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Blog by: Simon

Warrington, Cheshire. Studying History. Read more

Veni, Vidi, Vici

It is hard being a Ginger at the beach. We grow accustomed to a lifetime of holidays demanding Factor 50+ sunscreen; to a recurrent bitter envy of the gorgeously bronzed bodies all the other beach-goers seem to possess; to the snide comments of weather-beaten old women as you walk past: “Ooh, HE needs a tan!” Pointing out how many arm freckles you have in the hope that someone won’t notice your cold whiteness. Skin peeling off from your shoulders. Allowing your exposed torso to turn puce.

In some ways North East America is a land of non-surprises. You could predict, for example, that there would be a Dunkin’ Donuts about every five miles. Or that Abraham Lincoln would be used as a media symbol both by those wanting you to do something, and by those wanting you to do the exact opposite. But I am proud that I managed to shake up the norm slightly during my family holiday there. Because surprisingly, I did tan. A bit. Here is a photo to prove it.

Simon on holiday

So apart from travelling to distant lands, what does a soon-to-be third year Historian do during the second vacation? Many will be busy doing research for the (optional) dissertation – which can be on any subject you’re interested in, provided it’s feasible, original, and that there’s a supervisor willing to take you on. Currently a friend is in Washington DC doing his original research (he failed to inform me of this until I’d left the area, cheeky). Those who choose not to do a dissertation take another examined paper instead. Having chosen the latter option, I have had a blissfully work-free summer, and have spent a lot of time catching up on things missed in Cambridge – TV, sleep, parental contact etc. But it’s not all been fun and games. I’ve also started volunteering at a local museum, based on the site of a medieval priory of Augustinian canons. I’m currently doing a research project for the museum on the history of transport in the area, so have been getting used to the banter of office life.

A final holiday planned – Tunisia for a week in September with lads and ladettes from Cambridge. In my head it’s going to be like The Inbetweeners movie – sunshine, pools, clubs, smashing dance moves, and tight pink t-shirts. Oh and MASSIVE tannage, for definite.

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America Beware – A Ginger Approaches

I have a tendency to need the toilet during exams. It’s quite annoying. I’ll be two hours through a three hour paper, two essays out of three bashed out and the final one churning. And then I’ll get that awkward pressure feeling. I’ll push it out of my mind, try to refocus on the task at hand, write, write, write. But the nagging feeling builds up and up, flush, flush, flush, until I’m forced to concede, grab an invigilator’s attention, get permission, then dash for the loo for a smashing 30 seconds and then back to my seat, relieved. I try to beat the problem. I’ll restrict the amount I drink before the exam. But then I’ll forget, and just when I’ve sat down in the hall and am feeling thirsty will chug half a bottle of water. Then the enormity of my mistake will hit me, the foolishness of it, just as the invigilator shouts “Begin!”

I wish I could say the hardest thing about the Cambridge History Part I exams was needing the loo at inappropriate times. In fact, it wasn’t so much doing the exam papers themselves as maintaining the motivation and efficiency throughout the revision period. The incredible weather in the Cambridge Easter Term makes it the prime time for sport, barbecues, runs and general sunbathing. I once tried revising outside in the sun in the park. It was enjoyable (a change) but the combination of heat and people-watching meant little work was done. I got lots of funny looks when walking back. It was only when in front of my mirror that I realised my bare shoulders had turned redder than my hair. If you see a tanned ginger, take a photo and shake his/her hand – you probably won’t meet another.

As I write this my parents are flapping around finishing the packing for our family holiday. We’re leaving for the USA tomorrow for three weeks. After the intensity of the exam term I’m incredibly exhausted, so this will be a much needed break. Apparently it’s unbelievably hot out there. Tannage here I come.

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Thank Goodness It’s Raining, Now I Can Revise

A big difference between Warrington and Cambridge is that the latter always seems to be a lot sunnier and hotter. Which is great if you have some spare time and want to go for a run, or row on the river, or casually punt past the beautiful College scenery. But in exam term I find the good weather an alluring and dangerous temptation to procrastinate. I just love being outside too much. I even got a tan at the start of the holiday. (Or as my little brother suggested, just one big freckle on my face).

