Friday, 12 December 2014

Cambridge and Stuff

That’s it for December. No more teaching now until January, and even then, not much. These last three months have been very thin, and a baffling directive from Human Resources made us fear that times ahead might be even thinner. Part-time hourly paid lecturers, we were told, would henceforth be limited to 550 hours per academic year. In a department that runs a specified number of modules per year this might be workable, but at the Little CHEF (Centre for Hammering English into Foreigners) there is no such predictability: famine alternates with feast, and an unexpected glut of students in a normally quiet time could use up many of the hours of the most experienced teachers, leaving the busier times of year to rookies. 

‘You know that 550 hours thing?’ the Centre Director asked me yesterday. ’It’s bollocks.’ (We are teachers of English, hence the elevated discourse.) So we are not limited to 550 hours after all, but who knows? We might even get fewer than that if there are no bloody students. 


We said goodbye last week to our small group of Brazilians, one of the nicest groups I have ever taught. They were interested in everything and very knowledgeable, especially about art and architecture. I did some Shakespeare with them and a session on theories of intercultural communication, which was a great improvement on the usual trudge through some upper-intermediate EFL coursebook. While we were preparing to listen to a lecture about introversion and extroversion, I found that one of them had studied the Briggs-Myers type indicator assessment, and was able to share her knowledge with the group. (Luana studies animation and told me that the types are used in creating characters for cartoons and video games.) I have a presentation about Cambridge that I trot out to groups that are about to take a trip. I chuck in a short diversion about Henry VIII and his string of wives, and bugger me if they didn’t actually know already about Big Harry’s headaches over Catherine of Aragon, Ann Boleyn and the Pope. All this is unprecedented. When we got to Cambridge, their delighted reactions to King’s Chapel, Trinity Great Court, the Wren Library and Kettle’s Yard made me feel as chuffed as if I had built them all myself.  

‘It’s not like a university,’ Carlos said, surveying Trinity Great Court in the winter sunshine. Now to me, Cambridge is the very essence of University, and the piles of concrete shoe-boxes most students attend worldwide are what seem unreal. I don’t think I realised until that moment how privileged I was. Am.

I could happily live at Kettle’s Yard. It’s an art gallery and house that was the home of art collectors Jim and Helen Ede. Its feel is much more house than gallery, and when I used to drag Italian teenagers there in the early eighties, it often left them severely underwhelmed. ‘Ma è una casa, they’d shrug, their habitual mode being offended and slightly incredulous shrugging. So it’s always nice to take appreciative adults there, and our Brazilians were certainly impressed. One of the elderly attendants (is that what you call them?) explained to us the visual connections between a Miró painting, the shadows on the wall beneath it and a lemon on a pewter dish sitting on an adjacent table. I'd need to hear it all again to get it, but well, you live and learn.

Joan Miró 'Tic Tic' (1927)
Lemon on a pewter dish. It is a reference to the yellow blob in the bottom right corner
 of the Miró - maybe a reference to Matisse? or maybe not.

I could sit here for at least quarter of an hour.

The Edes obviously never had cats.
 A memory of Cambridge, possibly distorted.

A colleague in Cambridge invited me to lunch one icy Sunday circa 1988. Kat always had something about her of the bohemian intellectual and I had none of that air and felt a bit… what?... ordinary in her presence. If I had people to dinner, I did all the cooking in advance and made sure guests would never see a dirty pan or used utensil. Kat was at the sink in her pinny peeling spuds when I arrived, and this struck me as almost daring. Now it seems most peculiar that I should have seen my preference for stage managing a meal as a sign of my social and intellectual inadequacy, but then I did, and there you are.  Kat’s daughter was intimidatingly patrician in manner, with a confident demeanour and impeccable RP diction. Her son was drop-dead gorgeous, a year under-age and straight anyway, so forget it. At lunch there was from the family gleeful and malicious calumniating of Kat’s divorced husband, whom the children called by his first name, and so that I could join in, more such trashing of our boss, who was certifiably nuts.  

