6 November 2006

Why Cambridge is preposterous

by Matt Rubinstein at 12:42 am

stjohns.jpgI have received a couple of inquiries—the blogger’s equivalent of the phone ringing off the hook—about my recent throwaway that the venerable university town of Cambridge is preposterous.

I should make it clear that I only mean that in a good way. My personal—perhaps idiosyncratic—use of the word dates back a couple of years to a trip to Twin Falls in Kakadu National Park, where during the dry season when the falls don’t have a lot to them you can sit at the very edge and let the water wash over you on its way down. The weather is relentlessly perfect, you have to hike through a lot of scrub to get there, and by the time you happen on the waterfall it really is something. My hiking buddy and I were pretty blown away by it, and she went and lay at the top of the falls as I’ve described and soaked up the sun and didn’t look bad in her bikini, and we both agreed that the only way to do justice to the scene was to call it—you guessed it—preposterous. It’s the kind of thing that shouldn’t really exist outside of tourist advertisements.

Cambridge is a bit like that, only of course a lot colder. The university itself is about 800 years old. The first college was founded in 1280; there are now 31 of the bastards, and many of them are huge and sprawling and full of courts and cloisters and chapels and battlements and other Gothic what-have-you. See for example the New Court at St John’s, pictured.

What’s preposterous isn’t that edifices of this scale and extravagance exist, or that they’re all lined up one after the other like McMansions; it’s more that people still get to use them: privileged seventeen-year-olds get to skip lectures and defile each other, and smart-arses from all over the world get to do indescribable research, and they all flap around in gowns and wobble about on ancient bicycles and get drunk at long tables in ancient halls between Latin graces. There are older and more impressive buildings than the ones at these old university towns, I’m sure, but they’re either still palaces or now museums; what’s remarkable is that people come here to do work and to use the buildings as they’ve been used for so long. I think.

Outside the colleges, the streets are cobble and flag and there may be more bookshops than coffee-shops—though most of the bookshops have coffee-shops inside them. And yes, everything is expensive—some things preposterously so—but what do you expect in a place that shouldn’t really exist?

Yesterday I heard a punter—someone actually punting along the Cam—tell some tourists that various scenes from the Harry Potter movies were shot at St John’s. As far as I can tell that’s not true, they were shot at Oxford—which I’m sure is no less preposterous—but it’s easy to believe. Personally I think the place is crying out for a zombie flick; you could have all these undead hordes coming for the overweight brains of the freshers and fellows barricaded behind the old doors and drawbridges. And all the zombies could be these famously well-educated figures from history, like in that Halloween episode of The Simpsons (“Show’s over, Shakespeare!” “Is this the end of Zombie Shakespeare?”) only more so. And shotguns, plenty of shotguns.

2 Responses to “Why Cambridge is preposterous”

  1. Alastair Says:

    Thankyou for not posting a picture of yourself in a bikini punting along the Cam.

  2. Helen Says:

    Great to see your blog back.

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