On Cambridge #4: My Top 10 moments, Part 3/3
As the year draws to a close, I decided it'd probably be about time to reminisce while editing the final part of this blog series. Below is the standard indulgent sentimental nonsense I generally put up here. I hope you enjoy!
3. The Night of My First Improv Show - Emma May Ball 2015
I can’t say much about this night, but I can say some things.
It was at Emmanuel May Ball in 2015. The Impronauts were booked in for a 4:30am-5:30am slot – getting a free ticket as part of this. This was going to be my first performance as an Impronaut – doing it at a may ball under these circumstances made me pretty psyched.
The day of the May Ball, someone on the committee tells us we’re cancelled. I, naturally, am fairly gutted. In any case, I make alternate arrangements, and end up arranging an evening with someone I’m seeing.
11:30pm I get a message from one of the Impronauts – we’re un-cancelled. I’m lying in bed, ready to go to sleep. I turn to the person next to me, inform them gleefully that the Impronauts need me - I’m being called to action.
I roll out of bed. I call a cab. I shower. I suit up. I walk into Emma, announce I’m an Impronaut, get given a band on my arm and head straight in. I feel like godammned-James Bond.
The feeling lasts all but a few seconds.
I know essentially no-one at Emma and I don’t really know any of the Impronauts yet. Worse still, I can’t find any. That is, until I stumble into Adi George.
He’s working a shift managing a music stage. I catch up with him an hour later as he’s walking out, and he looks downbeat, exhausted, and depressed.
I’ve seen him before in workshops, and we’ve done some great scenes together – I already knew him to be absurdly funny and quick witted - he was also one of the people that ‘signed off’ on me becoming a member.
However, up until this point, we had yet to have a really decent conversation. So I intercept him, and decide it’s going to be my mission to cheer him up.
Cue a ridiculously hilarious few hours, which probably was the ultimate first date, and kickstarted a bromance which continues to this day. We danced, drank shots of liqueur, and discussed life with wisdom only available to those that have done the previously mentioned rituals into the early hours of the morning.
Then some other stuff happened. Suffice to say, we ended up performing at 4:30am, with a slightly altered cast than was planned for unexpected reasons. Was the show good? People laughed and we were happy with it, but who really knows - it was 4:30am, I was nervous, and everyone was either tired or drunk.
But as evenings go, it was hard to top.
I did my first show, had a fun may ball, danced, laughed, ate, drank, and made a great friend.
(Oh and Adi and I totally repeated this at Johns next year)
2. My 22nd birthday party
It was in the final three weeks of third year – exams were firmly on the horizon of everyone’s mind. For most of my friends, it was going to be their final set - i.e. these exams actually mattered. I knew that immediately after they finished, while there would surely be relief, there would also be chaos. Everyone would be trying to do as many things as possible, with some people leaving during may week, some after, and some after graduation.
As such, I organised a fairly early birthday celebration as a decent excuse to try and selfishly gather the many great friends I had made at Cambridge all in one place, for one evening, for one last time.
Old friends, new friends and some even unexpected guests turned up.
We manage to fill an entire long row of tables in Homerton’s hall – plus a few extra seats on another table (Rebekah and Oli, I’ll always love you for this – it was all Leanne’s fault).
I pause for a moment while everyone is eating. I look up and down the row of tables and take a moment to appreciate my luck. It was wonderful.
1. Working with my friends on Electromagnetic Physics questions
This isn't a troll I promise.
It’s probably my fourth day of university. I’m at an induction talk for the course. I’m sitting in the main Cavendish lecture theatre at the Physics department, with a couple of guys I met at a Londoners-going-to-Cambridge event before term started. The head of class for the year starts speaking about the course, about all the crazy stuff we’re going to learn in all its glory and detail.
It is at this moment, when the lecturer is rattling off all the topics we are required to learn, that I realise two things:
1. I wasn't totally sold on the idea of being a scientist.
2. I found physics very interesting, but not interesting-to-the-point-where-I-could-dedicate-my-life-to-it-interesting
This came as a somewhat unexpected moment of clarity.
My scumbag brain had waited until this moment - the moment that I had taken a gap year and reapply for - to tell me that actually, this probably isn’t your calling.
Perhaps I’m retrospectively rationalising a mild freakout, but that feeling never really left me, at least for the first year. I remember on that day seeing a mixture of faces – some slightly nervous, some cynical, but many genuinely pumped for the course. I was not one of them.
As this feeling persisted, it gave rise to a depressing tint to many of my lectures and contact hours. There's nothing quite like the experience of watching people around you get a much greater kick out of something you once identified as your passion.
I remember walking out of hundreds of lectures simply unenthused while listening to my friends chatter away, minds racing. I longed to have that reaction.
My experience of my first term at Cambridge was, on the whole, utterly, utterly awful. I hated it. Throughout its duration, I lived under the impression that I was doing the wrong course at the wrong university - and it all began that moment on my fourth day.
(This did eventually change - I ended up really organically loving the work by my final year, where I was able to do Physics and Philosophy simultaneously... but more on that another time)
Perhaps unsurprisingly, that was not my best moment.
