The Tab Meets: Richard Parkins (that guy from the Union)

Probably the Union’s longest serving, most committed, and most recognisable member

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I meet Richard Parkins at the Union, of course.

If you’re a member, and you don’t recognise him, then you haven’t been getting the most out of your membership card.

The man. The beard. The legend.

Though he claims to have missed debates in the past, I can’t remember an occasion when I wasn’t confronted with a prodigiously bearded man several decades older than the average attendee, often resplendently decked out all in red, and making points of information all over the place.

I was quietly surprised to not see him at ArcSoc last night.

As he comes out of the chamber, I ask him how tonight’s debate was. “Quite a good debate. They usually are. Otherwise I wouldn’t come here.”

Richard’s association with the Union has been a long one.

“I came up to Trinity to study maths in 1965 and then I joined the Union. Life membership obviously.

“I haven’t been coming to the Union all the time in between. Once I stopped being a student and started working for a living as a software designer I didn’t have time. I only started coming back regularly about 8 years ago when I retired.”

I put to him that Cambridge, and the Union, must have been a very different place when he was an undergraduate.

“It’s different in some ways. I remember when Cindies was actually called that, it used to be called Cinderella Rockefeller.

“The colleges were a lot more paternalistic. The age of majority of 18 came along later, so the colleges could claim they were acting as your guardians while you were here.

“They’d just stopped the rule about students having to wear gowns in the streets after dark, because students were getting beaten up by the townies.”

Richard’s spiritual home.

What is about the Union that he finds so appealing?

“I come because I enjoy it. I don’t watch television, most of the programs I consider to be rubbish, and I’m single so I don’t have anybody to entertain at home in the evenings. When I first came back I was relatively hard up so the fact my union membership was already paid for was a big plus.

“Occasionally I don’t go because its just the same old one as before. If you’ve been coming to the Union for longer than 3 years you’ll see the same speakers and the same debates over again.”

I nod in sympathy, considering the sad fact that it feels like I see Jacob Rees- Mogg and Lembit Öpik more often than I see my parents.

And Richard has seen some memorable debates.

“I remember one of the invited speakers walking out. It was a religion debate and that speaker was a committed Christian and he really didn’t like what the opposition speaker was saying. I didn’t make the one where a fight broke out. That happened just before I came.”

I notice the Charlie Hebdo badge on his chest, and ask him what he thinks the role of an organisation like the Union is in promoting free speech.

“I don’t think it’s essential. Primarily its a debating society, so what it should do is put on good debates. It has a commitment to free speech, but I think you can be a debating society without that.

“I like the fact you get controversial speakers in. The whole point of free speech is it applies to the opinions of people you don’t like.”

It’s no surprise then that he takes a dim view of No Platform campaigns.

“I disagree with No Platform on principle because it’s a violation of freedom of speech. To be fair to Dominique Strauss-Kahn for example, he came here to speak on economics as the former head of the IMF. As far as the sexual allegations were concerned, they were not pursued, so he’s an innocent man.

“I was at the Lady Mitchell Hall debacle when David Willetts was meant to be speaking. I was very very upset by that. People come to this University to learn. If you refuse to listen to opinions you disagree with you’ll only have your views reinforced.

“I firmly believe that the people who invaded the platform in Lady Mitchell Hall should have been sent down. They do not belong in this University.”

Not wishing to end our chat on such a negative note, I ask him his hopes for the future of the Union.

“I would like the running to improve. Bill the Bursar and I are both quite distressed that the committees make the same mistakes every time. They don’t have any corporate memory, and it’s kind of sad.”

And then he remembers another old, abandoned practice.

“There used to be a tradition at the president’s debate where the outgoing president would spend the first part of his speech discussing the incoming presidents sex life, which used to be very funny.”

Richard was here before us, and he’ll be here when we’re gone. If you want to meet him, you know where to find him.