Friday, 8 July 2011

Cambridge Life

The Chapel from the westEt in arcardia egoI went to King's College, Cambridge from a rural comprehensive school and former secondary modern (the first Oxbridge entrant from the school) and a state tertiary college.  

A major factor helping me was that my parents are middle class, in fact Cambridge educated.  I had offers of scholarships from private schools but I turned my nose up at them, saying that we were socialists and should abide by our principles.  Both the bolshiness and the bolshevism implicit in this attitude came in handy in my interview for King's, which is the most left-wing of the Cambridge Colleges (not that that is saying much). 
Getting to Cambridge certainly required commitment.  Following my dad to King's was my earliest and most passionate ambition, when people asked what I wanted to do when I grew up, I used to say:  "I want to go to King's College, Cambridge," and they would say, "But they don't accept women," and I would say, "Well, I'm going anyway."  I remember the day my mum said, "You can go to King's now, they've started accepting women."  I was one of what the college call the first generation of women at King's. 
I am also from an ethnic minority background and I was starting to question my sexuality.  So there were a lot of reasons why I was a rather unusual Cambridge student.    

I started off intending to read English Literature.  Shortly before I went to King's for my interview, I had an interview at Royal Holloway College in London.  There I was given a piece of paper and asked to list all the books I'd read.  I had to ask for 2 more sheets, and in my interview the lecturers grilled me about all the D.H. Lawrence novels I'd listed, including 3 different versions of Lady Chatterley's Lover.  I know how excited they were because they asked me to wait a few minutes, and then came out and said they didn't normally tell people straightaway but that they were going to make me an unconditional offer of a place.  

 Buoyed by this I went on to my interview at King's.  Even then, thirty years ago, the college had strict policies to try to ensure state school students weren't discriminated against.  They would only talk about books which were on the A level syllabus in the interview, so that private school students couldn't use all the extra learning they had been able to do outside the syllabus.  I had a lengthy argument with my interviewer about Gray's Elegy in  a Country Churchyard, only discovering afterwards that he was a world authority on Gray.  Some BBC tips on getting into Oxford include "have chutzpah", and I had plenty of that! 
What I didn't have was a gameplan for after Cambridge.  Now that I had achieved the big ambition of my life, I became increasingly lost.  King's was a very beautiful place to be lost in, and I knew just what a privilege it was to have got there.  I used to think whiIe I ate my breakfast in the dining hall about how my mother was one of the first women to eat there.  One day my dad rushed over and said she must come to eat dinner in Hall with him that evening.  It was the first time women were permitted to eat in Hall.  The College used to make them sit in galleries above the dining area and watch the all male college at dinner.  Only one generation later, I was eating there as a student. 

