Foley edited Varsity in 2004Laura-Jane Foley

Laura-Jane Foley, in her words, has a “portfolio career”. A playwright, an art historian, a teacher, author, editor: Foley’s enviable career started at Varsity where she was Editor. She was in Cambridge to speak alongside other former Editors at an event celebrating Varsity’s 70th anniversary. Beforehand, I sat down with her in the Varsity offices.

I was interested in her special insight into Oxbridge student journalism, having worked both at Varsity and Isis. What was it like moving from one to the other?

“I used a lot of the same content and links. There was a chap who had met Bill Clinton, and I wanted that interview in Isis, even though he was a Cambridge contact. It was an amazing thing to go to Isis and say to them, 'I’ve got this Bill Clinton interview, would you like it?’”. Foley was quick to draw comparisons between the two publications. “They’re slightly different. Isis is a magazine. Varsity... we would put it to bed on Thursday and it came out on Friday. Isis was more features and interviews.”

Despite having a hugely successful career in many other fields, she showed a genuine, if not a little nostalgic, interest in Cambridge student past-times. “When I was here we had TCS. Are they still going? We shared office space with them, which was really odd. We were in Trumpington Street. It was CUSU on the ground floor, Varsity on the first floor and TCS on the second floor. They would come out a day before, they came out on Thursdays and we were really edgy about them coming in and stealing our stories. In those days you didn't have Twitter and Facebook so you could really keep [hold of] a story like that”. She speaks fondly of formative years as Editor: “we had to be careful about what we put on white boards!”.

"Oxford have a bit of a problem with Cambridge whereas Cambridge don't really have a problem with Oxford."

Foley seems part of a last generation of British intellectuals to whom tax-payer funded education was encouraged for its own sake. She studied at Oxford, Cambridge, Bristol and Sheffield. About her time at Oxford, she said, “I feel Oxford and Cambridge have this rivalry. I feel, anyway, Oxford have a bit of a problem with Cambridge whereas Cambridge don't really have a problem with Oxford. I always felt that was reflected in TCS and Varsity. Where Varsity thought TCS is great, and TCS hated Varsity!”.

Moving away from the esoteric world of student journalism, I asked her about her current projects. “I am writing a book at the moment about the future of the arts. It's looking at the impact of cuts on the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), what that has meant to practitioners, what that has meant to people making, producing and financing the arts. Looking at the role of philanthropy, how Brexit might affect things”. She speaks passionately about campaigning for the “hopes and dreams for the future” of people in the arts.

“That's been really interesting because I’ve been interviewing leading cultural figures in order to build up a picture of the cultural landscape of the UK. It's eye-opening to be told by a former Culture Minster that there is always money to be found down the back of the sofa for a personal pet project of the Chancellor’s. You think - gosh in this day and age is that really how it is? Sadly that's how it is.”

Foley is interested in how public institutions can fund the arts. I asked her what she thought of people outside the art industry being appointed to important positions within it; for example, Tristram Hunt being made head of the V&A.

“Tristram Hunt was, and is, a great historian. He was before he became an MP. It's important to have someone who is used to dealing with a higher level of government. A lot about it is personal relationships and networking, and trying to persuade people on the Arts Council. I think Tristram Hunt is the perfect guy to do it. He’s a formidable character. It's hardly George Osborne editing the Standard!”.

Foley wrote 'An Evening with Lucian Freud', which was performed at the Leicester Square Theatre in 2015. The play was based on her experience with the artist after she rejected an offer to become his muse. I asked her how she thought her academic job as an art historian and her creative role as a playwright interacted.

“It's nice when you have writer's block as there is always somewhere you can turn to. You can move between different projects. I always do try and find links between them - that's really important to me. So I read English for my Part I and History of Art for my Part II, so everything has been English and then Art. It's all about words and art, and word and image, and how they all intersect. I write plays but they usually end up being about art.”

Talking to Foley makes you feel lucky to be a student, and lucky to be having the opportunity to explore and engage with new ideas. While we should be angry about how our generation is looking like it might be worse off than our parents' one, there is much to celebrate about the set of strange experiences we all share as students in the early 21st century