e-Matters News April 16th 2020

Dear Members and Friends,

As we endure living and working in unprecedented times and conditions we continue at the House to bring you news and views from members of our community.

For example, in this second of our special e-newsletter bulletins we feature a piece on our Christ Church NHS CarersEaster thoughts from Professor Jay Parini, a plea from alumnus Jasper Reid (1991) relating to his work in India, and a moving tribute to Professor Christopher Butler from Peter Conrad.

Please keep in touch with us in the Development & Alumni Relations Office, sending us any news that we might share with everyone, whether to educate, help, or entertain!

Keep safe and well, and we look forward to seeing you at the other side of these straitened times.

Best wishes,
Mark Coote and the Development Team


Archive: News from the House - April 16th 2020

Dr Evan Edmond and Dr Bronwyn Gavine in Tom QuadClap for Christ Church's NHS Carers 

The UK’s applause for the NHS every Thursday evening at 8pm has created heartening scenes across the country, amidst the gloom of lockdown.

This week, Christ Church is asking all of its members, past and present, wherever they are, to think in particular of Christ Church alumni, medical students and staff associated with the NHS when they join the #ClapForOurCarers.

To hear more about Christ Church's NHS carers please follow this link.

During the pandemic we are also sharing stories and news on Twitter and Instagram using the hashtag #ChristChurchTogether. We encourage all our alumni to share their news and stories with the same hashtag. We would love to hear from you!



W.H. Auden, Easter and COVID-19 - Professor Jay Parini Jay Parini

Professor Jay Parini, who was the Fowler-Hamilton Fellow from 1993-1994, recently wrote a piece for CNN, recalling some advice he was given by W. H. Auden and how it resonates with both Easter and the  COVID-19 pandemic. 

Jay relates how Auden came across him one bleak day and gave him two pieces of advice: that there is no such thing as time and that one should 'rest in God'. Jay then reflects on what this advice has come to mean to him, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Jay's article can be found by clicking here.

(Photo of Jay from jayparini.com) 


From the Vice-Chancellor...

Vice-ChancellorThe Vice-Chancellor, Professor Louise Richardson, recently highlighted the work of 17th-century alumnus, Nathaniel Hodges, in an Easter message to staff: 

I’ve been taking advantage of the Bodleian’s collection and doing some reading about Oxford in the 17th century, a period in which there were a great many public health emergencies. Then, as now, Oxford made contributions to the national effort. Nathaniel Hodges of Christ Church, who was both a practicing doctor and an academic published the most thorough and scientific description of the plague in 1672. His advice on controlling outbreaks bears repeating:
"FIRST of all therefore, they ought to be deemed as a kind of Traitors, who frighten the credulous Populace with the Apprehensions of an approaching Plague, by idle and groundless Reports and Predictions; for the Propagation of the late Sickness was too notoriously assisted by this Means, to want any Arguments to prove it.

THE timely Separation also of the infected from the well, is absolutely necessary to be done; because the most sure Way of spreading it, is letting the sick and well converse together. Publick Funerals ought to be forbid, as also all kinds of Meetings, and frequent Intercourses of several Persons together: An Injunction also of Quarentine from infected Places, according to the Custom of Trading Nations, is by any Means not to be omitted, and carefully to be executed.”
He also recommended keeping people, houses and public places clean, the use of strong disinfectants, and rather less appealingly, the execution of all pet cats and dogs.

When the history of this pandemic is written, I am confident that the University of Oxford will be seen to have played a significant role in ameliorating the crisis by focusing on our enduring mission of teaching, research and contributing to the world around us.

(Photo of Professor Louise Richardson by John Cairns) 


Alumni Work in India 

Megan and Jasper ReidJasper Reid (1991) and Megan Reid recently wrote to us about their work on the frontline in India. Jasper and Megan are helping to support vulnerable people during the COVID-19 pandemic: 

Dear fellow Members of the House,

I am writing to you for support. My family and I live in New Delhi where we own and operate a number of food businesses. 

