We have just returned from a busy and fascinating trip to New York, centred on the Cambridge in America day last Saturday: four “Heads of Houses” gave talks in which we were encouraged to combine discussion of our college and our research. I enjoyed drawing comparisons between the population of Fitzwilliam College and the prison population in England and Wales, ruminating in particular on the nature and impact of “walls”.
Photo: Don Pollard.
Christopher and I, travelling with Helen Bettinson, arrived in New York on Wednesday evening, leaving several days to meet local alumni. The first impression was of biting cold, and yet the daffodils in our garden in Cambridge are nearly over. We met many alumni, starting with a thought-provoking trip to the Gauguin exhibition at the MoMA, thanks to Lotte Johnson (English and Art History 2006) – see the next blog. Other alumni encounters brought with them my first-ever visit to a trading floor (in Goldman Sachs), thanks to an invitation to meet Peter Selman (Economics 1991); a tour of the NY Daily News, thanks to Digital Editor Ted Young (History 1980); and an interesting discussion of US prison reform with Leon Digard (Darwin College) at the Vera Institute for Justice, located in the extraordinarily flamboyant Woolworth building (1912) beside City Hall.
We also travelled in the hilariously scruffy subway train to Brooklyn to meet old friends. We had got to know two of them in 1980 in southern Senegal when we lived there, involved in the building a dam, and they were anthropologists living immersed in a Mandinka village. Their generous welcome of us in their adoptive village had made so much difference to our understanding of Africa back then, and while being 35 years older, their spirit of enquiry and quality of friendship were unchanged. We had a walk in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, designed by the creator of Manhattan’s Central Park, and following a different principle – whereas the former was intended to create the sense of intimacy of English gardens, the latter dramatically recreates an ideal English landscape. On Friday we finished the day with a hugely enjoyable dinner with a small group of alumni in the apartment of one of their number, during which those around the table were prepared to reflect humbly upon the dramatic impact that an education in a Cambridge College had had on their self-confidence and success.
The Cambridge in America Day went with gusto, with a splendid turnout of alumni and a good number of senior academics from Cambridge. The four speakers were divided into a first session of science and a second, after a short performance by the immaculate Emmanuel Choir (which includes one Fitz undergraduate!), on arts and humanities. In this second part, Geoff Ward, Principal of Homerton, led with a masterful demonstration of the carefully crafted old-fashioned lecture, exploring the New York school of poets, to a raptly attentive and often laughing audience. His legacy was a well warmed-up audience who were consequently happy to guffaw even at my weak one-liners! I talked a bit about prison-research in England, offering a few statistics here are there. Although I didn’t mention the situation in the USA, participants evidently made their own comparisons, as I was well surrounded by questioners at the break. Few alumni have had first-hand exposure to the reality of prisons run in their name, but this kind of audience, comprising predominantly very well educated and liberal-minded individuals, generally quickly understands that imprisonment on the contemporary scale doesn’t do much to reduce criminality. Anyone who followed the early postings of this blog will have noted that my reflections on Hong Kong and Singapore were concerned partly with alumni relations and partly with the legal systems of those two places. Why have I not engaged with the criminal justice system of the USA? Partly it’s the size and complexity of the country. But perhaps it is also just too daunting in other ways.
We then spent the evening in a bustling restaurant in the happy company of perhaps 37 Fitz alumni and their guests, most of whom had attended the event earlier. The Fitz community, in New York as elsewhere, is both warm and fascinating. An evening marred only by a noisy rendition of ‘Happy Birthday to you’ which prevented me giving the speech I had anticipated. A wonderful day – should we try to replicate it around the UK?
We gave ourselves the next two days as holiday to visit other friends in New York and Connecticut. How quickly one gets out of the city into the peace and quiet of the countryside…
Nicola Padfield MA, Dip Crim, DES became Master of Fitzwilliam College in October 2013. She is a Reader in Criminal and Penal Justice at the Law Faculty, University of Cambridge, and has been a Fellow of Fitzwilliam College since 1991.