There was a really lovely piece about Cambridge by Patrick Barkham in the Guardian this week, though. I went to Oxford, not Cambridge, but much of what he described was very familiar, how alien it all seemed, the beauty and the grandeur and the oddity, the brash groups of public schoolboys radiating entitlement, the freaks, the pockets of normality. Then I read an interview in Vogue with Rebecca Hall on the train talking about how she had forged intensely intimate and lasting friendships when she was at Cambridge. They were wound, she said, into the fabric of her life. Many - most, even - of my friends feel the same about their university years.
I wasn't happy at Oxford. I still feel viscerally uncomfortable going back there, the sun catching some ancient piece of honey stone, a chilly autumn morning with flotillas of bikes bowling along the High Street, those improbably perfect lawns, leave a hard stone of sadness in my chest. I remember it as one of the hardest and loneliest times of my life and it's strange because I can see now, could even see then, that there was much I should have absolutely loved about it. The company of clever, funny people; the extraordinary history of the place, the tolerance, encouragement even, of eccentricity, the peerless resources for finding out about pretty much anything you could wish. Why didn't it work? What went wrong?
I always used to attribute that to being in a long distance relationship. I was disappearing every weekend to take the ferry to Normandy, or to pick the CFO up from Heathrow, queueing for hours in the evenings to squabble on a public phone in a corridor with him (ah, youth of today, you will never know the peculiar brand of homicidal despair that sets in as you queue behind some garrulous girl with an extended family and a seemingly inexhaustible phonecard, or the strange frustration of watching your credit tick away as you both sulk, silently, absurdly, on either end of an international line). He was insecure about me, I was defensive and frustrated, we were miserable. We fought constantly, cried, hurt each other. Then from the end of my first year, I was ill, bald, shell-shocked, making trips to the hospital in London and to the shrink, taking drugs I couldn't drink with, drugs that made me fat. In my third year, the CFO got skin cancer and needed surgery. It was, unquestionably, tricky. I have often, glibly, credited my degree to Prozac, and I do think I would not have survived, succeeded, without it.
Recently, though, I have come to the realisation that I might not have managed to be happy there even if circumstances had been different. And, though there is much you could criticise in Oxford, I think now that my unhappiness was largely my own fault. Quite simply, I didn't have a propensity for happiness then. I wasn't even trying to be happy, or content. I wanted to be interesting, exotic, different. My model of relationships was based on 37, 2°, my model of higher education The Secret History. I was, to put it mildly, an idiot. I feel rather sad, and even more exasperated, when I think of my younger self. I put a lot of time and energy into looking chic and aloof - all Agnès b and Gauloises, French boyfriend, car, frequent absences - and none into being content, or making friends. It seems so sad, in retrospect, such a waste. I can count on the fingers of one hand the parties I went to in three years. Imagine! Little surprise, then, that I made few friends, or that even fewer have survived. I wouldn't have wanted to be friends with my 21 year old self. I was wary, defensive and sad; risk averse and no fun whatsoever.
God knows, it was a peculiar place though, brittle and unforgiving in parts; a place of terrible food, non-existent pastoral care and intellectual machismo, of four flights of stairs to the nearest loo and feeding the college vegan "Champignons à la grècque" (aka a small finger bowl of shrunken, brined mushrooms, like something from one of Ramses II's smaller organ jars) four times a week for three years. I had some spectacularly unsympathetic tutors, one of whom still haunts my dreams occasionally. I just looked her up and could not suppress a shudder at the photograph. "X is keen on introducing undergraduates to medieval and early modern history" says her biography, blandly. Well, yes. If by "introducing", you mean "inducing a profound phobia of all things medieval into a generation of unsuspecting youths, using a combination of scorn and arbitrary terror". I only rebelled once in her tutorial, refusing to read an essay, mutinous and tearful, but it was talked of in hushed tones by my contemporaries for the remainder of our course. Others were a pure delight, urbane and funny and kind as well as breathtakingly clever - Ruth Harris I completely adored, Martin Conway, Leslie Mitchell. Brilliant was more or less a given (with the exception of a couple of retirement candidates for whom the college system operated as subisdised sheltered housing), but kindness was far rarer and more precious.
It was odd, too, to be in a place where people fought over books, hid them, scrambled for attention. To be among people who were not only clever, but who made no attempt to hide it, to dissimulate, to pretend not to care, should have been a wonderful thing, but I found it alarming. "Hard work was fetishised" says the Guardian piece. It was, I think, at my college too, and I didn't know how to deal with that. Join in? That didn't quite fit with the idiotic persona I was so intent on constructing, but I was too beadily competitive not to want to do well. My first year was a terrifying scramble, always too late for the critical textbook, or the vital article that could only be found in some far flung basement library in Summertown, and my second passed in a fog of tricyclic antidepressants, swimming through treacle to go and sit, dreamily, in the history faculty library as the dense print of journal articles on the cabinets of Queen Anne jiggled around on the page in front of me. I was not as good as I knew I could be, should be, and it scared me. In my final year only - thanks, as I say, to the power of Prozac - I think I got some clarity and focus back, studied things that actually fascinated me, regained a degree of mental agility, found some intellectual confidence. I wrote about non-conformism in the eighteenth century, about fin de siècle, about the art and literature of collaboration, found an outlet for my galloping francophilia.
But even then I had a tiny, dull, life. I remember watching other people covetously, enviously, as I sat in libraries or walked through college, fascinated by their rhythms, the comings and goings of their friends, their bags of crisps and cans of Coke, riotous laughter, stories of parties or punting. I made watery porridge in the microwave every morning at 7 while I took my shower, worked all day, breaking for something small and virtuous to eat, came back to my prettily decorated and desperately quiet room, prepared myself minutely calibrated meals of vegetables which I wrote down in immaculate writing for my shrink, called the CFO, read a novel, slept early and long, wore earplugs on weekends for the inevitable noise of festivities. It was a half life, a quarter life, a terrible waste.
So. I went to Oxford and I got a great degree. I think I earned it; I worked and thought hard for it. But at the same time I missed out fundamentally, wretchedly, stupidly in my years there. Meeting people now who have forged something far warmer and more lasting than a piece of paper from their time at university makes me terribly wistful. I try terribly hard now not to repeat that particular brand of idiocy. I found a photograph of my pretty final year room recently. I came fairly high in the ballot, which allows you to choose your room, and mine was large, and light. The photo shows my bookshelves, carefully chosen mugs, a Nabis exhibition poster, Keith Vaughan pencil sketch, a bunch of crimson parrot tulips, a tiny kilim, a pretty bedspread. All outwardly lovely. But looking at it I remember how utterly lonely that room was too. I think I'll pin the photo up somewhere to remind me to embrace the chaos and live a little.
Did anyone else mess up their university years as badly as me? Best years of your life, or utter ratshit? I'd love to hear.