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Monday, 3 February 2014

Christ Church Meadow, Oxford and Commissar of Enlightenment Lunacharsky

Yesterday I was in Oxford. It was a cold but bright, sunny day so I did what I always try to do when in Oxford - I went for a walk round Christ Church meadow. I've been doing that for nearly fifty years.

The meadow is an ordinary meadow, maybe the size of a hundred football fields. In summer, cows graze there.The walk is an unchallenging kilometer around the four sides and back to where you started from. There are, I guess,  two things which make it a tourist attraction as well as a place favoured by joggers and young lovers: it is right in the city centre and,as you walk round, you have uninterrupted views of Oxford's dreaming spires - particularly Magdalen Tower and Christ Church itself. It is a very peaceful and beautiful place.

Christ Church - known to many as the college where Lewis Carroll taught - is one of the richest (and most reactionary) Oxford colleges and owns the meadow. It gives the college an impregnable view southwards down to the River Cherwell. It occurred to me as I walked round that there is another reason why it has survived over the centuries without being built on: the meadow floods. Yesterday it was completely flooded, more than I have ever seen it before. The Cherwell had also overflowed its banks. The raised walkways around the edges of the meadow remained reasonably dry, though officially they had been closed off - no one was paying any attention to that.

When I arrived in Oxford in the middle 1960s, the City Council had a plan to build a road through the meadow to by - pass the congested main street. It was argued that the rumbling of traffic there was undermining the foundations of the many colleges which front directly onto the street.

It was an appalling scheme and you would have been hard put to find anyone in favour of it. We radical students laughed when we read about High Church and High Tory dons in Christ Church threatening to prostrate themselves in front of any bulldozers which dared. But, of course, they were absolutely right to be absolutely determined. We owe them a debt.

I was thinking back to this as I walked round the meadow and, perhaps because I had just been talking to someone from Moscow, I was reminded of a story about Anatoly Lunacharsky.

He was People's Commissar of Enlightenment right at the beginning of the Russian Revolution when the government was still based in Petrograd - it did not move to Moscow until 1918. Now whereas the Bolshevik seizure of power in Petrograd on the night of 24 - 25th October (Old Style) was without bloodshed, the subsequent seizure of power in Moscow involved heavy fighting - and the deployment of heavy weapons. Lunacharsky became distraught when informed of the damage to historic buildings in Moscow - all of them symbols of the old order just overthrown - and even handed in his resignation. I think his colleagues must have been amused but they kept him on in his job and he had considerable success, for example, in pushing up the literacy rate in Russia. (I am recalling all  this from a book by Sheila Fitzpatrick read many years ago).

Stalin dealt (or may have dealt) with him quite leniently. As an Old Bolshevik, of course, he had to go - but in 1933 he was  simply sent into exile as Ambassador to Spain. He died - of natural causes it seems - on his way to his new job, at Menton in France, where there is a memorial.

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