Don's Diary

February 28, 1997

Week one

Have spent the end of last term and the Christmas holidays writing reports, notes, lesson plans, work schedules, mock exam papers - and I am exhausted. The groves of academe have signalled most attractively. Intend to spend nine glorious weeks sitting in libraries quaffing great draughts of Cambridge learning during the day, and great draughts of Cambridge sherry during the evening. Cold, grey Sunday, two days before the official start of term. Arrive in Cambridge, check in at the Porter's Lodge at the college. Rather startling modern building whose large dome (housing the dining hall, not the reading room) makes the college look like an observatory.

Get keys for room, which is in a house occupied by postgrads over the road. Cold, grey room, part of an extension at the back of the house. Sealed-up French windows, through which may be seen a wintry garden and a Sainsbury's trolley. However, it has its own loo - joy. Others in the house are quiet, friendly souls. Not many all-night rave-ups then. My partner, who has driven me up, has to go home and I feel vaguely abandoned and a bit old for student life. Over the next few days I am surprised how much I miss work. No one demanding things of me, no deadlines to meet, no young people trying out their burgeoning personalities on me for size. Sense of identity in danger of disappearing. I venture into the college to see if I really exist. Talks with the bursar and librarian make me feel better.

Judging from the abstracted, preoccupied faces of fellows as they gather over the next few days, the term gets under way as terms anywhere do - with that stomach-knotting awareness of tasks left undone, and a vague sense of impending doom. Meanwhile, parents have been returning undergraduates, clutching boxes of books, spider plants, clothes, posters, - no doubt with an equally mixed set of emotions. Lunching at High Table is an interesting experience. Some of the topics of conversation are familiar - how to attract good students, how to raise money - but generally conversation is about everyday, insider topics, and redolent of research-and-publish pressures. However, the food is bountiful, if fattening. No sherry-quaffing, though. Shame.

Week two

Cannot get over how cold the weather is. The Cam is still iced over in places and on Wednesday there is a deep, white fog everywhere. Not the best of days to visit Cambridge, but I am becoming more familiar with the town, which, while it is not London, does undoubtedly have some things to offer. Like a decent Marks and Spencer and a John Lewis store. The town seems a gentle, very English place, a mixture of mediaevalism and the motorcar.

Students are everywhere, polite, intelligent, friendly young people recognisable to any teacher as Oxbridge students. A white-coated decorator sent to varnish my (fireproof) door tells me: "Course, the university owns most of Cambridge, and loads of farmland round about. You'll see, the college will buy up all the houses along this road, so's they can expa-a-nd." Suddenly I realise what Cambridge reminds me of:feudalism. Try the idea out for size at High Table at lunch. "I gather the university owns most of Cambridge," I say. "Well, Trinity does," comes the reply, "and half of central London too." "Bit like a fiefdom, really, isn't it?" But that does not go down too well.

Week three

Everybody keeps asking me what I am doing here. Came with the idea of doing 14th-century poetry, but the prospect of starting from scratch on my own does not appeal. Desperately try writing a short story. Start it Monday lunchtime, finish it Tuesday afternoon, throw it away Wednesday morning. Invitation to dinner from one of the older colleges to meet other Schoolteacher Commoner fellows and invited heads of schools. At last will get to see medieval Cambridge from inside. Only woman there. Sit next to Very Important Fellow who looks as though he has stepped out of a C. P. Snow novel: white-haired, fragile, deferential, classicist. Adopt a special tone of voice, so as not to damage him. Ask scientist on the other side about girls doing physics. 'Well, they come up with better GCSE results than the boys, and I gather they are getting better at A levels, but once they're here, they're destroyed." He gestures, expansively. "Very few girls get firsts." Am rather shocked by his smugness. Glad one of our girls turned down a Cambridge physics offer this year.

Week four

Strange how difficult it is to get writing again. Everything I put on paper looks absolute rubbish. Pen has trouble getting from start of line to end. Thoughts clog up. View out of college library windows fascinating. Moat, green spaces, trees, squirrels. Since my foray into medieval Cambridge, this place seems very attractive. White, open, uncluttered. Modern paintings donated by women artists cover a lot of public space. Formal Hall is buzzing this week, with young people clutching bottles of wine and eyeing each other up. Must invite all my Old Girls for a get-together here. Despite lack of progress, am enjoying just sitting in a library reading and writing again. Beats marking third-year comprehensions any day.

Gillian Sharpe

English teacher at Croydon High School and this year's Schoolteacher Commoner Fellow at New Hall, Cambridge.

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