This term, the final term of my second year at Cambridge, is the first time I have exams that count towards my final degree. The three year History Tripos course is actually split into two parts, so this year I am completing Part I. First Year Historians have exams in this term too, but those so-called ’Prelims’ don’t contribute to the final thing. Thus, along with the rest of the University, I am fighting the perpetual urges to go to another Formal dinner, hit another club, see another show. With the onset of rain in the first week of term (an outrage in  Cambridge), the temptation to avoid revision and go out for a run has diminished somewhat. Thus I feel more unfit and hopefully (oh please hopefully) know a bit more History.

For exam term of Part I of the History Tripos, the History Faculty offers very helpful revision classes, which are sometimes given by the academics who set the exam papers, so turning up is crucial. Each student is also offered a number of one-on-one revision supervisions for each Paper studied. So the revision process for Historians is not just about sitting down and reading through notes/reading the books you should have read a year ago but didn’t. The academics and supervisors help you through the process, mark practice exam papers, and give you important advice.

I just really hope in my case it all pulls off.

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Snow, Show and Blind Romance (?)

When snow falls in Warrington, it lasts for about a day. We don our boots and gloves, rush outside and eagerly attempt to build snowmen. Generally they don’t last long. Snow turns to slush turns to sad disappointing puddle with the carrot-nose staring forlornly up at us.

So I love living in Cambridge during the winter, with the cloisters and towers smoothed over with white, with snowy figures rising up from the flats of the fields. For rowers, the cold winter can be either a heartache or a blessing, depending on your level of enthusiasm. It truly was a joy for me to receive a text at 6.30am informing me that the river was still frozen, the morning rowing outing was cancelled, I should return to the blissful warmth of slumber. I am sure the keener guys were angry, but I was grateful. Long Live King Winter.

This term I’ve not been doing any acting as I did last term. The auditions were in the final week before Christmas, and I was so exhausted/lazy that I didn’t get round to going for anything. Instead I’ve been going along to a Gospel Choir every week, which has given me a good singing outlet aside from the daily recitals I hold for myself in my basement kitchen in College. I went to see Bereavement –The Musical last week, an original work written, directed and performed by Cambridge students. Spectacular is not a good enough adjective. The concept of a musical about bereavement may seem odd at first, but this production was able to combine really moving scenes about the pain and grief of loss, with some surprising and generally hilarious episodes. The point was to show that society expects us to follow a certain pattern of behaviour and rules upon bereavement – and sometimes our own feelings don’t correlate with the required standards. Cambridge sends several top shows up to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival every August, and I really hope Bereavement gets there. Stunning performance.

A final anecdote of Cam life so far this term – the RAG Blind Date. RAG is the biggest fundraising society in the University, and every year it holds an event where students from across Cambridge are randomly put together as couples for one night only… Romantic/fun/intense/awkward nights can follow. I was persuaded to do it this year, and thankfully my date was lovely. The chat was good, the meal was good, the wine was good, and I don’t think I embarrassed myself too much. At least, I didn’t spill any food or knock over the bottle or tread on her foot in the club or anything. I thought I did ok.

She might beg to differ, of course, but I probably won’t bump into her again. Unless she happens to be down by the river one day, in which case she’ll spot me as the ginger one rowing whilst singing his head off. How awkward…

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The Interview – Forget It, It’s Christmas

Christmas comes early in Cambridge. Those people who complain about TV adverts appearing in August promoting wrapping paper and candy canes should perhaps consider attributing some blame to the Oxbridge universities. When the academic term finishes at the beginning of December (whilst many other university students are still in lectures or, even worse, doing exams), it is unsurprising that Cambridge and Oxford students seem to get into the festive spirit before everyone else. From my point of view, of course, this is great. In the first week of December I consumed as much turkey, mince pies and mulled wine as I’m likely to in the last.

