Friday, September 26, 2014

Trinity 40 years on

On Weds back to Trinity for the Annual Gathering of our year, the year above and below for a reunion 40 years after we came up as undergraduates. To my astonishment the Master had asked me to be the Speaker and propose the toast to the College. Because the PA system had broken down we both spoke from the Musician's gallery.

FWIW this is what I said:

Master: it is a great honour to thank you, and the College, for the wonderful hospitality we have received tonight, and indeed ever since we matriculated 40 years ago. Things change, but they don’t change.

One big change happened just after we were undergraduates. Simon Mollett came back to do a PhD and was told by a porter: “the College has changed sir. There are women, sir….. In the daytime, sir.”

When my grandfather* graduated here Trinity men won 3 Nobel Prizes. In my father’s time Trinity men won 3 Nobel Prizes . In our time fellows won the Nobel Prize for Physics two years in a row.

We had amazing teaching here. I had supervisions from Bolobl├ís (whose Erdos number is 1), Goldstone (who should have won a Nobel Prize) and Baker – a Fields Medalist. John Polkinghorne was also very generous with his time and inspired many students to see that the relationship between science and religion is not at all the caricature of popular imagination. He sends his regards today. Small groups of scholars had lunch with former Master and Nobel Laureate Lord Adrian.

We had a reasonable share of mad maniacs. One of them announced that he had booby-trapped his room and dared all comers. Naturally Ross Anderson broke in and successfully defused the bomb, only to discover that it was a decoy when the real bomb exploded, knocking the door off its hinges. The police entered, switched on the lights, and another bomb exploded in a teapot on the mantelpiece.

This would be frowned on in today’s Health and Safety culture. Perhaps we need a warning notice: “This college will change the way you think – may contain nuts.”

Our cohort has done pretty well academically. We have 6 FRSs and 9 FBAs which is a record, a flight of FREngs and a plethora of Professors including (slightly alarmingly here tonight) a Professor Moriarty. This Prof Moriarty is a doctor, who has devoted much of his life to saving eyesight in the third world.  One of the many Trinity people taking the long view.

Taking the infinitely long view, we have two of the world’s most influential religious leaders: Nicky Gumbel and Justin Welby – the first Trinity Archbishop of Canterbury since 1604, the first to have been a senior FTSE 100 executive , and the first to have been fined for threatening to throw an umpire into the river.

So how has Trinity been doing since we left? What’s it like for students?  It’s still wonderful. I speak from experience. Our son matriculated the year Mirrlees won his Nobel Prize, and had dinner with former Master and Nobel Laureate Andrew Huxley. He was a member of Trinity Choir and married a fellow-member, and may I take this opportunity to thank the Choir for their wonderful singing today . Our Elder Daughter matriculated when Pople and Sen won Nobel Prizes and Borcherds and Gowers won Fields Medals, and our Younger Daughter matriculated the year after Ramakrishnan won his Nobel.  Things change, but they don’t change.

Trinity is the wealthiest college, with outstanding investment performance from taking a long view.  Robert MacKay, our cohort’s first FRS, had his Part III paid for by Trinity.  Trinity has funded the whole career of John Marenbon, one of our FBAs, and the postgraduate study of many, including my daughter.  But leading US Universities have over 10x the endowments, Princeton has 45% more per student.

So yes we should support Trinity financially. And more generally we have a particular responsibility to take a long view. Many of us can influence business decisions. We can help tip the balance towards responsible behaviour - away from short-termism.

Sometimes acting altruistically makes great long term returns: Cambridge Science Park for example. I put this to Tresillian Nicholas. He said: “Yes - I remember thinking ‘If young Bradfield is behind it, there’s probably money in it somewhere!’”

Trinity has two Nobel-prize winning philosophers: the greatest is Amartya Sen. He embodies a long view, the rise of Asia, and globalization. His wonderful book The Idea of Justice should be required reading; especially for those who think democracy is simply getting 50.1%.

Justice was the lifetime work of Lord Denning. He spoke at the Union in 1974. I’ll end with his words. “There is nothing I like better than eating with nice people, drinking with nice people, and sleeping with – a quiet mind.”

Things change, but they don’t change. I give you – Trinity!

* ESL Beale (born 1901). He became a Consultant in Engineering Physics in the 1930s and was a brilliant engineer not at all interested in money. Family legend has it that he did some work with the Braggs when he moved to London after graduating. He got quite a long obituary in The Times.

I cut from my speech that my school (Winchester) advised me against applying to read Maths at Trinity becasue they thought I wouldn't get in. I asked my father (who became BA FRS) about this and he said that he had been given the same advice and ignored it. So I ignored it as well, and received the memorable telegram: "Warmest congratulations Scholarship Trinity."

