Bertrand Russell Professor of Philosophy at Cambridge, Huw Price, writes the second in a series of reflections by College members during the COVID-19 outbreak.
As usual, we boomers are the lucky generation. In the worst crisis of our fortunate lives, we’ve hit the epidemiological sweet spot – old enough to have farewelled our parents in easier times, in most cases, but not so elderly as to be a great concern to our own children. That’s more than okay, boomers, in the circumstances.
My mother would have been 100 this year. At the beginning of the great crisis of her lifetime, in October 1939, she moved to Cambridge. Weeks earlier, at the outbreak of the war, she had been competing with a British Universities team at a swimming meeting in Nice. Told to get home as quickly as possible, she and her friends dawdled their way across France, not wanting to miss the excitement.
She came to Cambridge as a student evacuee. She was starting her second year at LSE, then beginning its wartime exile to Peterhouse – it occupied Grove Lodge, just across Trumpington Street from the Peterhouse main gate. My father used to say that my mother belonged to that privileged cohort who, thanks to the Nazis, combined an LSE education with the Cambridge experience. She seems to have lived in a shed behind a house in Queen Edith’s Way. Late in her life, when much else had been lost to dementia, she could still remember the address, and how to cycle there along Hills Road.
After LSE, she worked as the Health and Safety Officer in a factory in Hitchin that, it now seems presciently, made oxygen masks for air crew. Among her papers I have a reference from her manager, commenting on how good she was at keeping spirits up in difficult times. ‘Miss Percy could always be relied on to cheer people up with a joke during air raid drill.’ I’ve been thinking of that useful talent as I see it emerging in group meetings with colleagues in Cambridge, in the age of Covid-19.
My mother retained her early sense of adventure, and I think it was she, more than my father, who was the force behind their decision to take their four children to Australia in the mid-1960s. It must have seemed much more a kind of self-imposed exile than it would today. They had three parents living, whom they would not see again for six years. Even phone calls were difficult. (They had to be booked ahead at busy times, and the phones themselves were chained to the walls like medieval books.)
That’s how I became Australian, and, indirectly, why I am here now, locked down down under for the duration of the present crisis. My wife Olga and I arrived in Sydney in mid-March, for one of our regular visits to see our two sons and their families. (Between us we have five grandchildren.) Within a few days, international travel had reverted to 1960s levels, or less. The Italian liner on which the Price family arrived in 1966 would certainly not be allowed to dock. As in the UK, we now avoid inessential travel across the street, let alone across the world.
We feel like exiles from Cambridge, though fortunate ones in many ways. I’m expecting the Vice-Master’s Prize for Maximum Social Distancing. We’re delighted to be close to our families, even if we’re not allowed to see them for now. (In addition to the usual reasons, Olga’s son is an ICU consultant.) And I’m sure that lock down in Cambridge also feels like a kind of exile, to many in our College and University communities.
One of my exercise options here is taking a dip in a nearby inlet of Sydney Harbour. In normal times I would be wary about swimming there, due to an occasional shark, but Covid-19 has given me something else to worry about. Sadly, I didn’t inherit my mother’s sporting talents. In her sixties she took up competitive swimming again, and by my age had a gold medal for 200m butterfly at the International Masters Games in Tokyo, and a share of a world record for a 4x100m medley relay team (with a combined age of at least 280 – she was the youngster of the squad). She continued competitive swimming well into her eighties. When she had to move into a dementia care home, at 89 – a very unwelcome exile, from her point of view – we were fortunate to find one with a hydrotherapy pool.
The first time I took her there for a visit there was a quiz in progress, and I was stumped by one of the questions: ‘Of what country is Chișinău the capital?’ Many of the residents were Jewish Eastern Europeans, exiles and evacuees themselves. The last deep friendship of my mother’s life was with a Polish holocaust survivor, Saul – ‘Not the Saul’, as he assured us when we were first introduced – in whom I think she found a complementary sense of humour, his up-beat and hers down-beat.
One of my last memories of my mother is of her sitting with Saul at the piano, singing ‘When Irish Eyes are Smiling’. Happily, they were being generous in their interpretation of the song’s closing lines:
While springtime is ours, throughout all of youth’s hours,
Let us smile each chance we get.
We boomers have always thought that springtime was ours. That’s what makes us so annoying. But who could disagree with the recommendation, at present, even here in autumnal Sydney?
Warmest best wishes to all at Trinity, from Olga and me, in our antipodean outpost!
Huw Price is Bertrand Russell Professor of Philosophy at Cambridge and a Fellow of Trinity College. He is Academic Director of the Leverhulme Centre for the Future of Intelligence, and was co-founder with Martin Rees and Jaan Tallinn of the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk.
The entire series of Reflections by Trinity Fellows can be viewed here.