I went up to Cambridge just after the popular
TV show Brideshead Revisited aired
The social life was intensely competitive and expensive.  If you were lucky enough to be invited to parties, you would be asked to bring a bottle of spirits for cocktails or a bottle of champagne.  I was at a party once where we had plenty of Pimms but the lemonade had run out.  And I remember walking along the backs one night and coming across a group of people in cocktail dresses and black tie, chatting casually around a burning boat.  Yes - that was normal.  After they'd finished the boat race they set a highly expensive rowing boat on fire. 
The academic studies were intensely competitive too.  I soon started going under in my Literature degree.  The syllabus was built on the assumption that your public school had already given you a substantial understanding of what is involved in literary criticism.  I had never read a work of literary criticism in my life, and as there was a novel or play per week to read in order to keep on top of the basics of the syllabus, I never got a chance to while I was studying.  Yet now I write incisive and informed critique of performance and textual arts and even back then I occasionally got something astoundingly right.  I had no idea what I had done right, and couldn't replicate it in an exam.  I bow my head in shame as I admit, I went to Raymond Williams's last ever lecture - but had no idea what he was talking about. 
I can still remember the expression of joy on my tutor's face, when he asked me:  "So, what are you going to specialise in for your final year," and I said:  "Actually, I'm going to switch to Social Anthropology."  You'd think he'd at least have pretended to be sorry to lose me! 
Although I got on much better in anthropology, where there isn't an assumption that you've already covered the subject at school (and where the department was riddled with people who'd known my dad and mum, and even me when I was a toddler), I remained very unhappy.  Partly this was for personal reasons, and King's College did everything to support me at this time. Partly it was because I just didn't fit in. 
The women's group and women's disco which King's funded were really important in telling us that the college knew we were at a disadvantage, and that they would do what they could to support us.  This was in contrast to St. John's College, where 8 women were accepted into a college of about 600 men for the first time while I was up, and arrived to find the Head Porter (in charge of their security) wearing a black armband in mourning. This kind of behaviour was normal so even though King's tried very hard to make it up to us, I knew I was a piece of fluff on their carpet. 
In one of Dorothy Sayers's novels, a Chief Inspector comments of Indian Princes:  Why some of them have even been to Oxford.  Long before I arrived, royalty from a rainbow of nations had been educated at Cambridge.  But minority ethnic British people were still so new a phenomenon, that there wasn't even a group for us. 
And like many young students, fresh from home, my clumsy efforts to explore sexual and emotional relations frequently ended in tears - and missed essay deadlines. 
Much has been made of the influential networks you can get into at Oxbridge.  I know I could have made some really important friends, but I didn't have a gameplan.  Although I was passionately interested in politics, I felt out of place when I stepped in the union building because I was a sexy-looking girl, not because of the militant left politics I believed in, which were also out of place there.  There was a group of left students who were surly about the privilege we were all exposed to, and went about in donkey jackets but among the lovely college buildings that seemed just as silly as going about all the time in a Barbour and pearls
Foolishly I focussed on people I just liked.  Over the years I have remained in constant touch with just one of my peers, a feckless Buddhist pianist, still my best friend.  When we were gut-wrenchingly poor together in London we could only afford to visit each other's houses for delicious soups.  No, even for the sake of a glittering political career, I still can't regret not getting friendlier with people who held anniversary parties for the sinking of the Belgrano
When I got into Cambridge, my Dad said, "You should learn to type, then you'll never be without a job."  When I left Cambridge, I went to my personal tutor to ask about doing a PhD, just because I couldn't think of anything else.  She was quite right to steer me away from the PhD, but suggesting I go away and write fiction instead was avoidance of career advice rather than career advice.  I had done what I'd always set out to do, I'd been to King's College Cambridge and like sports superstars, my life was over in my mid-20s. 
Eventually I drifted to London and since I could type, I was indeed able to get jobs as a temp typist, although I had to obscure my Cambridge degree on my CV. 
Years later, when I had got the PhD at Goldsmiths College (one of the places where my Dad studied at night-school to get into Cambridge), I looked back and wondered what would have happened if I'd gone to Birkbeck on that unconditional offer that still makes me feel a bit teary with pride to have received.  They were used to teaching students from state schools and would have known I didn't yet have the critical skills I needed, and taught them to me.  I would have been a mixed heritage woman in London just as the postcolonial and feminist literary and cultural critique which I was later to draw on in my PhD was starting to develop. 
The Cambridge English Department had just sacked its only structuralist thinker, and was theoretically moribund. 
You cannot cross the same river twice, not even the Cam, with its lazy reed-lined banks from Grantchester to the weir, running down the backs of the beautiful Cambridge Colleges.  Recently I have started to meet up with a couple of old college friends who got in touch.  They have ordinary lives, and going for a simple friendly lunch with them, knowing that they are not influential people who could help me start a glittering career, made me feel OK for the first time about having gone to Cambridge and not done anything with my life.  I mean, sure, I've written the first ever chapter on British black lesbian literature, and done a PhD in an entirely original area, and taught hundreds of students, and I danced on the tables at the drag bar Madam Jojo's because there wasn't room on the floor, and I talked to women in North West Frontier Province about life in purdah, and I captured the Good Fella and managed to bring up a sparky obstreperous piglet without throttling it - but that's not proper Oxbridge-style achievement, is it. 
If I were to look back and offer some advice to a Cambridge which needs at least to show willing about taking in state students, I might say,
  • the women's group and disco were important in making us feel we were respected; 
  • popular lectures on equalities issues and politics will help people reflect on their relationship to élite Oxbridge student life (staff as well as students!); 
  • look out for subject areas where state students have been disadvantaged by not getting as much tuition as private school students (like English), try to identify students who happen to be struggling and happen to be from a state school and offer some more basic tution support; 
  • instead of phoning them all the time to ask for more money, phone to ask British-resident alumni to visit their local state school and chat to kids about how to get in; 
  • people who are women, from an ethnic minority or working class background, who are not heterosexual and/or who are disabled, have lower aspirations.  From the beginning, support students who may be disadvantaged to have higher aspirations and a gameplan to achieve these. 
For people thinking of going to Oxbridge, I would say: 
  • Have A LOT of chutzpah; 
  • Have a gameplan for getting in to your chosen college rather than the university; 
  • Have a gameplan for what you intend to do afterwards; 
  • Remember that it is not about whether you fit in, but whether it's the kind of place that fits you.  
I've studied at Cambridge and at Goldsmiths College, and I've taught at two Russell Group, three New Universities and the Open University.  The quality of the undergraduate degrees that I saw in all of those universities was superb.  Often the teaching at other universities surpasses that of Oxbridge - even with its one-to-one tutorial system for undergraduates.  (One of my friends asked her tutor at Oxford, "Shall I go and see some of the Shakespeare plays we're studying in the theatre?"  And he said:  "What for?")  
It is important to think about what university you want to go to, and consider all sorts of academic and social reasons for your choice, including what networks you might manage to get into.  What you shouldn't do is imagine that going to an Oxbridge college is a gold-edged certificate for the future and for future happiness.  

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