The one thing I am condemned never to forget is my own forgetfulness. I’m acutely aware of it now, trying to make sense in writing of a four year university degree which I have just graduated from and which has brought out the best and worst in me. Maybe if I were more of a ‘dear diary’ kind of person I’d be less worried about filling this post with clods of clichés (I wonder what the best collective noun for ‘cliché’ is – a clique of clichés? A bouquet? A syrup?), but as things stand, it’s all a bit of a blur, and not just because hundreds of hours of reading have left my eyesight worse for wear.
Graduation day was a Wednesday. What a day, Wednesday – neither here nor there, lost somewhere between Monday gloom and Friday euphoria. The weather was close, the sky dark with the threat of occasional downpours, making the atmosphere odd, almost more melancholic than celebratory. I couldn’t help thinking that, dressed in long black gowns and white hoods, stood against the tumultuous grey sky, we looked like figures in an old photograph – for me, there was a sort of fuzzy timelessness about this event which was supposed to be, in one sense at least, once in a lifetime.
The service itself was conducted entirely in Latin. It was strange to hear a dead language read aloud; I noticed that ‘v’s were pronounced as ‘w’s, so Caesar’s famous ‘veni, vidi, vici’ would have sounded more like ‘wenny, widdy, wicky’. We had to go up and hold the Praelector’s finger (lol so random) and he spoke some Latin. I don’t know exactly what he said, but I imagine it was something along the lines of ‘Look, I know how many late nights and jars of Nutella it’s taken you all to get here, but it’s all worth it now. Here’s the piece of paper to prove it’. And we bowed to the Master of the College who, between the Latin, mouthed a silent, illicit ‘congratulations’ to us and handed us our degrees. And I said goodbye to my teachers and my friends and cried and felt completely weird about the whole thing.
But after the open-ended strangeness of graduation, I did get closure – at the college open day I helped out at a week later. Gone were the gowns, in came the bright yellow Clare College T-Shirts, attractive to little black flies and, sadly, unattractive in most other ways. But sunny, nonetheless, like the weather that day. And like the mood – it’s always really interesting and inspiring talking to sixth-formers with bucket-loads ambition and hopes and ideas. And, thankfully, unlike at an open day several months earlier, I didn’t try to get a group of students into the library with a swipe of my Boots Advantage card. Answering questions, having asked similar ones when I went on the same open day five years ago, I felt like I'd completed the circle of university life. ‘Have you enjoyed your time here?’. Absolutely. ‘Will you miss it?’. Dreadfully. ‘What’s it been like studying history, Ella?’. It was at that point I realised there were two names on each reversible name badge, and I was wearing mine the wrong way round.
I didn’t pretend to them that Cambridge is all beautiful gardens and punts and fancy dinners, because it’s not. There’s a lot of work and a lot of pressure; it’s too easy to feel like if you’re not on the brink of a breakdown you’re doing something wrong, and this year in particular I’ve come far too close for comfort to the line bordering sanity and insanity. But I’ve been supported on all sides by the most amazing people. I’m infinitely grateful for that. And, who am I kidding, it’s all been worth it, and then some. I’ve spent the year getting to read and write about some amazing foreign literature, and have painted, drawn, illustrated, and designed all the while. I even got to write about Chardin’s paintings for my dissertation (which I’ll probably go on about in a separate post). As I walked back from the open day, I took one more glance at Kings Chapel. I lived next door to it, and passed it every day on my way to the faculty. It was different every time I looked at it, but I particularly loved it when a strong evening light would fall against the yellow stone, staging it against a deep purple sky. It always reminded me of Rouen Cathedral. Not the real building (never seen it), but Monet's paintings of it. There are over thirty paintings in his series, each one an attempt to capture the play of light on the building's facade with infinite curiosity, urgency, and probably no small amount of frustration.
And so, with a tear in my eye (I did promise you clichés), I went home, and that was that. And now? After the open day, open doors? Possibly. But everyone knows that a door’s not a door when it’s ajar; it’s more like a BIG SCARY CHASM INTO THE TERRIFYING UNKNOWN. In any case, though, I’m going through it armed with a degree that at times I thought I’d never get. I did it. We all did. In three words: wenny, widdy, wicky. I came, I saw, I Wikipedia’d.