It’s been a while since I could think of something to write here that wouldn’t be all political (perhaps urging white supremacists to go away before they achieve the exact opposite of their aims, or threatening to tar the entire right wing with one brush if they’re going to do it to the left), or expressing worries about my job status or ability to visit my folks in Worthing — but perhaps these serve as a reminder to not waste time, and to (at least try to) enjoy life while you can, or at least gain experiences you can tell to others.
I’ve had to say goodbye to a friend I made online, but who’s had to return to her own Far Eastern country (no, not China), in part because the current coronavirus crisis means she’d be unlikely at best to get a job as a teacher here, the ones we have barely hanging on. We connected through a dating app, but couldn’t meet in person back in March when the lockdown began — not least because she wasn’t here in London, but out in one of the Home Counties… at the very university where I spent three non-consecutive years of my life!
We’ve spent ages e-mailing each other (after having chatted through the app, and then texting), and have thus formed a strong bond, which hopefully will persist across eight timezones; I’d wanted to visit her at my alma mater, so I could both meet her in person and see the old homestead at the same time. Back in March she was happy for this to happen, but when I felt just off-colour enough to worry about needing self-isolation (which I didn’t), I had to postpone the trip — and then non-essential public transport and meetings for people not in the same households were clamped down upon.
Fortunately, thanks to the recent gradual reduction in lockdown, I was able to go and see her after all at the weekend, and despite the twisted operations of public transport at the moment (having to change on both South-Western Trains and the Northern Line, both ways!), I got to the old town just fine. No, we didn’t hug, just in case (except at the very end of the day, risking arrest), but we walked together and spoke to each other for ages, despite the dismal and changeable weather.
(Fitbit clocked me at over 20,000 steps for the day, rivalling my visit to an earlier homestead last year!)
The off-campus house where I lived in my sophomore year has certainly been done up, the windows at the front lo longer dating back to the reign of Queen Victoria (blimey, it was cold in the winter of 1997-8, especially thanks to electric-only heating and a “leccy” meter under the stairs!), but somehow I knew the way to the back entrance of campus, to which I’d walked or (from 1998) cycled many a time… but no, it was locked, so we went the long way round and up the hill via the main road.
We walked onto campus, albeit not via the main entrance, and far more quickly than I expected (almost as though I’m somehow taller now than I was at the age of 18-22), we came upon the building where we’d both studied in different decades (me geology, her geography), which hadn’t changed at all. The whole campus was deserted, but I saw places both familiar and unfamiliar — most notably, the building where I’d lived in my freshman year, 1996-7, had been long-since demolished (apparently it was so disliked that there’s literally one picture of it on the entire Internet, and it’s older than me), along with the surrounding building complex where I had to endure the catering.
In a strange way, I almost missed being there, despite the obnoxious drunken noises every night ruining my sleeping pattern, and really obnoxious students (from another floor, or even another building) destroying our kitchen, as well as making me worry for my safety at times.
But still, it was my first time away from home, and so that building will always have a certain place in my heart — not least due to listening to Capital Gold every day (before I had anything to play CDs on), with Mike Osman in the mornings and Caesar the Geezer on nights.
I also saw the the flimsy prefab between that and the geology/geography building had been demolished and replaced as well, so I wouldn’t have been able to sneak in there to view the Internet late at night anyway…
(You know why — satisfying my desires (or trying to), fighting an e-mail war with my equally-nerdy friend, playing Quake or Duke Nukem 3D deathmatches, downloading abandonware to run on my Amstrad… and, on very rare occasions, doing actual degree coursework!)
Seeing the exterior and (naughtily, during the lockdown) interior of the great old building, the most famous on campus, also brought back memories — not least, wondering if I was anywhere near the office of the lady with the Scottish Play surname who was organising my student exchange with an American university in 1998. Nothing was open (including the chapel where I heard friends recording songs, or the art gallery where we took some of our exams), but I saw the lobby of the medical wing, to which I’d gone in my first week due to developing a bad back — and I swear it was at that set of tables in one of the courtyards, where we sat to talk and eat our College Shop-bought lunch, that 24 years earlier I’d chatted to some other students early in my freshman year, after the first proper Latin-American dance class I ever took…
We also visited my slightly off-campus hall of residence from my senior year, which was put back to 1999-2000 due to my time abroad, crossing the road bridge that didn’t seem to have been cleaned or repainted over the past 20 years, and I saw my old room from outside — where I got my first ever PC delivered, and thus spent my final time at university, er, listening Capital Gold (Mike Sweeney and his annoying catchphrases in the evenings), finally collecting music CDs (thanks to my PC’s, er, cupholder), and obsessively playing video games (Duke Nukem 3D and Tomb Raider especially) at the expense of expanding my knowledge of anything useful, though at least I got a 2:1 for my Geology BSc in the end (possibly due to a caffeine-fuelled all-nighter to finish a project in March 2000).
