In Week Seven of my first Michaelmas, I was held captive in a pub and offered a blowjob.
I’d gone to watch the Autumn Internationals with some friends and got chatting to another group. This group included two Mixed Martial Artists, who had been watching Vikings and were keen on the idea that they were descended from Norse Raiders. When I mentioned that I did Anglo-Saxon history, they insisted I tell them how they were descended from Vikings.
As I turned to leave one of them grabbed my arm and offered a blowjob from one of their mates to stay and explain. I refused the offer, but by reply was then offered a blowjob from one of their other mates instead. I found myself pinned in the booth, unable to walk away and unwilling to tell my newfound companions that they were, all things considered, probably not descended from Erik Bloodaxe, Sven Forkbeard or indeed Olaf the Hairy.
I ended up leaving by clambering underneath the table. Hardly very Brideshead.
As I soon found out, Cambridge will give you some very strange, but wonderful, stories, and some very strange, but wonderful, experiences. If you’re reading this as an incoming Fresher, then it’ll be home for the next three years, perhaps longer. By the end of that time (in fact, by the end of your first year), you’ll have seen it in all its styles and moods; you’ll come to love it, loathe it, and you’ll develop the sense that somehow, in spite of the thousands who have walked its streets before, this town is yours.
Cambridge is a bizarre and surreal city: it’s intense, that much is certain- I often feel that I’ve crammed more into a day here than I would in a week elsewhere. But it’s also calm, idiosyncratic and undoubtedly beautiful in its own way. A few of the buildings certainly leave a lot to be desired, and there’s a special place in hell reserved for the punt touts and the mobs of tourists who make getting from the centre of town over to Sidgwick more like a rugby scrum than a quiet walk to lectures- but these pale in comparison to the simple joys of the place. Take time to enjoy them, whatever you take them to be- for me, it’s my walks in the evening and a good Sunday Brunch; the evenings spent in Sets and Rooms which seem to last forever; treks to Sidgwick in the glorious dampness of a February morning.
You’ll have a lot of people tell you what the “right way” to enjoy Cambridge is. That essay crises are a fact of life, and that you’re unfulfilled unless you row, write, act, play sport, row (again), juggle membership in twenty-seven different societies (including the Boat Club), and pretend you’re doing horrifically badly at everything. Oh, and don’t forget to row.
You will feel the pressure from multiple angles, and there will be days when it gets to you. When, after a vivisection by your supervisor, an argument with a friend or partner, or even one of those weeks which, while not overtly awful, still didn’t seem to click, you feel a cloud settle over your mind and start to tell you that you’re not doing the right thing; that you don’t belong here; that you’re teetering towards screwing up. That, by not fitting into the boxes you’re given by the perception of the university and the actions of some of its members, you’re flailing and failing.
That is, I’m happy to say, bull. This place is what you make of it, and so long as you’re content, you’re doing the right thing. Do your work and be happy with it; remember that good friends are out there, but are often hard to come by; take an opportunity if it offers itself to you. You are here to work for yourself. To do yourself proud. Not to boost someone else’s ego, or to do something because you feel pressured or obliged. Work because you derive fulfilment from it; do what interests you; make the most of the time and resources you have. Most importantly, enjoy yourself, and, as the Scots say, keep the heid.
Keep the heid- it’s a useful phrase. Three syllables to mutter under your breath when everyone around you is starting to go bananas. It means keep calm- remember that all this will pass, and that you’ve proved your mettle by getting here in the first place, and that you have the ability to get through whatever problem is confronting you at the moment. Keep the heid, and you’ll be fine.
Cambridge won’t be plain sailing. It hasn’t been for me, and I can’t think of anyone for whom it has been. But if you remember to roll with the punches, it can become a lot easier. This place is intense, but it’s sublime- remember that when you’re snowed under with work and the Week Five Blues hit.
So, keep the heid, and enjoy the little things. That’s my advice. Your first year will go by remarkably quickly, and before you know it you’ll be getting ready for third year and wondering where on earth the time went- hopefully you’ll be able to look back on your first two years (as I did) and conclude that it was time well spent.
I would be lying if I said I didn’t have regrets about my first two years. Roads not taken, acquaintances not pursued, all that. You will make mistakes. You will have regrets, and you’ll learn to live with them. But those regrets are dwarfed by the positives- I’m doing a degree that interests me, I’ve made incredible friends, and I’ve had experiences I never thought I would have. I’m content, and I’m able to say that while my first two years didn’t necessarily go the way I’d anticipated they would when I matriculated, I’m happy with how they did.
Cambridge is a wonderful university and a wonderful town. In the rush of work, it’s easy to forget that. But sometimes, on the way to a lecture, or coming back from a night out, I stop, look around, and feel the same “somebody pinch me” sort of happiness I felt when I first got here. Hopefully you’ll have that same sense.
I started this article with an anecdote, and I’ll finish it with one. At the end of February, some mates and I went for a pint one evening and four of us ended up back in a house kitchen. We spent the next few hours chatting and drinking Guinness before heading our separate ways at 4am. It was a quiet evening- drama was thin on the ground (bar someone cutting their thumb open while making a toastie at 2am), and there were no fireworks. Yet, despite its quietness and simplicity, I can confidently say that it was one of the best nights I’ve ever had. The four of us still laugh at jokes devised that night, even though one of us is now halfway round the world.
It’s in those moments- the nights with Guinness on the table, the conversations on the way to and from lectures, and the moments where you catch yourself amidst all the work and smile to yourself- that, for me, give Cambridge its colour. I enjoy my degree, and intend to continue to do so. But I also work for myself, and seek to do myself justice. Most importantly, I keep the heid. If you’re reading this as a fresher, then I can give no better advice than that. Remember that and you’ll be fine.
One other thing, though- if a Mixed Martial Artist comes up to you in a pub and starts saying he’s descended from Vikings, make your excuses and scarper. It won’t end well.