It's the first term of my second year.
Myself, Chris and Kilian sitting working at a desk right next to the main entrance to Homerton.
It’s 5:10pm on a Monday. The deadline to hand in our work is at 5pm, and we’re working right next to the spot where our supervisor will collect our work. He’s not arrived yet, so we’re pressing on.
We spent nearly all of the previous day working on these problems as well, with Stephen and some others. We started work at around 10am, finishing around 10pm, with some small breaks here and there. We just wanted to get them done.
I remember us sitting there dazed, seriously twisting our minds to try and solve this one last – particularly vexing - electromag problem. We cracked jokes, huddled over each other every time someone thought they had an idea and back and sometimes just sat silently while we all contemplated.
Eventually, we half-heartedly wrote down our solution, which we knew was wrong, and handed in the work.
As we got up from the desk, Chris and Kilian walked ahead of me the whole 8 steps to the porters desk, and we handed in our work. We hand ours in one by one. Kilian says he’s exhausted (I believe the specific way he expressed this was to say he was "pooped"). Chris says “nice job guys” and we all head off to our rooms, bidding each other goodnight.
This was, hands down, my best Cambridge moment.
Bear with me.
The reality of Cambridge life (for most Physicists I knew anyway) is that a huge portion of it is spent working. Cambridge is universally experienced as draining. It’s a grind, and it wears people down.
For me, the most ‘educational’ – and ultimately, valuable - aspect of Cambridge was first learning to cope with this, but then learning to thrive within it – sucking the marrow out of every moment I could while I was there.
The author Robert Greene once said that it’s through hard work that you can really transcend and change yourself.
It’s not in some hippie meditation retreat, or in the comfort of a ray of sunshine on a beach – it’s easy to feel great in these places, there’s no adversity.
No, the place where you truly grow is up against it - It’s in the trenches, learning to grin with the mud on your face, and haul yourself up over the side.
For a good third or so of my degree, I was definitely coping.
However, it was in this moment the pendulum swung the other way. It was a subtle change, but from that day forward I felt like I was a part of a team - a unit. It was a silly, simple mental shift - but I no longer felt like I was alone in facing this gargantuan academic challenge – these guys weren’t just my friends, they were brothers-in-arms. I started enjoying the work.
The amount of time I spent working didn't change, but my experience of it did.
Though all the moments on this list were great – many of them either for sentimental or hedonistic reasons – it was grinding it out with these guys that was the true highlight of the degree for me. There are so many moments that fit into this category – whether it’s playing the Rocky theme tune during a blacked-out Fresnel experiment, cycling through the miserable pouring rain to get to lectures we didn’t necessarily care for, feeling momentarily like demi-gods when cracking certain problems…. My degree was filled to the brim with these awesome moments. Ultimately the most positive experiences I had at university were forged from embracing and laughing at negative ones.
It’s the end of graduation day. Many of my friends have gotten emotional at various points throughout the day, however I’m yet to experience much beyond the two feelings of fatigue and faint amusement at everyone’s outfits, and an eerie reverence for the freak hailstorm that happened when we got our degrees.*
In days prior I’ve said goodbye to other physicists I’ve worked with, who left before graduation as they were staying on for a fourth year.
So the day is mostly finished – I’ve returned to college, changed out of my Night’s Watch costume, and head out to grab dinner with Chris and my father.
My father leaves before us - Chris and I eventually follow and walk back to our accommodation block for the last time.
We say our goodbyes.
It’s not a final one, but we both know we won’t see each other for a long time. I’ll be gone early in the morning, and he tends to sleep past the hour I’ll have left by.
He’s off to do a great internship abroad for the next 6 months, and I’m due to be working in the city. We hug, telling each other things we already knew. I head to the stairs while he goes to his ground floor room.
I make it up one and a half flights before I'm forced to pause.
I grit my jaw, lower my head, clench my eyes, and take a few moments to try and compose myself. I feel that heavy feeling in your stomach, that urge to bend over in the foetal position, that weight that brings your entire structure down.
Because that was it, right? The final members of the gang had been disbanded. I wouldn’t see my good friends for a while, and we wouldn’t work to solve problems, from stupid physics ones to personal, from culinary to musical, for a long time. That was what I was going to miss. Obviously they'd still be my friends, but the mission was over.
The feeling of being in a tightly knit unit - which I had carried with me like a mental sword and shield since that moment in second year - fell away.
I was alone again, heading towards the next grind solo.
Could I have done my degree as well without them? Maybe.
Would it have been as fun? No way in hell.
I ended up not enjoying the Physics course as innately as I had hoped at first. Sure, by my third year, I was absolutely loving the degree - as I was able to finally specialise into doing some philosophy of science with the physics I was studying.
But at first, my degree experience looked like it would consist of a brutal work schedule, combined with intimidating finals. It looked like it would be hard to enjoy myself.
Thankfully, because of these guys, I was able to really enjoy the actual degree part of my time at Cambridge regardless of what I was studying. As it happens, that made up the most significant part of my time at university.
So because of them my degree was a fun and happy one.