Encountering the others
I didn’t go to the freshers fair — and not only because it was called the Freshers’ Fayre!!, exclamation marks and all. I didn’t go to the freshers’ ball, though I think I might have walked past it, quite by chance late one night in Gordon St — there were flashing lights and loud music coming from a first floor room and a flirt of flushed-face young smokers on the pavement.
I didn’t join the chess club or filmsoc or Greenpeace. I assumed I automatically became a member of the student union, but I didn’t bother to check. I wasn’t tempted by an evening of Bar Footsie, nor by its explication — a stock exchange drinking game. I didn’t even refuse to open an account at Barclays (thank you for that joke, William).
I’m married. I’m old. I have three children, a dog and a pension plan. I can stay at home. I’m not out there, don’t need to be, don’t want to be.
My non-course, extra-academic involvement would, I thought, begin and end with registration. Which itself made for an amusing afternoon, fun almost. If, that is, you’re up to taking fun and amusement from a process that me put me in mind of how a socialist state might be if it were run by Quakers, or perhaps the Women’s Institute. Very bureaucratic, very polite, almost efficient, with a faint air of talcum powder and Timotei shampoo.
There were lots of very helpful young people — students, presumably, working on minimising their overdraft (or splurging on Bar Footsie). There were apologies for not having quite the right form — that’s dealt with by the desk over there, I’m afraid, smile, smile. There was a rainbow of coloured zones — red and yellow and orange and green and purple and taupe and cerise. (I may have hallucinated those last two.) And there were queues. Long queues, very polite queues, slow queues. Still, they gave me time to listen to a muffin-topped north Liverpool teenager sharing her mental map of cheap alcohol sources in the NW1 and N1 postcodes.
There was money to pay, forms to fill, names to be logged, a photograph to be taken. It took a long time, a very long time. Almost as long, I found myself thinking, as changing a traveller’s cheque in an Italian bank. And then I realised: I couldn’t crack that gag to anyone here. I’d have to explain it. They’d ask: what’s a traveller’s cheque? And: why not just use a cash point? It was an old man’s joke, unshareable without footnotes and explanation. I found myself thinking about my friends who have girlfriends young enough to be my daughter.
But that, I thought, would be it for non-course stuff. Oh, there was a Facebook group. (Have a look if you want/can. It’s UCL MSc Theoretical Psychoanalytic Studies.) But only half the course signed on to it and even they’ve mostly kept quiet.
Then came the email. In the subject field, there was just one word and two punctuation marks — pub?!, it asked. It was an invite to the whole course for a drink or more ‘after class’. I put those two words in quote marks not to sneer but because, again, I found myself thinking of friends in October-May relationships. And of how, when I first went to college, I kept addressing the lecturers as ‘sir’. They’d smile, amusedly, not at all patronisingly. I, good Catholic atheist that I am, would pray for the floor to open up. It never did. God the atheist is far too much of a Curb Your Enthusiasm fan ever to pull that one.
The inviting email put me in a quandary. Not to go would be rude. But going out for drinks with a group of people who are nearly all a good hunk of a century younger than me could be, well, like going out with my children’s friends. Before, in this situation, I’ve turned for advice to my etiquette advisor, my daughter. (She’s good, I recommend her. When I told her I’d not quite finished the pre-course reading — a dozen books or so — she had just one word for me. Swot! she said. So, I said, would it be best if I kept quiet about the reading? Excellent idea, she said.) But she’d gone away, for a month or two, to Latin America somewhere, to help out with a local wildlife issue. (Truly, I don’t know how the third world got by before the arrival of first world young people armed with nothing but good degrees and caring parents.)
So I went for the drink, ‘after class’ on Saturday. (All the seminars are either then or on Friday afternoon so that students can also hold down serious jobs or travel in from beyond the M25.) I was one of the last out of the seminar room so I tail-gunned the crocodile of fellow students — the whole group as far as I could see. Along the street, across the road, through the doors, up the stairs, down some stairs, up some more stairs, through some double swingdoors. I looked around. It felt familiar. We were in the student union bar. The last time I was here, I was barely legal.
We sat at a long refectory table, fifteen or so of us. I thought about the difference between this group and my first university cohort all those years ago. That lot was determinedly homogenous, though not exceptionally so by the standards of the day. It was just the way universities were: white, home counties or shires. The fact that I’d grown up in a council house and a pub gave me a touch of the exotic.
But here was Brazil, Poland, Slovenia, Taiwan, Vienna and Wapping — as well as a sprinkle of home counties and shires. Some of us might not even be heterosexual. Such a mix and range might perhaps be as predictable now as homogeneity was back then. But still, a surprise, if a pleasant one.
Well, I was asked, what do you think of the course? I thought about mentioning the cultural mix thing, but I didn’t. Instead, I said: being in a room with so many sharp minds is just in itself so, well, exhilarating. I could have added — but didn’t, worried about the old man’s joke thing and on grounds of potential Humbert Humbertness — that it put me in mind of the slogan for Beserkley records: the most fun you can have with your clothes on.
I also thought of a piece of very smart advice, given freely, if aggressively, by James ‘Double Helix’ Watson. ‘Never be the smartest person in the room because if you're the smartest person nobody can help you,’ he said. So, that’s one smart thing I’ve got right then.
This week’s listening
Psycho by Jack Kittel
‘Mama, why don’t you get up?’