A conversation with Stephen Halliday

Illustration by Phoebe Flatau

Emily Fish sat down with Stephen Halliday - Pembroke alumnus, lecturer and author - to discuss how Pembroke has changed since his time as an undergraduate. From the colour of the buildings, to the first admissions of women, it is amazing how Pembroke is continually adapting and yet still retains its character.

The Buildings

Emily: Pembroke nowadays has a fairly high reputation for its appearance - was it the same in the 1960s? Stephen: Well, from 1800, until the 1950s, any town or city of any size would have been covered for most of the year, but particularly winter, with a thick black smoke produced by coal fires. People heated their houses with coal, factories were powered by coal, water was heated by coal, and coal created smoke. If you hung your washing out, it was likely to come back dirtier than before you washed it. And Pembroke, like everything else, was filthy. You couldn’t tell, for example, that the Old Library was made of brick and New Court was made of stone - they were both just black. So it was a very unattractive college.

E: I think people would be quite surprised to hear that. S: Yes - then in the 70s and 80s, the whole place was cleaned. And gradually, it was as if you had drawn back a curtain. When I came back to visit, in the 80s, I walked into Old Court and thought, ‘actually, this is quite an attractive place’. That has made all the difference. I’m a Cambridge City Guide, and we bring more visitors to Pembroke than to any other college.

E: Even places like King’s? S: Oh yes; but that is largely because when we take visitors on pre-booked tours they want to visit a college but they don’t want to pay, and Pembroke is the only central college that doesn’t charge. And when we bring them in, they walk past the Porter’s lodge and they stop and say “wow, what a beautiful place this is”. That was much less obvious in the 1960s.

The Gardens

E: And how about the gardens - were they as prolific as they are now? S: Well, when I was an undergraduate the dean was a man named Meredith Dewey, and he was a scientist as well as a clergyman. Now he used to spend the long vacation travelling to exotic destinations and collecting rocks which they now have in the library, very important geological artefacts, but also plants: cuttings, and seeds, which he brought back in his sandwiches to keep them moist - and away from customs men. But his dog collar probably helped there.

E: So we have him to thank for the exciting specimens that you see in the Pembroke gardens? S: He was, initially, in charge of just the rockery, outside the JP. But since then there has been an enormous amount done for the plants - you know about the banana plant? E: We here at Pembroke Street love the banana plant.

S: Did you know that we also have pomegranates? If you walk along the path next to library lawn, there is a pomegranate tree, and you can see little pomegranates. You won’t find them anywhere else in Cambridge. We also have plumbago plants, one near the catering office and one just outside the JP, and they are subtropical. I was once giving a man from Texas a tour and he remarked, “they grow like weeds in Texas but I’ve never seen them in England!” - in September they have lots of blue and white foliage. Nick Firman, the gardener, is fantastic. He joined Pembroke a few weeks after I graduated in 1964, so he has been here for almost 54 years. E: Pembroke definitely wouldn’t be the same without him. S: Certainly, now the buildings and the gardens are an attractive a combination as you will see anywhere. The conditions of the gardens and the buildings is far superior to when I was here.Those I take on tours comment that King’s feels like a cathedral; Trinity and St. John’s feel like stately homes; but Pembroke, they say, feels like a college. Because you see students amidst all the history.

The People

E: I do think quite a few people believe that Pembroke is a very friendly place. S: Indeed, it’s always had a reputation for being friendly, and that begins with the porters. Several people have commented that they chose the college because the porters were nice and the gardens were lovely. But that wasn’t always the case. There was a rumour about a porter from when I was a student, Bert, who supposedly had a part-time job.

E: I would think that being a porter takes up enough time... S: Well he didn’t have to work very often: he was thought to be a hangman. Sometimes, he would go away for a few days, and come back, and we could only guess where he’d been. This was only a rumour, but no-one ever denied it.

E: Well we might always have had a reputation as a friendly college, but a remarkably significant change in the population of Pembroke since the 60s is that now there are women!

S: Yes, Pembroke was one of the last to make the change. When I began my degree, the colleges were all-male and all-female, but by the time I left a few had started making the change. The delay in Pembroke’s part in the process was largely to do with the master in the 1970s, who for some reason was very much opposed to it; I think he just liked things the way they were. When Lord Adrian replaced him he started making the necessary arrangements immediately.

The Hijinks

E: Do you think the college experience changed for male students when they started accepting women? S: In the 1960s there was a certain strictness that was not there as much by the 80s. It wasn’t until 1970 that England changed the law so that the age of majority was 18 and not 21; when I was an undergraduate we were still seen as infants in the eyes of the law. The college was locked at 11pm, and after that you had to come in over the back wall. Pembroke was quite relaxed - the master used to leave his garage open so people could come and go. But some colleges took this very seriously, and Jesus college in particular used to have revolving spikes on its walls so if you tried to climb over them they would revolve and impale you. When women were first admitted, there were talks of sectioning them off into one building, perhaps Orchard Building, but I think the college accepted that if things were going to happen between students, putting them in different buildings wouldn’t make any difference.

The Teaching

E: The last component of the college that we should talk about is the academics. How much do you think they have changed in the past 50 years or so? Do students measure up? S: In my day there was no such thing as the Tompkins Table, so no-one knew how everyone else was doing. Everyone knew who was head of the river; everyone knew who won cuppers; but no-one knew which colleges were doing well and which were doing badly. There was a vague feeling, but no-one really seemed to care. I think nowadays you are under much more pressure to perform well, to do a lot more work. In the 1960s Pembroke College was probably what I’d call a middle-ranking college - now it is really one of the stars. It is one of the most difficult to get into. It’s in what I like to call a Champion’s League position; it’s great for everything.

E: That’s a very positive advertisement for the college! S: I do always tell students that are thinking about applying to Cambridge to visit the colleges and see which one they feel is right for them. Considering all of its great qualities, it seems unsurprising that so many students end up applying here.