Rowers, BNOCs, and Zovirax
Many grow up dreaming of wealth, fame, or featuring in a fireman calendar. I just wanted to come to Cambridge.
My ambitions centred on being like Jawaharlal Nehru (Trinity), Hugh Laurie (Selwyn), Lord Cooke of Thorndon (Caius) and especially Emma Thompson (Newhnam).
So, last September I quit my New York law job and boarded a one-way flight to Gatwick, thence to Cambridge (Magdalene). I’d never before done something so indulgent. Although I’m nowhere near any of those worthies, I’m glad I did – even though I certainly don’t have a blue, did a course that doesn’t give firsts, and a spouse has been beyond me. As I finally leave – MPhils linger, like cold sores unresponsive to Zovirax – I want to celebrate those who battled to succeed.
It’s important we do so.The Theory of Everything commits a grave sin in making the Bridge of Sighs stand for everything at Cambridge, but it is an apt one. I have spent a lot of time sighing this past year, and not just after interactions with
twatsmates from John’s. Cambridge – the formals, the balls, the 6 a.m. wakeups for rowing, and the halloumi at Gardi’s – can be great. For some people, it seems to be that way all the time.
But this is not everyone’s story. I don’t know if it’s the atmosphere, the people, or the pressure that can make almost anyone feel inadequate. I’ve been shocked to learn this year that sometimes even the most successful people struggle with mental health issues or that someone demolishing her academic challenges is battling OCD. My Instagram account has no photos of the total darkness in Lent and May through which I suffered. Not many do. Although I’ve heard a triple first in Classics called a “Hiddleston”, I cannot presume to know what demons Hids faced to get his scores while forging an acting career. I’d be surprised if he didn’t struggle at least a bit. (And if he didn’t, screw him. At least I wasn’t in a fake relationship with Taylor Swift.)
So one of my favourite 2016 stories ended with Luke Juckett yelling “This is Cambridge” repeatedly at the end of the boat race. (It was actually Mortlake. He was a long way from home.)
It started in 2014, when I was watching that Boat Race with a group of Americans and the Wisconsin graduate’s rigger broke. Everyone’s hearts sank for him in the midtown Manhattan bar where I was watching. (We then went out and drank champagne for a few hours. I’ve made Luke’s story my own with his full permission.)
Although the light blues were fancied to win on 27 March after another loss in 2015, no-one rested on their laurels through many months of hard training and
abstinenceabstemiousness. Not many people know the bitter taste of defeat as much as Luke Juckett does. Few deserve to inhale the sweet smell of success as much as the avid Tompkins Table follower.
Or there’s former Tab Editor, Marshall Society President, Law Society President, Union Speakers’ Officer, and holder of fifteen titles I’ve forgotten, Sachin Parathalingam. In Michaelmas, Sachin was everywhere: getting coffees, at balls, chatting up Josh Radnor … At the end of that term, he lost a bruising election for the Union presidency to BNOC #1 Charlotte Ivers. And then Sachin disappeared; rare sightings suggested he was growing his hair, maybe a beard. Barber avoidance was the only explanation. Sachin had done many things in three years. Work wasn’t one of them. Apparently this had changed. Sachin’s Facebook status declaring his first was a thing of joy – the sort of unexpected delight that maybe only the Cambridge gods can squirt from their laps.
But it would be wrong if the things I remembered were all Hollywood-style redemption/success stories, for this place dispenses the ridiculous as much as the sublime. Like Miss Hong Kong showing up at a Union ball and then getting kicked out because her paparazzi were drinking booze to which they weren’t entitled, or a chap dressed up as a sheep catching fire near a barbecue on Caesarian Sunday.
Perhaps no-one embodies the Fens’ sheer bizarreness better than Muhammad Asadullah Khan. The Trinity history graduate has inspired several hashtags (#justice, #YesWeKhan) and launched a thousand memes in fake Union Presidency bids that earned him endorsements from Jesus (the religious figure, not the college) and two random American girls. Unfounded rumours of the Tab’s BNOC votes being hacked saw him unjustly relegated to number 61 on the Tab’s BNOC list. Asad’s continuing – and unsolicited – fame may be the last good use of social media. Chalk up another invention to the Tabs.
It’s no surprise that Hawking, who’s done so much work on space and time warping, has spent his career at Cambridge. One’s experience is as much about time and events as King’s College Chapel and the Backs. My Cambridge won the boat race, saw Julian Assange (and Aditya Basrur) speak at the Union, and Jesus lose its cock. It also witnessed maybe the worst Cricketer on earth take 2/9 for Magdalene in a Cuppers Cricket match against a rampant Fitzwilliam side that featured Blues and 2nd XI players. “Cambridge is like a tattoo: you can hide it but it’s always there,” wrote Simon Sebag Montefiore, pointlessly, in the terrible King’s Parade. I don’t go for ink myself, but I’ll be very happy to have “Cuppers Bowling Average: 4.5” engraved on my urn.
For me, the winning Blue Boat, someone else’s First, and #justice were all but a part of “Cambridge”. Like a source of food and excitement from which I know I need to be weaned – at times, exhaustingly – real. And wonderfully, inspiringly, and ridiculously spectacular.