Now, where was I? Back at the end of July, sleeping on the floor in W8 Lawn Bowls court… Ah, the Pembroke years, how long ago that all seems…
So, the interview went well and International Programs at Pembroke gave me the golden handshake. I was back in the system. In twenty-four hours I went from sleeping on the floor on the sly in college and dodging the bedders in the morning to having the right to demand a room at a moment’s notice. Marvellous. But there was one thing. The job. I had to learn to co-lecture a third-year university course on South African fiction, including four novels, two short stories and ten poems I’d never read, in a week. Needless to say, I was packing death.
On the 25th of July, Chris and I left behind our room in Lawn Bowls court. No more would I wake to the roar of two cement trucks parked in the street at the back of college; no more would I emerge from the shower to gaze across the contrastingly quiet lushness of Pembroke college’s overgrown quads. We moved into 5 All Saints Passage – a run-down old four-storey flat above Ray Newman’s Gentlemen’s Hairdresser. It was a strange place, tall and thin. It began in darkness, towards the back of the passage behind the shop, where one musty door led to the cellar (with a note to the effect that two of the stairs had gone) and another, up towards the light. Up the first flight were my room and the bathroom with the pigeons living in the skylight. My room looked out through a ten-foot high arched window onto the narrow passage, with Trinity College on the other side and the carved faces of saints all down its length. It was a dark room, but high-ceilinged and comfortable, and it was also free.
Upstairs from there was the small lounge and kitchen, and at last, the view opened up. For, once above my level, the rear of the flat rose above all the neighbouring buildings and looked right out across the roofs to Castle Hill and the Saint John’s chapel tower. It was a splendid view, which improved further as one ventured up to the top level where the master bedroom and study were located. Naturally Chris took the best rooms. We moved in in a flurry one afternoon and immediately established the ritual of sitting in the tiny cast iron balcony overlooking the passage, drinking. The third floor provided an enviable vantage point and came quickly to be a favourite spot.
Thus began the All Saint’s Passage years. They were busy times. I was working full time at the pub for that final week of July and in my spare time, getting stuck into reading King Solomon’s Mines while trying to finish my novel. Thankfully I finally got there and sent it off… now, the waiting game… Finding it difficult to prep myself for teaching without an active internet connection in the flat, I decided to get a room from Pembroke after all and they came good, though the room left a lot to be desired. It was on the top floor of a complete warren of a college house on Pembroke Street, directly opposite Pembroke, which afforded views of the mossy ceramic tiles opposite and the spires of the college buildings, but not much else. Another two feet and it would have been spectacular. It was so small that only Harry Potter might have found it expansive, yet it did have a live broadband internet connection and, like everything in this town, it wasn’t at all far from home. It was also free. My “office” soon became a second home.
The next step was to sort out my finances and get some transport. Barclays Bank love Cambridge students, whatever vintage, and without even blinking they gave me a five hundred pound interest-free overdraft. At last I was solvent. In pounds! It all seemed to be falling into place. Pembroke handed me a meal card with two hundred and fifty quid on it and told me to stuff myself as often and as much as I liked at their expense. I bought myself a sturdy, fast, reconditioned second-hand mountain bike and before you knew it, the kid was back. As Sacha Coles once famously said, “Ich bin hell on wheels.”
So, July 31, the teaching began. I thought I might vomit my innards out from nerves during my first class, especially when, having hoped for a tutorial-style discussion, it became clear that my seven Californians had arrived only two days before and were half dead with jet-lag and I was forced to give a lecture. Thankfully the one thing I’ve always had up my sleeve is the ability to talk seemingly without pause for hours on end, and, once I got going, all was well. Our first week was hellishly busy and we soared through South African history, poetry, foundation myths, post-colonialism, a deconstruction of imperialism, critical theory, the kitchen sink… and wound up with a relaxed class fuelled by Western Cape Pinotage and Billtong, during which we watched a documentary on Sofia Town.
Our teaching all took place in Downing College – new by Cambridge standards, being only a couple of hundred years old, but gloriously spacious with the largest court of all, bordered by simple, neo-classical buildings and thus having the aspect of an enormous, grassy agora. Once our students warmed up and got into the swing of it, they proved to be an excellent bunch – one of whom was called Randy, haw haw. Chris and I relished the opportunity both to bash Apartheid and to use glaring examples of imperial rape and pillage by genocidal megalomaniacs such as Cecil Rhodes (when you think Rhodes scholarship, imagine there being such a thing as a Hitler scholarship…), to give our Americans clear examples of precisely how America behaves these days, without ever even mentioning America! Ah, the subtlety of education… That said, I got the impression that our students didn’t lean towards Bush in the last election, assuming they were old enough to vote then, that is, and if they had leaned that way, it was likely only because they were drunk.
So teaching was a great buzz – the environment, the students, the material (if you haven’t read Alan Paton’s Cry the Beloved Country or J. M. Coetzee’s Life and Times of Michael K. then I can’t recommend them highly enough), the free dinners… and since they were sorting me out rather nicely and I wasn’t paying rent, I cut down to about fifteen hours a week at the pub, which became more a social occasion than anything else. Indeed, I turned up Saturday night for a “celebrity shift”.
So, eventually things wound up with a great formal dinner and rapturous applause which brought tears to my eyes – naturally culminating in the sort of laid on, pissed-up binge the colleges always responsibly encourage. The following day Chris flew back to South Africa for a month. Within two days all the American students, who had been such great drinking buddies, were gone. I finished at the Anchor. I had no mates. I had to turn in the keys to my “office.” It was heartrending. Then one day my college meal card stopped working. The system had tossed me kicking and screaming back into the streets.
