I sat on the top deck of the bus as it made its way through Cambridge yesterday. I love viewing things from above street level, you see so much more.
To me it’s something of a schizophrenic city: ugly and beautiful, affluent and impoverished, and I’ve known it for a long time. I went to the art school there in the early ‘80s, just as Ronald Searle and Syd Barrett had before me. I should’ve had a good time back then but I think I was struggling with my own version of duality. On the one hand I craved independence, on the other I was immature and naïve. I didn’t finish the course and even when I was there I frequently disappeared (on the premise of drawing but rarely doing so). I took long walks down the less than salubrious back streets, preferring to rummage through piles of junk in the rather sleazy second-hand shops of the old Mill Road (I remember one shop where they seemed to specialise in guitars and porn!) over any wanders amid the more boastful facades of the famous university buildings.
Thirty years later, Mill Road has been regenerated but Cambridge’s better known historic heart now seems a little smaller against the new high-rises of its infills and outskirts, especially those I passed on the bus yesterday. These are now the boastful buildings, boasting of their modernity, their convenience for the commuter trains into London and their proximity to cultural treasures. Yet their windows look out onto congested main roads, industrial estates and multistorey car parks.
The bus stopped by one very new, grey, angular block, so far uninhabited by the look of it. Lined up on the inner sills of two of its large windows were dozens of empty beer, spirits and wine bottles. It was as if this building's mask of pristine sobriety had been betrayed by a secret binge drinker and it seemed to me like an abstract symbol of the whole city’s dichotomy. I wish I’d taken a photo.
Anyway, in spite of an odd ambivalence I have about the place it was still good to be in Cambridge. I was there to have lunch with some people I worked with years ago. On the face of it they may seem an unlikely group for me to know and we probably don’t have much in common on any deep level. But there are two extra factors that turn these reunions into a bit of a tonic for me too: the fact that I’m the youngest - and that I’m female!
Older men – well, certainly these ones, who have sailed the high seas in their former lives as ship captains and engineers – know how to make a woman like me feel good about herself! Never mind that I’m now heading towards the open jowly jaws of fifty, my companions will always have ten years and more on me. They are jolly and charming and even if we don’t share political views or lifestyles their company is pleasant and easy for a couple of hours. When I walk in to the restaurant I’m immediately boosted by their convivial greetings. There are jokes about who’s going to get the first hug and I jest back, with a confidence I didn’t even know I had, that they should form an orderly queue. Soft kisses on cheeks are exchanged alongside the “You’re looking well!”s. I must admit it feels lovely to face a roomful of cuddly chaps with arms outstretched. Please don’t tell me there is anything sexist about this - it’s just sweet and warm. For a few hours I feel more feminine and youthful than I have in ages, even if it’s only comparitively, because older men like these seem to have a knack for emphasising it, in the nicest and most harmlessly flirtatious way. Age and time become warped in their company - warped in my favour - and I’m not complaining. Lunch was good too.
On the way back to the bus stop I’m shown the rather bizarre Corpus Clock. Time is also warped by this striking piece of chronographic sculpture featuring a wonderfully creepy metallic locust. There are no hands or numbers on this clock, instead the time is displayed by blue lights shining through slits in its bright golden face. The locust sits atop it, rocking back and forth, occasionally blinking and moving its mouth, as if eating up the seconds as they pass (to quote Wikipedia). The clock’s creator, John Taylor, calls this creature the Chronophage – literally ‘time eater’ in ancient Greek. Apparently he deliberately designed it to be “terrifying” – a way of reminding us of the inevitable passing of time. “Basically I view time as not on your side,” he says. “He’ll eat up every minute of your life, and as soon as one has gone he’s salivating for the next.”
Ironically perhaps too, the clock is only absolutely accurate once in every five minutes. Sometimes the pendulum seems to stop, the lights lag behind and then race to catch up. Like life, it’s erratic and irregular, occasionally disturbing yet compelling. It kind of sums up my experience of Cambridge yesterday, the contrast of splendour and ugliness, my feeling of youthfulness - in spite of the reality of my middle age - against my fellow diners. Maybe it’s not just beauty, but time and age too, that are in the eye of the beholder?
View full screen and let him mesmerise you...