Monday, September 22, 2014

There’s a wideness in God’s mercy

Frederick Faber - the hymn's author

To Cambridge to help look after Grandchildren, after having helped Daughter prepare for a delightful birthday party.
The 10:30 Mass at OLEM was especially notable for two wonderful hymns.

There’s a wideness in God’s mercy
 like the wideness of the sea;
there’s a kindness in his justice
 which is more than liberty
There is no place where earth’s sorrows
 are more felt that up in heaven;
there is no place where earth’s failings
 have such kindly judgement given.

For the love of God is broader
 than the measures of man’s mind;
and the heart of the Eternal
 is most wonderfully kind.
But we make his love too narrow
 by false limits of our own
and we magnify his strictness
 with a zeal he will not own.

The singing then stopped as the organ improvised a voluntary on the theme, while the priest prepared the vessels. I was almost worried that they had decided to cut the last three verses. But the magnificent improvisation swelled to a crescendo. Not cut at all, but super-intensified. My eyes filled with tears – they do again as I write this –

There is plentiful redemption
  in the blood that has been shed
there is joy for all the members
 in the sorrows of the Head.
There is grace enough for thousands
  of new worlds as great as this;
there is room for fresh creations
 in that upper home of bliss.

The multiverse has no terrors for this hymn-writer at any rate!  And then the magnificent conclusion:

If our love were but more simple
  we should take him at his word;
and out lives would be all gladness
 in the joy of Christ our Lord.

I’m actually quite surprised that this hymn survived the calamitous papacy of Benedict, but it seems to me to be utterly apt for the era of Pope Francis. The author, Frederick Faber, was a friend of Cardinal Newman and like him an Anglican priest who converted to Catholicism. He too must have yearned for reunification. The hymn was first published in 1854 and Faber died in 1863 before the deplorable Apostolicae Curae of 1896.
The other lovely hymn was “Tell out my soul” – written by Tim Dudley-Smith, a retired Anglican Bishop. All very ecumenical.
And the excellent organist Nigel Kerry concluded with Buxtehude’s Prelude in D BuxWV 139.
I’ve finally finished Amartya’s wonderful The Idea of Justice but that’s well worth a separate post!

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Scotland - let's stay together!

To Trafalgar Square last night for the demonstration in favour of the Union - ie the United Kingdom. I must say I never expected to be part of a demo in favour of a Union!

It had all been organised in 4 days and there must have been about 10,000 people. A very nice friendly atmosphere with people of all ages and from all political parties - apart from the SNP of course!  Dan Snow was very good as was Bob Geldof. And Al Murray was also fine - he was clear that he was not in character. Eddie Izard was a bit full of Eddie Izard.

I do hope and believe that it will have made a difference. I was interviewed by Columbian TV station and said that I very much hope the Scots vote to stay because this has been a very successful political union and I'm very worried that my friends in Scotland will face a bleak future if they go it alone.

I think on the whole it will be a narrow No vote (the current odds are 1/4 No and 11/4 Yes) and I've been told by the CEOs of 2 Scottish businesses that:
  1. They poll with their hearts but they'll vote with their heads and
  2. The women will decide.
But is it uncomfortably close. A Yes will be an economic disaster for Scotland but a very sad day for the UK and for Europe and for the world.

If it is a NO then when the next Referendum happens in about 15 years time we need much better  rules. Such a decisions should never be taken by a 50.1% vote.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Sen on democracy

Finishing Amartya's wonderful book The Idea of Justice - which for some reason I had a hiatus in reading of about 3 years.  There is so much wonderful thought in this that I cannot begin to do it justice - it really should be required reading for anyone interested in the philosophy of justice or politics.

One of his basic ideas is that we should not focus on the characteristics of an ideal society but ask instead how one can get agreement, through discussion, on how societies can become more just.

He also has some fascinating and very important things to say about democracy. Let me take this up at Chapter 15 with some of the gems:
  • The belief that democracy has not flourished anywhere in the world other than the West is widely held and often expressed. And it is also used to explain contemporary events; for example... the immense difficulties and problems in post-intervention Iraq.
  •  democracy is best seen as 'government by discussion'  (my emphasis)
  •  If the demands of justice can be assessed only with public reasoning, and if public reasoning is constitutively related to the idea of democracy, then there is an intimate connection between justice and democracy, with shared discursive features.
He doesn't at all agree that balloting is the essence of democracy, though of course it is important. He points out that whilst balloting began in Greece, public discussion has a much more widespread history.