But it’s not only the occasions of Christmas-themed parties and formal halls which signal the end of November in Cambridge. If you’re an applicant, then you won’t be noticing or caring about such festive student frivolities. No – if you’ve recently visited Cambridge, most likely it means only one thing. You’ve had an interview. And you were terrified.

As you have no doubt discovered, Cambridge provides a lot of good advice on how to tackle the interview process. If not, here are some key links:

http://www.cam.ac.uk/admissions/undergraduate/interviews/

http://www.cam.ac.uk/admissions/undergraduate/media/interviewsinaction.html

But what there’s less of is advice about what to do after your interviews. Fortunately for you, that’s where I step in.

The main thing is not to over-analyse. Or overstress. Or anything which begins with the prefix ‘over’ and implies it’s unhealthy to do too much of it. After my interviews this time two years ago (wow), I spent the following weeks worrying about the discussions I had had with the interviewers. One of my interviews had been an intense one-on-one session, examining a historical primary source. I had entered the room expecting a long list of questions. Instead the interviewer merely said, “Tell me about it”. Argh.

At the time I had felt like I was struggling; that my answers were mediocre at best, nonsensical or just stupid at worst. And at home in the next few weeks I kept thinking over it and convinced myself that it had gone awfully. Perhaps it had. Clearly I managed to get in somehow, and whether that was because my interviews were actually ok, or because my Personal Statement (oh that old friend) was good or something, I know not. But the point is that I worried myself up over the following weeks, going back over the interviews, and ultimately the result (a Conditional Offer) did not correlate with how well (i.e. badly) I had thought at least one of the interviews went.

So you can never tell how well or how badly you have done. Obviously if you don’t speak in the interview, or if you hit the interviewer or something, then you can probably guess the outcome quite accurately. But in many cases those who interviewed you will have a different opinion to you on how it went. So there is no point stressing about it. What’s occurred occurred, what’s done is done, and now it’s Christmas, let’s have some fun.

Oh, and you should probably do some revision for those January A-Level exams. That’s more efficient than stressing.

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Freshers’ Term – Take 2

You have made it. You are nearly halfway through your first term at Cambridge. Hopefully this means you have accomplished the following:

- You have successfully integrated yourself into College life. No longer do you get bemused by the sight of angry porters in bowler hats shouting at you to get off the grass. No longer do you find yourself in a dining room/chapel/toilet when you thought you were entering the right room for your supervision. No longer are you hanging around with those particular people you met in the first few days and wish you hadn’t – you’ve found some proper friends now.

- You have optimistically joined a hundred societies, and have subsequently realised you have time to do two of them. Probably one society you signed up for was rowing. Either you acted with the majority and attended one session just to say you have rowed in Cambridge, or you have decided to take the dangerous road of actually committing yourself to turning up at the river at 7.00am for outings before lectures, and are now regretting it.

- You have worked out which Cambridge clubs you will frequent most often, and which you despise with a passion. Sometimes these clubs are one and the same.

- You have started work. If you haven’t by now, it’s probably a good idea to stop looking at my blog and do some.

That’s the life of a Cambridge Fresher. Here’s my experience of the term as a hardened and disillusioned second year:

My term has been pretty packed so far. For now I’m continuing to row, and already I’ve got some beautiful new blisters on my hands which I am considering naming. I have reignited my acting career, which sadly lay dormant last year after I failed to organise myself and attend some auditions. I am currently rehearsing for a comedy musical, and am strongly hoping that my body’s memory for cheesy choreography will dramatically improve with immediate effect. I have even found time to do some work, which is surprising considering the time commitments of rowing and acting. (Hugh Laurie did both I believe, but I am sure he was far more organised than I am).

In short, I am probably in a similar position to most Freshers. I enjoyed ‘Re-fresher’s Week’ so much that I am desperately trying to convince myself that the Week hasn’t ended.

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Timebomb

You’ve spent the last few weeks trying to put it out of your mind. You’ve been trying to distract yourself in any way possible. You haven’t wanted to think about it. But all the while it has been there, nagging away and becoming increasingly sinister as each day passes. A solitary wasp which turned out to be a Queen. She has spawned a thousand fears and doubts which threaten to engulf and consume as the Black Hand of Time revolves steadily round round round until that morning arrives.

