i took the train down from Durham to Cambridge last Sunday morning. It was a good Durham autumn when i left, blue skies and sun, warm; the rain began as i neared Cambridge. Welcome back, the city says, you bastard.
i emerge from the station in the rain, or drizzle rather, a determined, grim greyness everywhere. i decide to walk to the room i booked in Saint Catharine’s, 2 or 3 miles away. My suitcases are heavy, the grips abrade my palms, my hair is soon plastered to my skull. About five minutes in, i am weary and want to lie down in the rain and die. i carefully avoid thinking beyond the next step. Keep putting one foot down after another and in time you will arrive, somewhere. But i am not optimistic, in this horrid rain. i have no map. i have little idea of my location or direction. i will almost certainly perish. i stop a girl and ask for Trumpington Street.
“Speak slowly please, I am Italian,” she responds.
“Sai dov’è Trumpington Street?” i ask.
Without bemusement she points me in the right direction. Perhaps this is the kind of city where, if you tell people you are from Italy or Estonia or Bulgaria or 3rd Millenium BC Uruk, they automatically reply in your native tongue.
i arrive at Saint Catharine’s, exhausted. 40 quid a night for a room in the centre of the old city. My room:
i will spend at least half my waking hours here, reading. i get through Philip Kerr’s A Philosophical Investigation, Robertson Davis’ The Lyre of Orpheus, a book of German grammar, and a third of the way through Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations. The latter continues to bewilder on this second reading, though i have some grip on it now, at least i can suspect the depths and intent.
Cambridge is in rain. It discourages expedition. i sit at my desk watching the tourists walk by (the street visible on the far left). i venture out for specific targets, places of Wittgensteinian or other interest. After Durham, with its slew of screaming chavs, Cambridge is Germanic, peaceable. The chap : chav ratio is even higher than in Oxford. There are chaps everywhere, in tweed, with caps, fob watches. i gaze at them in wonder and they ignore me or at most give me a look as to say “get out of my way, peasant”. All very splendid and proper.
There are almost no chavs, i suppose because there are no real chav shops (Primark, Wetherspoon’s, Yates’, William Hill, Greggs, etc.) in the old centre, and chavs cannot exist apart from chav shops; the shopping mall is a mile away, and perhaps the chavs all congregate there, eating Greggs pasties and drinking Mad Dog 20-20 and spitting at their betters, committing the occasional murder and/or rape. Or perhaps property is so expensive in Cambridge that they must live on crack ghettos on the outskirts, where they scurry and purboil and stew.
Even outside of term, the chap : chav ratio is stunning. The tourists are mainly Japanese, and a goodly proportion of these are exquisitely beautiful girls.
First stop is Trinity. Merit rarely lingers but nonetheless i am curious about the place that housed Russell, Moore, Wittgenstein, as well as John Dee, Francis Bacon, Andrew Marvell, Dryden, Isaac Newton, Housman, Vaughan Williams, A.A. Milne, Enoch Powell, Nabokov, et alia. Naturally, it is closed to visitors.
i ask the porter if it would be possible to see Whewell’s Court, explaining: “i’m interested in someone who lived there, a philosopher.”
“Ah, Wittgenstein,” he says.
“Yeah, that’s the one,” i nod grimly.
He says that maybe i could accompany a porter to the court, but it was unlikely, as they are understaffed and in any case it’s not open to the public. i thank him and contemplate Whewell’s Court, which faces the Trinity gates.
i walk in with the mind-on-other-things attitude of a resident, unchallenged. The porter had told me it was an example of faux Gothic and it has a bland, unconvincing look to it – only 150 years old, you see. In the rain it looks dank and wearying. Wittgenstein’s rooms were right at the top of this tower:
i return a few days later, in a rare spell of sunlight:
Back on the street i idle outside Trinity, eating a cheeseburger from the excellent Gardenia. A woman i had spotted at 1100, motionlessly perched on a wall, is still there at 1400. i observe her for a while. Despite the steady drizzle, she doesn’t move.
i watch her for about 20 minutes, during which time she only once suddenly brushes water from her face; otherwise she is as stone. Before this gesture i wondered firstly if she was a statue, then if she was physically there, since no one else so much as glanced at her. If she had been there for at least three hours, immobile, then i suppose she was meditating. An odd place to do it, though she had a nice view from her perch.
i leave Trinity and see the large Heffer’s bookstore, where i had bought two books on my last trip, in 1996/7 (Carlos Castaneda’s Journey to Ixtlan, and Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus). i buy postcards of Camus and Kafka, 1 pound each. Later, i note Kafka’s asymmetrical eyes, like mine, and wonder if one eye was long or short-sighted (mine are both, the left short and the right long).
A few people look at me curiously, in shops or on the street. In Sainsbury’s i affect not to notice a woman in the queue staring at me in apparent fascination. When i return to my room i see my hair has curled up into devil horns, once more.
i carefully subdue the horns.