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Even my old digs won’t ease the sense that Cambridge is wasted on the young

Graduation first exiled me from the place; then, once I had regained a foothold, romantic disaster. Long story.

By Nicholas Lezard

A visit to Cambridge. Graduation first exiled me from the place; then, once I had regained a foothold, romantic disaster. Long story. This time I have a gig, interviewing the excellent writer, poet and translator Will Stone about Stefan Zweig for the Cambridge Literary Festival.

The gig is at an ungodly hour: 11.30 on a Sunday. I know what I’m like on a Sunday morning – not necessarily the sharpest – so I decide that the best way to be rested for it is to go up the previous night, and I ask one of the dons, still there, who once tried to teach me, if he can book a guest room for the Saturday. That way I can get the hell out of Dodge City (meaning the Hovel) and, at the same time, with something to do, get over my sadness at saying goodbye to the daughter, who has been staying for a couple of days over the Easter hols. I always get depressed when any of my children leaves.

I travel with my mother. Without my knowledge or permission to do so, she has booked a ticket for this gig, and will be staying with an old friend. On the train, I spot Rowan Williams, reading an Agatha Christie. Could there be a more English sight? As it happens, we have at least one mutual friend (believe it or not), so I say hello. What’s the worst he can do? He has to be nice: he has one of those collars that button up at the back.

It’s a beautiful spring day. I am staying in a room, it turns out, overlooking Trinity Great Court. I spent three years there, stumbling through this supreme marriage of architecture and space, pissed out of my mind, and avoiding as many essay commitments as was consistent with not being thrown out; but alcohol has this effect on me – it makes me more sensitive to natural beauty, and even in my cups I marvelled that I had been allowed to study, if that is the word, in this place. My work as a book reviewer is very much an atonement for all the work I failed to do when I was there.

So I meet my friend the Moose, who lives a short bus ride away, and we have a pint or two, then I buy a couple of bottles of wine and a Chinese takeaway (because I am, for once, in funds, and I owe him exactly this favour, and more) and we shoot the breeze in my guest room. I was unmanned when I arrived: not only does the college feature in my dreams as a place of lost opportunity and regret, but so do its secret backways behind the Master’s Lodge: which is how I reach the room.

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I walk the Moose, endlich, to the gate. We look above us. The night is clear as crystal. In the largest man-made enclosed courtyard in Europe (so they say), it is as if the heavens have been specifically invited to make an appearance and have graciously obliged, the lamps over the entrances to the staircases echoing the stars respectfully as the fountain plashes behind us. Not even when I was on acid, back in the day, has it looked so magical.

The Moose and I generally affect cynicism and worldliness to ease the pain of existence, but we are dumbstruck, until one of us asks if there is a more beautiful place on Earth. No: in the universe. It’s here, saying hello. It is not by accident that Newton’s statue is in the chapel a few yards away.

The next day I bump into Howard Jacobson, also at the festival. I mention my reverie, my epiphany. And he says: “I know. I look around, and I go, ‘How can I have fucked up so much?’” By which I understand: failed to appreciate the beauty while here, failed to take advantage of it. If Howard Jacobson thinks he’s fucked up by not staying in Cambridge . . .

And then I came back to London, and read a book that directed me towards this place, by Richard of Devizes in the late 12th century:

You will come to London. Behold! I warn you, whatever of evil or of perversity there is in any, whatever in all parts of the world, you will find in that city alone . . . You will find more braggadocios there than in all France . . . Stage players, buffoons, those that have no hair on their bodies, Garamantes, pickthanks, catamites, effeminate sodomites, lewd musical girls, druggists, lustful persons, fortune-tellers, extortioners, nightly strollers, magicians, mimics, common beggars, tatterdemalions . . . So if you do not wish to live with the shameful, you will not dwell in London.

I reflect that this, in effect, is a list of all I love; and although I may no longer be in Arcady, I am, at least, in an environment – while it lasts – that suits me. The shameful: they are my people. 

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This article appears in the 20 Apr 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Shakespeare 400 years Iater