What does Cambridge University’s alumni magazine reveal about our divided city?

I found a copy in Rock Road Library and had a look. While there are some hopeful signs, it also exposes a much-needed culture change across The University of Cambridge and its member and associated institutions.

You can read it online here.

Not the first CAM Magazine

The first one was an attempt at a town life magazine that sadly only lasted a year in the run up to the Second World War.

The Cam – A Cambridge Town Magazine (from my own collection)

That’s not to say there were no University-related things. When you look at the main articles from February 1937, the top five authors are all linked to at least one of the colleges – whether the Master of Jesus College, the then Bishop of Ely Bernard Heywood (Trinity), Thomas Thornely (Trinity Hall), Cllr Dr Alex Wood (Labour – St Matthew’s, and also Emmanuel College, Cambridge) and of course Mayor Florence Ada Keynes, the Mother of Modern Cambridge (Newnham), who wrote this article the following year on 50 years of women’s progress in Cambridge.

“Hang on – it says it was a Cambridge Town Magazine – but all of those people are Cambridge graduates!”

Technically yes – noting Florence didn’t get her degree until the University voted to remove the ban on women receiving Cambridge degrees – promptly inviting Queen Elizabeth, Queen Consort to King George VI (later the Queen Mother to the present Queen Elizabeth II) to become the first woman to receive a Cambridge degree in 1948 – albeit an honorary one.

The important lesson here for current Cambridge graduates, academics, and senior executives is that there is a long history of Cambridge alumni getting involved in Cambridge town life and devoting years, decades, and even their entire adult lives to improving the lives and prospects of the townfolk of Cambridge – in particular those with the least. And not simply raising money and throwing it at charitable organisations from a safe distance either.

“What does today’s CAM Magazine tell us?”

Let’s start with the good.

The article on new treatments for breast cancer, which you can read here. This links with the proposed new Cambridge Cancer Hospital. Breast cancer took my late aunt Jennifer to an untimely death at the age of only 48 in my formative years in the mid-1990s. Had cancer not taken her, I would have developed into a very different man to the one I am today. This weekend her widower – my Uncle James came over for a visit. I’d not seen him for about a decade – having moved to Australia about 20 years ago. As well as catching up on everything, including our mutual challenges of ageing, I was able to get confirmation of some of the local history details about his uncle, Sir David Robinson, and his grandparents Rosie and Herbert Robinson (the motorcar, cycles, and radio retailer who built Mandela House, in the 1930s – today the service centre for Cambridge City Council’s housing services). I also showed him some of my recent findings, including playing back the video of another former Cambridge student, Brinley Newton-John (Olivia’s father) and his time at Bletchley Park.

Since my most recent blogposts on Newton-John Sr, I’ve found out a little more about the late Professor and former RAF Wing Commander who demobilised in 1945 to take up the post as Headmaster of the Cambridgeshire County High School for Boys – today’s Hills Road Sixth Form College. One was on his record of organising local music groups in and around Cambridge – such as one featuring Histon and Impington’s in the British Newspaper Archive. When I think of his emigration – driven as much by a last ditch attempt to save his failing marriage, I also think about what Cambridge lost not just in terms of a head teacher, but also a musician, an administrator, and a civic activist – for he was also a Cambridge Rotarian and a baritone at St John The Evangelist on Hills Road, opposite Homerton College.

A booklet published by his former employers under his auspices about the institution’s history to 1950 also shines a new light on local history in Cambridge.

Above – the history of the County High School for Boys – when Cambridgeshire was a much smaller administrative county. Mr Newton-John is front and centre from this detail of a staff group photo. Below – a reminder of Cambridgeshire County Council’s administrative boundaries at the time he was Headmaster of the County High School – and the four district/borough level councils within it.

Above – from this history of Cambridge’s local government reform in maps dated March 1959, produced by the county council during an era of huge debate about the future of our city and county – one that was far more comprehensive and radical than anything we have today.

The combined choirs of the County High School for Boys (today’s Hills Road SFC) and Girls (today’s Long Road SFC).

This excerpt tells of the massive impact that war had on music at the school. But look at what happened with music when Mr Newton-John arrived and appointed a new Director of Music.

Note the tribute paid to the Arts Council of Great Britain for its support for establishing a new orchestra. That council had only been established less than a decade earlier. Its first chairman. Another Cambridge graduate – one of the most famous: The eldest son of Florence Ada Keynes mentioned above – the economist John Maynard Keynes (see the reference on the Arts Council’s website here). Note that the joint concerts became annual events. Not an easy thing to establish as many in Cambridge’s arts scene will tell you in days of austerity. And the post war years were not known as ‘Austerity Britain‘ for nothing.

Can we persuade CAM Magazine writers to look at the local impacts of the global issues that they are studying?

Take Megan Welford’s article on housing and living space from July 2021.

“If housing policy is meant to ensure fair access to a home for all, it is failing around the world.”

