Porterhouse Blues: What’s Wrong With Cambridge?


As a badly informed, generically angry young man with a state school inferiority complex and pretentions to being a shoddy sort of socialist, I came to the University of Cambridge with a cartload of preconceptions. These were very unoriginal, and fell neatly into two categories: the negative, and the positive. And, unsurprisingly, most of them turned out to be false.

Cambridge wasn’t exclusively populated by Jeeves and Wooster characters, but neither was it the enlightened academic Valhalla I’d been sold by a combination of over-zealous college tutors and Oxbridge’s awed presentation in popular culture. Its students weren’t all champagne-quaffing reactionaries, but neither were they mini-sages reading Nietzsche and debating the nature of being, or hippy-radicals thumbing Jack Kerouac, twitching along to avant-jazz and talking about Darfur. The Cambridge demographic was quite staid and boring, unquestionably clever in a bookish, benign sort of way, but rarely incisive and enquiring.

Cambridge is an exceptionally strange place. Some of the least socially and economically representative people in the country pass through it every year to become among the most influential and powerful, shaped by its often-baffling idiosyncrasies. The university is attended by people who are usually very intelligent, often very rich, sometimes very nice, and worryingly frequently, completely divorced from reality.

Cambridge the town, it should be said, is quite nice, quiet, tidy, pleasant to look at, particularly if you like beige and crenellations, and, once you leave that central square-mile’s worth of spires, towers, and overpriced cappuccinos, inhabited by relatively normal people going about their business. But when a Cambridge student mentions ‘Cambridge’, what they really mean is the seemingly impenetrable cultural bubble they and the University’s academics, staff, and colleges occupy. Shamefully, I’m going to do the same.

Cambridge’s strangeness has a lot to do with wealth. It’s not just that many of its students are staggeringly affluent. One of the most important things a hairy provincial cynic can learn at university is that very rich people can be decent enough, well-rounded human beings.

The stereotypes persist because papers like the Daily Mail take voyeuristic glee in ‘uncovering’ the ‘secret decadence’ of elite universities, but modern Cambridge is not a kind of debauched aristocratic Butlins anymore. Flaunting your wealth has become unfashionable. Examples of old-style Oxbridge hedonism are few and far between, and those that exist are treated as the quaint, fringe, slightly embarrassing pursuit of individuals laughably out of touch with the modern world, like people who go Morris dancing, vote UKIP, or spend their weekends limply re-enacting the Battle of Agincourt in damp fields in Flintshire.

Rather than the fact of wealth itself being to blame for strangeness, it’s much more a result of what having only ever lived in a bubble where everyone is wealthy can do to a person’s perception of the world around them. Not only have many Cambridge students never lived in anything other than comfortable affluence, they’ve also never even experienced anything outside of that extremely safe, unrepresentative world.

I’ve encountered a large number who’ve never met, let alone socialised with, anyone who isn’t almost demographically identical to themselves. One acquaintance is a perfectly decent member of London’s cosmopolitan upper-middle class, but her attitudes are typical of a certain kind of harrowingly blinkered Cambridge student.

Her background has been so exclusively, homogenously rich and metropolitan that it has profoundly affected her perception of the world. Hers is a universe in which everybody lives within a 50 mile radius of Canary Wharf, and success means a 40 grand starting salary with Goldman Sachs. Rather than asking ‘who will you be voting for in the next election’, there’s a basic assumption that everybody votes Tory, and shattering that illusion by verbally laying into David Cameron elicits an appalled reaction.

Rather than asking ‘what are you doing over the summer?’, it’s ‘where’s your internship?’. Attempts to explain that back home employment opportunities don’t extend much further than the pig food factory or Sainsbury’s meet the blank reaction of someone who, through no fault of their own, cannot comprehend any lifestyle other than the one they’ve lived.

While the individuals are blameless, the implications are terrifying. My acquaintance, for example, will undoubtedly go on to be spectacularly successful, and become the kind of person who angrily (and influentially) rebuffs any suggestion that, say, taxes are raised on the wealthy to improve state provision for the most vulnerable members of society. For her, poverty’s something you hear about in relation to far-off parts of the world when you’re half-watching News 24 waiting for an update on the FTSE 100.

Others drift towards politics, while openly admitting they know very little about it and could just as easily go and work for Shell. With a Cambridge degree, mountains of confidence and a few years spent rattling around a think-tank, they’ll be well on their way to a place in the Shadow Cabinet, one election-day swing away from shrugging into Westminster to make decisions on behalf of people they know next to nothing about.

 One of the most jarring mental adjustments I’ve had to make while here is to stop automatically assuming that Cambridge students are going to be knowledgeable about the world. Obviously, some are. But the level of ignorance that can still exist among people who’ve had small fortunes spent on their educations, resulting in them studying at one of the best universities on the planet, is genuinely shocking.

This goes far beyond basic factual ignorance, plenty of which is in evidence. A lot of Cambridge students I’ve met are profoundly disengaged with the problems of the world, shrinking from anything they deem too heavy or disquieting. That a community of the most privileged and intelligent people in the country, if not the world, can be so removed from reality and so absorbed in mindless triviality is truly horrifying. Poverty, war, famine, drought, despair, human rights, or anything overtly political doesn’t get a look-in in a student culture that’s almost completely self-absorbed.

There’s a long-suffering, hard-toiling fringe of exasperated activists and others who struggle to inject a bit of seriousness and scale into the university culture, but it’s an uphill struggle against sunny vacuity. Maybe it’s because the students here genuinely believe they have it hard and deserve a break, but it takes a mighty effort to get something serious heard above the general hubbub of self-indulgent frivolity.

