For reasons that can remain obscure, I was back in Cambridge today. Back, I say, because yes, despite the apparent lack of effect on my later standards of either decorum or education, I did in fact study there for three years. I went back to where I had my lectures (relatively infrequent!), and I also went back to where I lived for three years, just round the corner. I was amazed at the welcome I got in the Porters' Lodge simply on the unsubstantiated (but, I repeat, true) claim that I was a former student. They're obviously primed to be nice in case I am some sort of major financial contributor to the place. Let's draw a discreet veil over that, though, because despite some quite persistent efforts on the part of the college, I am not.
It's such a strange experience, though, because that place - the college, not the Sidgwick site where my lectures were - was, twenty years ago, absolutely, utterly mine, shared with a group of 500 or so others. It was ours, a collective ownership not so much of the place, but of the very idea of the college itself. I don't mean that in a proprietorial way, necessarily, because even at the time we were absolutely conscious of the history of the place, and of the fact that we were temporary guests, a congregation that constituted the church for those three years. But the college-ness of it, the fact that we all lived in the college for the full three years made it a part of who we have become, just as we were a part of it for our time there. The postcard-worthy bits, with their vaguely plausible famous connections (no part of the college is named after Edward Strelley, or indeed myself, just yet), stand out just that little bit more, like they did on the interview days, because of the lack of daily familiarity.
It's a fluke, getting a place, because the other people who tried were as good, and they didn't not get in because they weren't as good, and with that in mind the privilege seems even more random. But the presence of others, a new set of owners, the fact that it is now someone else's, is deeply sad whilst also being moving in another, less melancholy way. Looking at my old staircase, I felt acutely the loss of my youth, and the sense of possibility that youth carries with it. I wouldn't have appreciated that I had that sense at the time, but I can see it in my young self now. I went to visit the little staircase in the old bit where I had the first of my interviews. The real tourists thought I was taking some very odd pictures, which I suppose I was. The oddest would be the close-up of the stone lintel against which one of my early corridor-mates banged his head (he was ludicrously tall, and claimed he ended up flat on his back, which may or may not be true; he is also the subject of two of the greatest swearing-related stories I've ever heard). But I was clocked by a member of the staff walking through the college as well, who asked me without any prompting if it brought back memories. I suppose she might have heard me on my way in, but I like to think that former students must stand out like a sore thumb against the backdrop of tourists. Perhaps she had seen me taking the strangely-composed photos.
So how is it less melancholy? If you look at the experience through the lens of thirty-something responsibility, lack of sleep due to children, work, relative lack of disposable income (now, not then - everything I had then could go on beer or guitars), it seems a halcyon, absolutely to be recreated if possible. But looked at as a contributor to who I am now, it is only pleasantly positive. There is a bit of me that wishes I could go back, be (that) young again, actually go to most of the lectures and spend the appropriate amount of time on the work. But that sort-of misses the point, because that's what I chose, that's what I did, and without that, I wouldn't be who or what I am now. That's the point of the quote on the front page, I suppose, but it happened to be on the radio on the way home (as if they knew, somehow, that only nostalgic folk listen to the radio in the mid-afternoon slot). My old college will always have a bit of my heart, for all those reasons and many more, but as Lennon says, you can make those reflections affectionately and still be happy with what's now. Being happy with now is another matter entirely, of course...
When to the sessions of sweet silent thought