He also points out wryly that to define Ancient Greece as "Western" is to presume that they have more in common with (say) the Visigoths "even though ancient Greeks, who were very involved in intellectual exchanges with other ancient civilizations to the east and south of Greece (in particular Iran, India and Egypt) seem to have taken very little interest in chatting up the lively Goths and Visigoths".
  • Some of the earliest open general meetings aimed specifically at settling disputes between different points of view... took place in India in the so-called Buddhist 'councils'... beginning in the sixth century BC... The last one happened in the 2nd Century AD in Kashmir.
  • early 7th C Japan... produced the ... 'constitution of seventeen articles' [which] insisted... 'Decisions on important matters should not be made by one person alone. They should be discussed with many.'
  • When ... Maimonides was forced to emigrate from Spain...[he] was given an honoured and influential position at the court of Emperor Saladin... By the 10th C the achievement of Corboda in Muslim-ruled Spain as being...'a contender... for the title of most civilised place on earth' was due to the joint influence of Caliph Abd al-Rahman III and his Jewish vizier, Hasdai ibn Shaprut.
He also discusses five reasons why "an unrestrained and healthy media is important" for a democracy. In summary (using Amartya's words):
  1. The direct contribution of free speech in general and of press freedom in particular to the quality of our lives.
  2. a major informational role in disseminating knowledge and allowing critical scrutiny.
  3. an important protective function in giving voice to the neglected and disadvantaged.
  4. informed and unregimented formation of values requires openness of communication and argument.
  5. a critically important role in facilitating public reasoning in general.
I'll blog about the next chapters over the coming days. But  it really is a great book, worth reading in full.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Echoes of the Heart and India and its contradictions

 Delighted to receive two books signed by their authors. The first is Echoes of the Heart by Ma Kai who was in the UK on an official visit in his capacity as Vice-Premier of China. I was fortunate enough to be introduced to him over dinner last night and to get him to sign a copy of a book of his poems with English translations.

Sadly I can't yet read the Chinese but even in English they really speak. Here is Say no to wishful thinking
You cannot catch the moon beneath a pond
Nor through a mirror reach a bunch of flowers
The arrow n'er returns once bow is fired
No desert can be spanned by finger-flick
 And here is the lovely Silver Wedding Anniversary

Hand in hand
  A toast shared.
  Sprouts tender, silver catkins, willows light.
  Buds are seen
  Pines go green.
  Once oath is pledged
  Love's pledge endures:
  Truly, truly, truly!

  Love sustained
  Hearts unchanged.
  Warmth seeps through windows of our little home.
  The river grew
  Dream now true.
  In golden autumn
  Boughs will bow with fruit:
  Beauty, beauty, beauty!

I've substantially revised both translations from the ones in the book - initially because it rendered the final line of the 2nd verse  (mei, mei, mei) as "Cute, cute, cute!"  The original meter is 3/3/7/3/3/4/4/3 for both verses but "In gold autumn/Boughs bow with fruit" doesn't sound quite right and Ma Kai says (in a note) he's specifically referring here to looking forward to his Golden Anniversary in 2024. The original rhyming scheme is ABBCCBCCC BAACCACCC but to do this and the metre would require massive changes to the extremely beautiful sentiments. It then became irresistible to turn the 7/7/7/7 of the first poem into pentameters, and correct "the arrow n'er returns once bow is pulled".

Then this morning, quite unexpectedly, Amartya has sent me his latest book An Uncertain Glory: India and its Contradictions which he has very kindly inscribed to me as well. I'm still finishing his wonderful The Idea of Justice but will get to this book as soon as it is done.

Sunday, September 07, 2014

Janie Dee in Globe Dream - coming to China!

To the Rose Theatre last night to see our friend Janie Dee in the wonderful Globe Theatre production of A Midsummer Night's Dream which will be touring Russia, China (incl HK and Taipei) and Singapore.

The production is a delight and both Janie (as Hippolyta and Titanya) and Aden Gillett (as Theseus and Oberon), with whom she often collaborates, are excellent. I have never seen a better set of Mechanicals and the "business" when they finally perform their play in front of the court, on a wheel-on miniature version of the Globe stage, is absolutely hilarious: Trevor Fox as Bottom, Brendan O'Hea as Quince and Richard Bremmer as Snug were all terriffic.   It was only the second night they had performed together in front of a live audience and I'm sure it will be even better when it has been touring.

Oberon, Bottom and Janie as Titanya
It brings out the back-story of Hippolyta as a semi-conquered Amazon Queen more than I have seen before. And the fascinating programme note by Tiffany Stern brings out some more of the comic elements of the play-within-a-play.

They will be in Shanghai 19/20/21 Sept,  Guangzhuo 26/27 Sept and in HK (19-23 Nov) and Beijing 26-30 Nov  at the National Center for Performing Arts. They will also be in Taipei and Russia but I don't know the dates. Do get there if you can!