Before we could visit my old town centre, however, we went on what turned out to be a very, very long diversion to see a monument by the river, and ended up walking along a camping area beside a main road, towards an area whose toilets, much to my concern, turned out to be closed due to the lockdown! (Fortunately she was willing to organise an Uber back to the train station, where they let us use the facilities!) I’ll never forget, though, thinking I saw something familiar among the trees atop the hill across the road, even though I’d never been to that RAF monument, and probably never been driven along that exact road by my mother, or my grandfather on interview day in 1995.
(Then again, without licence plate recognition cameras or recorded GPS data from a 21st-century smartphone, who knows which way we drove?)
And, finally, before we said goodbye at the station, it’s worth mentioning what, in the town centre, reminded me of events in 1997: I found the exact optician where I got my first pair of glasses early in the year, I saw the Somerfield where I worked in the summer and autumn (having already moved into that 2nd-year house) is now a Tesco, and I realised with delight that, on a corner near the station, the dreadful shop of a famous American chain (later renamed Budgens) had been demolished, after having been so hot during that scorching summer that all their chocolate bars had melted!
I’ll talk more about my female friend another time, as we intend to stay in touch online, in the hope that one day either (a) she can come back here, or (b) I can go visit her there; for now, I just want to think about the time I spent at that university, in that tiny town in Surrey (no, it wasn’t the University of Surrey!), and how quickly those years feel like they went by in my life, despite not feeling particularly rushed at the time. That’s just the way, isn’t it? When it’s a fixed amount of time, somehow it still seems to extend into infinity, and when one year’s over, there’s still another couple to go, but then suddenly the end comes towards you, with nothing visible lying beyond it…
(On the other hand, the time I spent living with my folks in Worthing, saving up for a postgrad course, was originally supposed to be one or two years, but ended up as three!)
No, I didn’t exactly enjoy every minute of my three years as an undergrad (or my year away, either in America or staying in Woking with my housesitting mother), thanks to the drunk yobs, the difficulty of understanding my subject, the sleepless nights, the utter lack of nice girls who were (a) approachable and (b) single, the monetary worries (even in the days of the student grant and my family being financially solvent) — and in the year away, failing in the one big romance of my life, arguing with my roommate (though he took me into his family), and coming back to England feeling like it was a little too soon.
Nonetheless, my limited time at that institution was to be savoured, and I’ve thus felt a certain envy towards my new friend having been there (not to mention “female best friend” studying for her Ph.D in Sheffield a decade ago). It’s all ephemeral, and not just endless drawn-out days of the same thing — like, well, working in a permanent job and paying monthly rent, which feels a lot less thrilling than university…
— — —
Having said that, late last year (long before the lockdown), I went to weekly Latin-American dance classes in the Seven Sisters area (same teacher as in previous years, but yet another new venue) — and, recognising the area, decided one night that I’d walk back to the street in Wood Green where I lived, after my postgrad course and until moving into Caledonian Road, with “female best friend”, “good housemate” (not that he always was, obviously!), and briefly “other female best friend”, and thus, after a long walk, saw my old stomping ground near Turnpike Lane, including the path I took to the Tube station every morning from September 2005 onwards, and even the route along which I trundled a new (well, second-hand) computer chair from down in West Green.
While that house had similar flaws to my sophomore one (single-glazed windows in my room, and a “leccy” meter which we could only see if we stood on chairs), and I had a job I grew to hate in late 2004, and spent the summer of 2005 unemployed and worrying about rent (albeit with a relatively cheerful job in between, and guaranteed family support), I still feel a certain nostalgia about it — perhaps because it’s where I really got into learning Japanese and watching non-dubbed Japanese anime (which “female best friend” enjoyed watching with me), and built my first decent PC?