India, as you may know, is in the midst of a draconian lock down. This might delay the Coronavirus but it's ruinous for millions who take daily wages or don't have a home. We are now supporting these people. All 25 of our restaurants are shut and instead we're out on the streets finding, feeding and helping at-risk groups. Many, of course, want to help but understanding food distribution and, critically, having curfew passes (as an 'essential service') means we can make a big difference. I'm out with Megan (my wife) and the team every day and it's serious and alarming front-line work.
In one week we've taken on 500 families and raised £25k. The aim is to help 5,000 families and raise £100k. IMM (my firm) put up the manpower, operate the programme and every penny raised goes to food and supplies. We've even built an app to track all cases. What we need now is more funds/awareness and I was hoping you could consider donating a few pounds or forward this note to people who might want to help. We know this virus affects everyone and that we're far away but the people we're supporting have nothing and can't possibly self-distance or social-isolate.
Here's a link to some more information and includes the fundraising site.

I really appreciate you taking a look at this. Many members have helped to date; the House has deep links with India and our contribution will be remembered.

Very best wishes


In Appreciation of Christoper Butler - By Peter Conrad (1973)

Professor Christopher ButlerWe were saddened to report the death of Professor Christopher Butler, who died on 18th March 2020. Peter Conrad has kindly provided us with his recollections of Christopher: 

Looking back, it is impossible for me to imagine my life if Christopher Butler had not come into it in 1973. I know, from the messages they sent me after receiving the news of his death, that many of the people we taught feel the same: they unanimously recalled his kindness and hospitality, the joyous enthusiasm for intellectual work that he conveyed, and his unique capacity to talk brilliantly about any extra-curricular subject under the sun. I second all of that, but I think I can claim that his intervention in my case was even more decisive.

We met at an after-dinner discussion group I was occasionally taken to by John Bayley, who had been my tutor at New College – the kind of thing I always avoided in later years, but in those days it saved me from spending another miserable evening immured in All Souls worsening my state of curdled gloom by listening to Wagner. After one of these meetings, Christopher suggested that I might think of applying for the tutorial position Christ Church was advertising to replace J.I.M. Stewart, legendary as a waspish litterateur and an author both of detective stories and of novels about donnish politicking set in an antiquated but sleekly  malevolent Oxford. I hesitated, because I had only once set foot in Christ Church, to hear W.H. Auden preach in the Cathedral, and I remembered that, before I set off on that Sunday evening in 1970, my New College cronies had warned me about the rugger-club hearties who supposedly ran riot there, waiting to pounce on intruders from the more bookish colleges north of the High Street. But I recoiled from the prospect of four more years at All Souls, and decided to take the risk. It was a providential move, and I never regretted it, which is why I stayed at Christ Church for as long as Christopher did. More than a colleague, he was a loyal and generous friend, a staunch moral support, and an admired intellectual soulmate. Richard Hamer's departure was wrenching enough, but when Christopher in his turn retired, I looked around, saw that things were not going to be the same, and followed him out the door as soon as I decently could.

I think of Christopher now as the big brother I never had – but certainly not as a Big Brother, because although he became Senior Censor soon after I arrived (taking over from Richard Hamer) and went on to become a University Proctor, he completely lacked the self-importance and bossiness that overtook others who did such jobs. He accepted those roles, he once told me, to show that academics were not impractical brainboxes but could actually be good at running things; having made his point, he happily returned to reading, writing and teaching. His great delight was not the exercise of power but the operation of intelligence, which for him was a vital joy and an almost athletic exercise, as well as a search for truth.

Having studied for a while with Isaiah Berlin, Christopher had the mind of a philosopher. One of his early interests was numerology and number symbolism, and this appreciation of abstract patterns lay behind his fondness for conceptual art and his decision late in life to learn the piano: mathematics and music both found house-room in that great domed head. Christopher truly possessed the universality that universities, in the days before myopic specialisation, were supposed to be about, and it pleased me enormously whenever he sent me a copy of his books inscribed – in that extravagantly florid handwriting, which hinted at aspects of personality that weren't always on public view – as 'another contribution to the Christ Church School of Universal Cultural History'.

During the days we spent cooped up together each December interviewing entrance candidates, I was always taken aback by the stealthy but unthreatening logic of his questioning: he had a way of coaxing people to reconsider the assumptions they were making and sharpening their perceptions, so that they ended up seeming brighter at the end of the session than they did at the beginning. My way of doing things was to extort a reaction by surprise, which often left the candidates baffled; Christopher's was the more patient and productive Socratic method. Despite his keen enthusiasm, his was a very serene presence during those marathons, and I never felt him tiring or sensed that his concentration was faltering. Every candidate, no matter how unlikely, had the benefit of his brain for twenty minutes.

