Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Cambridge And Me

The other day looking for work I went to Cambridge.  It is a town that I have visited erratically over the past 20 years.  One day I will produce a posting about Oxford which I have a much longer, deeper and more complex relationship with.  However, for now I will look at its 'sister' university town.  The first time I went to the town was in 1987.  At the time I was a student at a different university, but wearing a university scarf meant tourists simply assumed I was at the University of Cambridge.  Having been rejected from Oxford, I felt ambivalent about that as I was still filled with a kind of fantasy of what university life should be, as with many people, something pretty much like 'Brideshead Revisited' or at least 'Shadowlands', with lots of intellectual discussion in cafes. 

I do not know if universities have ever really provided that experience.  I am sure even in the days of C.S. Lewis let alone Alan Turing, the obsessions were much the same as now, with the opposite sex and alcohol, perhaps with posing.  Unfortunately I had a very romantic approach to these things and had enduring fantasies of meeting the right woman (i.e. one who could envisage having an intimate relationship with me however briefly) and acting out our romance against such a backdrop; Freiburg-am-Breisgau was even worse for that. Cambridge, like towns such as Oxford, Salisbury, Bath, Durham, York, Warwick, even parts of Norwich, seem to be almost like theme parks.  If they did not exist then they would have been created by some developer from the USA.  Much of these towns effectively have stunning cliff faces: buildings of a certain religious or academic architecture that present an impenetrable face to the large majority of visitors to Cambridge.  Even if you get inside, you are never 'inside', always the alien to these spaces.

I travelled from Coventry to visit a friend of mine who was studying at the university.  We went to see The Bhundu Boys a Zimbabwean band which were very popular in 1986-7, even supporting Madonna.  It was a surprise on the part of my friend.  I had already bought tickets to see them in Coventry and so ended up seeing them twice in the same week.  The music was good but I was not really that big a fan.  My friend was making a move on woman at this stage.  I never know what happened to that relationship.  We saw the band in The Cornmarket but what I primarily remember now is a middle-aged man who looked like he had just stepped off the beach, steadily swaying backwards throughout the course of the evening, edging our group of four, typically British in not saying anything, further and further back towards the rear wall of the venue.

The second time I went to Cambridge was as a detour travelling back from Norwich to London. I remember going to Ely and across the flat rural lands in a diesel train which more resembled a bus from the 1970s than it did the usual type of train. I remember a Chinese student being charged a supplement on his ticked because he had gone and sat in the first class section of the carriage, a short, broad glassed off area. Why simply having a glass door in front of you warranted paying more given how noisy and smelly the train was overall, I do not know. The landscape made me think of the mid-West of the USA though I guess there the horizon is much farther away.

Anyway I arrived in Cambridge and visited my friend who was still at Queen's College one of the historic ones.  The first time I had gone he lived in accommodation on the edge of town which looked like a disused hospital; this second time he had a room in the historic college buildings themselves. He was keen that in the few hours that I had, that I should experience the whole Cambridge experience and go punting. The gloomy weather and wind saw that plan off. We just wandered around The Backs which means along the banks of the River Cam which means you tend to look at the rear of the main colleges in the town centre. I remember we were with his Canadian girlfriend who later would begin correspondence with his friends directly, something I found very peculiar. She also turned out to be both bisexual and unfaithful. I suppose an ideal character for a modern murder mystery, perhaps given her forthright nature, even the detective.

These visits allowed me to see the side of the town that tourists saw and the locals.  I remember certainly on the first trip going into the suburbs and a mundane pub.  That sense of the everyday alongside theme park looking buildings and an archaic university system always reminded me of a kind of parallel worlds, something like 'Neverwhere' (1996) in which different ways of being live alongside each other, rarely bisecting.

