Monday, 15 February 2010

Backs to Reality

In a town which owes it's existence to the power of thought alone, and where over half the population completely changes every five years, you would expect there to be an air of unreality or transience.

I passed through Cambridge about seven hundred years after it was dreamt up by a Royal court, and it was no more solid then than it was - I imagine - when the first stones were laid to make houses for the initial generation of previously homeless, unfettered imaginations.

It wasn't long, I guess, before some ground-rules had to be pegged out to stop the place from taking off and disappearing into the ether, and these rules became known as tradition. I have been locked inside the Senate House with a few hundred other people, when the only language that was permitted to be used was Latin. This is a rule, but I do not know what the punishment is for breaking it, as you could never be expelled until the proceedings finish, nomatter how full your bladder was. Here follows a few hasty snap-shots:

An ancient old bachelor could be seen sitting at a desk by a leaded window, illuminated by a single table-lamp in the dead of night, working on a thesis that would never see the light of day. In the window next to him was a large, potted cannabis plant illuminated by an ultra-violet lamp, and - in contrast to the old Don's thesis - it was condemned to spend it's short life in perpetual daylight.

From the green at the back of a college, a member of the current Royal Family could be seen at his desk in his room, apparently unaware of the tourists in the dark outside.

One of the group of Dons who seem to spend all afternoon in 'The Whim' and all evening in 'Shades' wine bar approached me, and made a comment about how he admired the way my wrist joined on to my hand as I drank a coffee. He turned out to be one of Anthony Blunt's boyfriends, so you will understand that I was young man then. He invited me to join his group in Shades that night, and I did so. This was a rare occasion when the Gown mingled with the Town, but 90% of the Town were invariably servants of the Gown, the rest seemed to be chemical instrument makers.

When I arrived at Shades, I was surprised to see that an old friend from a different town was there, and we said hello to each other. He introduced me to his girlfriend, who was a waitress at the place. Even they had an air of unreality and transience - he was a model who starred in one of the 'Turkish Delight' adverts, and she was also a model who had recently been on the cover of Vogue magazine. Stunningly beautiful, but stunningly dim, she told me that she was the ex girlfriend of a famous pop-star who had named her in one of his cult songs, and it was years before I found out that this was a lie.

There was a room that could be viewed from the street below, which had been completely bricked up (and still is) because it would kill you to enter it. This was where the first experiments with radio-activity were carried out, just before they realised what it was all about. Every few years, someone enters it with protective gear on, gives it a test with a geiger-counter and pronounces it unsafe for another few years. This little tradition will carry on for many more generations to come, and I believe the current entry ban is set for at least another 100 years.

I met a rich American student who had created her own course at a college, and was desperately seeking someone who would be qualified to teach her. The course was 'Arthurian Studies'. The college coffers were often topped up by such overseas students, and I don't think anyone with the right 'credentials' were ever turned away. We played frisbee with a luminous one on Jesus green.

I left Cambridge as autumn drifted into winter, but I have been back a few times since. It doesn't seem to have changed, despite having accepted and rejected several complete transfusions of humanity in the intervening period.


  1. I was at school just outside Cambridge at Ely (founded 960; about 200 years before Cambridge uni'), and used to pop into the city quite often. As it happens, one of Anthony Blunt's nephew's was a contemporary of mine.

    I always liked Cambridge; I found that Town and Gown mingled quite well, which I don't believe can be said of Oxo.

  2. Interesting, Cro. Have you ever worked out why they built such an enormous cathedral as Ely, in the middle of swampy fens, populated by nothing but witches and beet-growers?

  3. Probably wealth! The flatlands of East Anglia are the most productive lands in the UK (and also the most expensive). The church (quite understandably) wanted their cut.

    Our wonderful dining hall was originally the ancient Tythe Barn. A huge and impressive building where, I imagine, substantial sums changed hands.

    There must also have been a surfeit of jobbing stone cutters in the area.

  4. Silly me, I'd forgotten about the dosh. Usually, both the stone and the stonecutters were brought over from France for a project like that, so I expect the surfeit of bricklayers continued until the Dutch land-drainers arrived. Having said that, the Dutch were masters at shaping bricks, so they probably brought their own too.

    Your school days sound a bit 'Harry Potter', Cro.

  5. Never read one single word of Harry Potter. My schooldays were more like the film 'If' (without the killing).

  6. So - did you bum Anthony Blunt's nephew?

  7. Your blog reflects well thought, humour and intelligence.
    Warm regards,

  8. Why thank you, Simone. I now know what inspired Cro to post his latest one about cough remedies...

  9. I gave a talk there once, but the sherry was dusty and I couldn't get e.e. cummings' lines about the Cambridge ladies who live in furnished souls out of my mind. I must pop back one day and be precious.

  10. Did you trip over Stephen Hawkin in his wheelchair, Mise?