One of the many things my wife’s new career has done has been to throw me and my youngest son (the Small Boy Wonder) closer together. I’m close to his elder siblings as well, but in different ways – in their cases adversity has often been the mother of connection. The SBW and I are much more like each other in terms of personality than any other two members of our family. And as a result of the sometimes intense distraction of the Beautiful Armenian’s course, we’ve spent a lot of time together over the last few years.
This week he and I have been in Cambridge. His mother is writing an essay, I had a few days’ leave to use up, he has half-term, and I said we were going to do something vaguely improving. He turned down walking in the Yorkshire Dales, on the basis of it involving both walking and the Yorkshire Dales. He also declined a trip to Chester, having apparently developed an inexplicable aversion for anything too far north. So, having informed the BA that in a man’s world “what goes on on tour, stays on tour,” we set course for the city of my student days.
A week ago, if you had believed the weather forecasts, you might have been a little nervous about the possible incursion of polar bears into these normally tranquil parts. Yesterday morning we were punting along the River Cam in almost spring like conditions. And we managed to avoid falling in. In between times we got upgraded at the hotel, had a walk round some of the Colleges, rejected the ubiquitous chain restaurants for a great little cafe/bistro (with the added attraction of a waitress who the SBW said was at least an eight out of ten – bless him, he had about as much chance with her as I did), went to the cinema to see Chronicle (bad news for the waitress, this got a straight ten out of ten) and looked at paintings and porcelain in the Fitzwilliam Museum. I also pretended that the whole trip was calorie-neutral by spending an hour in the fitness centre (can you lose weight in the sauna?).
I would be misleading you if I said that my student days at Cambridge were uniformly happy. The Beautiful Armenian and I had decided even at that young age that we intended to spend the rest of our lives together, although we might not have been quite bold enough to say it to each other, and being apart wasn’t always easy. I also found the place so very, very different from the small-town grammar school from which I had emerged – there were a lot of unbelievably pretentious and capricious people there (and still are from what I could see this week).
But in time I found my feet and made good friends, and overall the experience was very positive. Not least because I had an understanding of how lucky I was. I had access to fabulous facilities, I had many of the normal hassles of student life looked after for me, and I lived for three years in one of the most beautiful of places. And as far as I can work out, I ended up there for no other reason than that I had a knack for doing well in exams. Believe me, I am no great intellect.
Each time I go back, that sense of good fortune strengthens. I wasn’t lucky to have gone there. It was an incredible privilege. And I think I’ve taken away from it a confidence in my own abilities, which counters my natural shyness, and has served me well.
I think any of my children could have followed me to Cambridge, but nobody has to date and I think it unlikely that the SBW will. It hasn’t seemed the right place for them. Their talents all lie in areas which Cambridge doesn’t serve. But it’s still a wonderful place in which to spend a couple of days.