Cutting the Brie the Wrong Way

Frosty fen.
Cambridge, c.1998.

I haven’t written about my time at Cambridge for various reasons, including a sense that my experience 20 years ago probably isn’t relevant today – that the weird world of public school rituals, boating clubs and silly gowns was fading then and so must surely have completely disappeared by 2017.

Only, it turns out, it hasn’t, so here’s how it went for me.

I grew up working class, mostly on a council estate in Somerset, and went to a comprehensive that was very near the top of the Ofsted Hard as Nails League Table. From there, I was one of a handful of kids who went on to do A levels at the local sixth-form college. There, rather to my surprise, I continued to do well academically and was identified as Oxbridge material by an ambitious college administration. They put all of us swots into special coaching sessions run by an inspirational lecturer, the son of a Nottinghamshire miner who went to Oxford in the 1970s and kept a bust of Lenin on the desk in his classroom. When he told us that, yes, Oxbridge was full of weird posh people but, no, that didn’t mean we should avoid it, it carried weight. We had as much right to be there as anyone else; we shouldn’t let them keep the best stuff to themselves out of fear or misplaced humility.

It all felt as if it happened by accident, to be frank – just a matter of taking what was for me the easiest path, filling in the forms that were put in front of me, tackling one hurdle at a time. I got an interview which took place on a frosty winter day and gave me my first taste of the problems I would have later. I was told to wear a suit, which meant finding the money to buy one; and we couldn’t afford a hotel, even if had been the kind of people who even thought to stay in them. (A reminder: the bar for ‘expensive’ is low when you have bugger all.) So Dad drove through the night and I arrived angry and exhausted at breakfast-time.

The other interview applicants were somewhat reassuring. There were a couple of northerners with proper accents who seemed as anxious as me, and several people who, although clearly Home Counties middle class, had a relatably similar comprehensive-n-college background to mine. The interviews, which seemed almost designed to sabotage people like me, went well, partly thanks to the preparation I’d had at sixth-form, and partly through adrenalin. I remember arguing slightly too vigorously with a pair of terrifying college fellows that Eastenders was as interesting as Wordsworth and that the half-rhymes were the most interesting thing in Wilfred Owen’s poems. It turns out they like this kind of thing – ‘independent thought’ – and so that was that, I was in.

* * *

What people sometimes fail to understand about growing up working class – or at least as I experienced it in the 1980s and 90s – is how scared and innocent it can leave you in some important ways, even if you seem bullish and practical in others. Public transport is expensive so you don’t take it, which is how I got to the age of 18 being unsure how to use trains or buses. I could count the number of times I’d eaten in restaurants on one hand, and had never eaten Chinese food or take-away curry. I’d never seen an olive, or houmous. I’d only been abroad once, on a three-day educational trip to Brussels sponsored by the EU. I didn’t know what ‘smart casual’ meant, or that Earl Grey tea is supposed to taste like Fairy Liquid. I didn’t realise that it was frightfully vulgar to discuss money or politics, or how to make polite small talk over glasses of wine. By contrast, all the upper- and middle-class kids I met in my first week seemed like globetrotting sophisticates: they’d had gap years, spoke multiple languages, and seemed to have been trained in cocktail chat and advanced canapé consumption techniques.

Things only got worse when I realised that there was a tier above this – the blazer-wearing rugby and rowing sorts who were so posh they didn’t even have to pretend to be pleasant or polite, and could behave more or less however they liked. I spent several years just flat out avoiding them, scurrying round the edges of the College, hoping I wouldn’t encounter a drunk member of the pride enraged by, say, a complicated door mechanism, or the complexities of operating a kettle.

Money was a persistent problem, even in those tail-end days of grants. I tried to live off a pound a day, not wanting to tell my parents I needed more cash because they didn’t have it, and having been told by the College not to do any part-time work under any circumstances. So in my first term I lost about two stone and was constantly hungry. (This seems insane now I see it in black-and-white but it’s true.) I eventually cracked and told my tutor that I was getting a job and they could stick it if they didn’t like it, which magically unlocked a bursary fund, after a brief round of mildly humiliating means testing which required my parents to provide copies of their bank statements. Even that only covered living, with nothing left over for having fun. That wouldn’t have been so bad if the rich kids hadn’t been having lots of very loud, visible fun all around me – weekends away, parties, restaurant dinners, fancy clothes, and skiing holidays paid for with their loans ‘because my Dad says I might as well take it, given the low rate of interest’.

