Interview: Rowan Williams

22 January 2013

The former Archbishop of Canterbury and new master of Magdalene College talks to Rebecca Thomas about poetry, preaching and punting…

When the Rt Revd and Rt Hon The Lord Williams of Oystermouth, PC, and, as of last week, Master of Magdalene College, opens the door to the Master’s Lodge I’m met with the air of someone who loves books. Books are stacked everywhere, reflecting the former Archbishop’s love of words. Poetry in particular.

He tells me how his love for poetry developed: “Mostly at school. I was taught English by someone who had been at school with Dylan Thomas… like a lot of teenagers I wrote some bad poetry for the school magazine. It was really only in my later twenties that I started writing more seriously.”

Not only a renowned poet, he is also known for his translations, especially from Welsh, German and Russian: “I’ve always been fascinated by translation and by how you try to put poetry into other languages. Russian is a very compressed language; you have to say a lot in a very small space, you can do a great deal with a very sophisticated system of tense and moods, so when you’re translating you have to pull it out a bit, and you’re not sure if you’re pulling in the right direction; it’s very challenging.”

He brushes aside his ability to understand ten languages, describing himself as “a very clumsy reader and writer of Russian” and his spoken German as a “disaster area”. His love for languages is, however, obvious as he discusses the language that he found both most difficult and most interesting to learn – Hebrew: “I did Hebrew as part of the theology course here, and at the time it was something completely new; new vocabulary, new alphabet, new word order. I studied it for three years and loved it. There’s a bit of a crossword element to Hebrew, you have to do a lot of guesswork and that makes it exciting.”

His love for poetry has caused controversy, with the media wrongly labelling his joining of the Gorsedd of the Bards (a celebration of Welsh literature and song) as paganism. I ask him if he feels that people are too quick to judge culture that they don’t understand: “Absolutely yes, when the news appeared that I’d been nominated to the Gorsedd, a lot of people simply didn’t bother to check what that was, either it was a peculiar bit of dressing up in a remote bit of the country that nobody cares about or that it was paganism. One of the most interesting books I’ve read in years was by a Canadian poet, Robert Bringhurst, who’s devoted most of his life to translating native American poems and epics; his essays on the process of doing this are stunning work…here are these people we think we’re familiar with, we know what they’re like, and we don’t, not in the least. When you go inside their language, culture, tradition, mythology it’s a huge discovery, people need to remember that when they write off, or belittle, other cultures.”

Our discussion turns to his new life at Cambridge, and the various issues that he’s inheriting with his new role. On student protests he believes that voices need to be heard, but that there is a fine line, referring to his own past experiences: “I remember protests at the Garden House riot, a demonstration against what was then the Fascist regime in Greece, a violent, unpleasant occasion. I don’t think it’s particularly helpful just to push the boundaries in order to give yourself a sense of doing something dramatic.”

He draws upon his own experience of protests and demonstrations to offer an alternative: “I think that it’s better letting people know that it matters to you, and I suppose singing psalms at the United States airforce base at Alconbury was a way of saying ‘look, this matters’. I remember we thought very carefully about what to do, we didn’t have wire clippers, we climbed over, so they couldn’t charge us with criminal damage.”

When I ask him about Wyverns, the notorious drinking society of Magdalene College, he responds with the belief that Cambridge has been unfairly targeted for its student drinking culture: “It’s easy to pick on traditional societies like that and say that there’s a problem. The reality is that the whole student alcohol culture at all universities…there’s a big question mark there. It relates to the question why this country, more than other countries in Europe, seems to have a binge drinking problem.”

He refers to what he calls “The Brideshead fixation” and how, having spent a great deal of his adult life in either Oxford or Cambridge, he doesn’t feel that the stereotype holds up: “When I first came to Christ’s (as a theology undergraduate), I’m not sure what I was expecting, but I just found people like me really, who wanted to get on with it. I would guess if you take a slice through the student body of almost every University in the country you’d find some eccentric and excessive behaviour.”

Wherein does the problem lie? How does he think it can be fixed? The new Magdalene Master speaks a little about the problem of “teachers lowering students’ expectations at schools. I’ve seen that happen and I think it’s a great pity. I’ve had a little bit of involvement with a charity called Inter-University which works with schools in socially challenged areas; it begins very early on, even in primary school, getting children to think about it. It sounds very ambitious, but what it does is to broaden horizons, and to let them see what they can be capable of.”

He is clearly committed to opening the doors of Cambridge to as wide a range of students as possible, does that in part derive from his experiences here? I ask him for his fondest memory of his undergraduate years. He stares into space and ponders for a while, a faint smile on his face: “Lots of friendships obviously. Particularly in the context of music, I did a lot of singing in choirs. Also I used to go out every Sunday afternoon to Meldreth to what was then called the ‘Spastic Society’, cerebral palsy now. A little group of us used to go every weekend, and just help out with these children in a residential home. Reading stories, playing, helping the nurses there to look after the kids, and give them a little time off on a Sunday. I don’t think we were particularly helpful but it was a very challenging and enlarging experience.”

The memories are clearly precious to him, but how does he feel about returning to Cambridge after so many years? Does he call it home? He smiles; to him home is still South Wales: “It’s where I feel I’m putting my slippers on.”

“Do you punt?” I ask rather abruptly. He smiles. “Not in the current weather.” We both glance instinctively towards the window and laugh; the snow is still falling. “I have fallen off a punt” he continues, somewhat nostalgically. “In Oxford – I blame it on the Oxford system, they do it on the wrong end there.”

With that image in mind we part ways and, as I walk back through Cambridge, I can’t help but wonder whether the University town is providing the former Archbishop with a new pair of slippers.