Symposium, amongst other things, can mean “a one-day conference”. Who knew? (Not Plato – or me.) Last week I was invited to a symposium at Oxford’s Bodleian Library.

A year ago I blogged about my trip to Madrid at Easter 1980 when I was 25 years old. This memorable experience was made possible by the Osma Studentship: an award made annually to a post-graduate at Oxford. It has been held by many distinguished scholars (and me) over the last 100 years. It was through that blog post that the indefatigable Dr Marina Pérez de Arcos tracked me down and invited me to an event at the Weston Library auditorium on Friday 7 February.

Marina Pérez de Arcos begins her presentation

So who was Guillermo de Osma and why does he matter?

I am ashamed to say that I knew very little about Osma until last week. I didn’t know that he was the first Spaniard to graduate from Oxford. Until the Universities Tests Act of 1871 you could only take a degree at Oxford, Cambridge or Durham if you were an Anglican. That would rule out, for example, French Jews, German Lutherans and, of course, Catholics – Spanish, English or from elsewhere. If I ever knew this rather shameful fact, I had long ago forgotten.

Don Guillermo Joaquín de Osma (born Havana, 1853) was an aristocratic art collector who served his country as a diplomat and a member of parliament under Cánovas. He and his equally well-bred wife, Doña Adelaida Crooke y Guzmán, had no children, which may be why they decided to open up their house in Madrid to scholars. It possesses a priceless collection of manuscripts, rare books and artworks, and is particularly notable for unique Mozarabic and Nasrid decorative objects such as ceramics and carpets. This home-cum-museum, known as the Instituto Valencia de Don Juan, is where Osma Scholars are required to spend six weeks doing research. (I learned that the name comes from a title inherited by Doña Adelaida. That fact has always intrigued me because I know the ruined castle of Valencia de Don Juan, having visited it while living in León in 1976.)

Castle of Valencia de Don Juan in 1976

I wasn’t alone in knowing little, if anything, about Osma’s life. Other “Osma students”, including several professors of Spanish, admitted the same. At Friday’s event we were informed that he had studied History at Pembroke College, was awarded a First, and enjoyed his time at Oxford so much that he instituted the studentship that bears his name.

Osma’s descendant, also named Guillermo de Osma, begins his presentation

Guillermo de Osma opposed the Spanish Church’s disposal of heritage items of great value and significance – not always successfully, as witness the outrageous acquisitions of William Randolph Hearst. We should also be grateful that Osma oversaw the restoration of the Alhambra as first President of its Board of Trustees (in which one might discern the influence of Herne Hill’s very own John Ruskin).

Yes, my name is there and spelled as it should be

As well as the formal presentations we enjoyed a tour of the conservation studios, with a rare opportunity to see one of the few surviving Mixtec codices, Codex Selden; a lunch at Convocation House; and an evening reception at Pembroke College, where my old CEO at the British Library, Dame Lynne Brindley, is now Master. That is Oxford for you; there is no escape from your past.

Viewing Codex Selden

It was flattering to be invited to a symposium, even if I wasn’t asked (thankfully) to give a paper. I’d hoped to bump into my former tutor and a couple of fellow Osma Students whom I hadn’t seen for over 30 years! That wasn’t to be, but I did make some new contacts. Nice people. Something might come of it.


The question is, what do I want to come of it? I have a love/hate relationship with Oxford. On the whole I had a great experience but sometimes I resent its influence over me.

It is a strange place, though not as strange as Cambridge

I spent the best part of a decade there, and when I left I knew I had had enough. I found London in all its 80s jolie-laide chaos a more stimulating environment. And yet… Anne and I nearly made our home in Oxford in 2002. Maybe the daily commuting would have proved a killer, but in any case house prices were rising at a ridiculous rate – even higher than in London – so we didn’t make that move and then settled happily in Herne Hill. But now I seem to be back in Oxford once a month. I play guitar in a band which, if it is based anywhere, is based in Oxford. Then there’s gaudies and such-like, if you have a desire to dress up and drink too much. It keeps pulling me back.

I always feel a little uncomfortable when back in Oxford, as if I am peering through a keyhole, that I don’t belong, that I am no longer a member of the club. “I’m not really a tourist,” I want to cry out. (You can get away with such melodramatic outbursts here.) Then there’s the wider academic world – whether in Southampton or Nottingham or Leeds or wherever it might be – that I could have been a part of, if I’d been determined to stick at it. Does it bring to mind my youthful shortcomings? Frankly, yes: I wasn’t single-minded enough. But the time comes when you just don’t want to do it any more. I don’t regret running away from academia any more than I regret leaving the British Library.

Pardo Bazán’s signature in a visitors’ book at the Bodleian Library

And yet… I am occasionally tempted to undertake a bit of literary translation. Marina was kind enough to look out and put on display the British Embassy visitors’ book (from the Correspondence and Papers of Sir Maurice de Bunsen). The centenary of Emilia Pardo Bazán’s death will take place in May 2021. Now that I have the time I could delve into her 600 cuentos again. Or I could leave well alone.

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