It’s the Easter holidays and I have spent nearly four days lying on the bed surfing the internet on my laptop. I decided I had better do something more active today lest I develop pressure sores, so I got off my arse and went to Cambridge.
I lived in Cambridge from 1978 to 1990. For three years I was a student and then for three more I signed on, did a bit of teaching, worked in the Unemployment Benefit Office, did a bit more teaching, signed on, etc., as I had no idea what I was doing on this planet. Eventually I got some teaching qualifications, and found a permanent job. Permanent jobs bore me, though, and in 1990 I upped stakes and went to Greece.
I’ve been back to Cambridge about five times since then. The first was with a bunch of students from Essex University, the first place I worked at on my return in 2005. I had arranged to ditch them as soon as possible and meet an old friend. As planned, I turned up at the teachers’ room in his school.
He said ‘Oh. Hi.’
'Good God, man, restrain yourself, why don't you?' I thought. This was one of the earliest signs that I had been away rather a long time, and lost touch. In Greece, after an absence of a fortnight you are greeted as if you had been gone fifteen years. In England, you return after fifteen years’ absence and they greet as if you’d been gone a fortnight.
Some things don’t change. Cambridge students, now as ever, stand out from their ‘townie’ coevals by virtue of their dress and manner far more than students do in the city where I now work, or in the university town where I was born. Thirty years ago university males tended to a suit jacket with jeans and a college scarf. There were also those types whose bodies really only existed for conveying their brains around. They wore beige V-neck jumpers with bell-bottom sleeves and mud-coloured trousers that didn’t quite reach the tops of their concertina’d socks. Hair burgeoned from their heads like stuffing from a bust coir matress. Today there were quite a few of the former type, but none of the latter. Maybe they are extinct, or maybe now, as then, their natural habitat is the ugly and unwelcoming University Library and they don’t come out in the daytime.
When I lived there, ‘townies’ and ‘grads’ did not get on. Students appeared to town people to do little save sluice down Pimms and bugger about in punts, while they and their relatives tended college bars, made students’ beds and served them deferentially at ‘formal hall’, a nightly candle-lit dinner with Latin grace, braying conversation and much consumption of beer and wine. There were pubs where students did not go, guffawing in their loud, deep voices about how they god rarely mayjorly wrecked larce night, or wittering about essay crises, because they’d have been taken apart. I don’t know if this is still the case. This afternoon as I was walking into the centre from the station, a group of town lads was coming towards me. One was drop-dead cute and as I passed, I looked at him and maintained eye contact for a beat longer than strictly necessary. There was an immediate flare of aggression in his face and I moved quickly on.
In Heffer’s Sound there was beautiful fifteenth century music playing, and I asked what it was and bought the CD. (It was Ministriles Reales, the new Jordi Savall. New to me, anyway.) In Heffer’s Books I found a Big Fat Modern Greek Grammar and agonised over the desire to possess it. It was thirty five quid, and I had just bought that CD and Christ knows how many more books and CDs from Amazon this month. I picked it up, put it back, wandered round, went back to it. I was playing on myself a psychological trick I often get caught out by. It could be expressed as ‘if I can resist this for sixty minutes, I’ll have it as a reward’. Anyway, I was firm, took myself in hand and left without it, spiritual muscles the stronger. Fuck. Still want it.
I went and had a wander round my old college. There was one of those boards of mug shots: ‘Who’s Who at Nollige College’. My acerbic old French Lit supervisor is now the Master. Now, in my day - and I’m going back, ooh, nearly thirty year now, y'know - his approach to teaching was to sneer venomously at anything you said and crap copiously on essays from a great height. I'm sure my essays back then thoroughly deserved such befouling, but he managed thereby to wreck 19th century French literature for me and extinguish what little academic self confidence I had at twenty. Now that I have so much more understanding of the dynamics of the teacher-student relationship, I feel I owe him one – right between the eyes. Oh, alright, OK then, if we must… let’s be fair. When I was in my second year, to my large surprise, the new intake liked him immensely. I suspect that after he had alienated me and two of my contemporaries so thoroughly, the director of studies had prevailed upon him to adopt a less waspish approach. For all I know he might be Mister Chips by now.
So that’s that, then. Glad I didn’t buy My Big Fat Greek Grammar Book at Heffer’s after all. I just looked on Amazon where it was going for 24 quid. ‘Buy with one click’? I resisted for fifteen minutes, which I think was pretty good – indeed a total resistance period of some six and three quarter hours. Naturally such admirable restraint deserves recognition and recompense, so I clicked, and it will soon be mine.