. That takes us down to the 1860s already. Queen Victoria’s eighth child, the Prince Leopold (Duke of Albany) went to Christ Church, Oxford, and left with an honorary Doctorate in Civil Law in 1876. Does that count? The second would then have been Prince Richard, the Duke of Gloucester, who has a BA in Architecture from Magdalene, Cambridge (1966).

Prince Richard, the bright spark in the Royal Family

More recently, Prince Edward, current Earl of Wessex has a degree in History from Jesus, Cambridge (1986, after some controversy about his rather unmeritorious admission); Peter Phillips, who often gets forgotten because his mother didn’t want them to have royal titles, has a BA in Sports Science from Exeter (his sister Zara also went to Exeter, but I’m not sure her physiotherapy qualification is a degree); and then there’s William, with his Geography MA from St. Andrews. Beatrice (Goldsmiths, 2011) and Eugenie (Newcastle, 2012) will follow along soon, all being well. And I suppose we must now count the Duchess of Cambridge as number seven?

My interest here is purely academic, as it were, but I’d be grateful to anyone who could correct any of this, or provide further information.

April 22, 2011

Uncertainty; or, Paddle Your Own Canoe!

Faithful followers, forgive my absence. England made me ill, as usual, and the last few days back in Berlin have been consumed with filling in blanks. Every year around this time the plans for the next year emerge all at once. Until this week, I knew not where I would be come September. It transpires that I shall remain in Berlin another year, which is really not such a bad thing. Memories of winter bleakness are fading quickly among the blossoms.

I’m not sure there is anything more difficult for a man than uncertainty. One tries to stride forth manfully, but one risks looking a fool, at best, when one marches headlong into a crevasse. Knowing where one is going is key, even if one only has a rough bearing, but sometimes it seems as if one must wait for outside forces to determine the direction. Here I usually turn to Baden-Powell.

‘Paddle your own canoe!’, sayeth Sir Robert, and we heartily concur. The river flows this way and that, and will take us where it will if we let it. Should we sit back and wait for fate, the river will crash us over falls and dash us against rocks, drown us in maelstroms, and strand us on unfriendly shores. We cannot help the river’s current, but we can negotiate it with tenacity, strength and skill. Paddle the bloody craft, and set course. When faced with uncertainty, one must take control of what one can. Specifics may remain hazy – geography, job, and so forth – but this haziness does not prevent one from keeping a firm grip on one’s oar, one’s purpose.

If anyone needs me, I’ll be on the Spree, paddling my own canoe.

April 15, 2011

Freedom to Think in England

Being in England, and being in England amongst English academics, one cannot escape thinking about thinking, even though there is no time here to think about anything. What’s happening here in the academic arena will do truly appalling damage to the intellectual life of the country in both the short and long terms, and with consequences that threaten to go far beyond academic life.

Of course, one man’s appalling damage is another man’s political expediency, and one might argue about policy until cows are extinct. But, and here is the rub, one might only engage in this endless argument – and argument is in itself worthwhile – if one has the space, time, money and freedom to stage it. Argument comes, or should come at any rate, after thought. Critical debate is contingent upon critical thinking. Leaping takes place after looking, etc. What seems to be happening to scholarly life here is the rapid removal of all the prior conditions. Work is demanded without the necessary time to think about what work ought to be done. The solution to that problem is the provision of all the thought in pre-packaged governmental notions of what constitutes importance in the realm of ideas, projects and outcomes. Party policy is supplanting liberal thinking; rhetorical big ideas are being deployed to prevent the emergence of real ideas; research agendas are being set a priori, instead of being formed through research itself. And just in case anybody has other ideas about how to proceed, the money required to fund research is now being directed at only those scholars who are prepared to toe the line. Want funding? Do what the government wants (or think how the government wants you to think).

Tell any American professor in the humanities that you’re an English academic and they will roll their eyes, sucking air sharply over their teeth as if they were builders and you’d just asked them for a quote. This is not to say that American academia is by any means a perfect model, but England is the laughing stock of the academic world because its academics are increasingly becoming powerless in determining how they work and what they think about. They are increasingly subject to government – and hence party – policy to such a degree that even beginning to think without first attaining government approval (in the form of funding) is unlikely. They are forced to publish at a rate non-conducive to the production of high-quality research, and they are compelled to teach more and more students of ever-decreasing intellectual capabilities. Each time I return to England the situation is worse, and the forecast is for yet worse to come. And protest as loudly as the lowly scholars do, not a shred of difference is made.

