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Open Features: May Balls In June

...In an age when there is a tendency to think new is always better than old and genes are something you wear not inherit, Cambridge continues to maintain an air of respect for knowledge and those who act as reservoirs for it...

Mary Pilfold-Allan says that one of the world’s leading cities of learning has been at the centre of her life for almost four decades.

To read more of Mary’s brilliant columns please click on http://www.openwriting.com/cgi-bin/mt-search.cgi?IncludeBlogs=1&search=mary+pilfold-allan

In Cambridge at the moment, the very air dances with the zest for life, as students, released from the cloud of examinations, celebrate with May Balls in June. By day the place is awash with bright young things showing off the sights to their guests, treating them to displays of punting prowess and generally trying to look as if they haven’t a care in the world. Some of their antics have even caught the eye of the press and may come back to haunt them!

By night, Cambridge is a son et luminaire of what will be will be, although in the intoxicating atmosphere of freedom from studies, there is no doubt in the minds of the participants that the future is rosy with or without the prevailing economic conditions.

Walking leisurely back across Town Bridge at the weekend, admiring the stand of yellow iris that line the banks either side of the path and the lush green of the lawns stretching down to the Cam, I wondered how many of the passing students would end up as our politicians in the future? How many would become ministers, even the prime minister? Cambridge, like Oxford has traditionally been the finishing ground for our parliamentarians, although as my heart is with the light blues, it is difficult to concede that Oxford scores a higher number of Prime Ministers, including Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair. Cambridge at least scores the first with Robert Walpole and can also claim Queen Victoria’s great favourite, Lord Melbourne who guided the young sovereign through the early days of her reign.

Stretching even further back takes us to the Lord Protector himself, Oliver Cromwell (Sidney Sussex), who hailed from the Eastern region and in Tudor times, Bishop Hugh Latimer and Francis Walsingham both exceedingly influential men during the reign of the Tudors. Bishop Latimer as a determined Protestant cleric who died for his faith, and Walsingham as spymaster general for Elizabeth I.

Aside from the great, the good and not so good of those who have played a part in our nation’s governance, there are of course, so many famous people from all professions who have walked the streets of Cambridge. If only the paving stones could talk, or the walls of the great colleges relay the history that they have sheltered. Sometimes as I stroll along the lane connecting the Town Bridge to King’s Parade and pass the Gate of Honour leading from Gonville and Caius, I wonder just how many students have gone through it to collect their degrees? Gonville was founded by Edmund Gonville, a priest in the mid 1300s and eventually had the Caius (Keys) added two centuries later when a former student contributed a sizeable amount of money to his old college.

This year Cambridge is celebrating 800 years. It is also the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin who studied at Christ’s college and then returned to Cambridge after his epic voyage to sort out his specimens. There never seems to a be a year goes past when Cambridge is not involved in celebrating the success, life or death of one of its famous alumni.

When we first moved to the city in the very early 1970s I thought it would be for a maximum of a few years, maybe five, maybe ten. Cambridge has now been at the centre of my life for almost four decades. All my children have been educated in local schools and grown-up with the museums and art galleries as places to go on wet afternoons and the parks and pieces as play areas. They perfected their swimming in the River Cam (without me knowing) and picnicked on Lammas Land. They count their childhood as fortunate and now that my son lives in Australia, his letters are sprinkled with anecdotes about his growing up in this very special place.

In an age when there is a tendency to think new is always better than old and genes are something you wear not inherit, Cambridge continues to maintain an air of respect for knowledge and those who act as reservoirs for it. Tradition too still has a place in the university year, like Rag Week, The Bumps and yes, May Balls in June. All of which may seem quaint, even pretentious when virtual life is more real for some than living the here and now. However, I suspect that although the young things letting their hair down this week may find it embarrassing to recall some of their student day memories, they will never regret their days at Cambridge.


Mary Pilfold-Allan
June 2009

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