My first year at the University of Cambridge ended in a May Week seemingly spliced together from the more outrageous bits of Brideshead Revisited. I watched a firework display rumoured to cost in excess of £10,000 from a punt; I now have more photos with men in black tie than I do with my own mother and there's a delightful one of me swigging champagne out of the bottle like a particularly upmarket pirate. The revel of balls and garden parties cut through the fresh horror of exam term and brought with them not only more Pimms than a summer in the Cotswolds but also the delicious rage of the Daily Mail.
The paper provided its own special version of the morning after the night before by publishing their wild speculations as to what we had been up to behind college walls. High off the smoke of their own outrage, their aim was to titillate and shock. However, the lasting impact of those articles cuts much deeper than a few moments of outraged head shaking. Horror stories of "Oxbridge toffs" put state school pupils off applying because they perpetuate the myth that Cambridge is posh and that normal people won't fit in.
The media love to have a big whinge at Cambridge for not taking enough state-school pupils but they also love to make those same pupils worry that Cambridge isn't really for the likes of them. Many journalists are ex-Oxbridge themselves and they behave like a big sister with a box of chocolates saying "oh no they're disgusting" to put off younger siblings. The media present the whole experience as one big May Week: A hazy stupor of tuxedos and plummy vowels. They ignore the simple fact that Cambridge doesn't care how much money you have; It cares how clever you are.
I would be lying if I denied that a small part of my time here has been made up of fannying about in black tie and drinking nice wine. But I'd also be lying if I said I haven't enjoyed every second of it. I'm a Northern Irish state-school pupil. I'm not "posh". I have a regional accent that lies on my words like a fog. I didn't take a gap year to somewhere exotic and I've never owned a pony. None of these affects my ability to enjoy the brief moments of pomp and ceremony that we sometimes indulge in. Far more importantly, my work is taken no less seriously than that of my friend who was Head Boy of a minor public school and ran about in a gown playing lacrosse and speaking in Latin for the whole of his sixth form (I assume). My work is not regarded as less valuable because his vowels are longer than mine. We're both here because we're good at what we do. That comes far above all considerations of background.
Truth be told, I'm not really sure which of my friends got which A Level results or who went to which school or who splits their time between which capitals of Europe. Somehow distinctions of class and upbringing fade when you're all trying to make sense of The Pardoner's Tale at stupid o'clock or whatever it is that scientists get on with. As soon as you drop your bags at your room you stop being a "state school pupil" or a "private school pupil" and instead become a Cambridge student. No one cares about what your father does. And if they do, it's because they're a prat, not because they're at Cambridge.
When we weren't stealing Tiny Tim's crutch in order to light cigars off it, I spent May Week in parks and gardens with friends. Reminiscing over the year that has been, I thought of all the times that my assumptions have been questioned, or I've been shown a whole new way of looking at things, or had my argument reduced to rubble by the careful twitching of a loose end. That is what Cambridge is really about. The rigours of a Cambridge education cater for the brightest and best. Admissions are blind to whether you know how to fasten a bow tie or not.Suggest a correction