The universities ought to be the cornerstones of civilised life. They ought to be our guarantors of freedom, for within their walls the vigilance required to maintain freedom is fed by intellectual inquiry. The ivory tower’s doors open onto society in such a way as to make sure that society knows when it is being held-back, its freedoms curtailed, its opportunities limited. Freedom itself depends upon the freedom to think about what it means to be free. If you limit that thought space by demanding that thought go only in this direction or that, then the risks to us all are nightmarish to consider. 

April 12, 2011

Manly Haunts

I have de-camped to Manchester, where it is still winter. Normal service will be resumed here next week. Thought I’d keep you going with some images of my favourite character-filled haunts in North London. I love being in these spots, for in these places are things almost extinct – a sense of tradition, of place, of old communities, of conviviality, and of movement.

 Bedford Place

 Bedford Square

 The Princess Louise pub

 The newly opened St. Pancras hotel

St. Pancras station

April 10, 2011

Bloomsbury Notes

Outside the window is a sweet-chestnut tree, inhabited by blue tits, doing what birds do in Spring. The window belongs to a characterful room atop a Georgian hotel in Bedford Place, which is probably the best street in London to bed down. In the evening a dog fox’s bark is the only sound of the city, looking for some vixen nightlife. Down the street in Russell Square the tulips are wide awake, and the British have loosed their stiff collars and inhibitions and are sprawled out on the grass. It’s twenty degrees, which feels like melting point after six months of frost, and the kids are jumping naked in and out of the public fountain. People are smiling. English people, even in times like these, are smiling.

The poet is here on a flying visit, having had long-stay ambitions curtailed by unforeseen circumstances. He has been re-united with his wife, after an unexpectedly long visit to the Americas, and she has brought with her the necessary accoutrements of his summer: linen and loafers. Life looks very well with linen and loafers, after the London winter shroud has lifted. The poet now pads around his favourite neighbourhood, marking his territory, on a lazy Sunday.

First thing this morning, while foraging for food, an elderly man called out ‘hello’ to the poet, and as he looked up the old man took his photograph. ‘Hello’, said the poet, somewhat surprised.

‘Are you British or foreign?’ aksed the man, in the friendliest manner possible for such a question.

‘I am English’, replied the poet, wondering why it mattered (and, for that matter, how there could be any possible doubt).

‘Well’, the man went on, ‘you look very smart. Don’t tell me you haven’t been home yet’.

‘Alright,’ said the poet, enigmatically, ‘I won’t tell you’, and they parted smiling.

This kind of encounter happens more regularly than it used to do. Our bard does not know whether it’s him becoming more approachable, or the world getting nicer, but he dares to hope it’s something of both. In any case, it’s the kind of thing that happens to him in Bloomsbury, on sunny Sundays especially.

He arrived here yesterday afternoon and immediately indulged in some St. Austell beer and haddock and chips at the Marquis Cornwallis. British pubs, especially in London, have become so reliable in recent years for the quality of their food. He returned today for a healthy dose of roast beef, followed by a peek in the local second-hand bookshops, a stroll around the neighbourhood, and finally returning to his Georgian perch for an afternoon nap. Outside the window there is a chatter of beaky friends, and the distant hum of life. For once he will sit still: sit still and write, and wonder what the Bloomsbury set were so upset about.

April 08, 2011

Being A Grown-Up

Are you an adult? I’m not asking for a declaration of age, but of intent. Not a license to drink, buy lottery tickets, smoke, drive, or vote, but the sense of responsibility that ought to come with the lattermost of that list. I’m given to ask because of an article in the Wall Street Journal, essentially plugging a book called Manning Up: How the Rise of Women has turned Men into Boys by Kay S. Hymowitz. Apparently, there’s a new phase in the life cycle called ‘pre-adult’, which falls after adolescence and before adulthood proper, and is a synonym for ‘idiot’. This extension of the puerile state is one that we have probably all encountered, but it might be worth looking in the mirror, just to make sure you’re not a jerk.

The basic diagnosis is that a large number of young men (a typical example will hold a university degree and a sense of entitlement) who have had opportunities unique to their generation, have turned en masse into Bertie Wooster. Alas, they have no Jeeves, and thus, no restraint. Blessed with a disposable income, and with access to all the trappings of childhood that have been re-designed for the affluent twenty-something, they blunder through life without checks and balances, without responsibilities or a sense of ever wanting them, drinking and playing video games, and generally behaving as if life is one long frat party. They are really a deplorable lot.