After lunch, Kat decided she would introduce me to Lady Arabella Whotsitte-Thynge at her commune. (No, that wasn’t her real name.) So we drove to Grange Road and parked outside a large Victorian house hidden behind a tall hedge. The door bore the legend:


Inside, the house was dilapidated and patinated with age. I needed a pee and Kat showed me the nearest bathroom, the bath piebald with the worn enamel.  We went into a drawing room, a penumbral realm where six or seven men and women of considerable seniority were seated in a collection of decrepit armchairs and deck chairs on either side of a tree trunk that protruded some twelve feet into the room from the fireplace, where it was slowly being consumed. Most of these people lived here, aged bohemians, sharing whatever they had. A tall woman in a boiler suit rose, gave the tree trunk a hefty shove and after the sparks ascended and died, greeted us.  This was Lady Arabella Whotsitte-Thynge. She was a veteran of pretty much every 20th century conflict in which there had been a right-wing faction to fight against. As a younger woman, as soon as she heard of bother somewhere, she’d pack a boiler suit and get out there. I was introduced to Sandor, a former ballet dancer from Hungary, whom Kat called ‘the oldest gay in Cambridge’. An old Chinese woman had brought with her a girl from the People’s Republic who must have been planning to study at the university. In those days, people from the PRC were usually easy to distinguish from students from Taiwan. The Taiwanese would be glammed up to the hilt while the PRCs were mostly like this young woman: tortoiseshell hair slides, white lace-trimmed blouse, sage-green woolen cardy and tartan skirt, like a British school-girl from the fifties. The older woman refused to speak to her in Chinese, forcing her to use what little English she had. Of what did they discourse, these venerable artists and intellectuals? Sandor told us how best to prepare a mug of Nescafe. Apparently you must add the hot water gradually, stirring all the while. 'You schould not drrrrown zer koffee.'

‘Won’t you have some food?’ Lady Arabella asked me sadly. There was a hostess trolley in which sat grey beef, boiled potatoes and boiled runner beans, the source of the school dinner smell that hung in the room below the aroma of burning wood. I was glad I had eaten and could refuse, but this was an ungrateful reaction to such open-handedness. The sign on the door was an open invitation to anyone who managed to find the house, and any stranger who accepted it would be fed. It's true that the homeless and hungry would be unlikely to stumble into this green suburb of hedge-hidden mansions, but even so.

Probably not Lady Arabella's place, but close.
There’s no point to this anecdote, no issue. It just came back to me last month on our day in Cambridge, somehow all of a piece with its mixture of dilapidation and grandeur, the soggy fallen leaves and cold, misty dusk. And the idea of old age in a commune appeals to me, so long as we don’t have piebald baths and boiled veg for Sunday lunch.     

Approaching King's Bridge. This is how you learn to love freezing fog.


Bo said...

A WONDERFUL BIT OF WRITING! sorry for caps....brought the old place back!

Vilges Suola said...

Glad you like it! Once you get out of the university, it's not so bad.

CJB said...

Always a privilege and and pleasure to read your postings - child from PRC - what an immaculate description. My mother taught such children to play the piano and you could tell it was them playing even when you didn't know. They played exactly like they had tortoise shell slides in their hair.
Ageing in a commune - now there's a thought…….

Vilges Suola said...

Thank you! How about planning the commune? I always think life in a Cambridge college had a lot going for it. Social life and solitude both equally available as required.

Anonymous said...

Born Again Agnostic said...

My friend was a college chaplain for several years in Cambridge - he and his wife lived in college accommodation en route on Granchester. I used to love visiting them in late Autumn and winter, when there was mist on the marshes and river and the whole town seemed bathed in a sepia light. I always visited Kettle's Yard - it is a magical place!

Vilges Suola said...

Yes, it's lovely in the winter, but I'm biased cos I can't stand sunshine...

Anonymous said...

I was glowing with happiness last night as I toddled into our local town (Harpenden) to put the lottery on and get ‘something for us teas...’ (I don’t really talk like that in Harpenden, but I just know you’ll have heard the expression!) Because it was bitter cold. I like autumn and winter too. When I worked in palliative care a few years ago I was doing some non-theraputic level counselling (really just being a professional mate... someone to sound off to) with an old woman dying of lung cancer – she told me she loved winter and walking in the rain. We formed an instant bond!

A friend of mine lives in between Wisbech and King’s Lynn and it is boring countryside to visit in summer; but in winter, when the drainage channels are frozen and there’s snow on the ground or there’s been a hard frost blurring the boundary between the solid earth, pewter trees and thin air and the sun is low and the world is frozen in amber, it’s a magical place.

Vilges Suola said...

Just been to get summat in fert tea an all. It's cowd an grey, so am syooted,


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