(Some of this is probably on me — I am capable of having absolutely no fun under almost any circumstances.)

But the hardest thing was that oppressive sense of cultural alienation. I had a meltdown about this at one point and, in desperation, unloaded in near hysterics during what was meant to be an academic supervision. I chose the right teacher to talk to – someone who had come to Cambridge from Africa and had an experience far more stressful and bewildering than mine. “The whole place is designed to make you feel like an outsider,” he said, with uncharacteristic feeling. “Everything they do, all the rituals and manners, even the way the buildings are designed, is intended to exclude people like us. Do not let them achieve what they want.

I never stopped feeling like an oik – someone once loudly mocked me for cutting a slice of brie the wrong way, which is the elevator pitch version of my time at Cambridge – but I did eventually stop thinking it was my fault.

I learned to spend as much time as possible away from the College, wandering around reassuringly normal housing estates outside Cambridge, or sitting on benches at the Grafton Centre, which felt a bit like being in my home town. This wasn’t homesickness — it was pining for the real world, and a reminder that it was that lot inside the College walls who were the freaks, not me. I found friends who didn’t make me feel like shit because I didn’t know which way to pass the port, and who liked sitting around drinking tea while we listened to records — something I could afford.

I left with a good degree (having no fun meant I had time to read all the books and revise),  a certain confidence in the quality of my intellect, and several important relationships that are still going strong today.

Other than that, I don’t feel like a ‘Cambridge man’, or have lingering affection for my College. I don’t have any ties or scarves, have dodged every reunion to date, and when the College kept bothering me for money I asked them firmly to stop phoning, emailing and writing. Our business with each other, as far as I’m concerned, concluded the day I walked away with my degree. Cambridge is an ex I dumped after a long, dysfunctional relationship.

So, when young people from similar backgrounds to mine ask if they should go to Cambridge, I find it hard to give a straight answer. One the one hand, not going is a kind of surrender – letting them have it all to themselves – and if it’s not quite world-as-oyster dream I was sold I guess my degree did get me as far as interview stage for my first couple of jobs after university. At the same time, I feel duty bound to be honest with them about my experience, so at least they’ll know what they’re getting into.

Cambridge is what Cambridge is.

The Old Country

A mill against hills, watched by a horse.

I’m Northern like Tony Soprano was Italian.

My Mum is from Lancashire but moved to Somerset when she was a child. She came with an accent (mostly intact 50 years on) and a fully formed Northern identity. I grew up surrounded by Lancastrians who talked constantly and longingly about the North, in Northern accents, sometimes while eating plates of tripe and onions. (That’s not a glib joke.) I heard all about Uncle John and his bus route in the Ribble Valley, endless jokes about the horrors of Yorkshire, and tales of a bastard ancestor whose personal motto was: ‘I’m Joshua Sykes of Stockport and I give a bugger for no man.’

Mum, pining for the Old Country more than my un-sentimental uncle, was the most prone to wallow in her lost Northerness. Even now after a glass of whisky she’ll recite her favourite dialect poem which (as my memory has it) begins: “As I were walking oer Thraitle Bridge I met me owd pal Mickey Plum and what dost tha think he says?” (There are numerous variations.) She calls buses ‘buzzes’ and – a sign that her Lancastrian accent operates at a fundamental level and not as a nostalgic pretence – cannot say Google; instead, it is ‘Goodle’.

My Grandpa looked a bit like Stan Laurel (another member of the Northern diaspora, who ended up further afield) and, apparently left with a damaged internal thermostat by his time as a prisoner of war in eastern Europe, hated any kind of draught. That’s why I remember him best in a kind of sound-and-motion second-long mental snapshot, shouting wearily “Door, door, door, door, DOOR!” whenever I left it open. He chewed the vowels and swallowed the R so that the word was more like dour, or dawer, or maybe dore. I wish I had the technical language to describe his accent. It definitely wasn’t a ‘daw’ at any rate, and he was definitely from Ozzlewtwizzle, not ‘Oswald Twist-el’.

