Getting older: An unwelcome milestone

Our last day in Cambridge has not gone according to plan.  Although the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, built around the year 1130 and generally known as The Round Church lives up to expectations, the Fitzwilliam Museum does not.  The museum’s neo-classical exterior is magnificent, but isn’t the real point of a museum to go inside, wander around a bit to take in a few of the exhibits in a cursory sort of way, and then have a large mocha and a slab of cake in the café? 

Church of the Holy Sepulchre, also known as the Round Church

Who in their right mind would close one of the country’s great museums on a Monday at the height of the summer tourist season?  Ah, silly me, that would be the management of the Fitzwilliam Museum, I suppose. Disappointed, we decide to leave Cambridge and return to Platypus Towers on an earlier train.

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We’re standing on the platform at Cambridge station.  The train is due in about 20 minutes, and we’re both a bit knackered.  The weather’s hot and humid, and we’ve spent a good part of the last three days trudging the streets, doing the tourist thing. 

Inevitably there are very few seats on the platform, and all but one is taken. I encourage Mrs P to grab it – I’m a proper gentleman, don’t you know – and I’m left standing next to her, looking tired and miserable.

The Fitzwilliam Museum

Time passes.  Eventually the guy seated next to Mrs P tears himself away from his mobile phone and looks around him.  He’s in early twenties and, unlike me, is appropriately dressed for the weather in sandals, shorts and a lightweight shirt.  He spots me and a caring expression crosses his lightly bearded face. He stands, looks me straight in the eye, then smiles encouragingly and politely asks, “Would you like a seat, mate?”

Would I like a seat? I ask myself.  WOULD I?  Of course I would, pal, only I don’t want you to offer me one, thank you very much!  You think I’m old and past it, don’t you? Well I’m not! I’m not old at all, I’ve just got a lived-in kind of face, like Mick Jagger but with regular lips.  I’ve had one hell of a life and if you’d done half of what I’ve done you’d look a damned sight older than me!

I don’t say any of this, of course.  I just smile sweetly at my new-found knight in shining armour, and say “Thank you, I think I would.”

Cambridge railway station

PHOTO CREDIT: “Cambridge railway station” by hugh llewelyn is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

My saviour returns to his phone, probably fixing a hot hook-up on Tinder, the fit young bastard that he is, leaving me seated next to Mrs P to ponder what has just happened.  I’m in my 64th year, having worked over 40 years and travelled the world, and this is the first time anyone has ever stood up to offer me a seat. 

What an unwelcome milestone this is, another waymarker on the inevitable journey to decrepitude.  God, I feel old.

At last the train arrives.  Even though half the population of Cambridge appears to be travelling west today it’s only three carriages long, so I don’t get a seat. 

I end up standing in the area where cyclists stow their bikes, next to the disabled persons’ toilet. There are just two seats in this part of the carriage.  On one of them sits another young, bearded, shorts-wearing man, but this one won’t meet my eye. 

Cambridge (Mainline)

PHOTO CREDIT: “Cambridge (Mainline)” by Sparkyscrum is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

In the last 20 minutes I’ve grown accustomed to the good manners of the younger generation towards their elders, and am therefore incensed by the brazen effrontery of this new guy.  He knows I’m standing here and badly need a seat, but he just keeps playing with his phone, swiping right furiously. I hope when you get a date she doesn’t turn up, you ignorant slob, I think to myself.

The other seat is occupied by an older woman, elegant, grey-haired and immaculately dressed, library book on her lap.  She glances up and sees me leaning uncomfortably against the side of the carriage. A look of genuine concern crosses her face. 

“Would you like this seat?” she asks, oh-so-kindly.

I look at her carefully.  In her left hand she’s clutching a Senior Citizen’s Railcard.  For god’s sake, she’s as old as me, possibly older, and here she is offering me a seatJust when you think life can’t get any worse, it bloody well does.

I quickly regain my composure and politely decline her offer.  You see, I still have my pride, and in any case as I mentioned earlier I’m a proper gentleman. 

