Friday, June 6, 2008

A Visit to Cambridge

(I ask you to indulge this exceptionally long post. I had fully expected to find my old college wi-fi'ed for its students, despite its venerable 600 years of history, and was astounded to find that I could only get online via the pre-historic ethernet. Anyway, here's two marvelous days of nostalgia and perhaps a little sentiment to boot...)

I sit here in the comfortable Gonville Guest Room in the Fellows’ quarters

of Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge...

(The view of Gonville Court from our window)

(The college chapel, with

the tomb of Dr. Caius...)

... my old college at Cambridge (pronounce it to rhyme with “please”). I was “up” from 1955-1958, “reading”—as we say hereabouts rather than “studying”—Modern and Medieval Languages and French Philology. (Three years of undergraduate study in those days at Cambridge sufficed for the Bachelor of Arts degree, and probably still do; I can reveal, too, that a modest cash investment and a patient wait of three years—without further study—led to the Master’s. I invested. I did, however, actually earn my Ph.D. degree by the sweat of my brow, much later, at the University of Iowa). My father was here before me, in the late 1920s; and my uncle was a “don” at Caius, teaching Syriac and Aramaic. (Top that, anyone?)

I have to confess that I actually did very little studying while I was at Cambridge; as I told Ellie as we ordered lunch at a cute little restaurant off the market place:

I was too busy trying to grow up, after twelve years of involuntary incarceration at boys’ boarding schools, so naturally the pursuit of beer and the opposite sex required the best of my energies. It was only much later in life that I began to appreciate what a privilege I had been granted by the opportunity, and later still that I began to take a renewed interest in my old college. Which accounts, in part, for my being here in the Fellows’ quarters: I make a modest monthly donation to the college fund in gratitude for what I, unknowingly at the time, received from Caius, and plan to host some kind of a reception for old Caians now living in Los Angeles on my return there.

Anyway, be all that as it may, the simple travelog facts for the day are these: we took the train from Harpenden to St. Pancras station in London, and made the short walk from there across to King’s Cross to hop aboard the northbound train for Cambridge. A very easy journey. We grabbed a cab at the station, and it brought us straight on down to Kings Parade, whence we had to walk to Caius because much of the area around it has now thankfully been designated a pedestrian zone. We received a superbly polite greeting from the porter, along with directions to our rooms—a short, nostalgic walk around the perimeter of Tree Court

(At the foot of the "S" staircase on Tree Court, where I lived as an undergraduate...)

and up the stairs across from the familiar stairway to the dining hall, to find a delightfully quiet, elegantly furnished room a stone’s throw from my own old rooms, and from those where they filmed the Caius sequence from “Chariots of Fire.” (You’ve seen it, surely? If not, Netflix the film today!)

A quick unpacking job, then out to the aforementioned lunch across from Great St. Mary’s, the University Church. It seemed to us, gazing out through the window, that everyone looked very young; and indeed, I did feel the gathering weight of my own years. It is fifty-three years since I arrived at this place, as young as these young students and just as green. I was actually overcome with a huge wave of emotion—of sadness, I guess, for the all-too swift passage of those intervening years, and awareness of the relatively few to come. I found myself envying the youthful energy of those now engaged in the same flow of life as I was, all those years ago.

After lunch, a brief walk through the market place, and back to King’s Parade, past Kings College and St. Catherine’s to the Mill Pond,

where I on more than one occasion jumped off the bridge on a dare to earn my lunch and beer money. Then on to the famous “Backs” behind the colleges,

where expert (and some inexpert) punters were plying the waters of the river; I passed on the opportunity to rent one out to show my expertise, fearing that a large number of years without practice might serve me ill on the backboard of a punt. (See later, however…)

(Kings College Chapel, from the Backs)

We were disappointed to find that a number of colleges are closed for exam week, but found Clare College open

(Clare Gardens)

to walk back over the bridge and past the Senate House to return to our rooms at Caius, where we took the unusual luxury of an afternoon nap.

Dinner was billed as a somewhat formal affair, so we dressed appropriately,

Peter in black blazer, button-down shirt and tie and Ellie in dark, dressy pants and top, very chic, as always,

before strolling over to the Tree Court rooms of our host for the evening, Mick LeMoignan in the Development office. A glass of sherry was, for course, de rigueur before dinner, and we enjoyed a civilized glass of amontillado in his rooms to fortify us for the sterner stuff that lay ahead. Mick led us down though the three college courts to the dining room stairs—a point where I had long ago grown accustomed to taking the student path to the right. Instead, we took the paneled flight to the left, and into a graciously proportioned reception room where we were greeted warmly by the President himself (the Master, a step above even the president of the college, was not on hand last night.)

