26 April 2014


The Cambridge Blues

St John's College, set in Capability Brown's landscaped grounds

Recently I witnessed Cambridge floundering in defeat in their annual boat race against Oxford.  If the scene above is anything to go by, training for the big race in the Cambridge camp is leisurely to say the least!  But then, seduced, as you would be, by the Bruges-like elegance of the interaction between man and nature, it is a good place to take it easy.

Trinity Hall

Although the town (not a city - Cambridge is in the Diocese of Ely) is busy, it never seems as urban as Oxford, and while the centre is thronged with visitors (I love the excited buzz of Italian in the streets) and the market place fizzes with life (though Snowy and his mice are much missed), it is only a step or two to the cloisters and quads of the colleges, and the quiet of The Backs beside the tranquil Cam.

King's College Chapel (the Gibbs Building is on the right)

And, despite its East Anglian flatness, Cambridge seems loftier than Oxford, and more spacious. Oxford Cathedral, which is the College Chapel for Christ Church, seems cramped and cluttered in comparison with the late English perpendicular architecture and the largest fan vault in the world of the Chapel of King's College.  The foundation stone was laid on the feast of St James, July 25th, 1446, by Henry VI, but the vaulting was not finished until 1515, and the building was not complete until the death of Henry VIII in 1547. It is 88 metres long, 12 metres across and 24 metres high, making this 25,344 cubic metres of the most wonderful space in the United Kingdom.

The Chapel of King's College

It is a triumph of masonry, carpentry and glasswork, and rivals the greatest English Cathedrals.  And when filled with the sounds of choir and organ it is hard not to succumb to the glory that some believe is God. Even the embellished ceilings of the side chapels are breathtaking.

I must admit to an ambivalent relationship with Cambridge, and especially with King's College.  When I was seventeen, I was advised by an elderly Careers' Master, that I should go to Oxford or Cambridge. Being a little on the naive side, but also a stubborn boy, I took against Oxford as I was not keen on the obligatory Anglo-Saxon part of their English Literature course (as it was in those days).  In addition I did not want to be made to specialise in just one subject, so wished to combine English with Philosophy.  

Bodley's Court, King's College

Why Philosophy?  I knew nothing of the discipline, and had no idea what studying it entailed, and my Careers' Master either had no idea himself or perhaps didn't feel like arguing with me.  But so it was that I was invited to interview at King's College, where I disgraced myself in several ways, not least by asking the long haired young man who showed us around if he was there for interview too?  

Trinity College

When he interviewed me the following day, after I had sat an exam in Philosophy which made as much sense to me as a Sanskrit manuscript might have done, he asked me if I could feel someone else's pain? My answer, which went something along the lines of, I suppose so, yes, did not seem to break the ice, and we parted company, for ever, not very long afterwards.

Was that me in the shadows?

Subsequently two gentlemen interviewed me (in the Gibbs building, designed by James Gibbs in 1724: no relation) with a view to my studying English Literature at King's. They seemed mildly interested in my espousal of Jack Kerouac, but my explanation that I admired his sense of freedom did not lead to a lively discussion of On the Road.  When they asked if I had any questions, I enquired after their famous resident, Edward Morgan Forster (I had read Howards End) and asked if it was possible to visit him. Maurice was not published until after Forster's death, but by the Cambridge Don's equivalent of a smirk I knew something was awry.

The Wren Library (1695) - Trinity College

So I did not make it to the High Table.  I wasn't even below the salt.  I was airbrushed from Cambridge like a raindrop in the river.  My preparation was inept, and I have no one to blame but myself, but it does make me wonder about these glorious colleges.  I have met many since who have Oxbridge degrees whose intelligence does not seem so very different from mine, and I cannot help but think that if I had been groomed to get in, perhaps to a less highly esteemed college, things might have been different. But......

