Last month we were in Cambridge, my old stamping ground, for my godson’s wedding. In the mid-70s I spent three years studying there at one of the University’s many colleges. It was such an intense period, life lived at one hundred miles an hour. The University was an exotic, parallel universe, one that appeared totally divorced from the real world of normal people.
But they seem like another lifetime, my Cambridge days. I rarely think about them now.
Trudging the streets again, over 30 years since my last visit to the city, the memories come flooding back. Here’s the room in which I lived in my freshman year, anxious, ill at ease, a stranger in a strange land. And there’s the stinking drainage channel into which I fell one drunken night, establishing a reputation with my peer group that I could never quite shake off.
This here is the spot where Phil streaked one Rag Week, pedalling his bicycle furiously along King’s Parade, wearing only a big grin and a policeman’s helmet, cheered on by dozens of adoring college cronies. And over there is the library where I spent most of my days, studying feverishly in a desperate attempt to prove to myself that, despite my humble origins, I was as good as the rest of them.
You see, although I made a few pals there, including one very close friend who would later be my best man when Mrs P and I were married, I never felt I truly belonged. I think psychologists today refer to this as “impostor syndrome” or “charlatan syndrome”.
Cambridge University was – and is – one of the world’s outstanding places of higher education. The standards are so high, the demands so rigorous. At the time it seemed impossible that I, just an ordinary working-class lad from West London, deserved my place. Meanwhile the privately educated students from rich families who made up the bulk of my peer group seemed to sail through it, their boisterous belief in themselves undermining my own, oh-so-fragile, self-confidence.
I know now that I got it all wrong.
For the most part, the self-confidence of my fellow students was bluff. Underneath it all most of them were unsure of themselves too, making it up as they went along, hoping they wouldn’t get found out, wouldn’t be revealed as frauds unworthy of their places at this great cathedral of learning.
And my doubts were, in any case, unfounded. By the time I graduated it was plain that I was clever enough. While not quite the sharpest spine on the Cambridge University hedgehog, neither was I a dullard. Without doubt I deserved to be there. I just wish I’d known it when I first arrived, instead of beating myself up every day.
My three years at Cambridge University were an extraordinary period in an otherwise ordinary life. Visiting the place again has awakened painful memories, stirred some unwelcome thoughts of what was and what might have been.
But time has moved on and so, thankfully, have I.
Once, when dreams floated like butterflies on the breeze and stardust lay thick upon the ground, a sweet, sensitive and naïve lad who shared my name and birthday went to Cambridge University to study. He stayed three years, got educated a bit, got drunk a lot, got lost for a while, then found himself again.
That lad’s dead now, and I should let him rest in peace.
I’m pleased I went back to visit Cambridge, my old stamping ground. I won’t ever go back again.
At least the lad found himself again. Some never do!
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