Saturday, 19 November 2011

Cambridge cameo

I'd always thought of Cambridge as a rather glitzy, glamorous town, full of witty intellectuals oozing pithy insights into the vicissitudes of life. But the reality is more humdrum.

I went there on Thursday with my 89 year old mum (she and my sister Heather live 15 miles north in St Ives). We traipsed around the town centre doing our best to soak up the unique atmosphere, but actually it wasn't that unique.

There were all the expected ingredients: breathtakingly beautiful students, shambling white-haired academics, map-clutching tourists, crumbling old buildings, punts on the river Cam, quaint little teashops, wobbling cyclists.

But it wasn't glamorous, in fact it was all a bit shabby and tired-looking. Here and there I saw hideous sixties-style buildings slotted in among the older architecture. On every railing there were scruffy leaflets and posters which suggested impulsive mess rather than creative ferment. The passers-by looked more weary and preoccupied than fizzing with groundbreaking ideas.

The only noticeable glamour came from something quite jarring and anomalous - a swish shopping centre nestling in the heart of the academic enclave, complete with a massive John Lewis and all the other over-familiar High Street chains. How it got planning permission I can't imagine. The prospect of a hefty rates income for the council, presumably.

The only other touch of glamour was an unexpected exhibition of Bridget Riley's abstract paintings at one of the art galleries. I love her work so I was chuffed to come across the gallery.

But I could think of dozens of towns and cities with more charisma than Cambridge. Like Liverpool, which I visited in July. Or Edinburgh. Or York. Or Belfast. There may be lots of exciting things going on in the lecture theatres and seminar rooms, but there wasn't much sign of them on the public streets. I guess you have to be a Cambridge insider to have your finger on the creative pulse. So I doubt if I'll be going back any time soon.

And how are my mum and sister*, you might be wondering. Both rather frail but still enjoying life as much as they can. I hadn't met up with my sister for many years, so that was a great reunion. Luckily she's not on her own but has her husband Mike to support her. I think one day at a time is the motto.

* Heather has Motor Neurone Disease

Pic: King's Parade, Cambridge

27 comments:

Jenny Woolf said...

Think there's probably a town and gown situation. But There doesn't seem to be much going on in the town itself though the fitzwilliam is interesting. And I believe Ely is reasonably lively.

As for the modern development, it gets me down to find the same old same old ...although I have recently discovered that without some big name stores a shopping centre can be awfully dull. I thunk Norwich has got the mix right although I suppose it's a lot bigger.

I am very sorry to hear about the motor neurone disese.

Scarlet Blue said...

Well, nevermind, at least you caught up with your family.
Sometimes you have to visit a town or city several times before you catch the vine. I thought Exeter was peculiar on my first visit, but now I love it - it's a good mix of old and new.
I like Tavistock... love the buildings.. it kind of presses all my buttons... whereas Totnes tries too hard to seduce Eco-middle Englanders. But this is just my impression.
Sx

Scarlet Blue said...

Vibe! Not vine... predictive text, blah, blah, blah...
Sx

Nick said...

Jenny - I didn't see any evidence of a town and gown syndrome, but then I wasn't there very long. I've never been to Norwich.

Yes, the MND is very bad luck. It only affects about .00007 per cent of the population.

Scarlet - Maybe I missed the subtle zeitgeist of the town. Or then again maybe there is no subtle zeitgeist.

Grannymar said...

I never made it to Cambridge as either a student or a tourist and don't see any reason for going there in the near future.

I am sure your mother was pleased to have time with you and company on her trip to Cambridge. Good news that Heather is enjoying her life even with the limitations MND brings.

Nick said...

Grannymar - I don't think you're missing much. My mum was very pleased to see me, even though we're decidedly chalk and cheese and most of my opinions mystify her (and vice versa)!

secret agent woman said...

I had to google that to find out it is what we call ALS here, or Lou Gehrig's disease. It's a brutal illness and I'm so sorry to hear that.

Wisewebwoman said...

Lovely you had a family meet-up, Nick, especially with the frails.
Your mum is living to a ripe old and your sister is mobile?
My dad was a huge fan of Cambridge, he was a G-man so managed to hook up with other Gs in the town and they must have had riveting municipal convos. It put me right off, it did. So never visited.
XO
WWW

Nick said...

Secret Agent - I didn't realise it had another name in the States. Yes, it's pretty devastating. Some people are gone in six months, but Heather has kept going for 8 years now.

www - Unfortunately Heather isn't mobile any more, she's more or less chair or wheelchair-bound.

Had to google G man. A US Special Agent, it says. But why would Special Agents put you off Cambridge?

nursemyra said...

I'm a Bridget Riley fan too

Nick said...

Myra - Aren't her paintings amazing?

Liz said...

I have the same expectations and, no doubt, would be disappointed.
Glad your sister and mum are well.

Nick said...

Liz - I think George would be disappointed too. I didn't see many dogs in the centre of Cambridge. Where were they all?

Macy said...

I think you'd be disappointed in Edinburgh if you visited these days Nick. It's one big building site with added traffic jams until they finish the tramworks....

e said...

I'm happy to hear that your mother and Heather are enjoying life. Your company undoubtedly added to their enjoyment.

Baino said...

Ive never been to Cambridge so you're one up on me. Although it is disappointing when planning doesn't 'fit' the older environs, it wouldn't be hard to plan with complementary facades now would it? Glad you caught up with family, I'll bet they were delighted to see you.

Nick said...

Macy - Sounds like Dublin when they were putting their new tram lines in. Total chaos.

e - Yes, I think they were very pleased to see me, even if it was only for a short time. Phoning and emailing isn't quite the same....

Baino - Whoever's in charge of planning has been pretty careless. In places like Rome and Florence they're rigorous abut preserving the beauty of the city centres.

Rummuser said...

Both Oxford and Cambridge were on my list of priorities when I visited the UK, the first time more than two decades ago. I found the seediness and the decrepitude fascinating and well keeping with the atmosphere and character of University towns. Things surely have changed since then.

Nick said...

Ramana - Still plenty of seediness and decrepitude, which would be okay if there was a touch of glamour as well. But personally I didn't find very much.

Los Angelista said...

So glad that you got to see your mo and sister. From the picture it seems that Oxford needs more trees and green. But, glad that the art gallery was wonderful.

Wisewebwoman said...

Sorry Nick, government-man. Dad was worked for the government and hooked up with other such workers in Cambridge and was delighted with himself.
XO
WWW

speccy said...

I had a quiet weekend in Cambridge once, and enjoyed it. I'm sure I wasn't anywhere near shopping centres! Pubs? Yes, much more likely.

Glad you were able to spend time with the family. MND is a challenge indeed.

Nick said...

Liz - Ahem, Cambridge not Oxford. Actually it has quite a lot of trees and green, though again nothing very exciting.

www - Oh, a government man. That makes more sense!

Speccy - The shopping centre's quite well hidden until you're right into it. Plenty of pubs around, though we didn't try any of them on our fleeting visit.

Liz said...

Really? All off being countrified no doubt.

Nick said...

Liz - What, the dogs? Perhaps they were all dozing in front of a blazing fire and not keen on venturing out of the house....

blackwatertown said...

Perhaps you're spoiled from living in Belfast. That city seems to have loads going on any time I cast a jealous eye towards it - and it can't all be centred round No Alibis on Botanic Avenue.

Nick said...

Blackwater - True, there are lots of exciting things going on in Belfast. The huge new Metropolitan Arts Centre is due to open early next year. The new museum, Titanic Belfast, will also open in 2012. And of course Belfast hosted the MTV Awards very recently.