Rites of passage

Adam’s massive television filled his entire desk; this suggested, to me, that he wasn’t that interested in, you know, studying, at his desk. Which is what the desk was for. The TV was probably only 28” across the diagonal, but this was 1998, and flat-panel plasma, LCD, and LED TVs were either prohibitively expensive or else didn’t really exist yet, so Adam’s massive television was an old-fashioned cathode ray tube, and thus deep. It was black, as I recall. I think Adam was from Scunthorpe. I cannot remember his surname for the life of me. He owned a pair of Versace jeans. I suspected they were knock-offs. I had never heard of Stone Island clothes until I met Adam. I have still never seen anyone wearing anything badged with Stone Island who looks as though they could legitimately afford it.

There was a little guy called Dave, who was a Brummie, I think. I remember little about him except that he liked a drink – I recall one incident where he downed a pint of lager in one go, brought it straight back up into his glass, and then drank it again, because, to all intents and purposes, it appeared to be unaltered apart from having lost a little fizz.

Then there was a guy called Jon or something who was from Croydon, or somewhere, in the room next to me. He’d play bad house music very loud. His name wasn’t Jon. I don’t know what it was. He’d go home at weekends. I think he had an old MG back there, probably working on fixing it up with his dad. He didn’t seem to deal very well with being away from home. I think he had a girlfriend back there, too.

Dan was Welsh but not so as you’d notice. He knew who Tricky was, I think, so I felt like I had more in common with him than any of the others. Brummie Dave owned a copy of Urban Hymns but only because everyone did back then. Dan could have gone one of two ways. He went the other way, and I don’t think I really spoke to him after the first six weeks.

That’s four. Plus me makes five. Our flat had six bedrooms and a kitchen. The sixth flatmate was definitely called John. His surname began with a P. I can’t remember it now. I once, in a fit of pique, called him “the worst person I have ever met”. He was prone to yelling things like “let’s fucken ‘ave it” and “you fucken cunt” very loudly, and downing pints of strong lager. In the first week, when everyone else put up posters and photos to stamp some personality on their blank halls of residence walls, John stuck up several dozen pieces of A4 paper upon which he had scribbled the phrase “YOU FUCKING CUNT”. I wasn’t convinced that this was a psychologically beneficial thing for him to do. I also suspected it indicated that he might be an absolute raving sociopath. I have a feeling he was doing Sports Studies with Management, or something.

In my first week I spent £250 on a minidisc walkman, theorising that if I spent my evenings in the computer room, messing about on the internet and listening to music, rather than getting hammered in the crappy nightclubs in town, it would soon prove to be a sound investment. Messing about on the internet and listening to music became a bit of a theme, obviously.

One night, about five weeks into term, I’d stayed in to read some poetry for my English class the next day, while everyone else in the flat had gone to one of the nightclubs in town. Visage, I think it was called. I never set foot in it in three years there. They got back late, drunk, and went into the kitchen, with a couple of other lads from adjacent flats. Northampton was not a great university. The entry requirements were not high. I had an A at A Level and this made people ask me what the fuck I was doing there. I didn’t know; I only had the one A though.

Some Asian guys passed the kitchen window, and some shouting and idiotic, racially charged bravado led to one of the guys from an adjacent flat punching his way through the double-glazed window, presumably in an effort to demonstrate his masculinity and idiotic racist “superiority” to one of the Asian guys outside. As the only sober person there it was up to me to call an ambulance and pick shards of broken glass out of the moron’s hand and wrap a clean pillowcase around it to stem the bleeding. This wasn’t the first incident where I’d thought I should probably move out of the flat as soon as possible. In fact, there had been lots, and lots, over the course of six weeks or so, to the point where I thought I was going mad, and felt like a pariah, and suspected I might actually be some kind of weird gibbering freakazoid who no one liked and who had no social skills. I ran to Student Services the next day and begged to be moved to a different flat. They moved me. It was better. I’ll write about Chico and Ginger Nick and Biggles and the guy whose name I can’t remember who kept all his dirty dishes underneath his bed some other time.