There’s no escaping the fact that Cambridge is obsessed with itself. While here, you become defined by your Cambridge identity – your subject, college and summer internship location become a vapid Cambridge equivalent of your name, rank and serial number. Some become so engrossed in the weird rituals of the place – the gowns, the formal dinners, the latin graces, the colleges, the May Balls – that love of Cambridge effectively becomes a kind of squeaky civic religion. It’s all treated with a breathless reverence, especially by a kind of dishearteningly over-awed, overcompensating state school student who gets to pretend they’re at a shallow materialist Hogwarts for three years.

 Student actors, student comics, student journos and student politicos enjoy their fifteen seconds of Big Fish Small Pond celebrity and milk it for all its worth, while ambitious up-and-comers desperately strive for recognition at the ADC, the hub of Cambridge’s incestuous theatre scene, or the Union, the notoriously cliquey debating society-cum-cadet wing of the political establishment. They want to make it big on the Cambridge Scene. And for all its aching triviality, people continue to treat it with a life-or-death urgency and importance.

If tomorrow’s elite could raise an ounce of the blazing indignation generally levelled at a shoddy student play and pour it into something altruistic and meaningful, alleviating poverty, addressing inequality, checking AIDS, raising awareness of ongoing wars and/or all of the above, then you can’t help but think the world would be in slightly better shape. But altruism, or anything, in fact, that isn’t brutally self-advancing is quite hard to find in Cambridge.

It would be far too easy to revert to embittered-provincial default, irately condemning whole swathes of Cambridge’s student population as arrogant, ignorant and heartlessly self-centred. Many are, of course, but it’s never as clear-cut as them simply being irredeemable ogres. For all the dumb privilege and cultural vacuity, there’s something undeniably tragic about some of the people who end up studying here. It’s clear that for a lot of them, academic achievement has been their lives.

It’s not surprising that Cambridge students work hard and want to succeed academically. But whether they’ve been pushed by their parents, their schools or are entirely self-propelled, you frequently come across individuals who’ve arrived at university with an extreme, sometimes near-fanatical fixation on Doing Well. Worryingly often, Doing Well simply and shallowly boils down to grades, and getting better grades than other people. They’ve been funnelled into the narrowest, shallowest idea of what it is to succeed, getting grades, making money, buying things, obsessing over exam marks and career prospects while learning next to nothing about the world they live in. A nauseating amount of Cambridge students just want to be on TV.

You find people whose fragile self-esteem teeters precariously atop their ability to excel in exams. And at Cambridge level, surrounded by the most rigorously trained, confident, ambitious people in the country, it becomes incredibly difficult to excel. When they can’t, some have breakdowns, and, sadder still, some spend three years thrashing about, desperately trying to assert their superiority in an arena in which, for the first time in their lives, they’re decidedly average. Expensive educations seem to have furnished them very well in the exam-busting department, in the past at least, but  have also created legions of twitching neurotics.

You can accuse much of Cambridge culture of existing in some insultingly empty, fragrant vacuum separated from the real world – but this inescapable escapism might well be because Cambridge can be an incredibly unhappy place. Its relentless vacuity can be at least partly attributed to the fact that there’s a lot of desperate void-filling going on, people with crippling insecurities using Cambridge-fame to boost their brittle egos. The quietly tragic side of the place makes its narcissistic self-importance understandable, but not excusable.

All of this begs one very obvious question: ‘who cares?’ So what if a tiny, unrepresentative, wilfully insular elite congregates in a small-ish East Anglian market town with a nice line in antique masonry to network, schmooze, flounce around in gowns, obsess about essays and largely ignore the rest of civilisation? If Cambridge was just the fringe collective of weirdo cultists that it looks like from the outside, a kind of neurotic Scientology summer camp held at a medieval theme park, then it could be completely, blissfully ignored.

The problem with Cambridge is that it isn’t harmless and ignorable. Year after year, its graduates march into London and become hugely influential, rising to top positions within the media, the government, the banks, and globe-spanning corporations. In short, Cambridge consistently produces some of the most powerful individuals in the country, if not on the planet. These people go on to shape the world that we live in, terrifyingly many absent-mindedly shrugging into positions with immense power and responsibility without really knowing how they did it. Lives that have never been anything other than extremely safe and comfortable lull them into thinking they’re living in a world of bountiful opportunity.

Everyone else, or at least everyone that matters, lives in fundamentally the same way that they do. Poverty and hardship are restricted to a far-off periphery they don’t waste time thinking about, and the modern world is deemed jolly enough for them to guiltlessly pursue their own shallow objectives, unconcerned by problems that may or may not exist in the wider society that they’re nominally a part of. The great many others who aren’t profoundly separated from reality shouldn’t be flippantly brushed over – Cambridge also hosts individuals with social consciences, who work very hard towards aims far broader than hollow personal gain. But the la-la land contingent dominates with its selfishness, frothy escapism and unshakable levity.

The far-from controversial belief that underpins all of the above holds that the richest, most privileged, most educated people in the world have a moral duty to urgently assist those who haven’t enjoyed their world-beating luck. Not everyone can run off and work for Oxfam, but the very least we should expect from the affluent and intelligent is an awareness of their own incredible privilege, compared to the abject misery of so many of their fellow human beings. Instead, Cambridge offers the baffling, angering, heart-breaking spectacle of tomorrow’s elite shirking that moral duty, to bury themselves in self-centred triviality and amuse themselves in the shallowest ways imaginable.