Then my bike got stolen – sheered clean from the fence with bolt cutters. A word of advice – don’t park next to a construction site. Naturally I was pissed and was forced to storm from one place to the next, glaring at every red bike with a keen eye for mischief. Then it dawned on me as I was steaming through the market square one morning that every step I took just rubbed salt into the wound, so I went and bought another bike. To warp slightly an old adage, if your bike gets nicked, get straight back up and go buy a new one. Or a new second hand one, that is. Plus the biggest, most fuck off lock ever invented. This time around I bought a twenty-year old Raleigh. It’s built like a tank and goes like a frolicking filly in a harvest-time pasture. The kid was back, again…
Then I got the flu, but it was a blessing in disguise. Having no job at the time I lay in bed on the top floor for a week with my lap-top, writing like mad and reading up a storm; staring here and there across the pigeon-soiled roofs. It was a golden age, if brief. Cook, eat, shower, read, cook, eat, shower, write, sleep, wake up, go for run, duck out for a sly beer hoping my sensible side won’t notice, sleep… I was enjoying myself so much in this great old musty flat that I hung on for an extra weekend and finally moved out late on a Sunday afternoon in early September.
It was dark in the passage. The gun was heavy in my pocket…
Oh, sorry, wrong story…
I stood outside Ray Newman’s, pondering his forty-six years of service, pondering the paradox of his sign which read “Modern Hairdresser” and had done for the same forty-six years, pondering his worn-through linoleum floor, thinking hard on how I’d miss all my pigeon buddies who cooed, shat and shagged shamelessly outside our windows on the rooftops and chimneys, thinking of the good times and the bad, the camembert, sauerkraut stench from the Polish cheese shop next to Ray’s, wondering what the next episode had in store for me, wondering how long I could go without having a conversation with someone, wondering how I’d get by without any mates at all…
It was bliss.
Throughout August, on many days and nights in the “office”, I had searched like a bastard to find a place to live, written countless e-mails in response to ads and gone to inspections. I was fortunate in striking gold on my second visit. In order to sew things up and stop fretting about where I would wind up, I accepted the offer there and then and agreed to move into a lovely house with two other people roughly my age.
And hence we come to the start of the famous Sturton Street years, which ought to be ongoing for at least the next three or four months. The people I moved in with are lovely, or so it would appear from brief acquaintance: Sonia, who owns the house, is a clinical psychologist and Pete, the other housemate is an ecologist. Both are very bright and cool and, it seems, never here. Sonia left two days after I moved in to go to Philadelphia for a month where she is working on a joint research project, and Pete who, in my first three weeks here was away six days out of seven doing wildlife surveys for environmental impact studies, (“Off to do another bat survey”, he says… “off to watch badgers and water voles in Lancashire…”) has just set off on holiday and won’t be back until the second week of October. So essentially I’ve had the house to myself, and since it took my new employer ages to sort out confirming the start date for my next job (Cambridge Corn Exchange, box office, customer service, shit-kicking), which is in fact, tomorrow, Monday, the 24th or whatever it is, I’ve been living here entirely by myself, having no obligations, writing and reading in the sun all day and going out for increasingly epic cycles and runs, soothed here and there by the odd puff of “zorl”.
And it’s a very nice house. The backyard is long and grassy and full of interesting plants. There is a fine young apple tree which has just this month produced its best fruit ever (apparently) and hence I’ve been stuffing myself full of apples. And pears, for there is also a towering great pear tree in the middle of the yard which rains down pears like you wouldn’t believe; ten to fifteen a day. Many that I find are hapless, bruised, cracked, already spoiled things, and many others get got by the squirrels before I can save them. Yet the sheer number has ensured a steady oversupply. To avoid having to throw them out, and also taking into consideration that many are rather too small and bitter, I’ve taken to stewing them en masse. Now I have to eat them with every meal just to get through them. Pears on my cereal, a bowl of pears after lunch, a bowl of pears and cream after dinner, a bowl here and there just for the hell of it. So much for my fear that things might go pear-shaped, boom boom.
I had long feared that living this side of Parker’s Piece meant living on the wrong side of the tracks, as it were. Yet this end of town holds the Anglia Ruskin University, which is “the other” university in Cambridge. The cool thing about that is that the students aren’t all complete toffs and nerds and are more like your regular university undergrads; dreadlocks, smoking pot, doing coke, dodging lectures and hanging out in cafes, hanging around street corners, making films about each other, chain smoking in the local cemetery, trying to work out how the hell they’re going to pay off their student loans to cover increasingly exorbitant tuition fees… they’re also mostly foreign which makes Mill Road – the local version of King Street, Newtown, a regular Babel. Throw in all the awesome Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Malaysian and Chinese shops around here, and you get a pretty good result all round. So it’s a cool area, and oddly enough, feels a lot more like a student area than the centre of town, which is dominated by the University of Cambridge. It also has quaint old pubs and houses – row after row of the bastards.
So, as yet the Sturton Street years have been good years. Unfortunately, however, all things must pass, as George Harrison said (and did, for that matter). Come tomorrow I’ll be back at work in a dull job. Still, worse things happen at sea, and what the hell, there’s novels and poetry and photography to keep me going and the money has to come from somewhere… Plus, there is the exciting fact that next week a Cuban student will be arriving here who needs somewhere to stay and will be living for a couple of weeks in the study. Gus – any tips on how best to entertain him?
Orright, Comrades, I’ve chewed your ears long enough, be off with you, and best wishes in all endeavours.