Having known and been friends with almost literally everyone at the school I’d done GCSEs and A Levels at, having played on the football team a few times and been ‘principal student’, and been student rep on the board of governors, and having been in every school play, and just generally been a big fish in a small pond, going away to university and suddenly becoming a lonely freak surrounded by football hooligans was a humbling and confidence rattling experience. I “should” have been president of the students’ union, editor of the student paper, etc. etc., but instead I withdrew from any kind of participation at all, apart from with a small circle of (admittedly pretty wonderful) people, who also probably “should” have all been president of the students’ union and editor of the student paper, too, but who, instead, found themselves lost and isolated at in a weird bit of the country that didn’t know if it was a suburb of London or a part of the midlands or an outlier of East Anglia.

There were good times, too; the midnight drive to London with a stolen gnome; Oliver’s opening words to me after our first seminar together, still frighteningly prescient (“I bet you’ve got a fucking wicked stereo”); parties with Jewish Ben and Emily and everyone else, real people, nice people, at the hall of residence across the way; a certain sense of belonging when our lecturers battered us with Marxist cultural theory in the opening weeks of term in an effort to make people who thought the course would be a “doss” drop out at an alarming rate; lots and lots of laughter with Olly and James and Cat and Ben; hours spent trawling record shops; listening to records with Magnus at his house where he had a wife, and, after 10 months of university, a baby too(!); Friday afternoons spent reading The Guardian in The Charles Bradlaugh pub with a few pints of Guinness; late nights listening to music and talking shit with like-minded people in halls – well, one like-minded person. Etc, etc.

I spent Wednesday this week on an epic all-day photoshoot for work, taking pictures of students for the profiles that we put in the prospectus. The vast majority of them were recommended because of how much they participate – in Community Action, in the Guild, in RAG activities, in societies, in training and employment and study abroad opportunities, in student media, in starting their own magazines or companies. They all, every one, love the university they’re at. I love the university they’re at more than the one I went to study at myself. Which isn’t really surprising, given that I didn’t participate at all, felt no sense of community, of ownership, of identity, of belonging to the place. Experiences like Wednesday give me a little pang of regret, make me wish I could have my time at university over again, pick somewhere different, be someone different. But it doesn’t last long.

It’s not Adam or Dave or Dan or John’s fault; it’s not anyone’s fault. It’s just the way things happened. I hadn’t a clue what I was doing at university, for the most part; I didn’t really understand that you get back what you put in. I didn’t know how to put anything in, and at the time I didn’t want to and probably couldn’t have anyway even if the inclination had been there. I’m lucky that I got from there to where I am now, which is a very nice place indeed for the time being. Sometimes I wonder what Adam and Dave and Dan and John are doing. But not very often.


3 responses to “Rites of passage

  1. This is pretty similar to my own views on university; that I didn’t get what “you’re supposed to get” out of it, because I didn’t know what or how to put in myself. Instead, I turned into something of a recluse. I have a sneaking suspicion that I would have got a lot more out of it if I had waited a few years, gone as a mature student with more idea about what I wanted to do and who I wanted to be. However, I went to university straight from school because that’s what I was expected to do, because that’s what you do if you’re getting A grades.

  2. Fellow Music Lover

    I love the structure of this post; it really reflects the confusion and eccentricity that defined your college years. It is very opportune for me that you wrote this only a few days before I have to send out college applications for next fall. I overwhelming apprehension of a college experience accompanied by a strange. To be honest, I am unsure if such a thing actually exists, and if I want to have it. I would rather that my life remain unchanged by my actions and friendships as a 20 year old.

  3. Fellow Music Lover

    *strange excitement almost entirely due to the fact that it could be the worst experience of my life, or one of the best.*

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