Cambridge remembered

A cold, damp wintry Cambridge evening in November 1966: not a typical, sociable sort of student, I leave the Fitzwilliam Museum, where I have been seeing paintings by Brueghel for the first time,and turn up Trumpington Street.

As I walk towards the epicentre of the university, the colleges with all their individual characteristics start coming into view: on the left, Peterhouse, the smallest of the colleges and, not coincidentally, the one with the best food. On the right, Pembroke College: sporty, macho, it’s the place where I first tasted Irish whiskey. Past the fortress-like bulk of the Cambridge University Press, I cross over Silver Street and pass the tobacconist shop where you can buy Balkan Sobranie cigarettes, something of a nerdy craze that year. On the opposite side of King’s Parade is old St Botolph’s Church where the vicar has given me permission to play the organ to myself a couple of days a week. There are very few visitors to disturb me.

Next is Corpus Christi College – small, friendly, cosy – where I go and have tea sometimes with Revd Chancellor Garth Moore: a good source of fatherly advice which I do not take. To his great pleasure, his rooms give him a squinting view into tiny St Benet’s Church next door, where friars still sing evensong. Across Free School Lane behind the church is the old Cavendish Laboratory where artificial nuclear reactions were first photographed and the neutron was discovered (it would move to its new site in 1971).

I once asked Garth when exactly the ‘old world’ ended and he replied promptly, “1st of September 1939, the last day you could get servants.”

This evening I continue on up King’s Parade, past St Catherine’s College, small and neat and gilded, on the left, and then the cafes and tourist shops on the right. And then, one of the great architectural sights of all Europe: the towering Perpendicular cliff of King’s College Chapel rearing up into the night sky. If it’s time for Evensong and I am wearing my black undergraduate gown, I know I can slip into a pew behind those of the choir and listen to what was then regarded as the best choir in the world. David Willcocks MC, not yet knighted, is still choirmaster and the great theologian Alec Vidler has just retired as the Dean.

Now I turn right. Opposite Great St Mary’s is one of the shops where you can buy college colours, scarfs and trinkets like those little shields with college coats of arms. Then it’s into Market Hill where the traders are packing up and out at the far corner of the emptying square, and along to the corner and I cross over Sidney Street into the delicatessen to buy biscuits I cannot afford.

In those days, traffic is allowed to barrel up Sidney Street, so I cross back over with care, leaving Sidney Sussex College and its upper-class drinking club reputation behind. After Green Street, opposite Jesus Lane, comes Trinity College’s Whewell’s Court where Wittgenstein and A E Housman lived.

The street is now Bridge Street, where my best friend Philip Pettifor has lodgings. Then it’s round the corner into St John’s Street, straight over into my college, St John’s, the back way and so into the enormous chapel for evensong, sung by the choir conducted by George Guest. After the dark and the cold, the great music-filled space is an immense comfort.

I am home, more real to me than my family home in Suffolk. I have not done a scrap of work all afternoon, I have spent money I don’t have and later I will be drinking in the Bull with Philip and the other members of the choir. But I am happy about all that as I listen to the last words of the 23rd psalm: “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me, all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.”

Listen. I was only 19, but with an emotional age of 15 or so. An Open Scholar in English at St John’s, I knew nothing. The bulk of my learning and maturing was yet to come, somewhere else. It was all so very long ago, and some of the friends I made then have since died. The Cambridge we shared and revelled in 44 years ago no longer exists. How can it? “The world that was ours is a world that is ours no more” and that is how it should be. Never go back if you can help it.


About rimboval

Writer, thinker and proud grandfather
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