But we reach an agreement, that kind lady and me.  She’s getting off at Ely, and when she does she’ll make sure I’m able to slide on to her seat before anyone else grabs it, so I can do the rest of the journey sitting down.  It’s a good arrangement, and satisfies both parties. 

After all, when the going gets tough us old fogeys need to stick together.

Cambridge: my old stamping ground

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. But they seem like another lifetime, my Cambridge days.  I rarely think about them now. 

Jesus College

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 ditch 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.

Gonville and Caius College chapel

You see, I never felt I truly belonged.  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.

Gargoyles, Gonville and Caius College

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. 

St John’s College

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. 

Bridge of Sighs, St John’s College

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.

Cambridge through Chinese eyes

My last post bemoaned the hordes of tourists who clogged the narrow streets of Cambridge’s historic centre during our visit a few weeks ago.  Most of them appeared to hail from China, and as they came in groups of up to 50 they were impossible to miss or ignore. The days of Japanese mass tourism may be over, but in China the tour companies have found a worthy Far-Eastern successor.

Kings College Chapel: look carefully and you will see at least three tour groups

The new-found wealth of the People’s Republic of China has changed the face of international tourism.  We witnessed this first-hand during our trips to Tasmania (2016) and the USA’s Yellowstone National Park (2018)

In both places the bus-loads of phone-wielding, selfie-snapping Chinese tour groups were the dominant feature in the tourist landscape.  It was therefore no surprise to see so many Chinese folk in Cambridge, which is, of course, one of the UK’s major tourist destinations.

Punting on the River Cam

What was a surprise was to learn that there is another reason why the Chinese flock there in such large numbers.  In November 1928 a Chinese poet who had previously studied at Kings College, Xú Zhìmó, made a return visit to Cambridge and was moved to capture the moment in verse.  Xú is considered one of the most important modern Chinese poets, and Saying Goodbye to Cambridge Again is his most popular poem.

Xú died in controversial circumstances in a plane crash in 1931.  In 2018 he was commemorated through the creation, in the grounds of Kings College, Cambridge, of the China-UK Friendship Garden, also known as the Xú Zhìmó Garden.  Four lines of his poem are inscribed on a rock in the Friendship Garden, close to the banks of the River Cam. 

File:Kings College Xu Zhimo memorial.jpg

Photo credit: Cmglee [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D

Xú’s poem, and the Garden commemorating the poet and his most famous work, appear to be a contributory factor in attracting Chinese tourists to Cambridge.

The translation (below) is sourced from the East Asia Student website.

Saying Goodbye to Cambridge Again
by
Xú Zhìmó

 
Lightly I leave,
as lightly I came;
I lightly wave goodbye,
to the sunlit clouds in the western sky.
 
The golden willows of that riverside,
are brides in the setting sun;
their glimmering reflections in the water,
ripple in the depth of my heart.
 
The waterlilies in the soft mud,
sway splendidly under the water.
In the gentle waves of the Cam,
I would be a water plant!
 
That pool in the shade of elm trees,
is not springwater, but a heavenly rainbow;
crumbling amongst the floating grasses,
the settling rainbow seems like a dream.
 
Looking for dreams? Push a punt
to where the grass is greener still upstream;
a boat laden with starlight,

singing freely in the glorious light of stars.
 
But I cannot sing freely,
silence is the music of my departure,
even the summer insects are quiet for me,
tonight's Cambridge is silent!
 
Quietly I leave,
as quietly I came;
I cast my sleeves a little
not taking even a strand of cloud away
.

What a beautiful, evocative poem.  But the tranquillity it conveys is a million miles away from the febrile tourist trap we visited recently. 

I wonder what Xú Zhìmó would make of Cambridge, August 2019?

Cambridge creaking at the seams

Last month we spent a few days in Cambridge.  So, it seems, did everyone else. Back in the day I was a student at Cambridge University for three years but I was never there in August, the height of the tourist season.  And, of course, tourism – both home-grown and international – has expanded massively in the 42 years since I graduated. I was, therefore, totally unprepared for the crowds we encountered during our visit.

