Tag Archives: Cambridge

Tumbleweeds and plugs

I apologise, dearest reader, for the tumbleweeds bouncing through this blog in recent weeks. I have been neglecting you in favour of another: pouring my frothing muse into longer works of fiction. I’m pleased to say the first of these has now set and been whittled into editorial shape via the passage of time, a drawer, and some helpful feedback.

I’m not writing as David Smith since that returns more hits on Google than there are atoms in the universe. To be read you first have to be found, and my real name is — unless you are very determined — a near-synonym for anonymous. Not Anonymous, just anonymous.

Nor am I writing as Avaragado, as people can’t say it (av-uh-ruh-GAH-doe) or spell it (tip: it’s all a’s apart from the o) and I’d need to make up a first name or last name to jigsaw onto it or else spend precious nerd energy fighting Facebook and Google+ naming policies.

After much deliberation I settled on Anthony Camber. “Anthony” is my middle name and my Dad’s name; and “Camber” is, as many of you know, a place on the south coast that holds fond memories for me, and which I’ve been visiting on and off all my life. And, excitingly, I could get anthonycamber.com and @anthonycamber, and there’s nobody else with that name on Amazon, and there doesn’t appear to be an under-23 Welsh rugby player with that name, and so on.

The first story I’m publishing is a novella, running at just under 25,000 words. If you haven’t already zipped over to anthonycamber.com it’s called Till Undeath Do Us Part, and it’s about zombies in Cambridge (with a side-order of gay). As much as I’d like to claim the label it’s not exactly a HomZomRomCom, but there are elements of all four oms. It is apparently “A right rollicking read” and “Highly recommended” (Mr C Walsh, Cheque-in-the-Post, Cottenham).

It’s available now on Kindle. You can, and indeed you must, start reading in under a minute. iPad/iPhone/iPod Touch owners will have to wait up to a couple of weeks for it to emerge glittering from Apple’s mysterious approval process into the iBookstore, or use the Kindle reader app/site instead.

I already have a first draft of a second story: longer, at 64,000 words. It’ll be available in a month or two I expect, once I have battered it into shape.

I make no pretence of literary greatness. I’m writing because I enjoy writing. If people like it and pay me for it, even better. I will, of course, do almost anything in exchange for gushing, five-star reviews and shameless pimping.

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Blessed election

Not since the year of someone else’s lord 1847 has there been a contested election for Chancellor of Cambridge University. That year Prince Albert, winner of Britain’s Got Moustache and celebrity Saxon, beat off god-bothering fusspot the Earl of Powis by about 120 votes. The last time a vote of any kind took place for the position was in 1950, when Indian fashion icon Jawaharlal Nehru withdrew from the contest at the last moment to leave pipe-smoking chocks-awayer Lord Tedder as the unopposed winner. Just 200 people bothered to vote, despite Neighbours not being on telly then.

From 1976 to 2011 the university’s Chancellor was the Duke of Edinburgh. This year he decided that, aged 90, he’d take early retirement, and subsequently the university’s Nomination Board – a cross between Hogwarts’ Sorting Hat and a Ouija Board – settled on Lord Sainsbury as its preferred candidate to replace him. The Board was not, apparently, expecting a contest; but a contest there has been.

The candidates: Lord Sainsbury of Bagging Area (the Chequebook party); Abdul Arain, Mill Road shopkeeper (the Stop Sainsbury party); Michael Mansfield QC (the Establishment Law-Snore party); and Brian Blessed (the Energetic, Loud, Peri-Marrying, Bonkers party).

The election took place yesterday and today and the turnout was tremendous, well into the thousands. As the holder of a Cambridge MA I was entitled to a vote and today I gladly scaled the ivory tower for an hour or so. The voting was scandalously well-organised: marquees, chairs for the doddery, free alumni pins with the university crest, porters in top hats hustling you everywhere, and huge piles of gowns to borrow since you can’t scratch your bum in the university without spending at least half an hour in Ede and Ravenscroft.

I haven’t worn a gown in anger for several years. I still haven’t even returned to college for the termly free nosh, and the undergraduate gown I bought for a tenner on my first day in nineteen-umpty-ump now serves only as an emergency fancy dress cape, dusted off for Darth Vader impersonations and little else.

