Dr. Natalia Nowakowska is a Tutor & Lecturer in Early Modern History at Somerville College, University of Oxford.

Thursday, 22 September 2011

The Writing on the Wall



The college was in high celebratory mood last weekend, as we marked the opening of Somerville’s gleaming new ROQ buildings, which will provide accommodation for 68 second-year undergraduates from October. Niall McLaughlin Architects told the Fellows right from their opening pitch for this project that their practice was to work closely with potential users to create the best possible, people-friendly buildings. It is now clear how true to their word they were – the ROQ buildings have textured interior walls which look like a modern art installation, glass towers to shine light into the corridors, kitchens in the trendiest brightest colours, and very tempting desks in window alcoves, with views onto the developing Radcliffe Observatory Quarter (as it takes shape under a forest of cranes…)

What most impressed me about the buildings, however, were not their aesthetic or eco-friendly credentials, but the way in which the two structures embody memory. Memory is a concept (or a social phenomenon) which historians have become increasingly interested in the past decade. At the University of Leiden, for example, Professor Judith Pollmann is leading a project on local memories of the 16C Dutch Revolt in the 17C, while Janet Watson’s 2007 monograph studied memories of the First World War in Britain. The corridors of the ROQ buildings are full of plaques. These don’t give just the name of the donor who sponsored an individual student room, kitchen, or entire floor, but carry messages from those donors to future student-inhabitants. Whole year groups (e.g. year of 1960) have sponsored rooms, to celebrate the formative 3 years they spent together at Somerville. Certain rooms have been dedicated in memory of late Somervillians, by their friends and contemporaries. A recent JCR President sponsored a kitchen - his plaque gives a favourite quote from Lucretius, and urges students to enjoy their time here. On another plaque, two major benefactors celebrate the fact that they met as Oxford undergraduates, and remember their subsequent marriage in a church close to the college. The ROQ buildings, in a very-past conscious way, transmit and store memory. They are an eloquent and moving reminder that an Oxford college is not just a collection of smart buildings, but a dynamic inter-generational community.

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

Landscape, Memory and the Mercury

Last night (don’t ask how) I ended up with a ticket to the sort of event Oxford dons don’t find themselves at all that often, the Barclaycard Mercury Music Awards. This is a big annual shin-dig for the UK music industry, where the best album of the year is announced in the massively crowded Great Room of the Grosvenor House hotel on Park Lane. It made even Christ Church hall at full capacity look rather small.

The 12 albums nominated for the award were very varied – from the Fife folk singers King Creosote and Jon Hopkins, to the hiphop singer Ghostpoet, to the jazz pianist Gwilym Simcock. I was very much struck by how many of them took as their themes the British landscape and, indeed, British history. My Somerville English colleague, Professor Fiona Stafford, has recently written a prize-winning study of the sense of place in English poetry, Local Attachments: the Province of Poetry. There was an acute sense of place in these music albums too – in Metronomy’s electro-pop hymn of praise to Devon (The English Riviera), King Creosote and Jon Hopkins quite meditations on coastal villages of Fife in Diamond Mine, in Elbow’s recollections of their Manchester childhoods in Build a Rocket Boys!

But these songs aren’t just about an English or Scottish physical landscape, but also about nostalgia and a British sense of past. Diamond Mine includes field recordings of Fife oral history as part of the album, and the most historically-conscious album of all, PJ Harvey’s Let England Shake, was in fact the winner. Harvey’s bold album is a meditation on English identity as expressed (this is my reading, at least!) through the experience of English military interventions abroad – it’s about WWI as much as it’s about present-day Afghanistan. Harvey recorded the album in a 19C Dorset church, but apparently spent months researching British military history, reading up on the Gallipoli campaign of 1915… So it was fantastic to see such careful readings of history married to cutting edge, and indeed prize-winning, forms of cultural expression.