As I prepare to come up to Cambridge for the first time in October, I often think not of what I’ll encounter anew, but of what I’ll be leaving behind.
Specifically London – not a London of stress and noise and traffic, but my London, the London I’ve carved on my own after living here for eighteen years. The cultural behemoth that is the greatest city on earth exerts a strange kind of magnetic pull; I feel I cannot stay away for too long without thoughts of returning, bereft, to its well-trodden streets.
Much of my time in London has been spent almost profligately at cinemas, most notably the BFI Southbank. In the last three years I’ve seen fifty-seven films either there or at the nearby BFI IMAX. Whenever I return, cinematic memories emanate from the walls; the first transcendent viewing of Lawrence of Arabia, the endurance-testing Harry Potter all-nighters, the startling aesthetic of Chungking Express. I’ve spent a long time traversing an epic wide angle of London life; the close-up of Cambridge seems, at least at first, far less vibrant in comparison.
I feel intimately like the characters in George Lucas’ American Graffiti, set in the early 1960s. On the eve of going off to College, four high-school friends decide to have one final night cruising the strip in their home town. They ruefully reflect on what has come to an end and what lies ahead; only a few eventually decide to leave. The film takes place in an almost unreal, nostalgic world, pre-Vietnam war. It’s one of those rare films that makes you wish that you were born in a different country in a different decade. It heavily romanticises small-town America, as I ceaselessly romanticise my home city – and its cinemas.
Perhaps I’m just being too gloomy. There is indeed something cinematic about the Cambridge colleges; an archaic, black-and-white symmetry in the quads that would suit Yasujiro Ozu. There are in addition plenty of cinemas in which to aid my film obsession, though nothing in the realm of the BFI. I have already had frenzied discussions about favourite directors with other freshers, either on social media or in person. This is one of the things I’m most looking forward to at Cambridge: the joyful, inevitable clash of ideas and debate in the Union Society, the coffee-shops and – for me – the Jesus College common room. I might discover new films I wouldn’t have otherwise come across and introduce films to others.
From the perspective of someone very unused to change, all my feelings in the end are bound up with the act of leaving home. Two years ago I genuinely didn’t think I could depart from London in order to attend university. Yet epochs must end, people must move on, films much segue to closing credits. A recent report on ‘excellent early student experience’ suggested that Cambridge is the most welcoming university in the UK; I know current students who speak often of the sense of community within college walls. Like the more adventurous of the four young people in American Graffiti, I surely have far more to look forward to than regret.