The pianist Lang Lang arrives to give a masterclass in the chapel of St Peter’s College, Oxford – having, over the past three days, twice filled the Albert Hall and received eight encores. The college has recently elected him to an honorary fellowship. He bounds in for a buffet lunch before the class, organised with Oxford Philomusica, and immediately talks to anybody and everybody. I had not expected such extreme affability.
Dame Fanny Waterman, diminutive doyenne of English piano teachers, hugs him around the knees and marches him off to a corner to compare notes about piano teaching. She is worried that there is not enough English talent coming through but is full of admiration for the explosion in Chinese playing.
There is a hubbub but Lang Lang picks up everything. His musician’s ear extends to speech and he responds to any conversational gambit. He is more generous with photo opportunities than any guest I have known. He has no chance to eat and I usher him into a separate room to spare him zipping around the corner for a hamburger.
The chapel is crammed but its capacity is only 320 people, and it could probably have been filled five times over. The three students seem to me to play beautifully – Beethoven, Debussy and Liszt. After each piece Lang Lang moves athletically around the piano and provides a mixture of cultural references and technical instruction to improve the performances. He quotes the opening lines of Hamlet, refers to the movement of cats, tells his pupils about the different types of pianissimo and then how best to play a repeated note to make it sound more interesting. It works. The students get better in a matter of minutes.
From time to time Lang Lang sits on the stool and plays passages of the same pieces. The students are very good but we all immediately hear the difference. It is a masterclass about how to listen as well as how to play.
After an hour and a half it’s over but he can’t leave. The audience wants to thank him, to touch him, and cameras pop out from all corners. It takes half an hour to get him out to his car in one piece.
Turin university has a winter school for politics students, open to the public. It is not in Turin itself, alas, but nearby, in the enticingly named Rivarolo, which turns out to be the first small Italian town I have seen that is almost plain – though rescued by views of the surrounding Alps.
In my previous life I had been controller of Radio 4 and I am here to give a lecture on the BBC, notions of impartiality and the language of politics. The audience is of all ages and the questions reveal a yearning for an Italian public service broadcaster with real muscle. It is incredulous when I explain how BBC journalists are not allowed to express prescriptive opinions and how no one is removed from his or her job when political power switches. For the umpteenth time I am struck by the gulf between the BBC’s international reputation and its dual status in Britain as provider of often outstanding programmes and, periodically, a national punchbag.
The centre of Turin itself is breathtaking, with huge squares, long arcades and the gorgeous 18th-century Palazzo Madama, dripping with stucco. The Italians do great public spaces but this time the aesthetic pleasure is dampened by aural pollution, a regular Italian vice. Some city luminary has allowed a local pop station to broadcast its abysmal pap on dozens of loudspeakers across Piazza San Carlo – the loveliest square of all.
Oxford college heads, of which there are almost 40, meet formally twice a term. Curiously, in a city full of lecture halls and seminar rooms, we have trouble finding a suitable location. This time it’s a big room in Somerville where we are provided with coffee and biscuits but can’t all see each other, and so the hunt for the right venue goes on. Perhaps we could try the Divinity School: utterly beautiful, very central and, possibly, at least for some, inspirational.
The new chairman of the Conference of Colleges, Sir Jonathan Phillips of Keble, was head of the Northern Ireland Office during the peace talks so he has the training to keep us in order. Every now and then there is polite friction but, for the most part, everyone is studiedly courteous and consensual.
I had been warned (by no less an authority than Lord Mandelson) that Oxford would be a more political organisation than the BBC. I have not yet found that to be the case but perhaps we have all been sedated by the copious paperwork that accompanies most meetings here.
St Peter’s wasn’t around during the first world war (we were founded in 1929) but the college has strong reasons to join in the centenary commemorations. Captain Noel Chavasse, MC, VC and Bar, Britain’s most decorated first world war soldier, is the son of our founder, was born here, and his identical twin Christopher was our first Master.
Capt Chavasse never fired a shot. On the outbreak of war, he joined the Royal Army Medical Corps and was awarded his two VCs for organising stretcher parties and rescuing scores of wounded soldiers while under fire – first in 1916 at the Somme and then a year later at Passchendaele. He also picked up the ID tags of dead soldiers to provide some balm for their relatives. He did this in both battles despite both times being wounded early in the action.
Noel was deeply loved by his men – no doubt, in part, because he used to write letters of complaint to the high-ups about the need for them to have better footwear and clothing. Before all of this he had got a first in medicine at Trinity College (Oxford) and in 1908 ran the 400 metres for Britain at the London Olympics, as did his twin brother.
When Noel died, two days after being hit by a German shell at Passchendaele, a wooden Celtic cross was erected in the Brandhoek military cemetery in Flanders, Belgium, and later replaced by something more durable. This month, in a moving ceremony, the original cross was fixed permanently to the wall of our college chapel. The sparsely written citations for the two VCs were read out in total silence. I hope when we get to the centenary itself we are not anaesthetised to first world war anniversaries. If ever a man ought to be remembered, it is Noel Chavasse.
Mark Damazer is master of St Peter’s College, Oxford