Every so often, especially for those of us who can remember the Soviet Union, something forcibly reminds you that getting old is a real bitch. These include the awareness that tennis players are younger than you are, the realization that the phrase “in my day” has serious meaning and the numbing fact that almost nobody at your alma mater has the first idea who you are. Going back to Cambridge makes me feel like a deposed aristocrat returning to the site of his exile. This must be how it feels to be Jimmy Carter.
I brought it on myself: when all sensible Yalies were fleeing to a beach for Spring Break, I was flying back home, to my mater and my alma mater, to wallow in nostalgia and begin a ridiculous number of sentences with “I remember…” Since my last appearance here, I have — like a Microsoft program — been effortlessly upgraded.
My last column was by Nick Baldock, B.A. This is by Nick Baldock, M.A., which means I still don’t get paid but my editor now has to treat me with marginally more deference and respect. One of the great advantages of attending a 700-year-old institution is that, by the simple acts of failing to die and not being imprisoned, I traded in my Bachelor of Arts degree for that of a Master. It’s a touching ceremony with more than a hint of Gormenghast about it; space precludes a full appreciation, but suffice to say that had I not held onto the correct finger of the Praelector, it could all have gone tragically wrong.
My halcyon days as a Cambridge undergraduate were spent at Corpus Christi College, or strictly speaking, the College of the Guild of Corpus Christi and the Blessed Virgin Mary, the length of the name being the primary reason we don’t have cheerleaders in England. “Give us a G! Give us a U! – actually no, forget about it.”
Corpus is famous for 14th-century Old Court, my final-year home, and also the home of Marlowe when he wasn’t away spying, seducing little boys and idly tossing off Edward II. Old Court is, naturally, haunted, and also does not provide a bathroom facility for each staircase, the latter of which is no doubt illegal or at least unacceptable here. One of my fondest memories of Corpus is walking round Old Court in a dressing-gown as the cold air wrapped itself round my calves like an affectionate toddler.
The M.A. weekend was essentially a glorified reunion, a fine chance to catch up with one’s peers. The various gains in weight, qualifications or salary in the intervening four years led to most conversations resembling a slightly surreal version of Top Trumps. The first weekend of the break, however, was an Old Boys’ football game; soccer to you, obviously. Had I slipped into American and called it soccer, my teammates would have beaten me up. Of course, I could then have sued them for mental distress and possibly irreparable damage to my self-esteem, as is the American way, but I rather wanted to be invited back next year — or at least, I did before the game.
This was my fourth year as an Old Boy, one more than my appearances as an undergraduate, and, like old cars, I have thus attained official veteran status. Unfortunately, most of the Old Boys are even older than I am, have moved through ‘veteran’ into ‘vintage’ class and, like old cars, have the habit of making strange noises before running out of gas and breaking down for extended periods. I’m okay, being a goalkeeper, but this year I noticed for the first time just how yawning the chasm between the two teams really is. The Old Boys largely looked what they largely were: older, fatter and richer accountants than the young pups in opposition. I don’t remember undergrads being so young, thin, fit and pretty when I was at Cambridge. We lost 5-1 in the event, the first Old Boys’ defeat since I was an undergrad, and I think in all charity I can only blame myself for two-and-a-half of the goals. That was bad enough, but later came the appalling realization that it wasn’t going to get any better. We were going to get older and the undergraduates, logically, were going to stay the same age. I’m not sure that I want to play in a game that matches a collection of Dorian Grays against a collection of his pictures.
Returning to the site of one’s undergrad days is simultaneously revivifying and a chilling memento mori. Hilaire Belloc’s parody of Omar Khayyam, which I’ve shamefully mislaid, concludes with a return to one’s old college room only to find a stranger’s name above the door. You can’t go back; nor, really, should you want to. But — well, it was swell while it lasted, when the world was young and the future was a long way away. Surely there’s no harm in a little rose-tinted retrospection now and again? Especially not if you get a free upgrade.
Nick Baldock, M.A. (Cantab) really misses not being able to wear his tux every other week.