Wednesday, 3 November 2010

Woven into the stuff of other men’s lives

This inscription appears on a bench which stands in Addison’s Walk, Magdalen College, Oxford. I saw it yesterday. The bench was donated to the college to commemorate Humphrey Slade, a former student at the College who subsequently served as the first Speaker of the Kenyan National Assembly. Just behind the bench lies a property formerly occupied by CS Lewis, author of the Narnian Chronicles. Other notable College members include Edward Gibbon (of whom I blogged last Sunday), John Betjeman, Lord Denning, and Oscar Wilde.

It’s a powerful statement: that the contribution made to society by a single person is such that their “stuff” is woven into other men’s minds. And to a significant extent, that’s what some readers of this blog may also be trying to do. As we strive to regulate, perhaps to ensure the greatest good for the greatest number, or to ensure that basic principles are observed no matter how awful might be the consequences for some, I suspect that we, too, are striving to create “stuff” that becomes part of everyday life.

It’s taken from a longer passage, crafted some 2500 years ago:

The whole Earth is the Sepulchre of famous men; and their story is not graven only on Stone over their native earth, but lives on far away, without visible symbol, woven into the stuff of other men's lives.

The saying is attributed to Pericles, a Greek statesman who lived between 495BC and 429BC. It’s hard to describe his politics in terms of social cohesion though. According to Wikipedia, he proposed a decree that permitted the poor to watch theatrical plays without paying, with the state covering the cost of their admission. With other decrees he lowered the property requirement for certain public appointments and bestowed generous wages on all citizens who served as jurymen in the supreme court of Athens. His most controversial measure, however, was a law of 451 BC limiting Athenian citizenship to those of Athenian parentage on both sides. I can think of other politicians who espoused such citizenship policies, but none who also proposed free entry for the poor into the nation’s theatres.

I suspect that those of us involved in data protection regulation would seek to ensure that our standards recognised the reality of global data flows, and that they would not embrace a “fortress Europe” approach. But I can’t imagine too many of us advocating the compulsory means testing of Subject Access Fees, to provide the poor with a right to free access to their personal information.

What also struck me during my recent visit to Magdalen College were the two plaques “In honour of those members of Magdalen College in the Second World War.” Carved in these two plaques are the names of 122 people, together with the units (or capacities) in which they served.

Most poignantly, the second plaque includes the inscription “And from Germany, H Frhr von Waldthausen Wcht.” The college was sufficiently courageous to commemorate all of its former members, not just those who were on the winning side. I found this to be a wonderful gesture. For me it showed that the college was brave enough to note that this German student’s “stuff” was also woven into other men’s lives, and that it was deserving of the same amount of respect and recognition as was the “stuff” of his companions at the College.