Megan Welford, CAM, July 2021

If the problem is international by its nature, then the solution needs to be. If it is one where the firms and/or economic actors creating the problem are working across national boundaries, then so too must the regulators charged with regulating their activities. And those regulators must be democratically accountable to the people. I came to that conclusion in my final year at university some 20 years ago having spent the previous year campaigning against the World Bank, IMF, and multinational corporations in general from inside the Brighton Peace and Environment Centre, then on Gardner Street next to the Komedia. In those days I had long hair and long side burns. I don’t think a single photo of me from that time actually exists, such was my low self-esteem!

“In Cambridge, house prices are almost 14 times average earnings, yet we don’t want housing prices to fall. What we need is a more diverse range of housing options.”

Dr Gemma Burgess, Director of the CCHPR in CAM – July 2021

A few points to look at:

  1. Who is “we”? Ask people on lower incomes and they would be more than delighted to see housing prices fall. The problem that none of the housing professionals I spoke to when I was a policy adviser on housing in the civil service some 15 years ago was how to unwind the out-of-sync ratio of earnings to house & rent prices. Either wages rise (Which risks cost-push inflation that haunted the 1970s) or you do something that gets house prices to fall. (Which risks the negative equity issues for people trying to sell their homes to move elsewhere, lumbered with a mortgage higher than the value of the house they are trying to sell).
  2. Does the Chancellor of the Exchequer have the policy levers to deal with the international institutions and speculators that are exacerbating the problems? And if so, does he and/or his successors have the political will to pull them? As far as all of his recent predecessors are concerned, that answer was a big *No!*
  3. An international issue with massive local impacts – as we found out in the run up to the last Cambridge City Council meeting (read Gemma Gardner here, and also Hannah Brown here).
The new Mayor of Cambridge’s challenge to our city – town, gown, and villages. And to the business communities in our city as well

This is what Mayor Mark Ashton had to say following his elevation to the mayoralty.

“If I’ve got one wish, it would be when I’ve finished my year that when they do the rankings for the most unequal city in the UK, we finally lose that title,” he said.

It’s just unbelievable that in Cambridge with all our wealth – with the universities, with the large businesses, AstraZeneca, Microsoft, Apple – that we have this city that is ranked as the most unequal and it’s just not right.

Mayor Mark Ashton to Cambridge City Council’s full council, 26 May 2022, in Cambridge Independent 01 June 2022.

This is something that the heads of the large institutions in and around Cambridge – irrespective of sector (public, private, charitable/not-for-profit) could have a summit on to come up with a formal response to the new Mayor of Cambridge.

Because if the ancient office of Mayor of Cambridge is to mean anything to our city and university – mindful of the huge names that have worn the mayoral chain of office that Mayor Ashton now wears, those large institutions should see it as their civic obligation to respond to the Mayor’s call for action.

A call for action to deal with poverty and inequality from Mayors of Cambridge is not new.

Mayor Florence Ada Keynes established an unemployment fund in Cambridge at the height of the Great Depression during her mayoralty.

Above – from the Cambridgeshire Collection – 21 December 1932 from Mayor Florence Ada Keynes in a letter to the Conservative-supporting Cambridge Chronicle.

The same article states major donations from the Darwin family, including Cambridge Suffragist and social reformer Lady Maud Darwin (widow of Professor Sir George Darwin – Professor of Astronomy at the University of Cambridge and of Trinity College) and their niece Ruth Darwin, daughter of Sir Horace and Lady Ida Darwin.

Above – from the Cambridgeshire Collection – 21 December 1932

Below – from the Cambridgeshire Collection – 03 February 1933

Above – note the contribution from the Principal and Staff of the Cambridge Training College for Women – today Hughes Hall, Cambridge.

Adverts – a reminder of the exclusivity of the world of Cambridge Alumni.

From private health insurance…

…to the private London Members Club on Pall Mall, London.

…but then it’s simply a case of private sector organisations targeting a specific market and this publication happens to tick the boxes – with the revenue being used to print free copies that then get left around in places where alumni are likely to pick them up. My childhood neighbourhood has for the past century or more had students, staff, researchers, academics and alumni who live in and have lived in this part of town. I went to school with their children in the 1980s and 1990s. From that perspective, this is the way our city is.

But how do both examples look to a non-University member in the face of the title of most unequal city in the country? And in the face of the multiple local, national, and international crises we face?

Tearing into an alumni magazine is too easy-a-target and also doesn’t help solve the wider problem that the Mayor of Cambridge outlined.

In Florence Ada Keynes’ early days, the standard response to a crisis of unemployment and poverty was to raise money for a fund to alleviate poverty. You might be lucky to live in a parish that gave you a few bags of coal and some rolls for Christmas in Victorian Cambridge. Mayor Mrs Keynes founded the Cambridge Unemployment Fund knowing that the Conservative-led council was unwilling to vote for an increase in ‘the rates’ (what pre-dated today’s council tax) – something covered in the same newspapers of the day.

