Cambridge Vignettes


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Category: Travel 17 Aug 14


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 nationalities.

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 schedule.

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 attempts.

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.


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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur