Cambridge mug-shots -- and Roman terrorism
There’s a new exhibition at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, celebrating the faces of the university. It’s a kind of prequel to the big 800th anniversary of the university next year, of which we will all hear quite enough I due course. This is where it’s good to take the woman’s part and take a gracious but relatively distant interest in the first 740 years.
Anyway the new show –“On the Shoulders of Giants” -- is a series of pictures of university people by the excellent photographer Howard Guest: porters, professors, librarians, bedders, boatmen, and students of every style (Amnesty stalwarts to dining-club toffs).
It was an eye-opener for me , partly because it gave me a peek into the offices of those whose work-place I rarely see. One of the most fascinating mornings I ever spent in Cambridge more than ten years ago was ‘shadowing’ a college colleague who works on Huntingdon’s disease using quite a lot of (very well-cared for) mice. But I don’t often get to see into a lab.
So it came as something of a surprise to see the scientists pictured staring down microscopes like we did at school. Is that the stage outfit? Or do they still actually use these things?
Meanwhile, the good news was that there were loads of books on display too…edging the computers into second place.
But what would an outsider have made of us?
I say ‘us’, because one of the pictures was of me – pictured by the careful and patient photographer in my natural habitat (viz my office). It was, as I confessed in the accompanying pod-cast, pretty lifelike (well, lifelike). And it is also (a tribute to Howard here) a photograph that I can bear to look at.
But I couldn’t help thinking that most of us looked unmistakeably boffins.
I had been ‘hung’ back to back with the Elrington and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon. We both looked quite brainy (I think) – but more than a touch eccentric too. My excuse for looking a ‘bit on the run’ was that I was busting to get to London for a party, but they cut that bit out of the pod-cast. Perhaps that was the same for the others.
On the other hand, eccentric and ill-dressed as we are, we probably have more to contribute to the world than you might think at first sight. I was very pleased that my little Radio 3 talk on the Roman crisis of civil liberties in 63 BCE was broadcast on the day before the 42 day vote. (A coincidence noticed I hope by whatever tiny and valiant audience tuned in . . . )
In 63, Cicero was temporarily victorious too…he put the Catilinarian conspirators to death without trial and claimed to have saved the state. And with the usual bribery he ensured popular support – for a bit.
In a couple of years he was sent into exile for abusing citizens’ right.
Mr Brown’s no Cicero, but – on this precedent -- he had better watch it.