January and the mornings get lighter. January and most days here near the coast the air is clear and now, just a month past the solstice, it’s just about light at half-past five. Just.
A girl stood in the door of the staff room, grinning and half-laughing, unable to really believe what had happened when she opened the letter from UCAS; an offer from Cambridge. I don’t know if she knows how much the rest of her life is going to change.
But I remember this time. Interview time. I went all over. Warwick. Brighton. Goldsmith’s in Virginia Waters. Sheffield. Southampton. It was always cold, it was always somewhere I’d never been. It was always somewhere I went on my own to, by train. I wouldn’t have had it any other way.
Goldsmiths was a farce. Because my school was a bit useless and because the internet wasn’t even a twinkle in Tim Berners-Lee’s eye, I hadn’t any clue that Goldsmith’s English course back then was heavily, loony-tunes religious. I couldn’t then and don’t now understand why the question “Are you a practising Christian?” has any place in an interview for an English degree, any more than I later understood the question “Who do you know in advertising?” when I was trying to be an account exec. at BMP. The phrase “WTUF?” hadn’t been invented then. Pity.
I walked back to the station in the fading light, past the pub with a Ferrari parked in the car-park, too young, too dim to realise that it almost certainly wasn’t the landlord’s but a rich drunk’s, left there the night before. I was amazed. The past is a different country. Coming from Trowbridge, then home of Bowyers pork pies and Ushers brewery, Virginia Waters was, too.
Falmer was no better. Brighton didn’t want me there under any circumstances whatsoever, either to do Psychology the first time I tried nor to do English and American Studies the second. I’d read no Melville, way too much Kerouac and not enough Hemingway and I hadn’t yet met the friend who blagged her way through an entire degree with the fictional Hemingway all-purpose quote: “That is the way it is in the mountains.” Far from any mountains, I posed on the train, looking out the window at the Kaakinen-designed halls of residence so derided in The History Man with my big boots and copy of AE Coppard’s Dusky Ruth. In my combat jacket. Over my black velvet jacket. Since you ask. It was freezing.
I don’t know if the mountains thing would have helped. What didn’t was me almost laughing out loud that the alleged American Studies expert had never heard of Horace Greeley. I mean, seriously? The father of American journalism? The man who gave up his desk job and wrote about the ’49 goldfields? The man who coined the phrase “Go West young man?” But you’re fine to teach English and American Studies. Oh, ok. “FFS” hadn’t been invented either.
They should have let me in just for attitude, but as Bruce Springsteen put it:
Maybe you got a nice car, Maybe you got a pretty wife. Well mister, all I got is attitude. And I had it all of my life.
Except attitude wasn’t all I had. I had a friend in Sheffield, my best friend of all, the one I met when I was seventeen on a school trip to Dorchester, who I spent hours on the phone with last night. So I went to see her when I was up in Sheffield that snowy January, doing an interview to do Experimental Psychology which would have meant playing with monkeys instead of working with them. I don’t know how my life would have been different if I’d done that. There was snow head-height in Sheffield that winter. My friend transferred her Law degree to Cardiff, after almost deciding to quit altogether. We bought Ronnie Lane’s Slim Chance LP off a record shop stall in the street. Record shops. That’s how long ago it was. They do things differently there.
But that January feeling, with the world still cold but opening up, getting bigger every single day, that’s still there. This time before the flowers are out. Everything’s still growing. There’s everything still to play for.