Friday, February 3, 2012

Good-bye To All That


I’m in the process of writing up my official report on my time in Kenya, so in that spirit, here’s the unofficial version from my last day in Britain during December...

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I started packing about five minutes ago, and decided that it’s time for a tea and biscuit break...clearly it’s going to be a long night before the early morning departure.  Earlier in the day I did a little bit of Christmas shopping.  The sidewalks and streets were packed with shoppers, and as someone who doesn’t do well in slow-moving, indecisive crowds, there were a couple of moments when I thought all my gifts to family members would consist of photocopies of a police report dealing with an American who flew off the handle and started assaulting people with his umbrella which was itself sadly mangled by the wind.

But the moment seems ripe for reflection on four months in Cambridge.  I swore to myself that I wasn’t going to do a “Oh, look how funny English people are!” post.  Foremost because it’s so easy as to be un-sporting...sort of like setting a pack of dogs to shred a poor fox apart, the banning of which was received by the British aristocracy as the greatest blow against their rights if not since the barons forced King John to sign the Magna Carta, at least since an uppity Welshman assaulted the House of Lords early in the last century.  Also because it winds up sounding unduly negative—but you’re forewarned that any cynicism is accompanied by an affection for Britain and its wacky institutions.  And partly because, having spent time in the UK on many occasions previously, I didn’t think there’d be much of note to say.  Oh, how wrong I was!  Living in England is one thing.  Living in an ancient university which takes itself Oh So Seriously is quite another!

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During the move-in week-end for students, the weather was wonderful, and I spent a fair amount of time sitting on a bench reading in the sun by one of Pembroke College’s lovely lawns.  “Ah”, I hear you say, “But if the weather was so wonderful and the lawn so lovely, why didn’t you sit on it?”

Quite simply, I’m not a fellow.

Yes, only the higher-ups are allowed to walk, no less sit, on the lawns.  And this oppression is catching, like Stockholm Syndrome.  On move-in day I watched two girls, returning students who had been at Pembroke during the summer, take up position on a bench at the edge of the lawn.  They pretended to read, but really they were watching the feet of the first years and their parents.  I winced as an unsuspecting Mum and Dad led their son across a corner of the lawn.  The Lawn Radar on one of the Lawn Nazis began blaring.  “Sorry”, said she—in a voice which sounded like that noise the toilet makes at the very end of the flush cycle, when the last of the water goes down—in a not-at-all apologetic tone, “but you aren’t allowed to do that”.

Horrified, mortified at their incursion onto the preserve of some sacred tradition, probably dreamt up by a bored porter in the comparatively recent history that was the fifteenth century, the hapless family tugged at their figurative forelocks and begged the Lawn Nazi’s pardon.  And so the disciplining began...the poor student will never forget his misdeed, and will make amends by accepting his lowly status and haranguing first-years next autumn.

The worst days at the lawn (this really bugs me, in case you couldn’t tell), are when a crowd of students are sitting on benches around the edge, packed in on a glorious, blue-skied day, butterflies fluttering past, birds twittering, and this vast, verdant space is utterly empty.  It’s at least a little better when a couple of geriatric fellows decide to play a game of lawn bowling, and shuffle their way back and forth across the huge space.

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Cambridge is a place where everyone knows how they fit into the scheme of things.  There are a million methods of differentiating—dress, table-seat, whether or not people stand up for you when you enter the room (they don’t for me, just in case you were wondering), etc—and this place has perfected them. 

Now the U.S. has its own issues with inequality and social difference.  We often try to pretend that it doesn’t exist.  We’re occasionally in denial.  Which is why an idiot like Rand Paul can get away with denying that there are class differences in the United States...because we’re all American.  The difference is that I’m used to living in a society in which social hierarchy and differentiation are undesirable, and where you do your best to do away with these hierarchies instead of celebrating them.

I was spared some of this nonsense at Cambridge, and I conscientiously avoided the more egregious displays of invented tradition, particularly if they involved the presence of the college Master, Richard Dearlove, who in any just country would be either behind bars as a war criminal or so disgraced that he would never show his face in public no less be asked to head a college at a prestigious university.  My status here is sufficiently ill-defined that no one ever quite knows what to do with me, and so usually I’m cleared by a gimlet-eyed university bureaucrat glaring down his or her nose, wishing they had some way of pigeonholing me, or else by a more cheery version of the same (“Oh, you’re from California?  Lovely, eh?  Such nice beaches, huh?  Go right on through then.”).