It took but a few moments to make courteous, if rather perfunctory introductions, before Ellie was prevailed upon by the President to sit at his right hand, whilst another visiting dignitary was invited to sit to his left. With this rudimentary plan in mind we marched, a dozen or fifteen of us, from the reception room to the side entrance to the high table and found our seats just in time for the head waiter to sound the dinner gong.

(The Dining Hall at Caius...

with a portrait of Stephen Hawkins, a distinguished Fellow at Caius...

... and Ellie, resuming her seat of honor the next day!)

Hardly yet seated, we rose to our feet again as one with the throng of students gathered down below our dais for the age-old Latin blessing, uttered by one at the far end of the high table and punctuated by “Amens” all around.

We sat. In front of us, the sea of students in the obligatory gray-blue Caius undergraduate gowns lined with black velvet that are required of them at dinner, as on all formal college occasions. It used to be, in my day, that a student was forbidden to walk out on the streets after dark without one. If caught by the Proctor (an academic in mortar board and gown, who functions as a kind of gentlemanly officer of university law,) the student could expected to be accosted by one of his two “bulldogs”—college porters, reputedly fast runners, in black, with gowns and bowlers—and summoned by them to the Proctor’s side, where he might receive a reprimand, a few choice words of warning or reproof, or a summons to appear at the Proctor’s office in the morning—usually for the payment of a fine. This, friends, was our university police. Cars, as on American campuses? Guns? Please….

So they wore gowns. Most of them. Some cheated. Most were far less formally dressed underneath the gown than was required in my day. I mean, t-shirt and jeans? Really? It’s exam season, however. Things loosen up. Oh, and there were young women out there at the table, among the young men. That’s new. In my day, there were two girls’ colleges at Cambridge and that was it. We males outnumbered them by far, a social statistic that led to some interesting male domination rituals. That whole dynamic has changed, assuredly for the better for both sexes.

The dinner served by the college staff was an excellent one. We started out with a prawns and orange salad, served with endive spears in a goblet lined beautifully with fresh butter lettuce leaves and a crisp white wine. Next course was served on silver platters proffered by the waiting staff, from which we each selected our own portions of excellently tender veal slices, roasted potatoes with fines herbes, courgettes and red cabbage cooked with red currants and peppercorns. Followed by a choice of cheese or dessert—as a signal that you wished to choose the former, you slid your cheese place to the center of the space in front of you; if the latter, the cheese plate remained firmly to the side. The whole served with a fine red wine (I did not catch the label) and good, crusty bread rolls. I enjoyed a good conversation with my neighbors, all of whom turned out to be historians, two of them joining us at the High Table because they were in Cambridge for job interviews. The same job. In America, of course, we would avoid such clashes as potentially embarrassing. Here, it’s a part of the test. We spoke a great deal, at my instigation, about American politics, the role of race and, since two of my neighbors were women, of sexism in the current race. Not one of my interlocutors agreed that anti-feminism had played any more than a trivial role.

The sound of the gong announced the end of dinner, and we all rose for the after-dinner Latin grace, then recessed in the order specified by historical tradition, the furthest from the exit leading the way and each neighbor peeling off behind him or her. Mick admonished us that we should take our napkins with us to the Fellows’ Combination Room,

where we would be gathering for the traditional after dinner ritual of fruit and port. The President took his place at the head of the table in the elegant chamber, and took a democratic preference vote on Port or Claret—the latter would need at least three takers to ensure the draining of the bottle, which could not be left open for another night. Port won the day, and the President started the circulation of the decanter to begin an interesting evening of lively talk about England and America, Blair and Brown, Bush, Hillary and Barack. Were the vote taken here, no doubt that Barack would have won, hands down.

