Blogs rise and fall. Old grass withers away; new grass springs up, to be kept, and off which to keep. About time to fence this one off and leave it to the entropic footprints of a hooligan posterity. But first let's skirt once more, with feeling.
This desultory serial life began in late 2008. It was pitched loosely as a script of friction: what happens when you take an aspiring Australian classicist, make him foolhardily surrender his domestic idyll, plop him in the world's most tepid island tea-pot, leave to brew, and catch the words that slowly wisp into a languid vapour. It was a tried and tested experiment in travel narrative: the observer out of place, the wilful exile, the outsider desperately claiming the poetic licence not to fit in. The other key term in this ur-pattern was the place which always generously (definitely uninterestedly) hosted the rhetoric of non-belonging: Cambridge. That was the constant gluing these things together; there was the reference point of the blog. But now, as the place fades well and truly from my life, so must this tiny square of internet evanesce into the ether. But not without hurling a valedictory ode at the old town's stone face, and watching it bounce back without the slightest tremor upsetting its bushy eyebrows. And for that indifference to everything that doesn't count, and for that absolute confidence in prescribing what counts, I'll always love it. It. Don't worry, this ode won't get second-personal.
What prompts the finality? Didn't I leave a year ago, when the PhD was done and dusted? Yes, but if anything, the psychological stranglehold tightened in the interim. The clinging process began in late 2012. After my PhD, I was rent down the middle between England and Australia. I kept the options open by applying to all the fellowships in the Cambridge universe. I came very close to a job, twice. When it gradually became clear that I couldn't be a classicist in Australia without having published two books, I stopped hedging and redoubled the investment in Cambridge. The place incrementally coaxed me back into itself as I got closer and closer, made me see random dots as a clearly traced trajectory terminating in itself. One by one, the doors by turns opened and closed: third time lucky, this fourth college really means it, fifth's gotta be it, I think I'd fit the sixth one best. Plausible hits became a string of near misses. Two days ago, I had my most plausible hit and nearest miss yet, the seventh of its kind in 18 months. And that was the last shot. So there's the context of the closure. This post is an attempt to ritualise it.
The places of which you have powerful memories before you've even been to them are the hardest to let slide. Cambridge somehow lodged itself in my mind a long time before I laid eyes on it. Perhaps it was the daily walks up Cambridge St to get the train to school. Perhaps it was the granules of grit from that same street left embedded in my open skateboarding wounds, and the flesh I left crowning its tiny asphalt peaks like warm gooey snow. Perhaps there was some kind of primal boundary breakdown, a slow swapping of matter through which that remote city in East Anglia was already working its onomastic magic.
More probably, it was the University of Sydney: one of those many awkward blocks of sandstone designed to keep the 'virtual' periphery's gaze trained on the 'real' centre. From age 18, then, my walk up Cambridge St took me on a train and up a hill to another, more literal, approximation of Cambridge. It wasn't just the neo-gothic quadrangle in which I had most of my classes, albeit one where the grass was kept green only with desperate resort to Sydney's dwindling water supply, and from which no one was kept off for long. It was also the human reminders: those admired academic staff whose mystique was trebled by their shady patches of past among the far-off spires. I half-remember an afternoon Greek class where our will to plough through Plutarch's prose had waned, and so we drifted into a wrapped cross-examination of our lecturer on what life was like at Cambridge. It was one of those big pedagogical moments where the conversation is left to run into the audience, the curtain drops, and you see that other people and places beyond your tiny crew care about the same things - and somehow Plutarch began to mean a lot more than the frustrating penitentiary of a sentence he had trapped you in.
This was the time - about the midpoint of my undergraduate years - when Classics was starting to look like an occupation to me. The texts did half the work here, and to this day few things give me more pleasure than reading and writing about Latin and Greek literature. But the texts were only as good as what modern critics did with them. And the best critics in my book, the ones whose work would make you flutter and think again, defamiliarise the cosiest texts and interest you in the boring ones - these people happened to be largely concentrated in, or closely tied to, one place. You know where. So the books and articles I loved best were mostly produced in Cambridge; the teachers I loved best had all brushed through Cambridge at some point in their lives. Cambridge was more than a university, then: it created the very discipline to which I was waking up in full dedication. Cambridge and Classics locked into synonymy; and it seemed clear that I couldn't have one without the other.
Usually places so awash with dream and desire are fated to disappoint, surprise, shock; at least not yield what you so simplistically expected, running on little more than postcards, prefaces, and the odd pearl from your lecturer. But what was so strange was that I found exactly that thrilling sense of intellectual belonging I had anticipated. Strange, because it felt un-strange nearly straightaway. Here I'm talking purely about the life of the mind, and airbrushing out all the blemishes that make Cambridge such a socially dysfunctional wasteland. Finding people I could have a beer with was the last all-important piece of the puzzle, and it took a while. But the speed with which I settled into a life of heavy Classics was breakneck. Here were people that cared deeply about ideas, but flung them around the room as if they didn't mind what happened to them, as if they could go anywhere. A lot of them ended up inside me.
Cambridge, like many elite institutions, is expert at creating its own sense of omphalic centrality; a pernicious illusion, yes, but one into which I couldn't (and still can't) help buying. King's seemed at the very nub of the hub. It is a sucker for self-congratulation, saturated as it is in its own iconicity and mythology. But somehow the Classics community there seemed to practise the cherished preaching: open-mindedness, creativity, intellectual agility, the sharpest critical eyes. To sit through a classical society do there was to have your mental defences razed by wine, and to let new thoughts routinely trample all over your old ones. Nor was it just the profs shaking it up; some of the most memorable interventions came from bold undergrads unafraid to tell it how they saw it. It was probably during these twinkling soirees that the image of good Classics solidified for me, as something beyond the accumulation of learning: an art as much about thinking as it is about knowing.
One of the alienating things about Cambridge is the language of alienation it generates in many of its inhabitants: I bet there are few privileged places on earth where the people that pass seasonally in and out of its perimeter and eventually leave forever, and even those who choose to stay longer, curse the ground they walk more habitually. I felt much of the malaise myself, but a fair chunk was empty echo of the sentiment washing around me. Politically, I couldn't find that crippling world of elite self-replication more repellent. Personally, I loved it. As a self-indulgent hypocrite, I couldn't have asked for a more extended guilty pleasure than four years reading, thinking, talking and doing my favourite objects of those favourite verbs.
Perhaps Cambridge always did feel embedded in me, and perhaps the pull is so hard to resist because it held me entranced for so long; perhaps Cambridge invaded me so quickly and decisively that I can't imagine it ever being absent. Perhaps this is all a retrospective trick of the twilight, one last special effect to make itself seem important. Whatever sorcery it's playing here, I have to thank it one last time: in its incarnation as a hope, an idea, transmuted into a surpassing reality, then turned back into hope, then fading out into nothingness, then morphing into memory. That pattern sounds like a rubbish plot. And there's an odd comfort to realising you can't fit even the deepest-set fictions you've invented for yourself. Time to think up some new ones and see how those don't fit. Time to script some more frictions in a different corner of this internet.
And now to greener pastures, wherever they may be. At least I now know the grass I'll be keeping, always, a long way, off.