The Oxford connection

2009-07-28 00:00

CAPTAIN Charles Ryder, the main character in Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, remembers the glorious summers of his Oxford years “when the chestnut was in flower and the bells rang out high and clear over her gables and cupolas, [exhaling] the soft airs of centuries of youth”.

At the heart of Ryder’s wistfulness lies a mythical world of freedom and frivolity, courtship and contemplation, privilege and possibility, when for its participants everything was wonderful. But as the years go by and they become ever more burdened by the responsibilities of adulthood and the realities of physical decay, so the former participants burnish their golden recollections until they shine like the blinding light of a lost paradise.

For some, that is the reality of Oxford, but for others, looking on from afar, what makes the university and city stand out are its associations with Englishness: its historical rootedness in English tradition; its buildings of beauty; its press, with its famous Oxford English Dictionary; the fact that two of its academics wrote particularly iconic books, Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland and J. R. R. Tolkein — who, incidentally, was born in Bloemfontein — The Lord of the Rings; and its manufacture of motor­cars, like the M.G. and Morris Minor and Mini, to say nothing of the Rolls-Royces, Jaguars, Rovers, Hillmans, Humbers and Triumphs, the bodies of which were also once pressed by a steelworks in nearby Cowley.

And as young men and women have graduated and gone on to prominent positions worldwide, whether as prime ministers of Britain or Australia or Jamaica or Ceylon or Malta, or as president of the United States, or in countless other endeavours across the globe, so their accomplishments have added to the university’s mystique.

But what, I wondered, are its South African connections? No sooner had I considered the question than I discovered that two of the college heads have links with this country. The principal of Green Templeton, a modern graduate college, is Colin Bundy, the South African historian and former vice rector of the University of the Western Cape and vice chancellor of Wits, who in the sixties did his undergraduate degree at the University of Natal in Pietermaritzburg. And the current master of Pembroke is lawyer Giles Henderson, who spent his schooldays at Michaelhouse.

Although a new college, Green Templeton occupies a site that is dominated by the former Radcliffe Observatory, a tall 18th-century circular building. Until 1939, the observatory scanned the heavens from north Oxford until deteriorating viewing conditions compelled it to move elsewhere, to Pretoria, before it relocated in the seventies to Sutherland in the Karoo, where it now forms part of the South African Astronomical Observatory.

And if one looks more closely there are other associations. The university’s James Martin 21st Century School, the task of which it is to respond to this century’s most pressing challenges, is headed by Ian Goldin, a former vice president of the World Bank, and previous CEO and MD of the Development Bank of South Africa, who did his first degree at the University of Cape Town. One evening in May, in the Sheldonian Theatre, the university’s premier venue, it was Goldin who introduced Professor Lord Nicholas Stern to a large audience when the economist and environmental guru gave a sober account of the world’s future if drastic steps aren’t taken to reduce global warming.

And if one looks more closely still, there are yet more links. At Campion Hall, a permanent private hall for Jesuits, both the master, Brendan Callaghan, and theologian and classicist Nick King, have close links with the KwaZulu-Natal midlands, having in the last two decades lived for periods in Merrivale while they were lecturing at St Joseph’s Oblate Scholasticate at Cedara.

While this sample provides a glimpse of some of the more substantial links between South Africa and Oxford, I came across others of a more transient nature. One of these was an address given in June in the Law Faculty by Albie Sachs to launch his new book, The Strange Alchemy of Life and Law, which has been published by Oxford University Press. There was a good attendance and Sachs’s account of his life and the spirit of the law was both compelling and moving for an audience that had an almost palpable South African feel to it. The person who introduced Sachs, and thanked him afterwards, was Oxford law lecturer Liora Lazarus, another UCT graduate.

Also in June, was a visit to Oxford by Nobel Prize-winning author J. M. Coetzee, who gave a reading to a large audience in the Sheldonian. Trim and silver-haired and quiet-voiced in the cavernous interior with its ornate gilt furnishings, the former South African and UCT English professor, now resident in Australia, read from Summertime, his third volume of autobiography, which is to be published soon. That, in his own words, he has “played fast and loose with the facts” was apparent when he read a extract in which a biographer of a deceased writer named J. M. Coetzee is, through an interpreter, interviewing a Portuguese woman, an émigré from Angola living in Cape Town, whose daughter was once taught by the writer and who had invited him home for tea. At one point in the reading there was mention of someone working at Clicks, and there was a murmur of recognition from members of the audience who could only have been South African.

And the person who introduced and thanked Coetzee was Elleke Boehmer, the novelist and academic who was born in Durban and is now a professor in the English department at Oxford.

But nothing has cemented the relationship between Oxford and South Africa more than the Rhodes Scholarships. Headquartered in Rhodes House, an imposing Herbert Baker building near Wadham College, with a green copper-plated dome topped by a bronze Zimbabwean bird, the scheme each year brings scores of exceptional young men and women from across the world to study at Oxford. Imperialist Cecil Rhodes visualised establishing a kinship of the gifted that would make wars impossible. Ironically, Germany was included in the first list of recipient countries but was removed during World War 2.

The most poignantly heroic story of a Rhodes Scholar must be that of German patriot Adam von Trott zu Solz, of Balliol, who took part in the unsuccessful bomb plot against Adolf Hitler. Historian James (now Jan) Morris has written of how chilling it is to consider “the few years of a man’s life that separated the pleasures of Oxford from the mad court that sentenced him to death, after torturing him almost to insanity, and compelling him to stand in degradation before the cameras with nothing to hold his trousers up but his own shaking hands”.

Among the prominent southern African Rhodes scholars are lawyer and humanitarian Bram Fischer, Aids activist and Constitutional Court judge Edwin Cameron, and leader of Zimbabwe’s Movement for Democratic Change breakaway faction, Arthur Mutambara. Each year more are added to the list and the association continues.

While it is heartening to see the degree to which South Africans have made their mark at such a renowned institution, there is a tinge of sadness that many of our most accomplished countrymen and women have chosen to make their lives so far from home.

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