(P & E, after dinner, with a portrait of Dr. Caius)

With still a little energy left, along with the need to work off some of that surfeit of food and drink, we stopped by the porter’s lodge with Mick to arrange for the hire of one of the Caius punts the next day, and wandered off into the streets for an after-dinner stroll. On our way back, at the college gate, we ran into a small group of students waiting for a friend and stopped for a chat about Cambridge, the exams—they had just finished taking the last of their three-year cycle of “tripos” exams and were off to celebrate—and the end of the school year. In Cambridge, that means May Week (by perverse British logic, always in June,) the “bumps,” and the May balls. The bumps, for my American friends, is the annual boat contest between college rowing eights to be “head of the river.” Since the river is too narrow for boats to row two abreast, there’s a complex system of winning by catching up with the crew ahead and bumping the rudder end of their boat. The May balls are formal affairs—white tie and tails, in my day—lasting into the small hours and ending, by Cambridge tradition, with a long punt ride upriver to Grantchester for breakfast (with the fortification of more bottles of champagne).

Anyway, all local lore aside, we had a good chat with our student friends, who were good enough to laugh at my jokes and answer our questions about their lives and hopes, and their thoughts about American politics (Obama, again, decisively—though one of the students was honest enough to admit, cheerfully enough, to “supreme indifference.”) We soon left them to their late night merriment and headed off, with reluctant recognition of the limits to our energy, to bed.


I woke in our comfortable Fellows’ quarters with the realization that I had been content until now with somewhat fuzzy math—and that this is indeed, fortuitously but quite precisely, the fiftieth anniversary of my own graduation from Caius. I graduated in June, 1958. We have now reached the month of June in the year 2008. The math is pretty simple and incontestable. I had not seen it in quite that light before, and I spent my meditation time fighting back the intrusive thoughts about what all this might mean… What’s hard to resist is the sadness, that so much time has passed with such unaccountable speed, and that age has managed to creep up on me before I’ve had done with the joys of youth!

A buffet breakfast in the college dining hall, then a walk down to Magdalene Bridge, where we had learned there were university offices that would issue a “Camcard” with which, as a lifelong member of the university, I could gain access to all those colleges which remain closed to tourists because of the continuing exams. Once there, we crossed the river to explore Magdelen College and returned via that route to the Backs, walking back to the center of town via St. Johns College

and the Bridge of Sighs (a miniature version of the bridge of the same name in Venice.)

Back at Caius, we stopped for long enough for me to don punting gear—something light enough to dry quickly, in case I should fall in!—and pick up our permit at the porter’s lodge. Then we retraced our path through Johns to where the Caius punts are moored, retrieved the cushions from storage, and found our good ship Bella. Punting, for the uninitiated, involves standing at the back of a long, flat boat with a pole, dropping the pole to the river bed, and propelling the craft by pushing it ahead. (The Oxford tradition is to pole from the well at what we consider to be the front end of the boat; we in Cambridge stand tall—and courageous—on the platform at the rear.) It’s not so easy as it looks when you watch a practiced punter, but it’s a bit like riding a bike: it soon comes back.

(Ellie took a number of cruel pictures: this is the one with the least belly hanging out!)

I managed to keep my balance, maintain an even keep, and steer a steady course for the full length of the Backs, past Johns and Clare, Kings and Queens up to the Mill Pond, where two rivers meet, the Granta and the Cam, and back to where we started.

(The view forward)

I did once, I confess, lose my pole to the mud at the bottom of the river, but was smart enough not to hang on to it—a sure way to be pulled overboard!—and was content to use the emergency paddle to go back to retrieve it. Not quite the grace and ease of youth, but I managed well enough.

We stopped at The Copper Kettle in the early afternoon for a combined lunch (cheese and chutney sandwich) and, for dessert, an English “cream tea,” with a pot of tea, scones, clotted cream and strawberry jam. (We could not leave England without at least one afternoon tea!) Then wandered the city streets and a couple of college grounds—ending up in the Tudor elegance of Queens College,

which made Ellie swoon—before heading back to Kings College for a sung Eucharist in the justly famous, grandiose chapel with its world-renowned choir. I think I might have responded with a greater nostalgic kick if they had sung a tradition Gregorian mass. As it was, they did a fancy version by Francis Poulenc, which was quite beautiful, and quite beautifully sung, but which left me, a non-believer, frankly cold.

We returned to our room for long enough to dress for dinner, and headed out on foot again to the recommended Lock Fyne restaurant down by the Fitzwilliam Museum (always known, in my day, as Fitzbilly.) Excellent smoked salmon for myself, and a passable salad for Ellie, followed by fish pie (P) and bream (Ellie) and an okay half bottle of house white. And back, after a long and much appreciated day, to bed. We shall be sorry, tomorrow, to have to leave this wonderful city, which despite the hordes of tourists like ourselves manages to preserve its elegance and intellectual dignity.


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