Glittering Prizes (2015 edit)

Ho to the Guardian agane, for the inspiration for this week’s entry (yes, I really should change my newspaper, especially since the editor seems to have decided that because the consensus is that this decade will be the new ’70s/’80s, he should immediately re-start printing lots of hectoring articles by feminists). Anyway, this week the Grauniad also printed an article by one Patrick Barkham on the subject of his days at Cambridge University. Since these seem to have been roughly contemporary with my days at Cambridge University (1994-7), I couldn’t resist the opportunity to compare and contrast. Unfortunately, as is perhaps inevitable for the small minority of readers who were actually at Cambridge in the Nineties, a lot of the article is basically a statement of the bleeding obvious. Supervisions…public school v. state school…drinking societies…eccentric Fellows…as the exploitative bogus wheelchair user from Little Britain would say: “Yeah, I know.” Mr Barkham concludes that Cambridge was “a tiny golden bubble”, which is exactly what most people who go there conclude, including me. That’s what I liked about it. I spent most of my time living in a room quite near the middle of Christ’s College, and could come home in the evenings and enjoy the feeling of security inherent in living in a cross between one of JRR Tolkien’s fortresses and a mediaeval monastery with added women.
I probably should have got out more. Mr Barkham clearly did, since he claims to have attended toga parties, whereas I can honestly say I never even heard of such sophisticated entertainments taking place, much less got an invitation to one. My main memory of the social life is of sitting around the college bar or local pubs and engaging in small talk with friends, with occasional excursions to duff discos where I danced poorly. To be fair, university is supposed to prepare you for life and, since most of my social life now consists of sitting in pubs engaging in small talk, and even more occasional outbursts of bad dancing, I suppose it did just that. Indeed, that is an illustration one of the main contrasts between Mr Barkham’s university career and mine. He claims to have been “more profoundly transformed than I could have ever expected”; mostly, it appears to have given him self-confidence through having to interact with lots of people from different backgrounds.
Whilst almost by definition, I am different as a result of attending Cambridge, much as I would have been had I spent the three years in prison, in the Navy or working in McDonalds, I don’t remember it having a profound transformative effect. I was rather shy and lacking in self-confidence when I arrived and pretty much the same when I left. If anything has boosted my confidence in life, it was the realisation that I could hold down a job and be tolerably good at it, not University. I was involved in my College Christian Union and went to Chapel, but as I was already a Christian anyway, that wasn’t really a radical change; in fact, one of the important things that did happen to me at Cambridge was the increasing realisation that, much as I liked some of the evangelical people who tended to predominate in Cambridge student Christianity, I just didn’t believe the same things that they seemed to and never had.  I did learn a lot of law, which was the official point of the exercise, and unlike most people who do arts degrees, I can honestly say that some at least of what I learned has been of almost daily relevance ever since.
I didn’t really meet that many other people who went on to be famous or powerful either. Of the three people I can claim to have known who went on to have some kind of public profile, I knew two before I went to Cambridge. Most of my friends seem to have ended up as lawyers or accountants or doing vaguely computer related jobs that I don’t quite understand; all good jobs, no doubt, but not exactly the core of the British Establishment. Mr Barkham talks of Zadie Smith, Konnie Huq, David Mitchell and Robert Webb, not to mention top corporate lawyers and millionaire merchant bankers, but as he only refers to them as contemporaries it is hard to know whether he means that he knew them or knew of them then or merely knows now that they attended the same University at about the same time. Personally, I must admit that I have never met David Mitchell, Robert Webb or Zadie Smith, no doubt much to their relief; as for the fragrant Ms Huq, rare must be the man who can boast of an invitation to her flower-lined bower.
Lying behind a lot of writing about studying at Cambridge, Oxford and for that matter any elite higher educational institution is the myth of what one could call the Great University Career, a paradigm where one effortlessly achieves a First whilst encountering one’s equally gifted contemporaries, who all go on to be well-known public figures, preferably whilst eating cream teas somewhere in the vicinity of a punt, whilst of course one’s own embryonic genius is recognised by eccentric dons who echo the distinguished cousin of the Mayor in Philip Larkin’s poem “I Remember, I Remember”: “There before us, had we but the gift to see ahead.” It is necessary to be elected to some impressive sounding post like President of the Cambridge Union or, like Oscar Wilde, win some fancy bauble (the Newdigate prize for poetry, in his case) and there are bonus points if you subsequently underachieve and never quite become what your tutor expected you to be. It is, of course, a myth, blended from bits of the lives of some real famous graduates of Cambridge in the 19th or early 20th century and distilled in various novels, including the one alluded to in the title of this post. As will by now have become blindingly obvious, it wasn’t that way for me, nor for most people who went to Cambridge. I don’t really think Mr Barkham is saying it was that way for him. Actually, if I wanted to brag about my Cambridge career, my claim would not be that it fit the myth. Instead, it would be – “Between 1994 and 1997, Cambridge University collided with James Mobbs. It was carrying the weight of 800 years of history, the entire established social order, a formidable mythology and some of the cleverest people you’ll ever meet anywhere. It bounced.” (ED: Whilst I still hold the opinions expressed here, this attempt at a cool boast just illustrates why cool boasting should be left to cool fictional characters. It actually implies, not so much that I am sturdily independent of mind, but that I am so monumentally obese I can deflect entire educational institutions)
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