A few days ago a random walk took me along King Street. I noted the latest reinvention of The Bun Shop – now more upmarket, The Lazy Scholar, it seems – and gave it the traditional three months. Then towards The Radegund, where stood – on the other side of the road – Disco Kenny.
Kenny’s a Cambridge institution. He’s our version of the white-haired old man with union flags you used to see at every England football match. He’s the Queen’s corgis, the Shipping Forecast. Everyone knows Kenny. He works his way around the city pubs, a half here, a half there, always talking. You know when he arrives: “Alright! Alright! You’ve gotta laugh, ain’cha mate. Gotta laugh.” You know when he leaves: you can hear yourself think.
Ahead of me on King Street, a family – tourists? – passed The Radegund. Kenny called out: “When does it open? What does it say on the door?”. They looked, and answered.
As I passed the pub, he called out again – the same question. I replied, “You just asked them that.” He looked a little crestfallen, perched on the opposite kerb, his familiar wide-brimmed hat drooping.
I concocted a plausible story: he’d arrived to find the pub closed, banged repeatedly on the door and was told to clear off. He was waiting patiently, far enough away, unable to stop himself jabbering to every passer-by.
Kenny is one of those characters every city has. Cambridge has many. The jester; the man with the thing on his head; wasp-bike man; the elderly man who shuffles round town wishing people Happy New Year whatever the calendar says.
Below that, the constructed characters: the busker in the bin; the Sainsbury’s Big Issue seller with the sarcastic patter. Not eccentric, but familiar.
Below that, the faces you recognise. Cambridge is small enough for this to be a long list. You don’t know their names, but you have named them – consciously or not.
I’m one of those. I’m the scribbler on table 24, always Earl Grey with milk. I’m the guy with the backpack snarfing the wifi. I’m the local watching the tourists punt. Sometimes with friends, usually alone.
I suspect that as the years pass you ascend the levels. First each person has their own name for you but nobody realises; then the dots begin to join – “Oh, I know who you mean”; and finally you have a Wikipedia page or a Facebook group.
Still, you’ve gotta laugh, ain’cha. Gotta laugh.