Tim Squirrell – There’s nowhere like Cambridge
In his final column, TIM SQUIRRELL takes a step back and muses on the Bubble as a whole.
In the tradition of finalist columnists the world over, I had planned this week to write an article about how great Cambridge is and how much I’m going to miss it, self-indulgently reminiscing about the friends I’ve made, the supervision essays I’ve barely managed to do and the romantic encounters I’ve screwed up.
Unfortunately for both that column idea and those people here who think that I’m a ‘self-indulgent wanker’, I’m not leaving yet. Sorry.
However, having enjoyed a few precious days of blissful freedom following six weeks spent living hermit-like in various libraries, subsisting primarily on a diet of Sainsbury’s cookies and filled pasta, I think I have something to say which contains at least a modicum of insight to temper the rampant onanism (that joke is both funny and clever because using the word ‘onanism’ is itself masturbatory).
When we’re talking about Cambridge it’s really easy to label it as either the best or the worst place ever. In the depths of exam term we whine about how we should’ve gone to Liverpool and been happy and got a first. In May Week we say there’s no place we’d rather be than here. You might say that in reality, it’s somewhere in the middle, just like everywhere else.
Except Cambridge isn’t everywhere else, is it? There’s nowhere quite like it. I don’t think it’s somewhere in the middle. I think that both the best and the worst times of my whole life have been here, and I’m sure I’m not alone in that. There is very little middle ground; there are very few points during term when you could consider yourself truly bored, or just coasting along. It’s full on, all the time, and that’s what makes it such a rewarding and challenging and meaningful and brutally horrible experience.
The interesting thing is that most of the aspects of Cambridge which make it so great are also those which make it so easy to be miserable here. One of the defining things for me has been the fact that it’s raised my expectations of myself. If you got in, then it’s likely that you set quite high standards for yourself.
You push yourself even harder once you’re here (at least periodically, when essay deadlines and exams roll around) because you feel the weight of an eight-hundred year old institution and all the brilliant minds it has produced pressing down on you, because now you’re here you feel like you really ought to make the most of it, because you know that this is an opportunity to really excel and you want to make the most out of it, or just because your supervision partner Steve is a total arsewipe and you want to wipe the smug smirk off of his smug know-it-all face with the blistering power of your condensed knowledge, intellectual cunning and wit. Steve is a cock.
We push ourselves in things other than academia because that’s just who we are. It’s not enough to just casually play football with some mates, we have to be in a team and in a league and winning. It’s not enough to go along to debates for the lols, we have to have a named position and responsibilities and we have to critically analyse the whole event to figure out how we could have done it better.
This propensity to run ourselves into the ground over and over again, getting up and dusting ourselves down and doing it all over, this capacity that we have is a source of moments of pride and hours, days, weeks of abject misery. As I’ve said before, it feeds into a feeling of never being quite good enough – not for anyone else’s expectations, but for our own.
Likewise, one of the other things Cambridge does is it gives you the opportunity to be whoever you want to be. You get here and you have a blank slate and ten thousand other academically switched-on people, and you can do what you want with it. This is an exciting prospect when you first get here, and the ability to reinvent yourself as you go is a godsend, but it can also be a cause of crippling anxiety. You’re in a place filled with some of the cleverest people on the planet (at least those who were lucky enough to have been born in an English-speaking country and have both the means and the social capital to get here), and it’s unlikely that you’re ever going to be the best at anything ever again.
Small fish, big pond is a cliché, but it’s so true: no matter what you choose to do with your time here, it’s likely that someone is better than you. Gaining such a sense of perspective on your own insignificance even in the face of such a surfeit of choice is enough to crush you, particularly in an environment which already strongly resembles a pressure cooker.
I don’t have any unique perspective to offer on Cambridge. All I want to do is point out what you likely know already – this place is shit, and it’s also the shit. It’s a place which can and likely will cause you to totally reconceive who you are and where you fit. It will destroy all of your self esteem over the course of a term only for you to come back four weeks later, ready to do it all over again.
It will break you down and, if you’re lucky, you’ll be able to build yourself back up again. Sometimes, for some people, that’s not possible. It’s horrible, and we ought to demand more support to stop that from happening.
The constant pressure to make you into something different, someone who Went To Cambridge, is scary and destructive. Yet without it, would this place be the same? Maybe it’s that same pressure that allows us to form such close bonds so quickly, and to carry the experiences of three or four short years into the rest of our lives.
If terms weren’t so short and deadlines weren’t so brutal and expectations so high, I’m not sure the same atmosphere – one of being united in adversity against an institution determined to chew us up and spit us out – would prevail. Without that almost insurmountable difficulty which makes us reassess our identity in so many ways, I don’t know if Cambridge would still be Cambridge.
Thanks for reading. It’s been fun.