No, this is not the day when you confess to your Mum that you broke her favourite toilet seat again. Nor is this the day when you stand trial for murdering Santa. This is A Level Results Day, and it is terrifying.

Actually, to be more precise A Level Results Day was last Thursday, so I assume if you’re reading this then either you’ve secured your place at Cambridge and so are joyously checking out my expert comments on student life, or you have not yet applied to Cambridge so the above melodrama is irrelevant anyway.

But if you do happen to be an applicant to Cambridge and you didn’t get the grades you needed, I offer my commiserations and some advice. Most Cambridge offer-holders will have as their back-up an offer from another leading UK university. Initially it may seem like that place will never feel as ‘right’ as Cambridge did. It may not have the same level of prestige, or the beautiful architecture, or the capacity for one-on-one teaching.

But once you get to that place, you will soon discover that university life can be just as enjoyable, just as exciting, just as much hard work, without these things. A personal anecdote. An amazingly intelligent friend of mine got an offer from Cambridge last year, but she just missed the grades. Understandably she was heartbroken. But now she is incredibly happy at the university she put as her back-up. In fact, she knows it is the right place for her to be.

Don’t let that Queen and her brood swarm over you. University is a fantastic experience, so wherever you end up, make the most of it.

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Dobby, Professor Green and Oxford Opera

A ferris wheel was an interesting addition to my College’s grounds. I queued up for it for three-quarters of an hour at about 2.30am, only to feel sick on the 15 minute rotating ride. Still, at least I didn’t have to pay for it.

The wheel featured in the College’s May Ball (which, in keeping with the traditional Cambridge eccentricity/nonsense occurred at the end of June). One of the most incredible, memorable (and expensive) nights of my Cambridge experience so far. From 5pm to 5am, the College was transformed. Different courts represented different places on the route of the Orient Express – so you could grab fish n chips from London; wine and cheese from Paris; pizza, cocktails (and jagerbombs?) from Venice; falafel from Constantinople; standard beer from Munich; and rum and chocolate fountains from Vienna. (My geographical knowledge is about as good as Dobby’s ability to avoid dangerous sharp objects, so forgive me if the order of places recited above does not match the actual route taken by the Orient Express).

£120 for the night. At first I was shocked by the price – but can now say it was excellent value for money. Unlimited and hugely varied food and drink all night, with entertainment to suit everyone’s tastes – from swinging pirate ships to a cappella bands to a silent disco to Professor Green to a ceilidh at 4am. (For the uninitiated, a ceilidh is essentially a Scottish dance. I have been to several over the last year).

So the May Ball was an awesome way to finish my first year as a History undergraduate at Cambridge. Now onto the summer. The most useful item a university student on vacation can have? A 16-25 Railcard. With it your wallet remains heavy as you tour around the country and avoid parents nagging at you to get a job.

My destinations? Somerset, Hampshire, Anglesey, Edinburgh, and of course, my exotic hometown of Warrington. Earlier this week I spent a few days in Oxford (the ‘Other’ university), staying with my friend who is reading music there. He was playing the harpsichord at an opera – Falstaff. A really enjoyable performance – hilarious acting, excellent singing, and a beautiful if chilly setting in the garden of New College. Unfortunately my musical knowledge is not so extensive that I could provide detailed analysis on the performance. When the director asked for my opinion on it, I gave the sophisticated reply of “Cracking. Cracking show.”

Cambridge or Oxford clubland? Sorry Oxford, but I will always be loyal to the former. The music in the Oxford club I visited was good, but it was a shame not to hear Queen’s Don’t Stop Me Now, nor the theme-tune to The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air – Standards in Cambridge.

