To Cambridge for my fourth and final year external examining their new Masters degree in film. Cambridge in Midsummer is beautiful as it was when I first saw it when I came for interview in September 1966. From that first sight I had only one ambition: to be a Cambridge don. I lunch in Emmanuel where I achieved that ambition in l974. Barry Windeatt is my host, Derek Brewer’s successor both in college and university, and I enjoy returning to the college where I knew only happy times and the birth of two children.
Afterwards I walk down to Trinity where I was a student and then back along the river to King’s where I became a Fellow when I was appointed to a Faculty job in l976. I look up to H staircase in the Gibbs building where I worked so hard teaching myself linguistics and the history of the language one week ahead of my lectures. For 12 years Cambridge was an endless intellectual feast but when in l979 I took stock in Paris on sabbatical with Black Dog at my throat, I knew that I had to leave. I had learned all that I could and the intellectual and political projects that had legitimated my earlier ambition were bankrupt. I often wonder if Cambridge’s last and most precious gift was to make me leave. Could I have made the break from so comfortable a world without the spur of the English Faculty’s decision not to upgrade me to full lecturer? It is true that the option of staying on as a Fellow of King’s did not appeal. I was personally touched when Bernard Williams assured me the college would keep me on for a further year and I knew that the college teaching fellows, David Simpson and Norman Bryson were both on the verge of leaving for the States, so lifetime employment beckoned. Mentally, however, I had already left. My last two years, when I returned from Paris, were the first that I did not follow courses in logic or linguistics and even my conversations with Bob Rowthorn on economics did not compel as they once had. And there was an increasing feeling that I had missed the boat, that my contemporaries in London were now learning much more valuable lessons.
But if it was easy to leave intellectually, emotionally I was sick with passion. When I first went back to give a lecture two years after I had left, I understood why nostalgia started life as a term for a disease that could be fatal. If Cambridge did not haunt my thoughts in Glasgow, London or Pittsburgh, every return was raw. Over the years the pain of returning lessened but it was a full twenty five years before it finally evaporated
Whether it was simply time or whether official appointment as an external examiner worked some symbolic magic, but it was in autumn 2007 that I experienced balance. Cambridge in the summer sun is attractive enough but it is the time of undergraduate parties and vacation. The real Cambridge is the Cambridge of bitter cold winter and intense learning. Walking down Trinity Lane with the beauty of a Cambridge night sky spread above me, past and present aligned. All the pleasures of the time when Cambridge treated me like a prince of the blood surged through me with no regret that those pleasures came to an end. Now visiting Cambridge is a simple joy.