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December 16, 2005 || 9:46 pm
The Annual Record
I received the Annual Record 2005 from my old college, Trinity, yesterday. The 'austere format' of this volume - the same each year, a pale blue with a monoprint of the college fountain on the cover in navy ink - always prompts both my curiosity and some reflections on my time at Cambridge. Seeing who has died, who has become a Fellow, who has got recognised for some appointment, academic or otherwise, or (in election years like this) been elected as an MP (Oliver Letwin, I see) is a strangely satisfying delve. This year, among other things I note that my old tutor got a Gold Medal from the Bibliographical Society, and that one of my contemporaries (who I knew was writing a novel) has evidently finished it, because she donated a copy to the library.
But it also brings back to me the odd connection I have with Trinity. I read about the Annual Gatherings (where alumni from the same matriculation year get back together) and other events and realise how I am barely in touch with anyone from Trinity. I have plenty of friends from Cambridge as a whole, but my connection with the college in social terms was never strong. I had an ambivalent attitude with the kind of people who I got to know at Trinity which I ascribe to my general suspicion and lack of ease around people in groups, and never made much of an effort to get beyond the superficial judgments that I would make about them. The truth is, I've never been very good at making or keeping friends.
Yet my emotional connection with the physical fabric of the college, and with some of its rituals and quirks, is very strong. My lovely room in my final year in Great Court, and the view out over to the chapel; those particular doors on either side of the Hall entrance that you would pass through to go to the library; the magnificent library itself; having, even in the new millenium, to run outside in my towel to go for a shower in the next staircase along; the porters - I start quite easily to sound like a bad version of Brideshead-y nostalgia. I would love for nothing more than to see my name among the list of Fellows or those otherwise honoured in the Annual Record - or to be invited to High Table for that peculiarly English form of staggeringly intellectual conversation spiced with what might better be described as levity than wit. I love, to put it simply, old-fashioned Englishmen and women despite any rightful criticism others may make about the inequity and insularity that they represent.
What is it in these ancient institutions that inspires this odd mixture of disdain and yearning? My contemporaries, who I dismissed at the time for their ridiculous foppish habits, pretensions, love of stupid pranks and drinking societies, will in a decade have become those august, intelligent, characterful Fellows at whose dinner parties and drinks in the Masters Lodge I so want to attend. Trinity makes plausible the oft-repeated cliche that England's natural state of being is conservative - and makes it seem an attractive progression. The elite is now made up of state school pupils as much as the more classic demography, but they take on all the characteristics of their 'better-bred' contemporaries, even in their stances of radicalism.
I don't want Trinity to change, but I also know that for the vast majority of my fellow-countrymen, appreciating any value in its arcane customs and the breed that it supports is a difficult, maybe impossible thing. I know lots of very bright people who didn't get into Cambridge, and when they tell me about how disbelieving they were to be asked, at interview, about the latest government policy on healthcare when they were applying to study architecture, or set daft and indulgent mental tasks in the same way that one might set a rat through a maze, I nod seriously but inside, I am secretly happy that the place still operates like that.
I know what you mean. I'm a Cambridge architecture applicant, currently in that void between interview and decision. My view of the place is somewhat clouded by great attraction, want of a place and little "real" experience. But I can see, and love, that peculiar Englishness, the arcane tradition, the unquestioned nature of its state of existence, realising the genesis of the likes of Peter Cook and Monty Python.
I certainly hope there is little fundamental change in the character of Cambridge. To my mind, the forces that I think may have the most impact are the increasingly 'results-based' face of education, as opposed to learning for its own sake and the intellectual pursuit of knowledge. The fact that Cambridge had to shut its diploma course is part of the same movement - away from disciplines that don't produce quanitifiable 'research' and money from corporate sponsors (biotech) or other donors (Law, Management). I also fear an American funding model take hold where Oxbridge and a few others become private universities with huge fees and huge relationships with corporations (Microsoft etc) - where the whole 'education' bit seems to get subsumed into the business of getting glitzy big names and making pots of money, at the expense of the undergraduate experience which is overpriced and formulaic a lot of the time.
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