Wednesday, September 24, 2008

The spheres of Cambridge

I don't know how many of you have read the Philip Pulman 'Dark Materials' books but one theme they rely upon is the idea of worlds layered one upon the other, never quite touching but just one step away. So you have different Oxfords all co-existing without even noticing each other. Some very similar, some very different but all occupying the same geographical space.

I've begun thinking about Cambridge in very much that way - that you have different spheres who knock against each other in the street, overlapping, wrapped up in their own priorities but only recognising others from their own world.

Most noticeably this is true with the homeless community who, even when they're asking you for change, look through you like you aren't real. But it's also true with the two universities. Cambridge is a very different place to the bin man in Arbury to the Cambridge University student put up in halls whose world revolves around his or her college.

Quite how many of these communities there are it's hard to tell - particularly when you're only in one of them yourself. A few examples would be the Turkish community, which seems pretty tight, as do many of the Asian foreign students. Then there's the white working class "youth" in the clubs on a Friday night and their related but impoverished younger cousins lounging about on Parkers Piece or skateboarding around the Grafton Centre.

It isn't simply that there are class distinctions here (which there clearly are), there are also fundamentally different ways of seeing the world. A multistory car park is a place to store your 4x4 to some and a wild place for urban fitness to others. Parkers Piece at night is a place of concern for some who are crossing it and to others this is the social centre of the city, poor things.

Tonight I had the good fortune to cross one of these boundaries and get sucked into part of the world of the homeless community, if only for half an hour or so. On one level it was pretty unpleasant, essentially I had to intervene to prevent a Moroccan guy having his head beaten in by two, well, um, urgh, scumbags I suppose you'd call them.

There was an odd moment though when they realised I'd stepped into their space. The look on their faces, even the guy I was saving from a pasting was, "hold on - you're from the other place - you're not meant to be here!" The funny thing is part of me agreed, it was as if I shouldn't even have been able to detect a racist attack was taking place right in front of me.

But once you've started something you often feel you need to finish it so I stayed in their sphere. Anyway, my presence managed to diffuse the situation and I walked a ways with my grateful charge as he ranted and raved about how he wasn't one of them, he had a daughter, somewhere, and an Armani jacket.

As we parted he even charged me for his time, telling me "Come on, I've walked all this way with you" forgetting I was walking with him to make sure he was safe. For once I was happy enough to give him what was in my pocket and tell him to take care of himself, but it was still fascinating to see that although the gap between us had closed enough for us to actually recognise the existence of the other the fact we were from completely different worlds still remained, so I still hadn't quite transcended the status of cash machine for him.

Neither of these worlds is more real than the other, neither one more substantial - although mine is decidedly more comfortable than his to be to be sure. I'll be sleeping the sleep of the just up on my shelf tonight and Christ knows where he'll be. For a moment though we did see one another and were able to help each other out, if only for a brief while.


John B said...

Interesting post. I've always seen Cambridge as much /less/ "other-world"-ish than most UK cities (in that almost all activity in the town is either in the university or providing services to people who work/study in the university - whereas even Oxford has an enormous car factory). Good to be reminded that the economics aren't the whole story...

Jim Jay said...

"in that almost all activity in the town is either in the university or providing services to people who work/study in the university"

cough, cough, splutter, choke... I think I disagree with you there!

For example, Cambridge is an IT hub which has transformed the city in the last twenty years - and that industry has very, very little to do with the university (by which we mean Cambridge University not ARU of course).

It's hard to imagine but it isn't that long ago that Cambridge was Tory - they've now only got *one* councillor, a lot of that is due to the massive demographic shift that the IT industry brought with it.

None of the people I know and hang out with are connected to the uni (one person did go there I think) - although obviously through activism I know quite a few students - but the general picture of a town centred around the uni isn't the whole picture.

Ooooo - you gave me palpitations then!