Today I slipped on the borrowed robes and briefly rejoined the tribe. I thanked the porters, because I know my place; they, meanwhile, gossiped like old queens about toffs in top hats. I queued dutifully at the side door of the Senate House waiting for the appropriate desk to clear; immediately behind me was former Labour MP and cabinet minister Chris Smith, now Baron Smith of Finsbury Park.

What do you call two gay Smiths in the Senate House? Punchlines to the usual address.

At the desk they looked up my details using an app on university-issued iPads and— no, don’t be silly. They looked up my name in the Cambridge University Big Book of Names, no doubt printed specially for the occasion. I was then given a ballot paper and directed to a polling booth. This election uses the Single Transferable Vote system; oddly, rather than print the candidates’ names on the ballot paper and ask you to number them in order, they printed the numbers one to four and asked you to write in the names.

I voted, thanked the closest porter, shrugged off my gown into grateful hands for recycling into the queue, and escaped the Senate House bubble back into the real world.

Then I went to The Anchor, where Brian Blessed held court for a couple of hours and was kind enough to pose for photographs. Nice man. Totally bonkers, obviously.

Yes, of course I voted for him.

Update: Lord Sainsbury won in the first round of voting, meaning he had more than 50% of the first preferences of those who voted.

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Disco Kenny, the bin-busker and me

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.

Disco Kenny: latest dramatic sighting

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.

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Don’t think of an elephant

In the classic 1960s film version of HG Wells’ The Time Machine – accept no substitutes, even those starring Mike from Neighbours – there’s a famous scene showing the evolving fashions in a shop window as the traveller zips forward in time. Hems rise and fall, fiddly accoutrements come and go, hats balloon, explode with feathers and wither, and the traveller watches transfixed. Then the woodpecker clatter of planks boarding up the shop, and sand bags, sirens and war.

We are all time travellers, rushing into the mysterious future at a second per second. We see the fashions change, the shops appear and disappear, the fads come and go. And in our heads we can make the same journey as Wells’ traveller, skipping between memories with the tickle of a neuron.

The effect is more pronounced if you, like me, live in the same city for a long time. I’ve been in Cambridge for over 20 years, on and off (mostly on), both gown and town, and I can’t walk down a street without unconsciously recalling some event that took place there. Just as saying “Don’t think of an elephant” immediately conjures up an image of our big-eared nosey friends, so passing The Mitre brings to mind the time I walked in somehow without noticing it was a building site in the middle of refurbishment and was given an odd, impromptu tour of the work in progress. When browsing in TK-Maxx I’m plagued by flashbacks to its previous incarnation as Borders, a ghostly second image projected on the now. Was: computer books. Is: pants.

Music and smells are of course great triggers. Some songs at the pub immediately make me think of my friend John, now living in Canada (though still more up-to-date with Cambridge gossip than I am). The scent of aircraft fuel smacks my reptilian brain right in the synapses and whips me back to the first time I flew, and in its wake comes a rush of related memories. It was a Boeing 707, in-flight movie The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3 (the original). It was my sixth birthday. I visited the cockpit, but as I recall was not asked my opinion on the subject of gladiators. I’m serious, and don’t call me Shirley. Shirley Temple, On the Good Ship Lollipop. Lollipop ladies. Walking to school. Walking home from school alone, aged six or seven, to find we had a dog. The day the dog died (twenty-six years ago, and it still upsets me to remember it). And on and on in the great game of memory association football – that one a Ronnie Barker gag I think, “I know my place”, John Cleese was there too, now on to Fawlty Towers, don’t mention the war, don’t tell him Pike…

The chances are that your own brain’s now whirring and right now you’re glassy eyed in your own history, barely conscious of these words. Hello! Pay attention!

Our heads full of experiences, we can’t help rifling through them when an association triggers. (Hmm: “rifle”, “triggers”.) We can surf our own lives in a time sink worse than any Wikipedia session. But we can become locked in our memories very easily: our bodies ticking away the seconds into the future, our minds in Wells’ infernal machine wheeling through the past. The danger is that we spend so much time retelling old stories we stop writing new ones.

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