Wednesday, September 03, 2014

Conclusion of Tom Wright's wonderful book on Paul

Finished Tom Wright's wonderful Paul and the Faithfulness of God. What a masterpiece! Again I can do nothing better than quote some of the gems from the final Chapter:
  • Paul's theology...was not simply an elegant organisation of the central elements of Jewish belief, reworked around Messiah and spirit. It was the beating heart which ensured that the lifeblood of prayer and God-given energy was animating the whole project.{though maybe the Holy Spirit had a role like that as well?}
  • Paul was precisely not an isolated, detached thinker. That is why the isolated thinkers in the western academic tradition have had such difficulty with him, seeing confusion in his pastoral skill and contradiction in his subtle paradoxes. He was a man of action, of performative fulfilment. He was both thinker and doer, regarding his thinking  as itself a form of worship, and his doing, too, as a sacrificial offering through which he was to implement the already-accomplished achievement of the Messiah. He was an integrated whole: razor-sharp mind and passionate heart working together.
  • what we have from him are precisely letters, not treatises. His writings...embody...the overall aim, not of communication merely, but of community.
  • When the Nazis were constructing a newly integrated form of would-be philosophically grounded community, they found anti-semitism to be an ideological necessity...There could not be two chosen peoples...there could not be two histories... hence the anguished discussion... of just how deeply committed to the Nazi cause was... Martin Heidegger.
  • Indeed part of the task of NT scholarship in the 21st C... is the long overdue liberation of exegesis and theology and ... early Christian history... from the dark gravitational pull of the whole post-Enlightenment European philosophical and political matrix.
  • But if Marx was ... significantly different from his ancient semi-predecessors [like the writer(s) of Daniel] he was ironically on the same page as the very different (but equally Epicurean)  post-Enlightenment Social Darwinist thinkers who believed in a 'progress'... whether officially atheist or would-be theist, all such theories effectively deified the process itself.
  • The answer to all this is not to abandon history but to do it better.
  • Theology, in the NT is not an end in itself, but a ... central ingredient in the healthy life of the community of Jesus' followers. Just as the principal and ultimate goal of all historical work on JS Bach ought to be a more sensitive and intelligent performance of his music, so the principal and ultimate goal of all historical work on the NT ought to be a more sensitive and intelligent practice of Christian mission and discipleship.
  • What we call 'philosophy', 'religion' and 'politics' and Paul's engagements with them, were not interesting side-lines...For Paul, everything grew in the field of God's new world.
  • Paul did not see himself as simply snatching souls out of the world's wreck in order to populate a platonic heaven...the point was that the new creation launched with Jesus' resurrection was a renewal of creation, not its abolition and replacement.
  • He saw the church as a microcosmos, a little world... the prototype of what was to come... Paul was an evangelist... but there is surprisingly little evidence that he wanted his communities to be energetically outgoing in their own propagation of faith. Enough for the moment, it seemed, that they should be - united and holy.
  • Paul's gospel was a Jewish message for the non-Jewish world... If Paul had not gone on attending synagogues he would not have continued to receive the standard... synagogue punishment of 'forty lashes less one.'
  • The heart of Paul's gospel is not 'this is how to be saved' or 'get on board before the parousia' but Jesus is lord.... The point was to name the Messiah, to announce him as lord, at the culture-forming places, the cities to and from which all... roads ran.
  • Fuller integration, fuller reconciliation, is always the Pauline aim, and I hope I have gone a good way to achieving it {you have Tom!}
  • If I were to try to summarise... in Pauline language, I might end up writing something like the letter to the Ephesians {Tom is quite right to consider this as probably genuine, the arguments against are very feeble}.
  • History, and exegisis and a branch of history, have for too long been isolated from Theology, and the mutual suspicions and recriminations between the two are far-reaching and deeply damaging.
Tom concludes this brilliant book as follows:
Old praise dies unless you feed it, says Herbert. The renewed praise of Paul's doxologies takes its place at the...fusion of worlds where Paul stood in the middle, between Athens and Jerusalem, between the Kingdom of God and the kingdoms of the world, between Philemon and Onesimus, between history and theology... between heaven and earth. This is language formed in the shape of the cross, both as the decisive apocalyptic event in which the covenant faithfulness of the creator God was unvieled once and for all and as the character-shaping truth which was now carved into world history and into the hearts and lives of all those 'in the Messiah'... For Paul, prayer and theology meet in his personal history, as in the once-for-all history of the crucified and risen Messiah. Paul's 'aims', his apostiolic vocation, modelled the faithfulness of God. Concentred and gathered. Prayer became theology, theology prayer. Something understood.
 Wonderful!  Buy, read and feed on the wisdom.

PS listening to a wonderful performance of the New World Symphony, conducted by Sir Roger Norrington - aged 80.