Alan Macfarlane

Alan first arrived in Cambridge as a Senior Research Fellow in History at Kings College in 1971 and has been at King’s ever since.   As well as sharing some of his favourite memories and photos of Cambridge, Alan also shares his recommendations of where to visit. 

Alan with the ceremonial stone of Xu Zhimo at King's College Cambridge, Cambridge University UK

Tell us about yourself

I am Alan Macfarlane a historian and anthropologist. I was born in Assam, India, in 1941 and came home to England in 1947, attending the Dragon School, Oxford, then Sedbergh School in Yorkshire, and gained a M.A. and D. Phil. in history at Oxford and a M.Phil. and Ph.D. in anthropology at London University. I have worked on British history, and done fieldwork and written books about Nepal, Japan and China. In all, I have published over forty books, the best known being ‘The Origins of English Individualism’ (1978) and ‘Letters to Lily; On How the World Works’ (2005).

I love walking, gardening and writing and working with my wife Sarah Harrison on my family history and many other topics. My many projects in computing, filming, anthropology and history can be seen at www.alanmacfarlane.com - especially under ‘Life’ where free downloadable copies of some of my books can be found.

What are you doing with your time at the moment?   

I have been working a good deal since retirement in 2009 on connections between Cambridge and China. This takes many forms. I am the ‘Keeper’ of the Xu Zhimo memorial stone at the Bridge at King’s College and helped develop the garden there. I help with my colleague Zilan Wang to run annual poetry and art festivals (we have just had our sixth, virtual in this case, festival) in memory of Xu Zhimo. We have opened a small gallery (Cam Arts) opposite the Fitzwilliam and publish books in the West and China through ‘Cam Rivers Publishing’, where most of the books I mention can be found www.cambridgerivers.com/publishing-1.

In particular, when I was retiring I wrote a book ‘Reflections on Cambridge’, published in 2009 with a second edition in 2018. I have subsequently published four more short books about aspects of Cambridge: Cambridge Anthropology (2015), ‘King’s College Cambridge, a personal view’ (2018), ‘The King’s Community, a personal view’ (2019), ‘Cambridge University and its Colleges – A personal exploration’ (2019). Also, working with Zilan Wang we have published a book on ‘Xu Zhimo, Cambridge and China’, as well as music, and poetry of Xu Zhimo and others.  I have made dozens of films about how Cambridge works to try to explain what I learnt in my 50 years in the University. They can be seen either on the Cambridge University Streaming Media service at:
sms.cam.ac.uk/collection/1283730 and here is the link about the books that I wrote about Cambridge: www.cambridgerivers.com/worksoncambridge.

Alan at the University of Cambridge UK

What is your connection to Cambridge? 

I came to Cambridge as a Senior Research Fellow in History at Kings College in 1971 and have been at King’s since. I became a Lecturer in Social Anthropology in 1975, a Reader in 1981, Professor of Anthropological Science in 1991 and retired and am now an Emeritus Professor and Life Fellow of King’s College and became a Fellow of the British Academy in 1986.

What is your favourite memory of Cambridge?

Over fifty years, there are too many. But among them, drifting across the lawns of King’s with my grand-children in party dresses and waving balloons, many carol services in King’s, and greeting and showing the special beauties of Cambridge to many friends from many countries.

Who would you like to share a punt with and why?

My wife Sarah. We met over 50 years ago and it will be our ruby wedding anniversary this year. She is my wife, my best friend and my intellectual colleague and we have travelled around the world together and written many books and run a number of projects. So every part of Cambridge is associated with her and not least the Cam.

Alan at the University of Cambridge UK

What is your favourite place to visit in Cambridge and why?  

Any part of my College – King’s College: the Chapel, the Backs, the Bridge and Xu Zhimo garden, the crocus walk to the back lawn and the Fellow’s Garden. All of them are illustrated in my films and described in my books.

Was there anything you discovered about Cambridge that surprised you? 

Too many things, but just one I will mention. I have done over 250 in-depth film interviews of interesting people – academics, painters, musicians, politicians and craftsmen. They include a dozen Nobel laureates and over 100 of them are associated with Cambridge and talk about their life and work there. They can all be seen either on my Youtube Channel or on the Streaming Media Service at: sms.cam.ac.uk/collection/1092396.

Half a dozen of them are interviews of people who were central to the development of computing in Cambridge in the generation after Alan Turing, a revolution I was part of. I discovered to my surprise that Turing wrote his 1936 paper which started Artificial Intelligence and outlined the design of a modern electronic computer in the top room on the set of rooms nearest the river which can be seen by standing on King’s Bridge. In the opposite corner, some 15 years earlier, Xu Zhimo had spent his last term in Cambridge and it was from there that he passed the Willow Tree about which he wrote the most famous poem in the world (known to over a billion Chinese), ‘On Saying Goodbye to Cambridge – Again’.

Alan and friends at the University of Cambridge UK

What is the one thing in Cambridge that everyone visiting should do?  

Take the walk through King’s Chapel, then across the King’s Bridge to the stone and garden, and then through the back gate and along the Backs of the Colleges to St John’s College.

Why should someone visit Cambridge? 

The reasons are explained in my books and films. Most simply because it is the most beautiful university (if you only have one day,) in the world. Oxford has more old Colleges and is worth several days, but there is nothing there to match King’s and the Backs. Also you should visit it because it is the most interesting University in the World.

More Nobel Prizes have been won there than any other University, and the University which produced Newton, Darwin, Maxwell, Turing and Crick and Watson, as well as three-quarters of the greatest poets in the English language, is definitely worth a visit. Yet you need to be informed about it – its history and how it works and who was where. in order to get the most from it. I have tried to do this in my books and films, explaining and exploring it from the inside and looking it from the outside as an anthropologist and historian.

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