Profile with Angela Cummine

Angela Cummine

Angela Cummine (Australia-at-Large & New 2007) is currently completing her DPhil in Politics at Oxford University on citizen rights to sovereign wealth. During her Oxford studies, she has worked as a consultant to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the International Forum of Sovereign Wealth Funds and the Australian Future Fund on investment policy. She also worked on electoral reform, as a researcher for the British Academy during the UK’s Alternative Vote referendum, and on women’s issues, organizing the 30 years of New College Women celebrations, where she was MCR President. Prior to Oxford, she worked as a policy advisor in the Australian Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet and was admitted as a lawyer in New South Wales. She holds an MPhil in Political Theory from Oxford University, and a first class honors BA and LLB from Sydney University.

Rhodes Project: Where do you call home?

Angela Cummine: It would have to be Sydney, Australia. It’s still the emotional home; it’s been the longest-standing physical home as I lived there until the age of 24. There have been other homes since, but that’s the first and true home.

Rhodes Project: What was the last book you couldn’t put down?

Angela Cummine: Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending. It’s ironically titled, which is what makes it brilliant. As a reader, you often demand an author to draw conclusions for you and help you make a decision about a particular character.  But Barnes, in this particular book, leaves you feeling rather conflicted about the protagonist just as the protagonist himself becomes more uncertain and unclear about the truth, his world view and his agency in his own life. That is far truer to what I have found the adult experience to be about. I think it was Zadie Smith who said, “The time to make up your mind about people is never.”  And that message is conveyed engagingly, but unsettlingly in this particular book.

Rhodes Project: What is currently playing on your iPod?

Angela Cummine: I don’t have one! But I can tell you what’s currently playing on my Spotify: the rather curious combination of Justin Timberlake’s latest song, “Mirrors,” and the score for the Royal Opera House’s ballet, “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.” The composer, Joby Talbot, has written the score. I only just discovered him upon seeing this ballet, and he is pretty brilliant (as far as someone of my complete lack of musical training can ascertain).

Rhodes Project: When you were a kid, what did you aspire to be later in life?

Angela Cummine: The first clear vision I had of my life’s calling was when I was quite young, and it hasn’t turned out to be accurate at all, but I thought I was going to be a town planner. When I was about six, I obsessively drew maps of towns. I was particularly concerned with the plight of homeless people and didn’t understand why the government did not just build more houses – I had a very simple approach to complex policy problems at the age of six. So I set about drawing cities and allocating the largest houses with pools and tennis courts to the homeless. That literal career aspiration didn’t pan out, but it was the start of a life-long interest in public policy and social justice, so perhaps it hinted at a desire to fix things up. And a tendency to be quite bossy. As I got a bit older, those interests led me to the law. For most of high school, I was pretty convinced I was going to be the next Atticus Finch, which also hasn’t panned out.

Rhodes Project: What was your first job?

Angela Cummine: I was a waitress. At 15 in Australia, you are legally allowed to be employed in shop work. I was very keen to earn money and thought waitressing looked really fun. But I actually found it very stressful. I was really bad at balancing lots of plates in that cool professional waiter style, and tended to look a little bit enviously at the customers eating their food. Happily, for the regulars at Cafe Andronicus, it was a short career.

Rhodes Project: What inspired you to write a DPhil?

Angela Cummine: I think I felt there was something very appealing, very special about the luxury of time to properly think through a problem that matters to you. My master’s research on equality of wealth and the role of sovereign investment funds deeply interested me and raised as many questions as it sought to answer. As I was deciding whether to pursue the DPhil in 2009, against the backdrop of the worsening global financial crisis and the re-evaluation of our most basic assumptions regarding the structure and purpose of capitalism, it seemed timely to step back and interrogate my own intuitions and convictions about economic equality. And since much of life relies on instinctive decision-making or broad principles, we don’t usually have the comfort of extended time to reason through our views on a topic. The rarity and value of that gave the DPhil much appeal.

Rhodes Project: What advice would you give to your sixteen-year-old self?

Angela Cummine: That everything I thought I was going to do in the next 16 years will not necessarily have happened while other fantastic unexpected things will have occurred, and that that is okay because 16 year old Ang doesn’t really have a clue. I would tell her that what defines her teenage notion of success is quite flawed and contingent. At sixteen, I was at an all-girls high school where high-achievers were over-celebrated and naughty girls were overly-demonized. It operated on a very binary view of students and tended to ignore many of the students who fell in between those two poles. That environment, which happened to benefit me as I enjoyed succeeding in the traditional spheres my school recognized, led to a rather limited and recognition-centered idea of the good life. I would tell my sixteen-year-old self to look beyond her immediate environment and notice all the different ways people were achieving, striving, developing and contributing inside and outside those school walls that did not depend on institutional validation.

On a more practical note, I would tell her that bell-bottom corduroy trousers were always going to be a fashion mistake; that winging it is never as satisfying as working it; and that one day, unfathomable as it may seem, she would no longer consider McDonalds’ chicken McNuggets her all time favorite dinner food.

Rhodes Project: Whom do you admire?

Angela Cummine: One person I really admire is my cousin Juliette. She is ten years older, and started out with different conditions for success than I did. Perhaps that’s easier to see when you’re in the same family. She has re-invented her career several times, and each time I think she has gotten a step closer to an authentic version of herself, and has done that in the face of some skepticism and doubt a long the way. I always take family support for many of my choices as a given, whereas my cousin, who has reached a fantastic place in her career and personal life, had to take many of the brave decisions that got her there without that same support. She stands in contrast to a lot of people around me who have tracked a more linear or conventional paths and not reached the same degree of self-awareness and mindfulness as my cousin. 

Someone easier for readers to identify with who I really admire is Bob Geldof. I marvel at his powerful oratory and lack of fear in critiquing the corporate world and governments in the fight for more sustainable, ethical business. I think he is completely unaffected when he advances his message. That fearlessness, I really admire.

Rhodes Project: What do you do to relax?

Angela Cummine: I have an obsession with Thai food. It has become an almost full-time hobby trying to find delicious Thai food in London, where I was spoilt for choice back home, so a truly relaxing time here is heading out for a reliably amazing Thai feast and a bottle of wine. Perhaps the quest for good Thai has attained special ‘treat’ status because my Swedish partner is not quite as obsessed with Thai food, so it has become an even more special event. The ultimate relaxation is if I can eat take-away Thai food in front of a cracking political drama like “Borgen” or “State of Play” or a period piece like “The Forsythe Saga” or “The House of Elliot”. That beats a candle-lit spa retreat any day in my book!

Rhodes Project: What brings you the most joy in your life?

Angela Cummine: It is a very cheesy answer but love. Love from family members, friends, and a partner when that love is real, consistent, reliable, and liberating. In all those spheres and all those relationships, that’s one thing that has stood the test of time in terms of delivering joy.

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