Thinking allowed

An act of iconoclasm

There’s lots of talk at the moment of top­pling statues and remov­ing items com­mem­or­at­ing his­tor­ic­al fig­ures with what is now seen as a dubi­ous past. Here is a little story that has nev­er been told before.

Wadham Col­lege Library

In June 1980, 41 years ago, I was an under­gradu­ate at Wadham Col­lege, right at the end of my three years at Oxford. I lived in a room in a small court­yard on top of the then-new col­lege lib­rary. The lib­rary, opened three years earli­er, had been sig­ni­fic­antly fun­ded by a dona­tion from the Ira­ni­an imper­i­al fam­ily, and was named after the twin sis­ter of the Shah, Prin­cess Ashraf Pah­lavi, and there was a plaque com­mem­or­at­ing this ded­ic­a­tion over the inside of the main entrance. The fund­ing and the ded­ic­a­tion had been fiercely cri­ti­cised by the stu­dent body and oth­ers, and a num­ber of protests took place while I was at the col­lege. In Feb­ru­ary 1979 the Shah had been over­thrown and had gone into exile, as had his sis­ter, but the lib­rary ded­ic­a­tion remained, and so did the plaque.

Although not to everyone’s archi­tec­tur­al taste, I liked the new lib­rary build­ing (by Glas­gow archi­tect Andy Mac­Mil­lan of Gillespie, Kidd and Coia), and knew every pub­lic corner of it. There were also parts that were out of bounds to under­gradu­ates, and even­tu­ally I dis­covered that at the dead of night when there was no one else around then you could ven­ture unchal­lenged through any “no entry” signs or unlocked doors. In par­tic­u­lar, there was a spir­al stair­case lead­ing from the down­stairs read­ing lounge up to the lim­ited-access Per­sian sec­tion. The Per­sian sec­tion had anoth­er access door from the floor on which it was, but my recol­lec­tion is that that door was nor­mally locked.

It was dur­ing one of these night-time explor­a­tions that I dis­covered (as you do) that the Pah­lavi plaque over the main door was very simply fixed to the lib­rary wall, with just a couple of key­hole slots on the back that fit­ted over some screws in the lib­rary wall.

And so an idea formed in my mind, as I was near­ing finals that June. Wouldn’t it be fun, I thought, to remove the plaque? But how to dis­pose of it? The idea sat in my head for a few weeks as I revised and sat my finals. Many sub­jects held their finals early in the sum­mer term, but for my sub­ject, phys­ics, finals were right at the end of term, and after­wards nearly all under­gradu­ates left Oxford. I had already arranged to stay in col­lege for a few more days.

One night after the end of term, when all was quiet, I went down­stairs from my room into the lib­rary. I walked all round to be sure that there was no one else in the lib­rary, and I checked the place where I had thought of put­ting the plaque. All was deser­ted. Back at the entrance I reached up and gently lif­ted the plaque from off the wall over the door. It was about 3 feet or so long, 10 inches high and per­haps an inch or two deep, sol­id oak and mod­er­ately heavy. Across the lib­rary and up the spir­al stair­case, and I was into the closed Per­sian sec­tion. The book­cases here were tall, over 6 feet, and I care­fully placed the plaque on top of one, where it could not be seen from below, and where it was not pos­sible to look down from above. Or, and here my memory is a little hazy after all these years, did I come out of the Per­sian sec­tion and into the upper level of the lib­rary and place it on top of a book­case there? Either way, it would not be found accidentally.

Was it a protest at the Ira­ni­an regime, or a stu­dent prank? A little bit of both I sup­pose. I had thought of put­ting a sign in its place with words such as “the Ayatol­lah Khomeini Lib­rary” – that would cer­tainly have made it a prank in my eyes, but I did­n’t carry through with that.

It was a couple of months later, in mid-Septem­ber, dur­ing the long sum­mer vac, and before I star­ted my first job, that I returned to Oxford for a few days. Wan­der­ing round the col­lege I bumped into the chap­lain (Peter Allan, later a monk at Mir­field) and we arranged to have lunch the next day, at the Trout at Wol­ver­cote, if I recall cor­rectly, or was it the Perch at Bin­sey? “Did you hear,” he asked me, “that someone had removed the Pah­lavi plaque from the lib­rary, and it had dis­ap­peared?” “And what,” I said as inno­cently as I could, “is the col­lege doing about it?” “They’re just relieved that they don’t have to decide what to do with it,” he replied. So much, I thought, for my little act of rebel­lion. But I stayed silent. And I have stayed silent until today.

I’ve nev­er heard wheth­er the plaque was found, though some time later I left a note in the lib­rary say­ing where I had put it. Sev­er­al years later the lib­rary was renamed the Fer­dowsi Lib­rary after the Per­sian poet Abul-Qâsem Fer­dowsi Tusi (c.940‑1020), a much less divis­ive figure.

This dia­gram­mat­ic view of the lib­rary shows how the dif­fer­ent levels inter­act (and the default view shows the entrance door, over which the plaque was sited, and the spir­al stair­case up to the Per­sian section)…/virtualtour/mezzanine.html

These pic­tures show the exter­i­or and inside of the lib­rary, and apart from the pres­ence of com­puters, it was pretty much the same in 1980.…/a‑day-in-the-life-of…

Two fur­ther links