Note the clear political dividing line was that Labour councillors voted for tax rises to enable the state to provide essential public services, while Conservative councillors voted against tax rises – but in the knowledge they were expected to contribute – and be seen to contribute towards fundraising efforts for poverty alleviation. One of the councillors pushing for the rate rises was Cllr Dr Alex Wood, mentioned earlier.

What is the solution?

First of all, what’s the short term challenge? The short term challenge is exactly as set out by Mayor Ashton – the newly-elevated Mayor of Cambridge: To ensure that by this time next year – when his mayoralty comes to an end, Cambridge is no longer the most unequal city in the country. And we don’t want it to be because somewhere else has become more unequal, but rather because the people and institutions who make up our city have taken substantial actions to reduce inequality.

The second is a medium and long term challenge: How do we deal with those entrenched inequalities in the longer term? Because if we achieve the challenge Mayor Ashton has set out for us, we don’t want to find ourselves going in reverse and ending up as the most unequal again, and simply yoyo-ing like the proverbial top flight football team that bounces from Premier League to Championship and back again season-after-season.

The solution isn’t a single or annual time-limited fundraising campaign for charity.

In any case, we already have enough of those working for good causes local, national, and international.

“When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist.”

Attributed to the Liberation Theologist Archbishop Dom Helder Camara of Olinda and Recife

The solution isn’t likely to be a singular action or policy either.

But then people don’t apply to study, research, or teach at the University of Cambridge to solve easy problems or to take on straightforward, simple challenges that are easily overcome. But if the institutions that make up the University of Cambridge cannot solve the entrenched, chronic, and persistent challenges in and around the town that has hosted it for over 800 years, what moral right does it have to tell other parts of the world how to solve their own problems?

That doesn’t mean all of the researchers should stop what they are doing and redirect their efforts into local issues. Far from it. Not least because there are so many things other places are doing better than what we’re doing in Cambridge that could be applied here to help solve our problems. Becoming a closed city isn’t a solution.

Broader questions – which might involve a lot of soul-searching for the individuals and institutions concerned are:

  • To what extent are the structures, systems, cultures, processes and practices of your organisation contributing towards the huge inequalities in and around Cambridge?
  • What changes to these are you willing and able to make, and over what time period to play your part in solving this long term challenge?

Responding to the Mayor’s challenge is not limited to the large and influential institutions. Anyone can do it, large or small organisation, rich or poor, with more letters after your name than in your name, to those who left school with no qualifications. Any organisations wanting to take this further may want to get in touch with the Mayor of Cambridge’s Office (click here) and let his council officials know how you are willing and able to respond to his call.

Asking Mayors of Cambridge how your institutions can serve our city during their individual mayoralties is not a new phenomenon.

The Vicar of Great St Mary’s, Cambridge (“The University Church”) recalled the offer he made to the late Mayor Nigel Gawthrope when the latter became our Mayor – a mayoralty tragically cut short by his untimely passing.

“Build Bridges”

Mayor Nigel Gawthrope – quoted in CTO 03 March 2021

Above – from May 2018 at Cambridge Guildhall, (L) Cllr George Pippas (LD – Queen Edith’s) handing over the chains off office to (R) the new Mayor of Cambridge Nigel Gawthrope. On the wall behind are the names of the previous mayors of Cambridge, including civic titans such as George Kett (of Rattee & Kett), Alfred Tillyard the editor of the Cambridge Independent, Algernon Campkin the chemist and photograph developer, and Florence Ada Keynes, the Mother of Modern Cambridge.

And note having Vicars of Great St Mary’s, Cambridge responding to calls for social action in response to poverty in our city is also not a new phenomenon – even when it upsets national politicians. Which is exactly what happened in the 1950s when Rev Canon Mervyn Stockwood returned to the town of his undergraduate years. Shortly after his return, Canon Stockwood did the unthinkable: He stood for election to Cambridge City Council…

…For the Labour Party. In the most leftwing ward in the city which was also suffering from entrenched poverty and multiple deprivation. And got elected. Above – from the British Newspaper Archive.

Canon Stockwood was raised to the Bishopric of Southwark following this period in Cambridge. Second hand copies of his Cambridge Sermons are still available second hand.

“So, what happens now?”

It’s now in the hands of the people and institutions of our city – and how we/you/they choose to respond to Mayor Ashton’s call. My hope is that it leads to multiple open and honest conversations involving people and institutions that don’t often communicate with each other whether on a working or a social basis – and that these conversations continue and lead to actions – new actions involving co-operation and teamwork on things that we’ve not tried before, and also things that have been proven to work both here and elsewhere. Because if an historic university city like Cambridge cannot take on such a complex challenge that we see the symptoms of on our streets and in our neighbourhoods, what is the point of the University?

Food for thought?

If you are interested in the longer term future of Cambridge, and on what happens at the local democracy meetings where decisions are made, feel free to:

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