Christianity banned -- and some better news
It was perhaps (as has been pointed out to me) a little beyond propriety to blog about Newnham's internal discussions on its college grace. But I just couldn't resist ("It is easier for a wise man to stifle a flame within his burning mouth than to keep bona dicta to himself", as the Roman poet Ennius said). Besides, I thought college came rather well out of it, over all -- students taking multi-culturalism, multi-faith, and the traditions of their institutions seriously, dons taking students' comments and suggestions seriously, the discussion going at the problem from every angle. Amusing from the outside it might have been, but it was feisty stuff -- showcasing argumentative young women at a flourishing single sex institution, not a load of Laura Ashley clad wimps.
I feared the worst when the Cambridge Evening News rang up to get some more information, but was assured (!) that the story would be carefully and accurately handled, when it appeared in the Thursday edition. Well the story was. But the headline (on the front page) ran GRACE BANNED (which it certainly hadn't been).
How naive could I have been?
There was something in this story for every journalistic prejudice. The Mail managed to combine a hit at ungrateful students ("Students lucky enough to have won a place at Cambridge have plenty to be thankful for"), with a sideswipe at their anti-Christian sentiments (the Christian content of the traditional grace had "proved too much for them" ). This was followed by my objections to the Latin and some sensible words from the Senior Tutor. (Barely a mention of the non-denominational traditions of the college . . . which was a big part of the students' point.). The comments on the article turned out to be a very mixed bag, from those cheering the abolition of the fetters of religion (yes in the Daily Mail) to those lamenting the decline of Christian Britain (with a good bit of student-bashing mixed in).
The Express managed a cruder version of the above: "Grace is ditched before dinner . . ." (no it's not). While the Telegraph and our own Ruth Gledhill were predictably more measured, and researched. Ruth had even got Philip Howard to comment on the Latin ("I quite like its rhetorical triptych form. Not sure that Cicero would have liked those 'Inters'") -- and on the college ("Newnham is a college for high-minded ladies, and I dare say they want to think about peace and world poverty as well as pudding before sitting down" -- sounds a bit Laura Ashley to me.)
All this has, of course, taken up a lot of time of the college officers, and as you can imagine I am not exactly flavour of the month round here (though actually the publicity has been pretty good, by and large, and they had very nice pictures of the college).
So it was nice to get some good news too. My Pompeii book has been longlisted for the Samuel Johnson prize. I think the message here is to be celebrate getting this far (which I intend to). Anything further is a bonus. It's a bit like applying for your first job. If you get an interview, that is itself cause for celebration.
(Incidentally for a nice classical take on the obfuscatory powers of Latin, with echoes of what I said about dressing up platitudes in a dead language, take a look at this in the New York Times.)