I’m here as a summer student on a creative writing course. I’m lodging
at St Catharine’s College. I believe places have a feeling, the ghosts
of hope and learning. A thousand years ago, scholars founded this city
and stayed here. There is a surreal continuity and a sharp feeling of
the moment. It’s a slice of life I could get used to.
I’ve cut up this slice into vignettes. I wake to the pealing of bells.
My window faces the university’s oldest college, 800-year-old Corpus
Christi College. A sign on the door says my tiny room, with a minuscule
bed (I’ve fallen off twice on waking up), belongs to M Healey (one of
19,000 Cambridge students in this town of 120,000). M will be glad to
know I like his or her view from St Catharine’s College. I see mediaeval
chimney tops; the autumnal colours of this city—sandy, chocolate; faded
red brick through slanted rain; bright rising and dipping sunshine.
We are shown around by fulltime students. They are studying physics,
pure math, languages I hadn’t heard of, yet they willingly carry our
bags to our tiny rooms. I walk out of the dining hall into a square quad
in the softest of rain, rimmed with bright summer flowers, soft roses, a
refreshing edge of chill.
In this compressed term of ours (just two weeks—Cambridge students get
eight), everything happens by the close of the first week. “We,” divided
in small classes, range from age 18 to 70, and represent 45
We begin, cautiously at first, as strangers. But it can’t last. Not if
we are asked to share our most essential selves in themes of marriage,
home, love, loss, war, blue smoke that rises from mass graves. Not if we
risk failure and rejection each time we read our work aloud. Not if we
learn to suck up critiques and get back to work again in a rigorous
We are told that full-time students play hard here. They once put a car
on top of a church. They put hats on gargoyles, on spires, on statues.
I’m not surprised. The surreal order, the rules of not to walk on the
grass, the recycling, the clockwork-like classes and lectures, the
intense work load, the high expectations, takes people to the edge.
Life happens. A girl has a meltdown in class and tells someone their
work is s---. People hear her crying, shouting at night. A woman from a
war-torn country confides to me she may have found a way out: a man with
an EU passport likes her.
A man accepted at Cambridge ten years ago comes here in a wave of
nostalgia. His family make and lose fortunes. His stories are
fantastical and depressing: of Liverpool slums and yachts in the
Caribbean, of a malfunctioning mother and a cruel father. An Austrian
girl, instead of doing her assignment, writes of several suicide
This is a safe space, and nobody mentions she is off-topic; instead we
encourage, shield. A beautiful 19-year-old boy writes exquisitely of the
nature of desire in a pithy poem.
There are moments of hilarity. We are asked to write about a marriage
gone wrong from the start. A 24- year-old man, clearly with little
experience, writes the shortest story ever. “She says, ‘I want a
divorce.’ He says, ‘Whatever.’”
One night after class, ten women, ten nationalities share stories in a
varsity pub. Everywhere, from Ukraine to Australia, from Kenya to Spain,
women’s lives revolve around love, loss, survival and occasional bursts
of a joy so piercing it feels unreal. We are all the same. This is a
place for musing.
From my window I see a russetgold glow from a row of windows as if
looking into a play.
The girls lie in bed in white pyjamas or dressing gowns. Boys pour tea.
Friends chat. A girl hangs out of the window with her cigarette.
Slivers of conversations: The man with the limp turns to me suddenly, as
we race to shelter from an unexpected downpour. He looks at the
splattering at the cobblestones, the bubbles of light from a rainbow for
a long time.
Since he lost his wife and two children in separate accidents, he stops
to look at everything three times. We look three times at the building
where DNA was discovered, where the atom was split.
A writer tells us that he always tries to act like a character out of
his own books. He tells us he has two selves. It allows him to take
risks, talk to people he wouldn’t have noticed. We have to make our
lives happen, he says.
My trip here has made me see how fragile life is, how precious, and yes,
it’s tired but so apt: Carpe diem, an aphorism usually translated "seize
the day," taken from the odes written in 23BC by the Latin poet Horace.
There is no other option in the one shot we get at life. I wear the same
dress two days in a row. We all wonder why we all began to dress
carelessly. I’m too engaged to look in the mirror. The theory was this
city, built 1,000 years ago by scholars, for scholars, makes people
think of the world more, themselves less.