A Cambridge education

In a recent column I mentioned Nick Hammond who was my tutor at Cambridge. He was a great scholar and a warm, generous, lighthearted and deep-souled man. He was part of my life more than sixty years ago.

NGL Hammond was Professor Emeritus of Greek at Bristol University and an honorary fellow of Clare College, Cambridge University. He was the world’s foremost expert on ancient Macedonian history. His three-volume History of Macedonia is the definitive publication on the subject. The last book of his I received, published in 1997, was The Genius of Alexander the Great in which he judges Alexander as “the man who did more than any other individual to change the history of civilization.” A week before Professor Hammond died at the age of 93 he delivered the final proofs of a new book, on Aeschylus, to his publisher.

When I was at Clare College in the early 1950s Nick Hammond was my tutor. Not my course of studies tutor, who was another extraordinary historian called Geoffrey Elton, but my “moral tutor,” the person whom I could consult about life and the many challenges it held for a very inexperienced young man. I believe his role was also to make sure that one did not depart too radically from the hallowed regulations and traditions of the College but I cannot say I remember him intruding at all aggressively in my life, even though I was as wayward as most undergraduates sometimes become. I came to look forward tremendously to the “consultations” which after a while became simply long conversations with him about everything under the sun.

Many memories. I remember the time I was coming up to my final year but had also been elected to captain Cambridge at tennis and wanted advice whether I might not have to sacrifice the captaincy for the sake of the studies. I can capture his words to this day: “Well, McDonald, a good Cambridge degree is without doubt what you are here for and it will be an important task and an achievement which will last you all your life. But, even though I am a rowing man myself, captaining Cambridge at anything is a responsibility and an honour you cannot possibly think of turning down. So, both must be done.” A pause and another of his joyful smiles: “And, in any case, you will certainly find at your age that twenty-four hours in a day gives you ample time to do both these things well if you are truly resolved – and also, if I may say so, leave enough time for quite a lot of fun!”

I apologise for the self-indulgence of these private memories. The real purpose of recalling Nick Hammond in this column is to try and distil from those conversations I had with him so many years ago something of the essence of what he believed was a good education.

 

  • He strongly believed in the need to “stretch the mind.” Obviously, the harder you exercise it, the fitter the mind becomes. He suggested I try reading Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. I tried. I tried again and again. I could not make head nor tail of it. He assured me that by trying I had already benefited. Attempting the very difficult was an important part of university education. The student must direct his attention towards what, at first, is beyond his grasp but whose compelling nature and fascination draws him on. Simplification, levelling down, giving the mind easy passage would never bring out the capacities which lie undiscovered in most people. I must always judge myself capable of achieving what at first might seem unlikely intellectual feats. Learning in its true sense was all about that. And I would find how often what seems obscure at night is crystal clear when morning comes. The challenged mind does not rest.

 

  • Time away from the desk. This was an important as anything. He was pleased that I was half-fanatical about playing tennis and training for the game and full-fanatical about cricket and following that game. He said the ancient Greeks, right in this as in so much else, valued the trained body as much as the cultured mind.

But time away from the desk did not mean only sport. Early on he told me, “The Fitzbilly coffee is the best in the world.” He was referring to the coffee shop at the Fitzwilliam Museum and Art Gallery and that indeed became one of my haunts amidst great paintings and the worlds’ treasures. He recommended me to membership of the Arts Theatre and, learning of my love of poetry, introduced me to a lecturer he knew who belonged to the University Poetry Club. He never seemed to doubt that pursuit of such interests was an essential part of a young consciousness growing out of shadow towards the sun. He was disappointed that he could elicit in me absolutely no interest in politics and I joined none of the political clubs nor the Union where world figures came to join the debates. “Every young man,” he said “should aspire to be Prime Minister of his country.” He said that the single-minded politician was one of the strangest and potentially most important persons I would ever meet. But he never persuaded me.

 

  • I could go on quite a long time about Nick Hammond and what he tried to teach me and presumably all the students he supervised. However, there is only space for more thing. I must, he said, as much as I was able, seize the opportunity to make contact with the masters of their field. For instance, go and listen to John Saltmarsh lecture on the economic history of the Middle Ages. A subject dry as dust? Not in the hands of a genius. And he was right. It was not the last time I found myself, on his advice, “contaminated by excellence,” an infection from which one always hopes never to recover as long as life lasts.

Marvellous visitors came to Cambridge and I made a point of attending their meetings and lectures and readings and recitals: Pandit Nehru, our own West Indian Arthur Lewis, the philosopher William Quine from Harvard, the excessively young and brilliant critic and wit Kenneth Tynan, the guitarist Segovia, to name some whose aura haunted me afterwards. And there were the poets, most memorable of whom was Dylan Thomas. He came in very drunk but when he began to read he steadied himself and the words came out like music. I still hear how he spoke, in utter silence, the final words of James Joyce’s story ‘The Dead’ and I knew then without fail that getting words in the perfectly right order was mankind’s most sublime gift:

“Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, further westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Fury lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.”

Professor NGL Hammond, Nick Hammond, my tutor all those years ago, I hope he rests in the Elysian fields at peace with those he loved but in restless debate still with those he most revered. He helped so much make Cambridge glow and gleam for me.

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