On memory, gratitude and new things under the sun

I spent part of the summer vacation in western Crete, indulging my interest in beaches, boureki and Byzantine churches. Travelling around by car, I was struck time and time again, particularly on winding mountain roads and usually where the edge of the road fell away most vertiginously, by the presence of little shrines, known as kandylakia. In varying states of repair, they almost invariably contained icons, candles and incense burners: even if the shrine on the outside was battered, the inside usually suggested that someone, somewhere, remembered it and tended to it from time to time. Many of the shrines are built as acts of remembrance for the victim of a traffic accident; others are built by the survivors of such accidents or publicly to thank a saint for a particular benefit. Be they in memory of loved ones lost or in gratitude for disaster averted and blessings received, these shrines are charged with private and public meaning, poignant signs of the enduring importance of family, faith and history.

This kind of memorialisation and thanksgiving need not be purely religious, of course; indeed, it finds its place in many institutions, not least universities, whatever the principles espoused by their founders or current custodians. The work we as academics are able to do now necessarily owes a debt, in both scholarly and institutional terms, to those who have gone before us, and we find a range of ways to signal this: through the naming of buildings, lecture theatres and seminar rooms on our campuses, for instance, and in the footnotes, acknowledgements and dedications to our published works. This work of memory could be said to be particularly prevalent in Humanities disciplines, where we equip our students with the necessary skills to read, reread and reread again all kinds of texts from the distant and more recent past, where we routinely seek to understand better the lives and works of people seemingly cut off from us in both time and space, all the better to understand ourselves, the world in which we live and the values we hold dear.

This awareness of the liveliness of the past in our present is uppermost in my mind as the new academic year starts and we welcome a new generation of undergraduate and postgraduate students to King’s. There’s an enormous sense of excitement about the place: I always think it’s a great privilege to share in the journey that our new students are embarking upon this week. As the year begins with an ecumenical service in the College Chapel on the Strand on Wednesday and as we and our students take the plunge and do new things, I’m reminded of the persistence of the past, of the extent to which, for instance, our seemingly very contemporary concern with the student experience is an important new expression of the founding principle of universities as scholarly communities, and of the wisdom of the old observation that ‘what has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done’.

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