Cambridge, England, has been in the news recently, for various unconnected reasons. As it happens, I should have been in the city at the weekend for a housewarming party, but I couldn't manage in the end. It is terribly posh and terribly beautiful, much more so than Oxford. Visiting both university cities is akin to time-travel, a step back into Brideshead Revisited
, with several Sebastian Flytes and Charles Ryders roaming around the colleges.
My friends, a retired professor of English literature from Glasgow University, Robert ('Bobby') Grant and his amazing wife Rosemary are the kindest of people. Both are incredibly funny too, and Bobby is probably the most well-read person I have ever known. Profound political disagreement with Bobby (a Burkean Conservative) made for terrific after-dinner arguments. My dad (Jimmy Reid) said that Bobby was his favourite right-winger of all time.
The Grants spent most of their working lives in Glasgow but retired to the town of their alma mater. It's not difficult to understand why. If you can afford it, Cambridge is beautiful. Its university dates back to 1209 and its colleges are magnificent, particularly King's. To stroll along The Backs is one of life's small pleasures. Wittgenstein, the enigmatic philosopher, taught there from 1929 to 1947. His house is round the corner from my friends, as is the graveyard where he is buried grave (more about that in a future Philosophers' Stones
instalment). So happy housewarming, my dear friends.
Clive James, the quite brilliant broadcaster, author and in his later years, poet, died at his Cambridge home. James left Australia to take up a place at Pembroke College to read English literature. I can recall vividly dad reading out loud his Observer
TV column every Sunday to great hilarity. One line stands out, although I can't recall who James was describing: 'that fools rush in where angels fear to tread, is the ultimate justification for the existence of fools'. Why that line stuck, I don't know, but it did.
James was to TV criticism as the late, great Hugh McIlvanney was to sport. Both men were very funny. 'Common sense and a sense of humour' said James, 'are the same thing, moving at different speeds. A sense of humour is just common sense, dancing'. James is irreplaceable, and his type of humour that permeated culture back then, is gone (although we do have national columnist treasure, Marina Hyde). Maybe these days we have little to laugh about. James' passing, although expected, was not just sadness about the loss of a man, but the end of an era.
Scenes from the London Bridge terror attack on Friday were extraordinary. Victims were tragically killed by a 'reformed' terrorist who had two knives taped to his hands and was wearing a fake suicide vest. He was brought down by a Polish kitchen worker wielding a narwhal tusk, another brandishing a fire extinguisher, and a convicted murderer 'on day release'. Their heroism was breath-taking.
The terrorist had, tragically, already killed two Cambridge graduates, Jack Merritt and Saskia Jones. The story of the attack is even more incredible given that Khan, the attacker, was a convicted terrorist, out on a tag but invited to attend a Learning Together conference on criminal justice held by the University of Cambridge. The event, which took place in the opulence of the nearby Fishmonger's Hall, involved storytelling and creative writing. But this story, that would be worthy of a Fargo
script, is all too tragically true.
I did wonder, to be honest, whether academic naivety played a part in this tragedy. Third sector type organisations, the voluntary, community or civic sector is populated mostly by passionate graduates who do not hail from the backgrounds they wish to transform. The UK is a better place for them but, if you truly want to make the world a better place, it is essential to engage and employ ordinary folk who understand profoundly the issues affecting them.
, Channel 4's consistently excellent investigative current affairs programme. broadcast Growing up poor: Britain's breadline kids
on Monday. In Britain today, more than four million children are growing up in poverty.
On Sunday, after a jaunt to the supermarket, I saw a preview clip on social media of a family living in Cambridge. Outside of the opulent city centres of Cambridge (and Oxford) lies a hinterland characterised by acute disadvantage and poverty. Highlighting an eight-year-old girl, Courtney, her mum and little brother, the clip reveals that all three live on £5 per day, rely on a foodbank to eat, and wear coats to bed when there's no money for heating. How anyone could watch this without rising fury is beyond me. Fury with Boris ('£141,000 per year is not enough to live on') Johnson. Fury that the Labour Party will not win a General Election with Corbyn as leader. Fury that in Scotland, reported this week, a child becomes homeless every 37 minutes. Fury with myself.
Piled up on the kitchen table was the fruits of a long, enjoyable supermarket haul including all manner of Christmas frivolities that we don't need. I had just spent at least 30 times what Courtney and her family gets for a day. Alongside climate change, poverty is the most urgent issue of our wealthy times. That wee family in Cambridge should shame us all, but more importantly, is our shame enough to motivate us to do anything about it? I guess not.