The year 2017 marked the 70th annual Commonwealth & International Student Christmas retreat at Cumberland Lodge. Combining good old-fashioned festive cheer with opportunities for deep thinking, we welcomed 58 delegates from 29 countries to discuss and reflect on this year’s theme, 'Freedom'.
Freedom Within - with Jessica Ball
The fun of welcome games on Monday evening was equally matched by the reflective and meditative start to Tuesday’s activities. With facilitation by Jessica Ball of Creating Meaning, our first session involved a mindfulness practice, reflections on gratitude and finally served to open up our discussion on freedom, what it means and why it matters. While some instinctively worked from a socio-political perspective in exploring this, others took a philosophical and/or psychological approach, highlighting the cultural and academic diversity of delegates. A final reflection to close the session revealed the openness with which delegates encountered each other’s ideas and set a tone of inclusion which continued throughout the retreat.
Paper tear exercise with Jessica Ball of Creating Meaning, taken by Saeed Akkad
Where I Come From - with Bill Knight OBE
Next on our agenda was a discussion of Bill Knight’s photography exhibition Where I Come From, currently on display at the Lodge. This moved fluidly between the personal and the political, as participants of his project formed a panel to answer delegate questions around race, immigration and colonialism. Despite the complexity of this subject matter and its highly charged nature, the discussion unfolded with the (obvious) differences in opinions noted respectfully. As is to be expected from a Lodge event, the discussion continued long into lunch where ideas and email addresses were exchanged.
Reflections on Freedom with AL Kennedy
AL Kennedy’s lecture provided a launch pad for a new kind of thinking about freedom, taking into account the desire for expression and creativity. An opportunity for questions again highlighted the myriad ways in which people had engaged with the ideas explored in her talk, with discussion moving between and beyond the neo-liberal contexts of publishing, and the freedom experienced in the pursuit of a dream. In particular, it occurred to me that while being skint is no fun, there is a certain romance, and freedom, in the single mindedness of eating beans on toast for tea every night while trying to get your first book written/published.
Students enjoying a British Christmas dinner, taken by Saeed Akkad
A winter walk and a carol service began the festive celebrations. As one of the few British people in attendance at our traditional Christmas dinner, what I found remarkable was the extent to which I had universalized what are clearly very British traditions. Even our closest European neighbours, with whom I assumed a cultural affinity, were eager to learn of the quirks of British Christmas. I was happy to oblige and fortunately, my insistence that everyone wear their party hats was met with enthusiasm.
The evening’s soiree was touching and hilarious in equal measure. Among the many delights was the juxtaposition of a spoken word performance reminiscent of Gil Scott Heron and a 4 line Wendy Cope poem about how rubbish it is to be single at Christmas. Generosity was very much the spirit of the evening, as people overcame their reserve to share their various gifts. The fun continued long into the night.
Tying together themes from across the retreat and providing an opportunity to share our highlights was a final Wednesday morning session. A musical exploration of the struggle for freedom in international contexts, this culminated in a rousing group drumming activity I won’t quickly forget (let’s just say more than a few people march to the beat of their own drum).
That the Lodge was able to hold such a space for two days, moving seamlessly between challenging intellectual discussion, laughter and frivolity, and back again is testimony to the value of its programme and its expertise in delivery.
Here’s to another 70 years!
Students gathered at the foot of the Copper Horse statue in Windsor Great Park, taken by Natasha Duursma