An anniversary! It’s fifty years to the very day when I first went up to Cambridge University. Half a century – it doesn’t seem possible. I went up the old A10 with my long-suffering parents, who bore with my rather tense mood over lunch at some roadside hostelry in Ware, and helped me manhandle trunks, guitars and so on from the old Morris 1100 to my room on R staircase of Pembroke College.
After they left a lot of foundations were soon laid, once I’d got the lights fixed in my room. Joining the Folk Club at the Societies Fair determined my musical future. The invitation to the college Christian Union “squash” established friendships that continue today. And when the (then all male) college Juniour Parlour imported en masse the freshers of Homerton (then all female) teacher training college for a dance, I certainly saw, though didn’t clock, my future wife. But I did get acquainted with a girl who later became the excellent singer in our always under-rehearsed folk trio, Mangling Dun. I even started working, and only this year I saw the nice blonde girl from New Hall, part of my Physiology Practical foursome, on the TV, speaking authoritatively about viruses from China.
How different from the 2020 experience of new students like my great nephew, who have had the last year of school stolen from them, together with their exam results; who have been blamed for the tiny, but increasing, number of COVID “cases” over the summer, simply because they met each other and went on holiday, to distract attention from the escalating number of false positive tests and to give the excuse for more fear; and who arrived at college, paid their large fees, and then immediately got clapped into their rooms and threatened with being there for Christmas.
If that weren’t enough, they are well aware that the government has tanked the economy for decades to come, so that 40% of young British people now say they are not going to achieve their job ambitions, and the same percentage say they have no confidence in the future at all. Bear in mind they had already been told all last year, by Greta Thunberg and the Great and Good who adored her, that the whole damned planet will be gone by the time they are old enough to have kids.
But let me fast-forward in my own university career to 1973, when my efforts to come to grips with the New Left bias of my social psychology studies (run by the Social and Political sciences department, not the Medical Sciences) were enormously helped by a book by one Os Guinness.
Bear in mind how this was very soon after the world-changing Student Uprising that began in Paris in 1968 and then spread around the free world. Cambridge was in my day still troubled by militant leftists, who were deplatforming or shouting down speakers they didn’t like, organising sit-ins heavily managed to look democratic but actually to be radical, and doing it all in the name of “the student body” because our Students Union fees were paid out of our college fees and we had no say in the matter. Plus ça change…
The Union had, as was inevitable, been thoroughly taken over by the radical left. The Students Union is not to be confused with the more famous “Cambridge Union,” which is a starchy debating society run by future government ministers and self-promoters like Arianna Huffington, then Stassinopoulos. My anatomy partner Tim gave me the gossip on it all before a bike accident terminated his Cambridge experience. One of his rivals there is now the Master of Pembroke, which is how it works in this country. Nevertheless, the Maoists and Trotskyites in the other Union did OK in the Establishment as well, and there was more than a fair share of them teaching in the social sciences.
I bought Os Guinness’s extraordinary work The Dust of Death from the Christian Union bookstall, on the recommendation of the leaders there, and it set the direction of my thinking about the forces operating in society, from that day to this. That’s why I quote from it in my e-book about the current world situation, Seeing Through Smoke.
The young Guinness was then resident at Francis Schaeffer’s L’Abri in Switzerland. He took the trouble to travel to America and tour extensively, picking up information about the whole counter-culture and its meaning, which he delivered as a series of ten informal lectures back at L’Abri. That became the basis for his first book. Apart from medical texts, it was the thickest book I owned at the time.
After Cambridge Os Guinness continued to be a source of inspiration. We moonlighted at Spurgeon’s Westminster Chapel, where he was briefly the minister before he discovered that his true vocation was in sociological comment. I learned about the crucial Puritan teaching on the vocation of all believers from him.
We heard a remarkable series of seminars he gave at the Greenbelt Festival in 1984. His razor-sharp clarity of thought when answering unscripted questions, combined with a wealth of off-the-cuff quotes from great thinkers and a sound grasp of, and reliance on, Scripture showed me, at a time of great personal doubt, that Christianity was intellectually solid.
It may even be from one of his more anecdotal quotes that I got the line, “I knew Christianity was true – but I didn’t know it was that true!” Incidentally, he also wrote an excellent book on Doubt itself, which was immensely helpful to me in that period. And of course, he even has an iconic Irish Stout named after him (no coincidence – he is related to the brewing family).
Anyway, having started this piece with an anniversary from half a century ago, let me end with another. The Dust of Death has just been reissued by IVP, since although written so long ago it still has great relevance to the times in which we are, after a manner of speaking, living. Here’s a great interview with Os by Eric Metaxas, which is well worth your time, if only to experience the astonishing lucidity of the man’s thought.