Some years ago D and I attended a dinner at St John’s College Cambridge, for those of us who matriculated there in 1965. After the meal, we found ourselves chatting with a fellow of the college I had not met before. I confessed to him that I felt guilty being there on such an occasion, surrounded as we were by so many others who had done so well, as my university career had been anything but distinguished. I felt a fraud. He demurred. The precise class of my degree did not matter at all, he said, since I was a member of St John’s and always would be; that was all that needed to be said.
I was astounded by this, and very moved. I have never forgotten it. But still, in a deep part of me, I felt that I had done the college wrong. Elected as an Open Scholar, I had frittered away my privileged position, in drink and others forms of fun, and ignored major opportunities which, had I recognised them at the time and taken them, would have given me an assured future; in several respects better, I sometimes thought, than the life I had actually had since graduation.
Only recently have two reformed ideas about this occurred to me. The first is obvious: it doesn’t matter. I have had five careers since leaving St John’s, and found something to enjoy in every one of them. Getting a poor degree did not prevent me from being selected for a galaxy of rewarding experiences all over the world.
The second realisation leads on from this: I had a great time at the college, albeit most of it outside the lecture hall, and learned much of the non-academic kind – friendship and love, music, conversation, intellectual challenge, worship even – and for that I will always be grateful. It made me, though I did not know that at the time.
Ah, time. The Cambridge I knew in the late Sixties doesn’t exist any more, but it lives on in my gratitude. I left it as soon as I could, in a self-propelled exit from Eden. So I did pay back to St John’s, but not in the way I thought. I started to become an adult while I was there, but only recently come to see this, and forgive myself. I was young. Cannot any of us forgive ourselves for being young? What more can be said? “The child is father of the man”, as Wordsworth put it, and he should know. He was a Johnian too.