It would be over a decade before I returned to Cambridge and this time it would be on a bicycle rather than a train and coming from Milton Keynes, which lies 70Km to the West of Cambridge.  This was my most touristic experience.  I came on a bank holiday weekend, on a Saturday in 2003.  I stayed in the youth hostel and returned on the Sunday.  It was a gloriously sunny weekend.  I remember walking around all the tourist locations and having tea in the grounds of a church, a nice break from the press of the crowds.  I did walk extensively around town, which is not difficult given how small it is and how the main sights are packed into a narrow area.  I remember I was asked to take a photograph of a couple, tourists, with King's College in the background.  It was the first time I had used the digital camera and I was put out when they came over and looked at the image I had taken and insisted that I did it again.  I continued using film cameras myself until 2008.

I remember I found it a challenge to get dinner in the early evening after cafes had closed and before reasonably priced restaurants opened.  I managed to be the last customer getting food in a pub before they stopped serving at 6pm.  This is one thing that has changed massively in the past nine years, something I discuss below.  I remember walking back and forth across the large stretch of grass called Parker's Piece to reach the Grafton shopping centre.  It is a modern shopping centre which seems terribly incongrous sitting so close to buildings hundreds of years old.  However, it was there that I saw sequel, 'Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life' simply to pass the evening.  With this visit I felt I had 'done' Cambridge.

It would be another six years before I returned and I realised that I no longer held any wistful attachment to the town.  Perhaps that youthful sense had been burnt out of me by repeated failures to have any kind of relationship let alone one set against some romantic historic town.  Maybe it was simply age.  Anyway, I was coming for an interview and this time driving.  All I remember is the sat nav being utterly confused by the one way systems and me driving around for ages trying to find a car park then the office that I was being interviewed in.  My impression of the whole day was worsened by the fact that the interviewers could not operate the computer and screen projector that we were compelled to give presentations on and all the interviews were delayed by an hour as that was how long it took to get a technician in.  Given that I had an interview in Southampton later the same day, this destroyed my delicate schedule.  The other mad thing was that the interviewers had asked for every single academic certificate I had received going back to my first 'O' level in 1983.  A man sat in the corner of the interview room comparing the originals against the photocopies I had made and signed each copy off when he was satisfied as if me getting a 'B' or a 'C' in 'O' level Chemistry in 1984 was going to make any difference to do the job I was being interviewed.  My dismay at this behaviour and the lack of technical knowledge probably came out in the interview.  I neither got that job nor the one in Southampton.

Anyway, I went back to Cambridge before Easter and was very much prepared to have any affection for the town burnt out of me.  However, I guess my previous experience put me in a stronger position.  I ignored the sat nav and simply headed to a car park with spaces though detecting the entrance to a car park is a real art in Cambridge town centre.  The fact that students were already on 'vacation' for Easter helped in reducing the (cycle) traffic.  I found the office without difficulty and the interview was run well.  It was glorious weather but too early on in the year for Cambridge to become the mad press it does in the summer, like a seaside resort without a beach.  I did find the town claustrophobic and on some of the roads into the centre very tired.  There certainly seemed to be a need for street cleaning and a general smartening up.  All ancient towns have 1960s and 1970s bits that look very grim these days.  The greatest change that struck me in the nine years since I last wandered the streets is simply how many food outlets there are.  Simply walking along the Hills Road where I had looked for somewhere to eat in 2003, I found that three to four out of every five frontages was either a cafe or a restaurant.  Most of the restaurants were not open being lunchtime, but some were, as were all the cafes.  I guess these all feed the numerous tourists.  What struck me in the town centre was that whilst there were some charity shops there were no empty shops; this and the number of food outlets suggested the town remains prosperous.

Cambridge is a town I feel I should like more than I do.  There are parts that are timeless and are beautiful.  The amount of green spaces in the town centre is wonderful.  However, compared to Oxford it suffers from its size.  You cannot pack so many people into a historic town like that without it seeming overfull.  This means it seems dusty and noisy when you are seeking quiet.  It also contrasts to Oxford where there are many parts you can step away from the crowds very quickly even at the height of summer.  Maybe I should go there in winter and look at the frost covered buildings and grass.  Maybe it is simply I am jaded and I would have lost my affection for places which held such charm for me such as Oxford, Norwich and Freiburg.  Maybe I should avoid going back to them so as not to 'use up' the crumbs of wistfulness that seem so important to me.

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