When the hopefuls and the hopeless left the room, he and I had our disagreements, which Richard shrewdly refereed. An argument about one young woman was the occasion for the only tiff I had with Christopher. Unable to win the argument by the rational means that Christopher employed, I had a tantrum, walked out, then realised that it was my own rooms I'd left in a huff. It was snowing in the quad, and I didn't have my keys so couldn't go home; my only recourse was to slink back in, trying not to look foolish. Christopher, however, apologised to me, though I'd been in the wrong – a gesture that was typical of his sweet nature, and perhaps of his capacity for ironic amusement. We were on less than friendly terms for a total of about five minutes in 35 years.

The only briefing I received before I turned up in October 1973 was succinct: I remember Christopher saying 'I take the first year, you take the second, and we share the third.' That gave him the rights to everything written after the accession of Queen Victoria. Incredibly enough, this was all undiscovered country in Oxford, where the English syllabus had only recently modernised itself by conceding that literary history did not end with the romantic poets but continued throughout the nineteenth century and even, a little racily, into the early twentieth. Christopher elected to teach Mods because modernity was what excited him, and since the 1970s were the years when critical theory was gaining favour he could also experiment with this boldly self-reflexive way of dealing with texts, which allowed readers or interpreters to challenge the authority of writers. He was placed in the vanguard, which left me to dose students with The Faerie Queene and Paradise Lost or Rasselas and Clarissa; it was something of a good cop/bad cop arrangement, but the role of bad cop was type-casting for me. Christopher once commented on the 'liberal and pacific instincts' of the critic, who works by 'interposing himself between the embattled artist and his bewildered audience'. Liberality and pacifism were his creed, while I preferred, I'm afraid, to do the battling and bewildering.

Christopher's choice of periods had nothing to do with accessibility or fashionability, and I have always thought that the rousing last sentence of his book After the Wake – a wonderfully ingenious and wry explication of procedures in writing, painting and music that he derives from Joyce's innovations in Finnegans Wake – propounds a personal mission. Typically, he introduces this by asking to be forgiven for his 'distressingly obvious pieties', but what he goes on to say is neither obvious nor pious. The book's aim, he says, is to ensure 'that we may meet the greatest of challenges to those concerned for the arts: that of inhabiting the present rather than taking refuge in the past'. The challenge was taken up by the conductor Simon Rattle, for whom Christopher served as a tutor and mentor during the sabbatical year Simon spent in Oxford late in the 1970s: in a television series he made for Channel 4 on music in the twentieth century, Simon ends with a programme about Schoenberg, Webern and their descendants which gratefully borrows the title of Christopher's 'essay on the contemporary avant-garde'.

To be contemporary means being alive in your own time; it also means being, as actors say, 'in the moment'. Christopher was all those things, and his engagement with the people who were currently in the room and the ideas they had at this particular instant was what made him so invigorating as a teacher. I was struck by a word one of our former students used in an email she sent me after his death: she had seen him in the street recently, and commented that he was as 'vivid' as ever. She is a novelist, so not surprisingly her evocation of him was clinched by that 'mot juste'. In my head there is also a recurrent echo of something Gillian said when we were last together. Christopher had suffered a recent physical setback; when I heard about it, I came up from London to see him, and was collected from the coach by Gillian. On the way back to their house, I asked her how he had coped with a long and fraught convalescence. She flashed the brightest of smiles and, in her dual capacity as a wife and an acclaimed clinical psychologist, she said 'He's the ideal patient, because he is never bored!' Never bored, and never boring either. I found him in his cerebral retreat at the top of the house, commuting as usual between two computers, several piles of books, and his beloved piano. At one point I mentioned a recent recital of late and lengthy Schubert sonatas by Mitsuko Uchida – a demanding marathon at the end of which she came out, sat down again at the piano stool and silently held up two fingers poised half an inch apart, to reassure us that we were not going to be detained for very much longer. She then played one of Schoenberg's Kleine Klavierstücke, a spiky aphorism that lasts for less than a minute. Christopher laughed, reached out and took from the piano the sheet music for that particular piece, annotated in the margins in his loopy calligraphy. He had been working on it earlier that morning, as a technical and mental challenge – a daily reminder of the need to inhabit the present.