I have personal experience with this new ‘difficult age’, for it is without doubt difficult to define adulthood for the up-and-coming graduate. But difficulty does not excuse a lack of effort. As some of my good friends will testify, I positively sought adulthood for many years. The forces outside ourselves will keep us locked in unsavoury patterns unless we move to assert ourselves. This move begins with the question, ‘what is my purpose?’ and finds its answers in responsibilities and duties of various kinds: personal, familial, and civic.

One must first ask how one is to be seen in the world, and to strive to be the best one can be. There is an element of the Golden Rule here, which I see as essentially reflexive. When we exhort ‘do unto others as you would have them do unto you’, we must first understand how we should wish to be done unto. If we set poor examples, and meander fecklessly through life, we can hardly be surprised if others treat us with aloof disregard. In order to serve others, we must first serve ourselves.

As the self is re-defined according to a model of goodness, the sense of relations to those dear to us take on a different aspect. The nature of friendship and family is slowly revealed for its true value. The importance of filial relations supersedes loose notions of fraternity, that essentially revolve around sexual conquest, alcohol and, these days, facebook gossip.

A sense of place is arrived at, and its context – the nation – comes into view. Define your nation as you will – the term has assumed a fluidity in recent times – but we shall not avoid a sense of civic responsibility that comes with a recognition of the value of that which we hold dear as adults. Understanding how we should be like to be done unto, and how we should like our friends and families to be done unto, requires a degree of striving and vigilance as a citizen lest the power structures of our reality threaten, or fall short of, our ideals of how life should be. The most appalling and dangerous symptom of the ‘pre-adult’ is his political apathy. As he happily rolls through life, he has no notion of the responsibility that comes with the freedom he enjoys. Be afraid of any young man who asserts that politics makes no difference to him.

Being a grown-up seems no longer to come naturally with age. If that is so, we had better start to think about what it takes.

April 04, 2011

Marathon Memoir, Part II

Back in November I pledged to you that I would take on a couple of new challenges, after my maiden marathon run in Montreal last September. I also promised not to bore you with the details of the process, but to let you know when successes could be chalked up. Yesterday I ran the Berlin Half Marathon, on an unexpectedly hot day, in 1:40:08. This was within 8 seconds of my target time, which I can live with given how crowded the run was (25,500 registered), and about four minutes faster than I’ve covered that distance previously. Given the difficulties of winter training, and an ill-timed ear infection at the peak of the training schedule, I’m really rather pleased with it. I’m inclined to say that I still don’t much like running, but I do respond well to concrete, if self-set, challenges. If one is stubborn minded enough, hating running seems to be more help than hindrance: one wants it to end as quickly as possible. If giving up isn’t an option, running fast is all you’ve got. The next part of the challenge is to run a five-minute mile by November. I have no idea if this is possible, but the endeavour should be interesting.

One has to put these things into perspective. How do these achievements fit into a life? What do they mean? Aside from the fringe benefits of being fit, being able to eat whatever I please, and being on the whole a bit more even tempered, why bother? Some would say, perhaps, that these things are enough, and indeed they might be for some. But it doesn’t quite cut it for me. The real importance has to do with the value one attaches to a life. We are too given to reduce achievement to possession, to salary, to sealing deals that nobody will remember. In short, we are defined by ‘work’ in the narrowest sense of that term. If we are not careful, life will pass us by in the pursuit of green, and when we collapse with heart disease just after our hard-earned retirements, people will gather and say ‘what a waste’. 
Making music, listening to music, reading with all my attention, these activities are part and parcel of my life; to call them hobbies would make a mockery of them… [T]here is no hard and fast opposition between my work itself and what I do apart from it. (Theodore Adorno, Free Time).
I am a firm advocate of work, but I prefer to interpret the term much more broadly. Victorian gentlemen understood that work was necessary, even if money was no object. A vocation is required of a citizen, for to be a drone is to be a drain. These men went about their work with a zeal rarely seen among today’s workforce. But they also went about their recreation with a similar zeal. In essence, there was no difference in spirit between ‘work’ and ‘play’, in the best traditions of the amateur. It was all done with serious intent. Whereas we are wont to have a ‘hobby’, a word that tends to connote frivolousness and idle pleasure, they held their pursuits to be an important reflection of their character and, writ large, of the state of society. Ultimately then, play is also a form of work, and our attitude towards it tells us, and the world around us, something about ourselves. 
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