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The Difficulty of Choosing a New Master

By Alex Reid, 1.2.10

Because it was likely to be long, the meeting had in accordance with tradition started at dawn, with relays of food and drink provided on a buffet side table.

It was chilly and the Fellows were well wrapped up. Baston had brought a travelling rug, and Pinnington was carrying a steaming hot water bottle. Steep had a fur hat and Potterton wore over his suit something called a Slanket. This is a long cosy blanket with attached sleeves which is intended for use when watching TV.

The meeting was called to order as the first light of dawn cracked open the darkness, and suggestions were invited.

Immediately the Fellows started suggesting each other. Godwich suggested Partington. Partington suggested Bellows. Bellows suggested Match-Wigley. Match-Wigley suggested Baston. Baston was flattered but said he was too old to serve and suggested Boot. Boot suggested Worthington. Worthington suggested Pauncefoot. Pauncefoot suggested Baston again, forgetting he was too old to serve. Baston suggested Boot again. Boot switched his support from Finchley to Snape. Snape opened up the field, suggesting Watson or Hemingway. Watson and Hemingway conferred, and came up with the joint suggestion of Pounce. Pounce suggested Plimlott. Plimlott had fallen asleep, and when woken suggested scrambled eggs.

This was clearly getting nowhere, and Fellows were invited to suggest distinguished names from outside the present Fellowship. They produced scrumpled pieces of paper to remind them of the ideas they had had over recent weeks. The names tumbled out - eminent historians, biologists, chemists, mathematicians, geographers, classicists, ambassadors, and retired permanent secretaries. Fillington, Kettle, Stoop, Pindle, Howl, Ffitch, Corben, Stitchworth, Homburg, Neap, Speller, Partridge, Kruger, Sprite, Nettleton, Swipe, Hambrecht, Puce-Williams, Merriman, and more.

Sometimes common names caused confusion. When Parker was suggested it turned out that there were six Parkers worth considering, including a botanist, an oncologist, the former Ambassador to Libya, a captain of industry, and his sister who is the former head of the Prison Service. They were put in the shade by another candidate who had had a distinguished career as a botanist, as an oncologist, as Ambassador to Libya, as a captain of industry and as head of the Prison Service.

There were also problems with unusual names, some of which were so unusual that they evoked gales of laughter and got no further. Occasionally a Fellow could remember a person vividly, but couldn't remember the name, which was on the tip of his tongue. This held things up a bit. Sometimes a name would open up a whole new seam of possibilities. When Dubois was suggested he didn't get much support. But he triggered a welter of suggestions for other highly qualified French candidates - Jobert, Courtine, Chevalier, Hervouet, Frimour, and Roche. Sometimes, too, a name would remind Fellows of promising candidates with similar names. When Hampton was suggested, he was dismissed out of hand. But the suggestion did flush out well argued nominations of Brampton, Crampton, and Dampton.   

None of the names suggested so far had commanded enthusiastic support, and spirits were low. Pounce then made the suggestion that perhaps tradition should be ignored and consideration should be given to having an absentee Master, who would lend distinction to the College, but didn't actually need to be there. Pounce argued that this would widen the field greatly, since important people from far and wide would presumably be happy to accept such an appointment.

This was agreed, but the very breadth of the field made the whole process difficult and divisive. For a start, many of the suggestions, such as Mother Theresa and Frankie Howerd, turned out to be dead. Among the living it was difficult to get any agreement. There were general murmurs of support for Nelson Mandela and Joanna Lumley, but among former US Presidents everyone had a different favourite. And it was just as bad with other politicians. Ken Livingston, Margaret Thatcher, Peter Mandelson, Betty Boothroyd and Boris Johnson all had their supporters, but they also had their enemies. When it came to show business, passions ran high. Suggestions included Paul McCartney, Woody Allen, Kylie Minogue, Bruce Forsyth, Angelina Jolie, Cliff Richard, Tom Jones, Ant and Dec (as a job share), Jane Fonda, Placido Domingo, and Scarlett Johansson. But none carried the day.

Baston, who was something of a maverick, asked whether it was necessary for the Master to be a person. Could the Master be an animal, in the way that some Regiments have a ceremonial goat? This opened up a new field of enquiry, and suggestions were eagerly thrown onto the table, particularly by Pinnington, who is a zooologist.

The suggestions revealed the kind of Master that each Fellow was keen to see in charge. Some wanted a fierce tiger, lion or panther. Some wanted a fish. Others preferred various kinds of bear. Some liked soaring birds such as eagles and buzzards. Nobody wanted an albatross. Others favoured gentler creatures such as cats, hamsters, gerbils, and cows. Nobody could agree on a particular breed of dog. Some thought an odd-looking animal, such as a kangaroo, an ostrich, or a toucan, would help the College to stand out. And Pinnington unhelpfully suggested a raft of rare and endangered animals nobody had ever heard of. These included the Seychelles Sheath-tailed Bat, the Northern Hairy-nosed Wombat, the Dwarf Blue Sheep, the Riverine Rabbit, the Addax, the North Atlantic Right Whale and the Black-footed Ferret.

Exhaustion was setting in, and the afternoon sun was throwing lengthening shadows. But the discussion was given new life when Beeston suggested a further break with tradition. Instead of an animal, could not the new Master be a song? The Master could be sung by the College choir at the end of every formal dinner, and could be hummed by Fellows as they went about their work. Young Pinsett suggested the Master could also be downloaded from the College website as a ringtone.

As with the animals, the suggestions for songs brought out a rich diversity of views among the Fellows. Godwich suggested the Skye Boat Song. Partington suggested O Sole Mio. Heap suggested the Triumphal March from Aida. Pinnington suggested My Favourite Things, from the Sound of Music. Bellows suggested the Twenty Third Psalm. Match-Wigley suggested Doing the Hokey Cokey. Baston suggested Auld Lang Syne. Boot suggested Come into the Garden Maud. Worthington suggested Take a Chance on Me, by Abba. Pauncefoot suggested I Vow To Thee My Country, and proceeded to sing it.

Dizzy with possibilities, the Fellows decided their task was impossible. Dusk was settling over the College, and they wondered what to do next.

Pounce had an inspiration. He suggested that they should not choose a new Master at all, but that when the present Master's statutory term expired, they should simply continue to treat him as if he was the Master. This was approved unanimously.


This website is published by Alex Reid, 27 Millington Road, Cambridge CB3 9HW. Telephone: +44 1223 319733. Email: aalreid(at) It is an electronic scrap book, containing family life stories, casual articles, and family memorabilia.


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