The Muses return to Cambridge
I had a great evening. I went to give a little speech at the opening of the Great Hall at Coleridge Community College at Cambridge. Fifteen years ago there were plans to close this school; it's now well and truly on the mend -- and there's a truly great atmosphere. It's now part of a school "federation" headed by the Principal Andrew Hutchinson, whom -- as I couldn't resist telling the mixed audience of students, parents and friends of the school -- I had first met more than 30 years ago. He was a post-grad in Classics at Kings College London, where I had just arrived to take up my first "proper job". (He was then referred to popularly as "Hutch", as I strongly suspect he still is.)
My first task was to announce the name of the new hall (so far known, as I've said, as the Great Hall -- one rather empty pic on the right; it was full this evening). There had been a competition and the winner I was able to declare was Radegund Hall. The college is in Radegund Road; there's a St Radegund pub in Cambridge, and she -- for Radegund is a she -- is also patron saint of Jesus College.
The truth is that I have until recently been rather more familiar with the road and the pub; but this sixth century lady turns out to a feisty role model for women's education. After escaping a decidely unpleasant husband, she went to off to found a nunnery, where the nuns were actually made to read and write (rather than just clean and sew) -- and she herself put great store by her intellectual accomplishments.
But as well as declaring the Radegund Hall "open", I wanted to enthuse about the excellent piece of glass (at the top of this post) depicting the nine muses, with the names that you can just see; it's by Martin Donlin. They're all there .. Clio, Erato, Urania and the rest. What on earth, I wanted to say (particularly to the students), is the point of the Muses now?
In a sense they had already demonstrated the answer by their music and dance performance at the start of proceedings. But, as I thought about what I was going to say, it struck me how rebarbative the usual explanations of the Muses must sound. "Melpomene: Muse of Tragedy".. what does that say to most teenagers?
So I tried to rethink a bit. Clio is surely not just "Muse of History" (yawn), but Muse of how we think about the past; that is of memory, recollection, remembrance as well as "History". Polyhymnia is not the "Muse of Hymns" , but Muse of how we think we might approariately address and conceptualize god. And so on.
And isn't the point about there being nine something to do with choice, and with different ways to excel and enjoy. Isn't the sheer number of the Muses a way of saying that you aren't -- or cant be -- good at everything. Even the most successful aren't good at everything the Muses represent? Some of us can be real followers of Terpsichore, while never "getting" Urania.
Or am I misunderstanding what the Greeks were meaning?