“Bulldozed History”

A poem by Roger Stennett (Christ’s, CUAC, 1969-72)


Inside the main Gate
Time changed.
The Chapel clock
With golden numerals
Seemed to tick
More slowly there
Maybe 17th century pace
The Roman clock face
As seen by Milton years before
When he walked the Courtyards
‘The Lady of Christ’s’
An unflattering soubriquet
For one destined for poetic greatness.

Welsh Grammar School lad
Glad to have been accepted
But slightly mad at the magnificence
Of Cambridge. Centuries in the making
With its languid sense of easy entitlement
Just because it had stood Time’s test.
Mums and dads who chauffeured us
Gone back home to their empty nests
We ‘Freshers’ wandered Petty Cury
Like headless chickens, looking hard
For Woolworths’ and toasting forks.
And then, to close our outer door
And so ‘sport the oak’. We had arrived.

Frantic first week for me. Changing
My degree five times, only to arrive
Where I’d first started. Monday morning.
Three years lay ahead of me. Of us
For now, friends started to coalesce
And we became a seven strong
‘Band of Brothers’ to sail the seas
Together. Largely uncomplaining.
Two dead, now. We ‘Famous Five’
Walk a little more serenely and sedately
Avoiding cracks between paving stones.
Girlfriends ‘back home’ we grew familiar
With modern monasticism. Single sex then.

Tutorials. Supervisions.
‘Exeats’ to get a weekend home.
Formal Hall in dusty academic gowns
For ‘Servant’ served Dinner. Latin Grace
And mellow Port, passed to the left.
The Master and assorted Fellows
On High Table. Trying to ignore us
We lesser mortals, down below.
Ancient oil paintings on Hall walls
Reflecting back gentle candlelight
And wondering if we had a shilling
For the Gas Fire to cheat winter winds.
Targeted gusts blown in from The Urals.

Girls were another matter, altogether.
A sex ratio of 10 : 1, and that fair one
Was clearly very busy, stroking egos
(And whatever else came to hand)
We ‘young gentlemen’ were self-sufficient
In most things, in those single sex days.
We slept in regulation narrow beds
And each morning, at an unseemly hour,
Late Middle Aged ladies burst in on you.
The ‘Bedders’ were the college KGB
Come to see that you were quiescent
And all on your own. Then to flick a duster
And straighten out tossed-off bedclothes.

Then suddenly it was Summer time
And on ‘The Backs’ the river beckoned.
The serene ‘Cam’ and poling a Punt
From Silver Street down to ‘The Mill’
And, in a perfect world, accompanied
By a long-haired lovely. Student or local
Maybe serenading with Beatles Melodies
Before taking Tea on King’s Parade
And maybe ‘a quiet lie down’
On top, or underneath, in your room.
We became masters of the arts
Of carnal gymnastics. Stood all of us
In good standing for adulthood to come.

Then the year was over. Three terms
Of just eight weeks had flown by
And I was packing my metal trunk
To be stored up in a lumber room
So College could rent my space
To Barbarian hoards of Americans
Seeking ‘The Cambridge experience’
While we lived at home, rent free,
With ‘familiar strangers’. Mum and dad
The Michaelmas Term came round again
But now, no longer new, we unpacked
And strutted courtyards, like Second Years
We ‘meant business’ . Battle hardened.

The little matter of Tripos Examinations
We’re ‘a necessary evil’. Apart from them
Drinks in the Buttery. May Balls in June
And Sherry Parties, with The Master,
Filled our Heffer’s bookshop pocket diaries
Until one day in summer, two more years
Elapsed, Punting wasn’t an answer anymore
But packing up three years of memories
And waiting for our mummies and daddies
To take us ‘home’ again. Older and ‘wiser’
And more hirsute, we disappeared overnight
Like migrating birds, bound for Africa.
And that was that. Except that it wasn’t.

For ‘old memories’ still linger
On the Stairway in Third Court
And I have never managed
Quite to close the outer door
Or successfully ‘sport my oak’
To the boy, who became a man there,
In my single-bedded College room
In growing gloom of Cambridge twilight
As the street lamps came on early
Illuminating medieval ‘Petty Cury’
Though it, like me, disappeared
Decades ago. Bulldozed History.
My fond and foolish ‘Cantab’ memories.