Okay, I’ll admit that the real reason this bothers me is that the fellows at the High Table get real newspapers at breakfast while we riff-raff have to settle for some brutally abbreviated version of the Independent. 

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Perhaps my biggest pet-peeve (aside from the constant and nagging suspicion that I’d been parachuted down into a Harry Potter film set wearing shorts, sandals and a t-shirt) was being constantly told by people how Cambridge students work so hard, and are constantly being challenged, as though no other students at any of the world’s many excellent universities puts in long hours, attends countless classes and slaves away over papers, homeworks, lab reports, etc. 

On an amusing note, Pembroke actually celebrates victory at the Battle of Trafalgar (1805) with a formal dinner...

The nice thing is that provided you catch people in “normal” academic or social setting they’re perfectly decent...it’s just the bizzaro world engendered by certain aspects of college life that seems to occasionally corrupt otherwise almost disappointingly reasonable people.

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Britons love to make fun of the United States for being a society with loads of stupid rules, and obsessed with protecting itself from excessive litigation with excessive guidelines.  All of which is true.  But you can’t do that and post signs in the gyp rooms (yes, the etymology is what you’re thinking it oughtn’t to be—I checked the OED) saying that cooking oil is anti-social.  Or take this example.  To use the Pembroke College gym, I’d had to have had an induction, which would presumably involve me running on the treadmill in the gown I avoided buying while supervised by the inductor (?)—who would undoubtedly be wearing a robe, and possibly a wig—who would then judge whether I was capable of using the machinery.  I have a fairly lukewarm if not downright adversarial relationship with exercise at the best of times (I have this weird tendency to break out in a sweat or get sore...must be an allergy of some kind), so that was all the excuse I needed to avoid the gym. 

The University Library staff (and the Pembroke College library staff for that matter) are a wonderfully efficient and helpful group of people, ever-happy to be of assistance.  And happily, they don’t stand on ceremony.  The Bodleian at Oxford, on the other hand, is another matter.  At that venerable institution they make you recite an oath and sign your name in the blood of a slaughtered peasant (no, that’s not a typo). 

They are rather under-staffed, because whenever anyone gets stuck in the elevator (and this appeared to happen with disturbing regularity), one of the couple of people manning the check-out desk has to run off to initiate the process of releasing them.  So whenever I turned up at the desk with my stack of books to find it unmanned, I’d assume that some geriatric academic or some lazy foreigner (the only types who I ever saw go near the elevators) was helplessly trapped in one of these whirring, clanging machines between floors four and five. 

The Centre of African Studies at Cambridge is also a super collection of brilliant and kind scholars, and I was fortunate in my neighbours at Pembroke who were the very opposite of my somewhat unruly floormates in London.

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One day while walking through town I noticed a bunch of people running around wearing numbers.  But this wasn’t an ordinary race, because they were also carrying maps.  It appeared to be a scavenger hunt of some sort (this, to me, is very British), and it even extended into some of the colleges, because when I entered Pembroke I noticed some of them scampering about.  A few of them even dared to cross the lawn.  I held my breath, waiting to see them smitten down by lightning or to hear the helicopter gunship launched from the porter’s lodge, but alas, there was no response. 

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Lest I give the impression that I think otherwise, there are many nice things about Britain.  The National Rail advance ticket office staff, for example, who always remain high-spirited and patient, even dealing with conflicting requests from a horde of tourists who can’t work out how to pay for their tickets or make up their minds as to whether they want an underground ticket included with their passage into King’s Cross.

British national parks are also very nice, even if they contain more dangerous fauna than you would think this small, drizzly island could possibly support.

A friend and I were walking in the Lake District to a train station in the rain when a guy pulled over and very kindly offered us a lift.  Good northern hospitality...I don’t expect anyone in Cambridge or the Home Counties would have done something like that. 

One of the bedders in the building where I lived mentioned that she was heading home to Northumberland for a long week-end and I mentioned how hospitable I generally find people in the north of England.  “Oh yeah”, she whispered, “not like people down here”.

Indeed, Cambridge dormitories and hostels have bedders...either a) Cambridge students are thought to be incapable of emptying their waste bins and vacuuming their floors; or b) emptying waste bins and vacuuming floors are thought to be activities beneath the dignity of Cambridge students. Ah, the life...

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