Map of the North West at Manchester Victoria Station.

Oh, yes – Oswaldtwistle, Darwen, Bacup, Rawtenstall… I know the names of all these exotic places and how to pronounce them. ‘Bury’ is almost impossible to say correctly if you haven’t heard it said time and again by native speakers, using secret vowels not in general circulation. When I hear a Southerner say Berry, Dar-wenn, Backup or Raaaaaw-ten-stawl I think they sound bloody daft even though, remember, I’m not Northern, don’t sound Northern, and have never been to any of these places. Watching Juliet Bravo on TV as a child Mum would say to me, ‘They film this in Bacup you know’ and in anger and shame would snap at me in shops when I touched the goods: ‘Put that down! Are you from Bacup? That’s a Bacup look!’ (What a strange slur against one particular Lancashire town – that its natives can’t look at an object without manhandling it.)

I say I don’t sound Northern but there are lots of Northern words and phrases in my vocabulary. Nan was often ‘out of flunter’ and I started using that ironically as a teenager, like Billy Liar teasing Councillor Duxbury. Now, I just find it useful – the perfect word to describe a state somewhere between depression and exhaustion. And decades of hearing Mum call Uncle Norman ‘kid’ or ‘our kid’, and vice versa, has left me prone to referring to my own brother the same way quite instinctively, despite the Gallagher brothers’ brief ownership of this curtly affectionate term in the national consciousness.

A few months ago I was in a crowded pub and need to ask Mum across the room if she wanted a drink. Some previously unused software kicked into life and I mee-mawed, just as I’d seen her and Nan do so many times. She understood and mee-mawed back so that we were able to establish that, yes, she did want a drink, just a half, and, no, not lager — bitter this time, Doom Bar rather than Bass. It was all so fast and instinctive that it took me a moment to realise what had happened at which point I felt quite overcome at so effortlessly using a skill my grandmother had learned in cotton mills in the Rossendale Valley 80-odd years ago and that I had somehow inherited.

The first time I went to the North as a child felt important. It was for a great uncle’s funeral in Bury but we found time to explore. Mum had talked about the market for years with the sadness of an exiled Russian princess recalling the Winter Palace so we had to go there. I remember eating meat and potato pies (still an obsession) and being almost offended when someone told me my mild West Country accent sounded like Ian Botham’s.

In the years that followed we frequently went on holiday to Blackpool, Cleveleys and Fleetwood, popping into Manchester or Bury to visit relatives or shop. I loved it but didn’t feel at home the way Mum did. Of course. Because I wasn’t.

Years later I worked in various places across the North, alongside Northern colleagues, and it didn’t take me long to work out that whatever connection I might feel with the North Country, they saw me as hopelessly Southern. I didn’t understand the geography (true), the tensions, the dialects, or the culture. My belief that I had any claim on Northerneness when really all I had was a secondhand understanding of a particular version of a part of Lancashire of the 1950s was a handicap, not an asset.

Which brings me back to Tony Soprano. There’s an episode in the first season of The Sopranos where Tony and his cronies go back to the Old Country on business only to realise just how little they have in common with their supposed kin. The Italians find them vulgar, crude, stupid; and the Americans find the Italians irritating. An optimistic reading is that this leads them to appreciate their identity as Americans but there’s a sadness in it, too, as a key foundation of their identity is knocked out from under them.

In a small, muddy, mediocre way, my ancestors were migrants too, roaming all over the country in the 19th century chasing agricultural jobs, then industrial work, or service, so that I can claim connections all over England but no deep roots in any one part. Which is true of most non-aristocratic English people, I suspect.

These days, I am trying to be from Somerset, which is where I was born and mostly grew up. I say ‘trying’ because, despite it all, I’m more confident about how to pronounce Crawshawbooth than Muchelney.