Thank God it's the holidays

28th August 1998 at 01:00
Monday The buildings, the brains, the results - and not a quality initiative or person ticking off performance indicators in sight. OK, we all know it's centuries of privilege, but even further education lecturers and other suckers deserve a break sometime.

My partner is doing some research in a well-known Cambridge college and I'm here as an unpaid assistant. Or rather slave who lugs heavy suitcases up eight flights of rickety stairs, performs miracles on a Baby Belling and talks madly to college cats.

Our room is long and Tudor-bethan with an awful lot of dingy, exposed, old wood - in a certain slant of light quite like the Portakabin where I seem to spend most of my working life.

First night: Hildegard of Bingen and Gregorian chants in Jesus College Chapel. Overhear someone saying: "All medieval Cambridge is here." Feel we are already integrated into the community.

Tuesday Research assistant in eerily silent English and philosophy library. Stare at photos of L C Knights, Muriel Bradbrook and Frank Kermode and all those icons of my sixth-form days. About to start free-associating on "The Elizabethan World Picture" when my partner interrupts my halcyon daze.

It's the women's toilets: they've got the most intelligent and grammatically correct graffiti she's ever seen. "I've been here three years and still don't understand deconstructionism"; "Will New Labour really make any dif-ference?"; "Does your boyfriend wear the same underwear for three weeks?" And not just that - the library even provides a special board on the toilet door for people to write on. Has Germaine Greer written anything? I ask. She rushes back to investigate.

Back in college we discover that we share our kitchen with a pair of middle-aged English teachers. They tell us they come here every summer on a special teachers' fellowship to prepare their exam tests. Something vaguely heartbreaking about these brides of the English department who seem to be married to Jane Austen and L P Hartley. But perhaps I'm just feeling guilty because I haven't thought about key stage 4 for at least a week.

Wednesday More spare time and happy to be befriended by our corridor's bedder. She has worked here since time immemorial and knew Prince Charles when he had sideburns. She tells me about The Organ Scholar Who Never Wears Any Clothes, The Drunk Goth Who Sets Fire to His Room At Regular Intervals, and the Dons Who Can't Operate Coffee Percolators.

She provides an exclusive tour of the Master's Lodge (he's in Zimbabwe) and points out the Master's toilet, shower and hob arrangements to me. I can spectacularly reveal that the academically advantaged are the same as you and me - except they have a better supply of J-cloths.

Thursday Books, books and more books. I love Cambridge bookshops, although the idea of having a charge card appalls me. Waterstones has adopted the Tesco approach with piles of Peter Careys and Carole Shields. I want it all.

I sit in their Seattle Coffee Bar next to very serious twentysome-things navigating a way upstream through the latest relationship crisis. It's like an episode of Friends without any laughs. Sometimes one feels glad to be 43 and to have hairy ears.

Go for a swim in the austere and freezing open-air Jesus Green pool. Just me, some dead leaves and a few German intellectuals in flashing specs.

Friday Another day, another library. Partner researches in the University Library - a cross between a fascist crematorium and the kind of building that would have given Winston Smith the frights. We speculate if the building nearby is residential accommodation for neat and proper single librarians - if they still exist, pace the Philip Larkin letters.

Don't ask how, but we wangle our way on to a special High Table. Tudor gloom and candles, prayers and processions, and lots of silver dishes clanging. Talk about chemical engineering and athletics to a member of the college on my left, who seems to think I'm a visiting scholar. It certainly makes a change from FE's Formica tables. And, do you know, I think I could get used to it.

Malcolm Burgess is a part-time FE lecturer

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