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From Grief to Comedy to Free Sandwiches…

Only 2 more weeks left!! And then the long summer vacation before Second Year and real work begins. I’m planning on packing in a lot – a family holiday to Hampshire, camping with friends from home, a trip to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival to see a friend performing in a show…

And at some point I also need to find time to do a big research project and a 5000 word essay. Any non-Historian applicants shut your eyes for a moment while I outline what this involves… Historians at Cambridge have to take a Paper called “Themes and Sources”. Which, funnily enough, involves examining a particular historical theme through the use of primary and secondary sources. There is a big range of themes to study – and some of them are pretty unusual. ‘Money’; ‘the Modern Body’; ‘Utopian Writing’; ‘Religious Conversion and Colonialism’. Check out the 2010-2012 options:

http://www.hist.cam.ac.uk/undergraduate/part1/themes/themes2010-2012.html

I chose the theme ‘History of the Emotions’, which is as bizarre as it sounds. In each class the group discusses a different emotion in a historical context. I had to give a presentation about expressions of grief in Inca society. The Inca would mourn their deceased kings for months on end, with great bouts of weeping, ceremonies and most notoriously, human sacrifices. Did they truly experience grief in such a powerful way – a way which Western society today would find difficult to comprehend and empathise with? Or were the tears they shed more of a social requirement than an expression of innate feeling – a tradition they were expected to conform to? Choose the ‘History of the Emotions’ option at the University of Cambridge to find out more…

End of History-related chat. On the work front, this term has been relatively calmer than previously for me because I got my exams out of the way in the first week. So it’s given me a lot more time to enjoy myself.

I went to see a couple of plays at the ADC Theatre (the launchpad of such stars as Ian McKellen) a few weeks ago – All My Sons and Arcadia. Pretty intense storylines, and the characterisation of the actors was excellent. Cambridge is such a great place to be if you’re interested in theatre, singing, comedy or any other sort of performance. There’s always stuff to see and to get involved in. Next week I’ll be seeing the Footlights – the famous Cambridge comedy group, alumni including Stephen Fry, John Cleese and David Mitchell. I suppose some people can only deal with the intense Cambridge term by becoming superbly cynical comic geniuses.

On a more serious note, I also recently joined a group of students which goes out at night on  the weekend to give food and company to the homeless in Cambridge. Definitely one of the most eye-opening things I’ve ever done. These people have incredible stories, and they have such a solidarity with each other that the rest of society perhaps doesn’t have…

Perhaps it’s only in Cambridge where you can be giving out free food to the homeless one night, and standing at a bus stop in a suit and bow tie the next.

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Here Cometh Exam Term…

So we come to it at last. The Easter hols have passed ridiculously fast, you’ve barely recovered from the adrenaline-filled rush of Lent term, and now you encounter the legendary monster that is the Cambridge exam term.

But – if you’re a History First Year, like me, then after the first week the exams are already over. So no worries.

Easter term of the first year is a strange one for History and English students. For some reason the two faculties put on their mock exams as soon as the term starts, rather than at the end like every other subject. A two-sided coin. Disadvantages: you have to revise through the Easter hols, and when you return to Cambridge you go straight into another term studying a new topic, with an essay a week as per usual (in the case of History). Advantages: you’ve already done your exams, so you have plenty of time to mess about in the beautiful weather. Plus you can amuse yourself by annoying everyone else still stressing about their upcoming exams.

So not much to report concerning my Easter hols. Vast majority of the time was spent wandering around the garden repeating obscure history facts and dates to myself. The rest of the time I spent catching up with my friends from Warrington. I reckon most students must feel as I do – like you’re leading two lives, ‘old’ and ‘new’, ‘university’ and ‘vacation’, each with its own set of friends and codes of conduct. My friend at Edinburgh University knows this well. In Edinburgh, he’s the one who gets all the laughs for his jokes. In Warrington, he’s the one who is often the butt of the jokes. (Friendly banter of course).

Clubbing in Warrington doesn’t compare to Cambridge. Sorry Warringtonians, but it just doesn’t. The strangest experience I had in the holiday – ending up somehow in a mosh-pit for the first time in my life. I tried very hard to fit in – but my attempts to head-bang were pretty feeble compared to the other guys with hair as long as my arm. Still, I survived. That’s the main thing.

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