Of course Christopher could inhabit most periods of the past as well, and when not getting literally to grips with Schoenberg he said he had been writing about Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro and attempting, with his usual combination of aesthetic delight and philosophical curiosity, to understand the meaning of the act of forgiveness that occurs during the finale in the dark garden. Here too he made me realise the temperamental difference between us, a complementarity that perhaps explained our friendship: the Mozart opera that has always preoccupied me is Don Giovanni, in which everyone behaves unforgivably.

I think of Christopher as an unofficial philosopher; if asked exactly what his philosophy was I'd have to say he was a hedonist. I'm not sure whether that counts as a philosophy or even an ethical system, but it is the clue to his intellectual orientation and to his personal behaviour. About half way through our time as colleagues, his persona underwent a change: he stopped smoking and his pipe – the symbolic prop of Oxford dons who belonged to a certain generation – disappeared forever. He compensated by becoming a wine connoisseur, overseeing the stock in the college cellars and going on oenophile expeditions throughout Europe that were organised by Richard Cooper, an old friend from mine from New College who got to know Christopher when they were Proctors together. When I remarked on his renunciation of tobacco, Christopher said, 'When you give up one pleasure you have to replace it with another.' That was his version of Bentham's felicific calculus.

His book Pleasure and the Arts, which is about enjoyment not analysis, followed logically. Here he disparages our current worries about 'the moral and political significance of the arts' – which, though he was too peace-loving a man to say so, has reduced the academic study of literature to an annex of identity politics – and instead argues that art exists to generate 'pleasurable emotions and feelings [which] are in fact very complicated modes of understanding the world'. After a larky introductory investigation of jokes, he goes on to rove omnivorously through the history of literature, music and the visual arts, taking in Rembrandt and Picasso, Richard Strauss and the jazz pianist Keith Jarrett, David Lynch and Nick Hornby. The emphasis always is on shared experience, and although in his preface Christopher ponders the unearned impersonality of 'the philosopher's "we"', he uses the pronoun more naively and more infectiously when he talks about the way personal appreciation is intensified by public participation, 'as when we laugh with others at the theatre or jump about at a rock concert, or endure Arsenal in the rain' – or perhaps, I would add, when we discuss a literary work with one or two students in a tutorial. Those almost offhand phrases encapsulate Christopher's generosity of spirit, and the casual references to rock music and football catch the eclecticism of his sympathies.

I'm not sure how common it is for Oxford students, long after graduation, to maintain close friendships with those who taught them. It has happened to me, and I've often reflected that I hardly deserve it, given my grumpiness in earlier days; I can more easily understand why Christopher had so many devotees. Invidious as it is to single out any individual, I will mention Kate Teale, now an artist living in New York, who not long ago made a portrait of Christopher and Gillian that hangs at the bottom of their staircase in North Oxford. It is a perceptive and moving celebration of their affinity and interdependence: wise, genial, talented in different ways but supremely well matched as a couple, they look almost symbiotically linked, and they greet the world with a welcoming smile, just as they always did when opening their front door. A few days after Christopher's death, Kate wrote to me about him, and attached to her e-mail some of the photographs she took as points of reference for the portrait. The images came with labels, and a click was needed to open them; one label said 'Christopher and Gillian laughing', which warned me of a likely emotional shock. I still haven't had the courage to look at any of those photographs – as the poet says, 'Nessun maggior dolore'. But I know that in future, when the loss of Christopher has become less painful, I will often go back to this little gallery, to hold onto at least the image of this pleasure-loving, pleasure-giving, vivid man whom I was so lucky to know and to work with for half a lifetime. 

(Photo of Christopher by KT Bruce)


Stargazing with Professor Roger Davies 

Professor Roger Davies discusses what we expect to see in the April 2020 night sky: Constellation of Leo

 This month don’t miss the glorious sight of Venus hanging in the western sky at dusk, so bright it is  visible before sunset.

As the seasons change the days are lengthening, the time from sunrise to sunset lengthens by roughly 4 minutes per day through April so by early May the days are two hours longer than they are in early April. The arrival of Spring also brings the Spring constellations – rising early in the night is Leo, lead by an asterism in the shape of a sickle (the lion’s head & mane) followed by the triangle forming the lion’s back & tail. At the base of the sickle is the brightest star, the blue-white Regulus, meaning `little king’, 79 light years away this star is 3.8 times more massive than the Sun and is in a binary system with a white dwarf companion.

