In 1959 I had decided that with my 'A' levels that I must apply to university. I had left the Bank of India and was now for six months to work for the Legal and General Assurance Society. During my lunch breaks I went to Holborn Public Library, on the advice of my evening class teacher at the Northwestern Polytechnic, Bernard Slater, in order to consult university year books and their entry requirements. London and Durham seemed good places but my principle was 'start at the top' so I began without many expectations to apply to Cambridge colleges. An application to Selwyn was met with the reply 'your application will be considered in due course but competition here is very severe and you would be advised to have other irons in the fire' and so I applied to Emmanuel that, like Selwyn, appeared prepared to consider people without a good mark in the old Scholarships and Exhibitions examinations that was the usual requirement for a Cambridge college. I was interviewed (1961) on a Saturday afternoon by the then Master, Edward Welbourne, and offered a place for the following year. I then went full time at the Northwestern Polytechnic to complete my 'A' Level studies
MacMillan and Kennedy: Summit Diplomacy
Emmanuel Front Court
My path to Cambridge was through a world beset with international crises.On May 1, 1960, a U-2 spy plane piloted by Gary Powers was brought down over the Soviet Union. This lead to the collapse of the Paris Summit Conference designed to reduce international tension from the nuclear arms race and the threat at one point from the Russian Communist Leader, Khrushchev that if the flights were not stopped, it would lead to war (16th May).
The aftermath saw the construction of the Berlin Wall (August 13th, 1961). In October 1960 John F. Kennedy was elected president of the United states and the events of the Cuban missile crisis almost immediately followed.
It was something of a relief to have come into residence at Emmanuel (October 1961), having for over a year considered that I would be elisted instead for military service in a brief World War III that would see the destruction of the human race.
I had been able to make some sense of this with the apocalyptic perspective of the Plymouth Brethren, understanding though in such crude terms the deeply Christian intuition that the forces of randomness, chaos and destruction cannot ultimately prevail if our lives are to have meaning. But linguistic and historical studies for 'A' level had long since disabused me of such Fundamentalism and I had left the Plymouth Brethren and re-united with the friends of my youth now at the more evangelical Devonshire Square Baptist Church at the end of Walford Road, N.16 where my family had gone to live with other relatives when I was 18 (1958). It was from there, almost three years later, that I was now coming into residence at Emmanuel.
Edward Welbourne, Master of Emmanuel, when he interiewed me had well sensed my mood as he looked at this application, strange for Cambridge, of a working class clerk coming from evening classes and a correspondence course without the experience of Scholarship entrance examination. He told me at the end of the interview of a young theologian who had refused to learn New Testament Greek (compulsory for Theologs in those days) on the grounds that the 'inspired word of God' was to be found absolutely and definitively in the King James' Version of the Bible, with a touching, Non Conformist confidence in what had been authorised by the Head of a 'Church of England by law established.' The miscreant had been well and truly 'sent down' from Cambridge. The Master's comments to me were: 'Make no mistake, Brent, I admire Billy Graham. But the trouble with the world today is that there are too many people who know nothing about the Bible holding it up in condemnation of those who do.' I ready and enthusiastically agreed, with a growing feeling of intellectual superiority that has regretably never left me.
I began by reading for Part 1 of the Classical Tripos. In those days supervision was mainly by the Fellows of one's particular college, and so I was to become the pupil of Frank Stubbings and Bob Coleman.
Frank Stubbings () was a distinguished Mycenean archeologist and author with Wace of the Companion to Homer.
I rember his supervisions particularly when De Ste Croix initiated the debate began regarding the objectivity of his criticism of the Athenian Empire. De Ste Croix had taken the view that Thucydides was a moderate oligarch in politics, and that the Samian and Lemnos revolts had only appeared to be democratic uprisings because the oligarchs had managed to barracade the majority of the population in their cities: the demos in these cities therefore had welcomed Athenian hegemony in the alliance against oligarchic Sparta. His sophisticated examination, carefully nuansced of such an approach fell on deaf ears of naive and youthful undergraduates: we were very much fired up, at the onset of the sixties, with the demolition of old perspectives and 'new' forms of democracy.These were the years of the break up of the old British Empire in which MacMillan's 'Wind of Change' speech had created in reaction the Right Wing Conservative, Monday Club.
MacMillan as prime minster was something of a hero since he seemed to validate the value of a classical education as did Enoch Powell, the distinguished Herodotan scholar now an influential conservative MP. During the 'Ballance of Terror' in which America and its Nato Alliance faced down Russia and the Warsaw Pact states, the belief that summit conferences between world leaders held the sway of desperation, and MacMillan's attempts to obtain such summits to reduce tensions were popular as he paraded as world leader with the young Kennedy. But the currents of Thucydidian history seemed so intelligible in the light of the present and is questions so relevant. Could a democracy govern an empire? If a coalition of free states had entered an alliance to achieve collective security against the Persians with Athens when Sparta could not as a police state could not lead such an alliance, what would happen if the risk remained but one or more powerful states like Samos and Lemnos wished to secede. What was to be done in the face of the Warsaw Pact if, say, France or Italy chose to secede? And if Italy became communist, as was a reasonable possibility at one point, on what moral grounds could the rest of NATO insist that they remain part of the alliance?
Bob Coleman was a greater influence, perhaps due to his capacity to integrate ancient and modern concerns in this way. I learned a great deal about Plato and Stoicism from him, that were to be so important to me in the Patristic work that he had adumbrated when he interviewed me with Welbourne for my place at college. During this time I was also taught by Greenwood. I remember also Page's lectures on Euripides Bacchae, and Winington Ingram's discussion of that text. It gave me some insight into the clash between Classics as the putative bearer of the humanist tradition, and Theology as the putative bearer of religious dogmatism in the academic history of the first half of the twentieth century. Bob Coleman appeared to represent such an approach although he embodied intellectually far more. He was what I was later to learn that the later Wittgenstein represented as the true philosopher: not so much independent of any human perspective or language game but rather a participant in them all: the ability not to shun or abhore a point of view but to be fascinated enough to think one's way into it, being prepared to suspend judgement and to see the world through the eyes of others.
The discussion of the Bacchae awakened me in other ways to issues in the study of the origins of Classical Christianity. Was this play to be understood as a psychological discussion as the reality lying behind the myth? Was the transcendence of deity really a symbolic system of human psychology. What relation did such a portrayal of deity have to allegory and could myth as allegory be understood purely in terms of the allegorical in post Enlightenment Europe? Lucretius' De Rerum Natura also fascinated me in many other respects but in this too: how allegorical was his use of Mars and Venus, of Love and Strife: were the forces of nature to be seen as purely materialistically in terms of Epicurean atomism. Readers who have understood my current work on iconography in the Second Sophistic may see shadows here of what was to develop later in my thinking.
In 1963 I turned from Classics to Theology, as I had always planned, as I describe in another section (). This was also the year of Kennedy's assasination in the motorcade Dallas, Texas, news of which we received from Dunnet, the Emmanuel Butler, as we crowded in to one of the new, experimental Buffet lunches. It seemed that a whole world, like Camelot, had suddenly come to an end, with hopes of human equality in terms of Civil Rights marches coming to an end, though we felt that now Congress would have to pass, as it did, legislation to end racial discrimination. MacMillan's 'Wind of Change' speech had been directed against the Apartheid regime in South Africa but by this time we had no trust in the Conservative Party to do anything more than prevaricate on such issues.