Notes from Cambridge: wherein I get expelled from Clare College

cambridge sign

Bill stayed at the University Arms Hotel in Cambridge, and complained of its functional modern style and ghastly façade. I sought a room there nonetheless, but they were full. I poked about in Christ’s Pieces (pleasantly arranged) and a few shopping streets (Green Street, Rose Crescent), before chancing upon Clare College, where I asked for a room. The porter told me matter-of-factly that there weren’t any. I informed him, with careful ambiguity, that I was ex-Cambridge. Within minutes I was in room P1 boiling the kettle and trying on the various academic costumes I found in the cupboard.

I had a pint in the college bar, where a burlesque show was carrying on. I bought a round of drinks for god-knows-who, and found myself at a table where a lot of clever things were being said about beauty, mostly in relation to Cambridge’s buildings and a girl in the second year called Christina. My suggestion that a lot of this beauty is built at others’ expense, and thus has something shameful about it, was not taken seriously, nor was my suggestion that Christina, who I was shown photos of, was a six-out-of-ten.

I was invited to an after-party in the quarters of a known eccentric. In a pitch-black room snippets of classical music were being played while a score of students lay on the floor trying to guess the composer. (And to think the tax-payer once subsidized this shit.) I wondered out loud what the prize was, hoping it was a time-share in Tenerife, and that they all won it, and took themselves off there, leaving this wonderful building to be put to better use, as a Bingo Hall perhaps. I suffered the game for about twenty minutes before requesting, in a pique of proletarian rebellion, a piece by S-Club-7. I was asked to leave.


Next morning I had a croissant and an espresso at Indigo Coffee House (what a prole!), whose proprietor argued that given how encapsulated and infantilized the students are at Cambridge it’s a wonder they don’t fuck-up more when in government, which struck me as a generous assessment. Later, and following Bryson’s lead, I sought out a mediocre curry-house – not easy to get a restaurant to admit to being such – and then an ‘empty pub for a lonely pint’. I found such a pub (The Fountain), entered, paid six quid for a pint. ‘It’s a craft beer. Small batches. / ‘I don’t care if it was crafted in Machu Pichu by the goddamn Dalai Lama.’

And then Simon Richard Pistol entered, looking like a toothless De Niro, and immediately got wound up because they didn’t serve Strongbow. I didn’t want him to notice the young lady to his right, so I asked him what part of London he was from, and got this in reply: ‘Brixton. Joesphine Road. I’m the craziest bastard you’ll ever meet. Ex- SAS. You know Maggie? 1982. She phoned me up. What do you want, I said. Paul, go and have a look would you. Falklands. So I went over by submarine. Course I did. It was like Clapham bloody Common. There was this bloke living in a shed. I knocked on his door with my gun. Course I did. He said come in for tea. I only drink Assam. / Assam? / Assam. But he didn’t have it. So I shot him. / Bit of an over-reaction. / Don’t judge me. Don’t fucking judge me. I could nuke this city. Oi, barman, get this bloke a drink. / (I was tempted to get another pint of the Machu Pichu stuff.) Paul, I can’t. I’ve got to go. / No you haven’t. No you fucking haven’t. Get this bloke a fucking drink. / No, really, I’ve got a date. / Ah, fair enough. Where you taking him? (He actually said that.) / Er, for an Indian. / Good tea the Indians.’ Then he gave me directions (precise and accurate, as it happens) to a good curry-house, shook my hand, bade me farewell. A part of me was reluctant to leave. Not because I was enjoying his company – I felt constantly one slip away from a smack in the mouth – but because I could sense that the others in the pub would have no time for him, which would only wind him up further.

I collected my bag from Clare and went to Anglia Ruskin University, where I was to spend the night on the floor of a Brazilian exchange student. As I waited for my host outside the library, perhaps a hundred students shuffled past, and not one of them had a white face. They weren’t international students. They were British. Sure, Cambridge has non-Anglo-Saxon students, but they’re mostly invited internationals from wealthy backgrounds with stellar academic records. Ruskin, which is at the other end of the university spectrum to Cambridge, is full of Britain’s ethnic and racial minorities. I couldn’t help but find this shameful. I don’t mean to suggest that Cambridge and its students are complicit in some grand, elitist plot to systematically recycle privilege and opportunity. But I nonetheless had the urge to clear some of Clare’s corridors and re-house a batch of Ruskin students there, where they would no doubt excel and graduate into positions of social and civic power, and fare very well indeed. I don’t know. The dichotomy got to me, is all.

I ate Fish-style Fingers with the Brazilian (vegetarian) and drank whisky from pint glasses because the smaller ones were irrevocably dirty and spoke about Rio and corruption and the government’s attempts to clear certain slums – ones that tourists might chance upon after a beach-volleyball bronze-medal play-off – of drug dealers et al., which, when cleared, have their power vacuums readily filled with one militia or another. (See Iraq/Syria/Libya, ad infinitum.) We rode bicycles across Parker’s Piece and Midsummer Common and past the Grafton Shopping Centre and along Mill Road and King’s Parade, arriving, somehow, back at The Fountain. I asked the barman how long Simon Richard Pistol had stuck around and he said long enough to kick-off and start threatening to kill someone and upending tables. I asked what became of him. ‘He was taken away by six plain-clothes policemen.’ Perhaps I should have accepted his offer of a pint.

One thought on “Notes from Cambridge: wherein I get expelled from Clare College

  1. Such an interesting story Ben.. love hearing about all your travels and different sleeping abodes. Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year from ‘Down Under’!

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