An Interview with Chris Smith

Chris Smith, former Culture Secretary, member of the House of Lords, and Chair of the Art Fund, is an esteemed politician and greatly accomplished man. But he was also, once, simply a Pembroke College undergraduate like us, and he remembers this fondly. I met with him to discuss his student years, his favourite things about Pembroke, and what he sees for the future of the college.

I wander into K staircase, previously unexplored territory, on an overcast Monday morning and make my way towards the Master’s office. His PA, Jeanette Ferguson, welcomes me warmly and offers me a cup of tea while I wait for Smith to join us. He is only a few moments behind, apologising for being late though he is perfectly on time, and excitedly asks if that’s the kettle he can hear boiling; he jokes that he couldn’t possibly answer any questions before he has a cup of coffee in hand. I relax. Smith is invariably courteous and soft-spoken, gesturing for me to sit down and make myself at home. When I ask him to give me an idea of the general feel of Pembroke in his undergraduate years, he jumps right in.

“Well I matriculated in 1969, so I grew up in the 1960s. It was a wonderful time of liberation and change and there was a sense of optimism around the world. There was a sense of the fact that you could change things by democratic decision making and action and campaigning – so I came up to Cambridge and Pembroke in that sort of spirit.”

As he recalls these memories, his demeanour grows warmer and there is a fond nostalgia in his words. Perhaps most crucially, he suggests, Pembroke gave him “a group of very good friends who have remained friends to this day. I remember long and intense and furious political and intellectual discussions; after dinner we would gather in one or other of our rooms and over coffee we would talk for hours about everything.” I ask him if he thinks this informed, in a roundabout way, his decision to go into politics, and he nods in agreement. “My university years were certainly formative. Pembroke gave me a bit of a foothold in things like the Labour Club and the Union that I got very strongly involved in – that, I suppose, led eventually to what became a political career. There was a rather good base from which to throw myself into all sorts of things all around the university.”

Smith is incredibly proud, therefore, that there seems to be have been an increase in the availability of these informative and successful opportunities to students: “The strength of activity in drama and politics and sport and music at college level is much greater than it was when I was student. For a lot of that you had to look to university-wide bodies to get involved. One of the fabulous things about Pembroke at the moment is there is real strength across a great range of different activities which students can throw themselves into.”

I question whether he has seen these kinds of changes happen across the board in the time between his years of study, when he returned as an Honorary Fellow in 2004, and when he was appointed as Master in 2015. “Coming back as Master, you’re in a very different role and position, but I have to say I was very struck by how much had changed but also by how little had changed.” I ask how big of a contributing factor was the decision to admit women, beginning in 1984, to these changes. “The biggest change, as you rightly suggest, is that now, for 33 years, Pembroke has admitted women. In my day, it was all men. The students, the fellows. Not only did we lose out on quite a lot of intellectual brain power by excluding women from the college, we also made ourselves a much less rich and embracing community. Having women in the college has made a huge difference, for the better. Now, of course, the student body is 50/50, though the fellowship is still skewed a little towards men; over time, this will be worked through, I’m sure.”

Smith leans forward a little and laughs, before adding, “The other big change, I would say, is that the food is enormously better. The variety, the quality, is just in a different league.” Though I’m not sure the Master is treated to the daily pasta from trough, it’s nice to know that even our gracious leader appreciates the little things.

But I am equally as intrigued by those qualities that Pembroke has retained over the past 30 years. I mention another interview that I have recently conducted with Pembroke alumnus Stephen Halliday, who drew attention to the consistency of Nick Firman’s work on the gardens, as well as the friendliness that visitors have always noted when they spend time at the college. “The gardens are just as beautiful as they were, and what you describe as the friendliness of the college is certainly still absolutely what it was. There’s a real sense that this is a place that wants you to feel part of it, and to feel supported and embraced. It’s an open arms place.”

We speak briefly about the rise of tourism in Cambridge, and how this has caused some insulation within the University. Smith seems pleased when I admit that I was drawn to Pembroke by its atmosphere as a college, as opposed to the stately home that St John’s can appear to be, or the cathedral feel of King’s. “Pembroke doesn’t stand on its dignity. When I was a student you could wander around anywhere in the university, you could go into any college. But Pembroke is sort of the only place where that atmosphere still exists, certainly we as a fellowship hope to keep that atmosphere alive. And when we build the new site across the road, on Mill Lane, we will want that to have the same feel.”

During the time when he was composing his PhD thesis, Smith spent a year as a Kennedy Scholar at Harvard; I ask how this time measures up Cambridge, and whether there is truth in the idea that the Cambridge experience is very different to most universities. “Harvard was very, very different,” he replies emphatically. “The two things that are most distinct about the Cambridge system is the college, where your social time is largely spent with those you are part of a community with. The college system is important for that. The other major unique thing is the supervision, its very close teaching. At Harvard, even though it was sort of modelled on the college system, it had a very different feel to it. Most of the teaching that was done in very big lectures with many people.” He smiles and hesitates a moment before adding, “Was the intellectual standard as good at Harvard as it is here? Almost, I think, would be my answer.”

We begin to discuss the success of Pembroke’s various international programmes, and Smith is notably excited about the recent arrival of the American semester students. “I met quite a number of [the American exchange students] at the welcome drinks, and there are some really, really interesting people among them. One of the things I really like about the fact that Pembroke welcomes a range of international students is that it enhances the experience for British students, who get to meet people from very different backgrounds and cultures – and that in itself is a very educational experience.”

I ask about how he sees Pembroke moving forward amidst Brexit, the rise of new and important political movements, and the rapid advancements of technology. “Whether or not Brexit happens, things will change. That’s all I’ll say on that. And the advances of technology over the past twenty years have been huge. When I was here there were no mobile phones, no social media; if you wanted to get a message to someone you wrote a note and left it in their pigeon hole. If you wanted to phone home you went down the road to a phone box. It was a much less communication-filled world, so already we have seen enormous changes – some of which have brought problems. I do fear some of the consequences of the impact of social media on student life; the fact that anything that happens might be magnified across hundreds of people. You hope that gradually each person will learn how to protect a degree of private feeling in their life while sharing so much with others. I think there will be substantial revolutions in the way teaching happens over the next twenty years, and one of the things we’re thinking about in relation to the Mill Lane development is how we can create the very best, groundbreaking, state of the art teaching facilities. Rooms where each wall can become a screen and be used interactively by speech as opposed to buttons. All those sort of opportunities. We need to try as we develop across the road to keep at the front of the wave rather than run behind it.”

As a tentative end to our discussion, somewhat removed from our main line of conversation, I ask him if he has any words of wisdom for the study of the literature of the eighteenth century – the period on which Smith wrote his PhD, and the period which I am now studying. He immediately offers some book titles which he admires and suspects will be helpful, and expresses an interest in the ideas that I am exploring this term. As I leave, I am grateful to be led by a man with such compassion and investment in this college and its students.