Friday, 12 April 2013

Cambridge, older men and a curious clock

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...

18 comments:

  1. Amazing clock, and sounds like lunch was fun too ;o) I haven't been on a bus for years, I always found the motion rocked me into a weird semi-tranclike state, especially when upstairs. Cities are fascinating places to view from the top deck of a bus.

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    1. Yes, that clock - everyone should have one!
      I like bus travel...luckily I seem to avoid the trancelike state although I do get so lost in being an observer that I have to remember not to miss my stop...
      I find it fascinating way to travel, though don't do it very often these days. From the top deck of buses in Cambridge I've seen posters on bedroom walls, shoes on roofs and glimpses of back gardens that I'd never otherwise have noticed. Love it!

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  2. We spent a day in Cambridge last summer - a typically English summer day where, quite suddenly, the rain lashed down to such an extent that it quickly became a pointless exercise to try and find cover, as it got to the stage where we couldn't possibly be any wetter. Within half an hour we were strolling around Coe Fen, gently steaming in the searing heat of the bright sunshine in a clear blue sky! I noted the Corpus Clock during the height of the downpour, but didn't pause to investigate further - fascinating!

    A beautifully written piece C. I've been ruminating on aging and the passing of time myself lately. You've given me more food for thought.

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    1. Your weather experience seems to sum up Cambridge too! It always seems to be a little more extreme, either very windy, very rainy or very sunny (and often all in one day!) Must be something to do with all that flat terrain against the Gog Magog hills (always loved that name...)
      So glad you enjoyed the piece. Don't go spending TOO much time thinking about the passing of time, or it will pass even more quickly ;-)

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    1. What a lovely thing to say! Thank you :-)

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  4. Such a warm scene C.

    I've been to Cambridge on a bus once...from the Air Force base at Mendenhall. I guess I got out around the train station (I was going on to London). It was a pleasant commercial area. If my memory is correct.

    You couldn't be more right about the late teens/early twenties. It seems like something cringe worthy from that time will cross my mind at least once a week.

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  5. Thanks, e.f. It's nice to think of you being on a bus in Cambridge too! Maybe all cities are mixed up really, the world over, but Cambridge (and Oxford too, from a brief stay I had there) seem to have this big reputation for elegance and refinement which is greatly at odds with some of the more gritty reality. (Whereas London, well I don't know but it seems to me that London doesn't pretend to be anything more or less than it is, and I like it warts'n'all.)

    I wasn't really ready for the big wide world in my late teens. I cringe too. Happy to hear about your more cringe-worthy moments if you should ever feel inclined...!

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  6. If you knew how hard it was to make me cringe...you wouldn't ask such a thing :).

    Yale looks like a movie set for a generic idea of Cambridge University. When I got there they dragged the new students out for a night on the town. There were a group of British kids and they complained bitterly about how nothing looked American...they'd seen all this crap before. Ha. We passed some old beat up building with white columns and they all stopped the entire group so they could stare at it.

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    1. Haha, I think I get that! (And will we get to read more about Yale some time? Yale!)

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  7. When my chum and co-New Romantic J got her first car - a nifty blue Triumph Spitfire, can you imagine? - we used to nip up and down the then-new M25 from the mean streets of our East London/Essex hinterland, to leafy Cambridge. As we drove through the narrow streets, marvelling at the architecture, the little car must have looked like a large bag of hair had exploded inside it. Well, it WAS 1981. The song below will always take me straight back there, peering out through the inevitably rain-streaked windscreen.

    And thank you for your observations on the pleasures of gentle, inter-generational flirtation. I'm not averse to it myself.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Uy9XyBV0lkk

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    1. What a lovely image: a Spitfire full of New Romantic hair on Trumpington Street! Depeche Mode go with it very well and yes, the rain-streaked windscreen is not hard to believe.

      Glad you understand those pleasures too - I'm looking forward to next year's 'reunion' already, if only for a little fix of flirtatious ego-boosting ;-)

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  8. Lovely piece!

    Like you I was not ready for the world either or perhaps the world was not ready for me. It kind of shrugged and ignored me. Perhaps I did not have the right badges on my jacket. :)

    The clock is truly creepy but fascinating

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    1. Thanks, bena48. I'm happy to believe that the world was just not ready for you ;-)

      The clock is worth watching for a longer number of minutes than I had spare that day (I just love the way the Chronophage blinks and moves his mouth, he's very compelling) so I'll make sure I make more time for it on my next visit. It seems apt that it deserves to steal even more seconds of my life!



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  9. Time is indeed a voracious eater of life isn't it...

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  10. Yep - its appetite knows no bounds...!

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  11. That clock is quite wonderful, in a scary way. I know exactly what you mean about the need to feel younger but I cannot recall having the opportunity to do so of late (perhaps men never find themselves in the same position?). My youngest cub reminded me only too well yesterday of the reality of age when I took off my jumper to reveal my new British Sea Power t-shirt. Initially she said I looked younger with the wooly off but explained that it was the shirt distracting her from my wrinkles and receding hairline. At that moment I felt like reaching for my pipe and slippers and just giving up.

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  12. Ah, from the mouths of babes, eh?! It's all relative I guess, you're still a mere lad to the 80-year old down the road :-)

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