Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Cambridge in the 1950s - Religion and Politics.

Cambridge in the 1950s was a hot-bed of social change. Apart from the traditional rivalry between 'town and gown' the post war years encompassed much religious and political activity challenging the establishment.  Evangelism was sweeping the academic world and religious groups were keen to recruit young, open-minded students together with more mature ex-national servicemen with strong anti-war principles, often conscientious objectors.

In my first few weeks as a student at Cambridge I was, like everyone else, bombarded with all manner of information about clubs and societies all wanting to me to join them. Fresher's week was the same in the 1950s as it is now. Each student had his own pigeon-hole adjacent to the Porter's Lodge where he could pick up messages and invitations from sports clubs, obscure religious groups and political activists. I remember once being invited to tea by a third year student and, arriving in my sports gear, was confronted with a small group reading extracts from The Bible. It was all very intense and really not for me. I found the traditional church litany far more comfortable, as represented by the College Chapel.

However Evangelism was not just confined to the non-conformist churches. The vicar of the University Church, Great St Mary's, was, at that time, Dr Mervyn Stockwood who represented the 'left wing' of the Church of England. It came as no surprise, therefore, that Billy Graham, American Christian evangelist, was invited to preach in St Mary's. The church was packed to capacity and I, like many others, religious or not, wanted to witness it.  He had a commanding personality and had the ability to impress a largely academic audience. There were certainly converts to Christianity after his visit, amongst an undergraduate population keen to get involved in new ideas.

Oxford and Cambridge, because they had produced statesmen and eminent politicians over the centuries, always attracted budding political activists. Emmanuel College already had a reputation for being left-wing although this was never evident in terms of producing extreme socialist views of political activity. In fact I found it was more apolitical, at least within my social circle. However the College debating society produced its own political thinkers, some of whom subsequently emerged as national figures. During my time there Cecil Parkinson was a student and Labour supporter but ended up as a senior figure in Margaret Thatcher's Conservative government. Tom King was also at Emmanuel at this time and became Defence Secretary in John Major's government during the Gulf War.

For anyone with political aspirations, membership of the Cambridge Union was a must and, invariably, leading lights were being groomed by the main political parties.  Even the College Debating Society was a showcase for good public speakers. I was always envious of people who could stand up and ad-lib on any subject. I remember once attending a debate on the motion "That Marks and Spencer has done more for civilisation than either Marx or Spenser". Following the main speakers, the debate was open to the floor. In walked one of my contemporaries, fresh from the Cambridge Union, and entered into the debate without knowing what the motion was. He was hugely entertaining, though slightly drunk. His name was Michael Frayn and he was later to become a very successful playwright and author.


  1. It always seems to me that your Dad was always in the most interesting place at the most interesting time. I didn't know who Michael Frayn was, but it doesn't surprise me that your dad was at University with someone famous. Love his statement, too: "He was hugely entertaining, though slightly drunk."

    1. If you ever get to see Michael Frayn's play 'Noises Off' then you will see how brilliant a writer he is. I think it's on in London at the moment. I once saw an amateur production of the play and laughed myself silly.