In the middle of the month early risers with a good eastern horizon can see three planets in the pre-dawn sky Jupiter (the brightest), Saturn & Mars (you can spot it because its red!). For real insomniacs April 21-23 is the peak of the Lyrid meteor shower, best seen in the early hours, as about 20 meteors per hour appear from the direction of the constellation Lyra.  This small constellation can be found by spotting Vega, it’s brightest star (and the third brightest visible from these latitudes), which is about 60 degrees above the ENE horizon at 3am. For those who go to bed earlier Vega will be overhead in the summer (but no meteors!).

Happy stargazing!!

If you want to see even more in the night sky a good interactive star chart can be found at:


(Photo from https://earthsky.org/brightest-stars/best-regulus-the-heart-of-the-lion


COVID-19 and Mental Health 

Dr Daisy FancourtAlumna, Dr Daisy Fancourt (2008), is currently leading a study into the psychological and social effects of COVID-19.
This study, based at University College London, will research the impact of COVID-19 and social distancing measures on the mental health of individuals. Over 18,000 people have already signed up to take part in the study, which will hopefully help to identify the challenges individuals are facing and how we may protect our mental health during this period. 

To find out more about the study please click here.

Mental Health Europe, directed by alumna, Dr Claudia Marinetti (2005), has also put together some tips for looking after your mental health and wellbeing during the COVID-19 crisis.

In addition, Junior Research Fellow, Dr Lucy Taylor, has recently published an article discussing work-life balance for researchers working at home during the COVID-19 pandemic. Lucy's top tips for work-life balance can be accessed here.

(Photo of Dr Daisy Fancourt from UCL) 


Virtual reunion photograph from Alan SimpsonAlumni Virtual Reunions 

We received some wonderful responses to our request for pictures of any 'virtual reunions' held by alumni. 

The Revd Alan Simpson (1970) kindly sent us a few pictures of his virtual reunion, which even included a Christ Church menu! 

Please do keep sending us pictures of your virtual reunions!  We look forward to hearing about them!





Claudia Daventry Shortlisted for Moth Poetry Prize 

Claudia DaventryWe are very pleased to report that Claudia Daventry (1983) has been shortlisted for the Moth Poetry Prize, one of the biggest international prizes for a single poem. 

Claudia Daventry went into advertising as a graduate trainee and moved from the management side to creative, where she spent several years working on bluechip accounts before leaving to focus on poetry. Her work has been published in various reviews and anthologies and her libretti performed at the Glasgow Commonwealth games and live on BBC radio 3. Accolades include her Templar award-winning chapbook the Oligarch Loses His Patience and first place in the Bridport, Ruskin and Hippocrates prizes. Four poets have been shortlisted for the Moth Prize, with the other three coming from the UK, Canada and Australia. The winner of the prize will be announced on 30th April.  For more information please follow this link.

Claudia has very kindly given us permission to feature one of her poems, which last year won the Hippocrates Prize for Poetry and Medicine:


for my Valentine in an fMRI scanner




it’s because of the way your parahippocampal gyrus

glows green under pressure. The way your parietal lobe

(which, try as I might, I can’t see as inferior)

shows hyperactivity when I whisper sweet nothings.


For this alone I want to sail away to your bilateral insula

in a precuneus coracle, drag it high on white sand, dance

the cingulate cortex breathless and wild,


then pull you close and do the fusiform gyrus

as the fiery plate of the sun drops

below the horizon.


You are my frontal and limbic regions of interest.

You alone are my dorsal hypoactive cluster.

You have declared cerebellum on my own amygdala,

o, stroll with me under the globus pallidus of the moon.




A Haiflu by Liv Torc Susannah Herbert (1984), Executive Director of the Forward Arts Foundation, recently highlighted the work of Liv Torc, a young poet from the West Midlands, who the Foundation is currently seeking support for. 

Liv has been encouraging people from across the UK to say what they notice around them during the lockdown in the form of a haiku (5 syllables, 7 syllables, 5 syllables), a form that she has playfully dubbed the #haiflu. The best are put onto slides and shared on social media. To find out more about the project and how to submit your own #haiflu please follow this link.

Liv's work can be viewed here.