Nearly half a century ago, the literary critic, philosopher and socialist Raymond William was asked to write an essay for a volume entitled “My Cambridge.” If you do manage to get hold of the book – extremely difficult these days, as it is out of print, and also largely not worth reading – you’ll find yourself a number of wistful, gently-humored, sepia tinted memoirs from old Cambridge students. They underline the impression that Cambridge is what we’ve always wanted it to be; a golden, academic utopia, a place of scholars on spindly bikes, grand old colleges, rigorous intellectual discussions, and long, lazy summer days spent drifting towards Grantchester on a punt. It is, therefore, to Raymond Williams credit that his contribution is the most balanced, thoughtful and human, and begins with the line: “It was never my Cambridge. That was clear from the start.”
The essay, which you can read courtesy of yours truly, here , is not what I’m going to focus on. Instead, I want to talk about “my” Cambridge, and more specifically, about why, after nearly six years, I am running for my life.
There’s too much to be written about my own experiences of Cambridge to fit into a solitary blog post. Perhaps that is a project for another day, and best written when at some measure of critical distance. Cambridge is still raw for me, and I imagine will remain so for most of my life. I have never felt particularly safe here; partially, this was because of the whole sale rupture of the trajectory I had mapped out for my life. At the age of 18, I knew that I was going to read (why it is called ‘read’ in the Cambridge lingo and not ‘study’ is beyond me) English. I would focus on modernism, particularly the work of that great grey patriarch of early 20th Century poetry, T.S. Eliot, a man who has never really left my side since I first stumbled across “The Love Song of J.Alfred Prufrock” aged 17, and who is now, quite literally, under my skin in the form of a sleeve tattoo based on that poem. I would stay on for a Masters; proceed to Doctoral study, and then aim to take up a lectureship, and occupy whatever idealised place I had created in my mind and labelled “the life in academia.” But things changed. I became radicalised during the student protests of 2010, because suddenly very aware of the realities of gender politics and sexual power, and then found myself a sociologist, trying to understand gender violence in the same socialist movements I had once committed myself too. I have spent, now, almost six years here, and have taken a BA, and MPhil, and also worked as a student union officer and college staff member. I have, in other words, seen Cambridge from all sides, first as an undergraduate, then as a full time activist, then as a postgraduate, and lastly, as a staff member, and I have never been entirely comfortable with what I saw.
But discomfort does not result in fear. And as I gear up to move on, it is fear which is the dominate sensation. I am afraid of Cambridge. My experiences haunt me more so than any past trauma, and it is this fear that motivates me to flee for my life.
Events of the last eighteen months or so have cemented this fear in my mind, making it the foundations upon which every other experience has been built. Eighteen months ago, I was not happy, as such, but in a position of relative security. I had a family of sorts, which I had built up. I had projects, campaigns, a community who provided security, and a plan for how and when I would get out with my head held high. All of that has been stripped away, down to the last detail. I have been left with next to nothing.
A traumatic experience took away my ability to walk for most of the latter part of 2015. I could barely move without the support of stout NHS crutches. The one and a bit mile commute to work was agonising, as were stairs, public transport, and any movement which required the lower half of my body. After years of being plagued by invisible disabilities, I suddenly found myself faced with a very visible one, which, coincidentally I was still accused of faking. Given that I worked with children, being trapped on crutches made my day to day work significantly harder.
On 2nd November, at about 7pm, will wrapped up heavily against the rain and stumbling home from work, a friend approached me. I had hoped for a brief spark of warmth in what had otherwise been a difficult day. Instead, my friend spat in my face, and delivered a kick so vicious that my crutches came away from me and I ended up on my knees, which verbal abuse was poured over me like molten lead. A few days later, while trying to get money out from an ATM on Sidney Street, I again had my crutches kicked away by a friend. Some week after that, I watched the grainy CCTV footage of the incident. It was perhaps the most disturbing thing I’d ever seen.
I avoided leaving my house, except when necessary, for about two months after that.
I reached out to friends, asking for support. Support was promised. Outrage was expressed. Defense was guaranteed. And then, one by one, friends stopped answering my calls. “I know I said that…” became a common refrain. Campaigns ejected me. Projects were taken off my hands, without so much as a by your leave. Work colleagues muttered darkly at me behind my back. People I had known since I was a fresher refused to meet my gaze, and at no point did anyone sit down to ask me how I felt about the matter.
So I turned to alcohol. It’s a common myth that people drink to forget. I drank, instead, to remember, because the present wasn’t really worth living in. In the months from November to present, I had polished off, on average, 8 units a night, almost every night. Wine, whiskey, vodka. I even drank Cointreau on its own when I ran out of the good booze. I lost count of the number of times I woke up, almost choking on my own sick.
I stopped drinking for about eight weeks between May and June, but then went straight back to it, as if welcoming an old friend, back from a long journey. To this day, I still get verbal abuse in the street, on a daily basis. During this period, my own home stopped feeling like a safe place. I had intended to remain in Cambridge until the end of the summer, but when one is afraid of what might happen in one’s own bedroom, you know it is time to bug out.
Everyone reading this has presumably lost something; a parent, a partner, a pet. But to have lost everything in one year – to paraphrase Wilde – is not so much misfortune, or carelessness, as what feels like a deliberate attempt to drive me off the edge of a cliff.
Thus, in August, I shall move to Leeds. I have never been, and I do not know if it will offer any refuge. The lovely, shiny PhD in Gender Studies, via the department of Sociology and Social Policy, at that institution, does not begin until later September. I shall, in all likelihood, sit in a flat without company. That might be a fresh form of hell, were it not for the greater hell I’m trying to escape. I had not evisaged my leaving Cambridge to be like this – I had hoped to walk away with some sense of dignity intact, but at this stage, I’m just happy to be leaving alive. There are, it seems, benefits to running away.