Cambridge Characters: Johnny the Punter

Let us introduce you to the world of Cambridge’s beloved stereotypes. First up, meet Johnny the Punter.

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‘Ooh, are you sure you want to talk to him? The last time he did this it didn’t end well. She rang the police.’

I laugh politely and perform a mental scan on the contents of my coat. Housing my keys and a sufficiently stabby pen, I decide I fancy my chances should things take a sinister turn. I proceed to quiz Johnny.

Ooooh, fancy a punt?

Johnny has been a punt tout for the independent Happy Punting Company for two and a half years. He started because he was attracted by the opportunity to make money, and he is now in his first year of a degree in Enterprise and Entrepreneurship at Anglia Ruskin. He hopes to move to London ‘within the next three years’ to pursue his own business. Johnny is a man with a plan.

He values the ‘freedom and independence’ that the outdoors work offers; he explains that he is ‘highly self-motivated’ and would much rather work for himself than be told what to do.

And punting has health benefits too: ‘Yes, you do get laid a fair amount.’ Johnny’s heretofore silent mate suddenly pipes up. With a knowing nod and jiggle of the eyebrows, he offers, ‘Sordid activity does occur. Yes.’

And if conquests don’t work out, ‘the job does teach you to deal with rejection well’, which always comes in handy.

It seems the lads fancy themselves a bit as Cam-side Casanovas: Johnny claims his favourite place is, ‘down on the Costa del Cam’, and his best local secret is, ‘Lovers’ Lane, between Kings and Queens. That’s where you take a girl for some romance.’

Punt touts have a ‘bit of a Marmite relationship’ with Cambridge students. Johnny’s boss, Christian, feels he ought to let us know that he is going out with a Christ’s graduate, and reasons that, therefore, ‘some can be alright’. They’ve also had Cantabs working for them in the past. The guy from St John’s who worked the summer holidays was ‘surprisingly cool’.

So what defines a Cambridge student, apart from a capacity to be unexpectedly normal? ‘Brown shoes!’, comes the chorus. We check my feet and laugh. Brown as Gordon.

I clock his Barbour jacket and the fact that his hair isn’t a million miles away from the classic posh-boy flop. He could easily be a Geographer.

Lads on [punting] tour.

Indeed, Johnny identifies us by other criteria: ‘well, a lot of students are just strange, strange people.’

Certainly, Cambridge students haven’t given Johnny much reason to like them.

‘I’ve offered punts to people who have just told me to fuck off. Just straight out, ‘fuck off.’ And a guy I met in the Maypole last night was trying to shun me by making me look thick and quoting enterprise theory at me. Not great bar chat, to be honest. I had the last laugh, though, because I knew it better than him.’

We finish up with a discussion on fit and famous alumni. Johnny’s mate reckons ‘it’s got to be Lily Cole’, while the man himself isn’t so sure. ‘Come on. Bit of a knob, isn’t she?’ Christian offers ‘A. A. Milne’ and ‘Lord Byron’ as favourites, while the boys also doff their caps to ‘Ali G’ and ‘the lads from The Inbetweeners.’

A big, white, tinted-window 4 x 4 cruises through Market Square. ‘Sorry, mate, my lift’s here!’ Johnny quips.

I smell badinage, but I take it as my cue to leave, and shake a decidedly un-pervy hand in farewell. Fishing for my bike-keys, I realise I had no reason to pre-plan self-defence shankings, and leave the boys gesturing alluringly at a Mandarin text, which they quite openly admitted they were unsure how to properly translate.