Strange, Young Town

When I was nineteen, I flew all the way to England with my mum so I could go and live in a town I’d never seen before. The idea to move to England would stick such that one day I would grow up and decide to go to ad school in London. But you don’t know this when you’re sunlight-blinking fresh from the plane, looking for King’s Cross in the depths of Paddington station. 

When you get to the station in Cambridge it tells you that you have reached the Home of Anglia Ruskin University. This is an example of a sign that knows its context and revels in it. 

I am writing about Cambridge I suppose because I’m gunning for the most pretentious SCAB in all of SCABdom, and also because I’m going back up this weekend.

The thing about Cambridge is that it’s a student town. This is what we in advertising call a ‘truth’, because it is true. When you go back to a student town as a grown-up, you feel like you have outgrown your shoes. 

Still though, there’s something about it. The way the fog sits obstinately on the river in the mornings. Stopping for a Chelsea Bun at Fitzbillies because Stephen Fry says you have to. Academic gowns whizzing past you on bikes. Knowing which way to point when a tourist asks you for directions. Making snow angels on College lawns because you’re not walking on the grass if you’re technically walking on snow. 

Once, the King’s organ scholar let us into that big famous chapel after hours. It was late at night and we, armed with a bottle of red wine, made our way up to the top of the building. You can sit in between the ceiling and the roof if you want to. If the porters aren’t looking. 

Cambridge is a town you can know, whether you are introduced to it by a bunch of gown-wearing kids with an unusually firm commitment to port, or find out about it on your own. The cobbles are there for remembering. You can choose not to, of course, but you will twist your ankle either way. 

London, on the other hand, requires you to worm around on the Underground so you never quite learn how the pieces fit together. It’s part of the allure. The good thing is you can go to Brixton all sorts of ways so you do start to get the hang of it and you can do it all above-ground if you want to feel like it’s safe to breathe the air around you. It also means you feel lost more often, although I suppose sometimes that’s what I want to feel. Being lost is a very accessible experience in London, and it’s a nice, if stressful, change. Today, for example, I discovered that there are two separate ways to take the Circle line from Paddington, where I have lived for the past three months. I felt a bit like I was in the uncanny valley. But that’s what it’s like: even when you’re certain you know what you’re doing, London will twist out of shape again. ‘Strange young town’ was what Bowie called it. I think that fits well. You can outgrow Cambridge, but London will likely outgrow you. 

P.S. Hi Nabeel’s Mum


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