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The Spike or Victoria University College Review, June 1927

Bristol Impressions

page 6

Bristol Impressions.

The following is an account of the National Union of Students' Congress held at Bristol at the end of last March, taken from a letter sent by J.C.B., now at King's College—Univ. of London, to relatives in Wellington. It is interesting, not only as an unorthodox description of the Congress and its speakers, but it is significant also in the insight it gives of the reaction of a colonial student to English ways and customs.—Ed. Spike.

Well, as for Bristol, we put in a week over that business. From the point of view of intellectual stir-up it was a sheer washout. The ostensible purpose of the thing—the National Union of Students' Congress—was to discuss the Art of Life, and D. and I, in our poor benighted colonial ignorance, and thinking we'd be up against mighty men if it came to a row, put in all the time we could mugging up Havelock Ellis, and the Bertrand Russells. But jingo! a milder mannered, more conventional, stick in the mud, thoroughly respectable English gathering you never saw. Three hundred and fifty of them there were, of whom perhaps ten had any life in them. I must say these ten or so were pretty good in a way: spoke very well, and had cheerful grins, had travelled a good bit, and could clap at the right time in a speech in French or German, but I didn't hear a single new idea there. I got the impression that the average English student is no more bright nor brainy, nor throbbing with modernity, and unplumbed depths of agonising thought than the average New Zealand student; though that, of course, is not to be taken as a compliment to the New Zealand student.

Bristol itself is an interesting enough place, and I spent a cheerful afternoon with a select party of highbrows wandering around looking at St. Mary Redcliffe, old houses, etc., while the lowbrows inspected Wills' tobacco factory and collected free samples of Golden Flake, and tins of Navy Cut. St. Mary Redcliffe is one of the best churches I have seen; some of the stained glass is magnificent, and a kindly verger or some such-like, took us up to the Muniment room where the late Chatterton sought ideas for his forgeries, and showed us the rib of a whale which Cabot brought back from America (also said to be the rib of the dun cow killed by the great Guy of Warwick); and a statue of Queen Elizabeth, who visited the Church once, and said something about it which the lad took as a personal compliment to himself.

Where Bristol is extraordinarily lucky is in the University buildings. The main part of them has only been up for two years—the Wills family has spent one and a half million on the University altogether (so you see that all smoking is not waste). It is a gorgeous sort of Gothic affair with a great entrance hall seventy feet high, and a tower two hundred and fifty fet high, from which you can see the coast of Wales and the Channel; and which has the best toned bell I have ever heard, and a most magnificent main hall with a splendid page 7 beam roof and carved out pannelling, with a place for an organ, a council room which no council on earth could possibly deserve, and the finest art library I have ever seen. Then one of the Wills bought a big building called the Victoria Rooms, had it altered to suit, and then handed it over to the Students' Union for club rooms. This is where the Congress had its meetings.

They had an imposing list of speakers down on the programme—Bertrand Russell, Lady Astor, and Margaret Bondfield, a sculptor by the name of Alec Mills, J. H. Hadfield, the psychologist, and an assorted collection of foreign students from France, Germany, Poland, Czecho-Slovakia, and Switzerland. Russell was pretty good, but said nothing new, really only giving us a chapter from his Prospects of Industrial Civilization. It was interesting to hear him speak though. Hadfield wasn't bad, though I understand from D. that he obtained all his psychology second-hand from McDougall and Tansley, and that it was pretty rocky anyhow. Margaret Bondfield was very good; she speaks well and knows what she's talking about. Lady Astor was a great disappointment. She has a sort of charm, and a hearty laugh, and a slangy sort of talk (she drops all her g's), but a perfectly hopelessly muddled mind. She was supposed to be talking about the use of leisure; but she seemed to spend most of her time slanging the socialists (to which one would have no objection in the world if it was in the least to the point or if she knew anything about socialism), and preaching the necessity of overcoming the body with the spirit. . . The sculptor bird, Miller, was very good on Art and Decoration; indeed, he gave quite an admirable address, working in both Oscar Wilde and St. Paul with equal felicity. I was nearly forgetting to mention one horror—the inaugural address by Sir John Reith, the director of the B.B.C. Have you ever heard one of the most successful of British business men describe how he got there? Thank heaven I shall never have the chance of treating a crowd of innocent people like that. On and on he droned, in a parsonical monotone—qualities of successful men—self-analysis—self-control—self-knowledge (why not self-reverence?) convinced from his broadcasting experiences that British people are profoundly religious—God as a business asset—you young men and women—drone, drone, drone. And then all at once he stopped and the President of the N.S.U. thanked him for his inspiring address. Well, if you ever want to get the real dinkum brand of business-success talk, you couldn't apply to a better man than Sir J. Reith. The astonishing thing was the number of people it went down with. Truly, the British are a wonderful race.

Finally, there were two or three excursions I went; one to the Cheddar Gorge, which wasn't bad, though it was blowing and hailing too hard to see anything much, and to the Cheddar Caves, which were highly over-rated, and to Cheddar itself, which is hopelessly vulgarised, like every other village in this hopeless country, by yellow signs and advertisements on all the houses for Pratt's motor spirit, and other curses of civilization. Then page 8 the whole three hundred and fifty of us piled into charabancs, a repulsive debauch of touristism, to spend a whole day going to Wills', Glastonbury and Bath. Wills Cathedral is very fine, and the Bishop's Palace, with its old walls and gardens and moat complete with ducks and a swan on its nest; some architecture is frozen music all right Somewhere the thorn still blooms which Joseph of Arimathea brought over, and an interminable woman insisted on explaining at ungodly length all about the sacred well, etc., etc. At Bath we saw the Roman baths, and so forth; most perfect and comprehensive Roman remains in Britain, and a lot of other things. We were to have been shown over the town, but being three-quarters of an hour behind schedule, we had to go straight along to meet the Mayor, Alderman Cedric Chivers—a gentleman of almost incredible generosity, who entertained us all to a tea of traditional Bath delicacies, and was entertained himself in return by speeches and songs in three different languages. I must go there again some day and have a look at the Abbey, and look up the Mayor also if possible. On the whole a fairly satisfactory week.