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre (The Round Church)

I have been back to Cambridge many times, for various reasons such as to attend conferences and courses, to meet friends, to take children to the excellent Fitzwilliam museum, and to buy books at Heffers. Once I visited to photograph the Round Church for L'Enciclopedia dell' Arte Medievale (published by Treccani), and on another I was invited to lunch in Peterhouse Senior Common Room.

Garret Hostel Bridge

But I still have a touch of the Cambridge Blues.  How wonderful it must be to bathe in the privileges of academic excellence, and to share that experience with other privileged young men and women.  How marvellous it would be to grow in the footlights of the great - Burgess and Maclean, F R and Queenie Leavis, John Cleese and Sacha Baron-Cohen, Sandi Toksvig and Sue Perkins......

Clare College (and Clare Bridge)

But then I remind myself of the team that came second by eleven lengths in this year's University Boat Race.  It's that Tim Henman feeling, I suppose, when you know that destiny has other plans for you. None of the most of us can be Queen, for example, which is part of the process of natural selection, if you believe that alumnus of Christ's College, Charles Darwin.  I could have been (and perhaps one day will be....) a small tortoiseshell butterfly on the wall of Clare College.....

And someone might stand on me and change the future. But that's as may be.  

Back to the material world..... You may have noticed from these pictures that there are no cars in Cambridge.  This is another of the great privileges of Cambridge.  There are no cars.  By law one has to be carried to one's college in a punt.....

The Mathematical Bridge (Queen's College)

Or, if you are exceptionally poor and live in a part of a house, in a street (and not in a palace overlooking the Cam) you have to move around on a bicycle.....

This is not in fact as bad as it seems, partly as there are no hills, and because there are many places to park, where your bicycle can enjoy reading the posters while it waits for your return.

And, if you are lucky, and especially if you don't wear a helmet, you might get to meet other cyclists, some of whom just might be very nice people.....

One last thing I can recommend about Cambridge is The Free Press.  As I mentioned to my interviewers a very long time ago, I commend freedom, and a free press is one of those privileges we can all enjoy, in this country.  Or so it used to be.....  Of course Good Food is another desirable ingredient of a happy life.

Some time ago someone told me that to get on in life (though I think that by Life he may have meant the Diplomatic Service) you were best placed if you were Oxbridge, CofE, a Mason and Gay.  I don't doubt that there may be some element of truth in this statement (ask Anthony Blunt), but at the same time I can honestly say that now I am in my sixth decade I am reasonably happy as I am - which is to say: none of the above..... Just sitting on the fence, as it were.....

Though I suppose I am not too old, yet, to change?  I may have the Cambridge Blues.  But they are light blues.....

1 comment:

  1. Hi, I read your story and it has really moved me. I am, at the moment, in my AS year, and I visited/lived in St John's College in August on an Eton Choral Course for 8 days. I absolutely fell in love with the place! But my GCSE's were not of the right standard, and that made me so so so distraught, and I couldn't sleep for days. As a result, I twice overslept and missed a warm up (both by the same person! Felt awful...). I just wish that I had this opportunity earlier, which would have given me the drive to do really well in my exams (I did quite well, but not well enough at GCSE level which is usual for Oxbridge candidates- 2 A*s, 8 As and 1 B). However, after it, I certainly now have the drive to do well in my AS and A2 exams. If I do very well, then I still have a chance (this is because I had an interview with a specialist on this area and helping people, completely legally, to get into Oxbridge, and he told me it was possible if I didn't screw up my A levels, and that it has been done before). So, I would want nothing more than to study at St. John's, I could genuinely not be happier- I cannot think of anything that would make me happier, it immediately brightens my mood when I imagine studying at St. John's!!! Just adore it! But then sometimes comes the feeling that I know will come if I don't get in. And that, I'm sure, will be the worst feeling ever. But enough about me, I want to suggest to you a possibility to defeat your blues. Have you ever considered trying to work at Cambridge? As a professor, for instance? You seem smart enough! Just a suggestion. :) Ed