Gonville and Caius College

Cambridge has a lot to offer the tourist.  Here’s what Lonely Planet has to say about its attractions:

Abounding with exquisite architecture, exuding history and tradition, and renowned for its quirky rituals, Cambridge is a university town extraordinaire.  The tightly packed core of ancient colleges, the picturesque riverside ‘Backs’ (college gardens) and the leafy green meadows surrounding the city give it a more tranquil appeal than its historic rival Oxford … The buildings here seem unchanged for centuries, and it’s possible to wander around the college buildings and experience them as countless prime ministers, poets, writers and scientists have done.

Sounds idyllic, doesn’t it?

I’ve got a lot of time for Lonely Planet.  Their guidebooks are invariably well-written, and often encourage the more intrepid visitor to get off the beaten track and walk roads less travelled, which is the best way to get under the skin of a country or a city.  But, based on what we experienced a few weeks ago, the words “tranquil appeal” seem sadly out of place in any description of Cambridge in August 2019.

Peterhouse College

We had a lot to pack into our visit, and so were out and about by 9am.  At first all seemed well, the streets lively but not uncomfortably busy.  Then, around 10am, the coach parties began to arrive. 

Long crocodiles of visitors, up to 50 in a single group, descended on the historic city centre from all directions, following obediently behind their flag-waving guides.  Soon the narrow medieval streets were crazily crowded, visitors jostling one another to get a view of – or even better, a selfie in front of – one of the city’s architectural gems. 

St John’s College, and bicycles galore

“Tranquil appeal?”  I don’t think so!

Lonely Planet is also unrealistic in suggesting that the average tourist can “wander around the college buildings.”  Many of the colleges are doing whatever they can to keep the hordes at bay, barring their doors and placing stern messages outside warning the masses that THIS COLLEGE IS CLOSED TO VISITORS. 

Others, Kings for example, take a different view and charge a pretty penny for admission.  Of course, everyone wants to see Kings College Chapel up close and personal, so the college bursar must be raking it in.

Interior of Kings College Chapel

I will confess that these attempts to deny or charge for admission don’t worry me personally.  As a graduate of the university I can get in pretty much anywhere, and without spending a dime, so long as I flash my alumni card and behave myself. 

But I’ve a lot of sympathy for the serious tourist, who maybe has travelled a long way and spent a small fortune to visit Cambridge, only to find that lots of the places he wants to see won’t let him in or will only do so in return for a fistful of dollars.

Kings College Chapel, viewed from “the Backs”

Tourism is hugely controversial in Cambridge.  In 2017 over eight million tourist visits were recorded, in a city of just 146,000 people.  The city is creaking at the seams. Tourists keep some shopkeepers afloat with their purchases, but other business owners complain that these are the “wrong tourists,” visitors who just don’t spend enough or buy the right stuff. 

For Cambridge residents going about their normal daily business the crowded streets must be distressing.  But tourism reportedly accounts for 22% of jobs in the local economy, and only the most hard-line critics would seriously consider killing the goose that lays the golden egg.

The Mathematical Bridge, Queen’s College

Mass tourism is a mind-bending conundrum, but not one that is unique to Cambridge.

In another blog I wrote at length about the impact of tourist numbers on the wildlife of Yellowstone National Park in the USA.  There, as in Cambridge, the scale of tourism is in danger of destroying the very thing that tourists want to see.

As an habitual tourist I was, and am, part of the problem.  I cherish the prospect of being a tourist again, in Cambridge, in Yellowstone, or elsewhere, but what will be the cost to the places I want to visit and those who live in them? 

I don’t have the answer, but it seems plain to me that things can’t go on as they are.

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In case you’re wondering why, despite my protestations about the Cambridge crowds, there are so few people in the photos that illustrate this post the answer is simple: Mrs P hates anyone getting between her camera lens and the focus of her interest. She’s been known to wait a long, long time for a clear shot, and when she can’t get one she gets very cross indeed. You have been warned!