I want to talk about, before I depart, what I imagine people in Cambridge to be. Coming from a very small primary school in semi-rural South Australia, I’ve probably got some skewed impressions on the way that Cambridge students act, talk, are and behave based on the way that they are presented in the media and in pop-culture. Given how renowned the University is worldwide, and how influential many of its graduates have been, I think that my views are probably not alone, especially given conversations that people have with me. I’m incredibly likely to be proven wrong, and I hope to be, over the next three years.
My first impressions of England in general come from the now famous kids shows of Postman Pat and Thomas the Tank Engine. In particular, Postman Pat casts a nostalgic view of an English village, with narrow country lanes edged with small, rustic simpleton farmers, old ladies who are willing to help out in any situation and a friendly localised atmosphere where everyone knew everything about everyone else.
In a similar vein, Thomas the Tank Engine presents a nostalgic view on 20th century England with a steam-train network which crisscrosses the countryside to every nook and cranny of the country. The workmen would wear denim overalls and life was simple and easy, with barely anything to trouble the mind. In both worlds, everyone got along and you never had the case where anybody was too shy or too embarrassed to talk about their problems.
My final early influence on Britain was Wallace and Gromit. Again, this presented a simple life devoid of major social or economic conflict, where life was easy, you could live in a terraced house, people ate lots of cheese and crackers, drank lots of tea, read the newspaper three times a day and bothered to run shops selling wool. In fact, the Wallace and Gromit view of England was one that stayed with me through much of my childhood and teenage years.
When I first started to fully appreciate England as a place, not something that is the setting for animated cartoons, the regard in which I held the institution was incredibly high. The people there would speak in very refined stereotypical English upper-class accents (at least that is what Australian’s call it, the English call it Received Pronunciation). Where once these men (and they were men for a long time) would be the generals on the African frontier, having been drafted from a rich family to serve time in the military and retire to a grand country manor in Essex. They would have their gardens manicured by servants and be waited on by butlers and spend a far greater amount of their time wearing white tie evening-wear than the general population. Alternatively, they would be commanding ships in the Royal Navy, especially during the first World War. Even if this wasn’t true, this is the perception of the institution from the other side of the world.
The perhaps a little more modern perspective of Cambridge people is that of somebody like Stephen Fry, somebody who is quite proper in voice and tone, takes things rather seriously but not quite completely seriously in a stereotypically British kind of way, is averse to vulgar language (and would refer to such as “vulgar language” rather than the plain and boring “swearing”) and who prefers their comedy to be careful and well-placed rather than overtly sexual or offensive. There is definitely a stereotype that many government leaders, especially Prime Ministers and Heads of State have attended Cambridge, but that tends to carried over from Oxford (of the last 25 British Prime Ministers, 14 attended Oxford, with 8 out of 10 since 1945).
Perhaps viewed separately is the view of Cambridge as a breeding ground for the world’s greatest minds in Physics. It’s graduates have gone on to discover and receive Nobel Prizes for electroweak unification theory, the discovery of pulsars, the discovery of the pion, the refinement of X-ray spectroscopy, the invention of the cloud chamber, the discovery of the ionosphere, the splitting of the atom, the discovery of electron diffraction and the wave properties of an electron, the discovery of the electron itself, the discovery of the neutron, the splitting of the atom and the development of nuclear power, the discovery of Rayleigh scattering, the discovery of X-ray diffraction and crystal structure, the development of elementary quantum theory and the Bohr atom, the development of atomic clocks, the prediction of antimatter and the behaviour of fermions (plus everything else Dirac) and the evolution of stars and the Chandrasekhar limit in stellar accretion among other things. Much of the work was done at Cambridge. In addition, Cambridge can claim to have discovered why the sky is blue, the development of radio telescopes, the development of symmetry-breaking for the Higgs mechanism and the statistical interpretation of the wave function. And all of that is just the physics Nobel prizes. There’s also the non-Nobel discoveries such as the discovery of gravity, the development of electromagnetism, the first mechanical computer, the discovery of Hydrogen, the first experimental evidence for general relativity, the invention of colour photography, the invention of calculus, the basis of fluid dynamics and the development of the Turing machine. And that isn’t even mentioning biology or chemistry, which includes things as influential as the introduction of the theory of natural selection, the discovery of the helical structure of DNA or the development of penicillin. Nor the most famous scientist of the modern day, Stephen Hawking. More than half of the University of Adelaide Nobel Prize winners are also associated with Cambridge. Given that those discoveries make up most of the undergraduate physics curriculum, there is certainly a reputation for being the melting pot of the brightest possible minds. However, it is arguable that it has lost it’s touch a little over the last 50 years or so compared to the US, but it is still nevertheless impressive to think that much of the world’s knowledge of physics was developed in the same few buildings. It is certainly a lot of history to live up to.
But finally, what is the perception of current Cambridge students? Firstly, very smart. I mean, very smart. People seem to think that the entry requirements are so steep that only those with perfect scores can get it. Which is at least half true. I think sometimes they are perceived as a little cocky and get around with a fair bit of smart-arsery, which I think is best exemplified from a clip of University Challenge, a British quiz show for Universities on the BBC:
On top of the academic prowess, Cambridge students are generally perceived to either be good singers, or good rowers, insofar as increasing my expectations on the British rowing team at the recent Olympics. Their fashion is perceived as neat and conservative, with the combination of a sweater vest and collared shirt (again as seen in the University Challenge clip). Given that they are thought of as coming form elite private schools such as Eton or Harrow, the expectation is that they know how to put on a proper suit, put on your tie and sing the national anthem, unlike Jeremy Corbyn (at least according to David Cameron).
On the darker side, I’ve been entrenched with the idea that even while bike riding in Cambridge is extremely prevalent, so too is bike theft. Here is one stereotype I would very much like to be proven wrong about.
In summary, looking forward at present, I feel like I am going to be a fish out of water, around people either much smarter or much more proper or aristocratic than I am. However, I also suspect that I may be suffering a little bit of imposter syndrome about the whole affair, and my mind is drawn back to the numerous “Welcome to Cambridge” videos on YouTube which show what really are normal people that you could meet on the street without even realising that they are from Cambridge.
In any event, chances are that I’m going to find a place to fit in. And it is also likely that many of the stereotypes, tropes and perceptions of Cambridge are going to be ill-founded, and many others will be confirmed. At the end of the day, everyone else are just human beings going through the same ups and downs and successes and failures that I will be. Here’s hoping a bit of optimism will go a long way.