Last weekend I went back for the first time in a decade to Cambridge for an alumni event. When I first got off the coach, I was bewildered by all the new buildings and shops, and promptly got lost. Later on, I found my department and slowly succumbed to the enchantment of the beautiful architecture and the splendour of the autumnal gardens. Cambridge was only a brief experience for me: just one year. But its aftermath is still hammering through me, still shaking my being. Many believe that their university experience changed their life. In my case, it really did change my life forever: opened my mind, changed my career, broke down a marriage, seduced me into love and heartbreak.
My Cambridge was not the one of medieval courts and toga parties, nor of rowing at dawn and wild student pranks. Not even sustained intellectual debate and lifelong friendships. Although I encountered all this and more, Cambridge meant much more to me than that.
You have to remember where I came from. For a while, I had attended an old-fashioned English school abroad, a school where grammar and spelling were revered, where I was taught to speak much like the Queen in her plummier moments, where Cambridge and Oxford were regarded as the pinnacles of human achievement. A good deal of that washed over my head. As a grandchild of peasants and the niece of factory-workers, I never quite understood the class system and snobbery implicit in the Oxbridge privilege. Instead, I asociated it with intellectual achievement (and included Harvard, Yale, Sorbonne and a few others in that list). I came from a culture that was fiercely proud and in awe of its intelligentsia, even as it spied on them and locked them up for insubordination. It was to this closed and fearful culture that I returned as a teenager. And I found it hard.
Brains mattered, I was told. Yet what I saw, day after day, was that what was really required was monkey-like cleverness, ability to memorise, repeat, be quick and juggle numbers. Intelligence did not mean curiosity, imagination, asking questions or using simple sentences. I was being forced back into the mould. So I retreated into my dream world. Somewhere, there was a magic place where brains are allowed to develop and soar, where they are admired fully in all their colourful variety and glory.
In 1989 walls came tumbling down across Europe and we gradually had the opportunity to see Cambridge for ourselves. And this is what I saw: that there were fantastic and mediocre brains there, as everywhere else. That the world of rich ideas and interdisciplinary connections is so powerful in its beauty, so endlessly inspiring, that I wanted to wrap myself up in its cocoon forever.
I began to realise that the well-maintained borders and lawns of the Cambridge colleges, the noble architecture, the self-sufficient simplicity of college rooms, the take-as-much-as-you-need social interaction in dining halls are all designed to protect and nurture the life of the spirit. You can clearly see the monastic origin of these great universities. And it’s not hard to understand the urge to devote yourself to that path of single focus. I have so often yearned for this ideal, but messy life got in the way.
Twenty years on, I have finally understood and accepted that I will never have the peaceful don’s life for which my passion and my gifts might have been best suited. Sometimes you just cannot follow your passion in life, but Cambridge did clarify for me what my passion was. Above all, it gave me oxygen to feed my life.
All I need to do, as I rummage through the imperfect, often overwhelming, shapeless lump of mud and gemstones which is my life, is to find that Cambridge state of mind, that inner peace, that source of oxygen which brings forth my best ideas and my most honest self.