Monday, July 22, 2013

Going Back For Air

In literature and film, the general consensus seems to be that it is a mistake to revisit the past. Places and  people change. Any attempt to return to the scene of a long-cherished memory can only end in tears, like poor old George Bowling's return to his childhood home in Orwell's Coming Up For Air.

But like a fool, on Friday I set off on a six-hour journey to Wales for a reunion at my old university college. There would be people there I hadn't seen since T'Pau were in the charts. Would I recognise them? Would they recognise me?

The journey didn't begin well. I almost ran over a cat and my car's air conditioning stopped working (I'm not suggesting a causal relationship between the two events). By the time I joined the M25 the temperature had already hit 30 degrees and the traffic had slowed down to 25mph. At this rate, I would reach Lampeter in eleven hours if I hadn't died of heatstroke first.

However, although the car was hot, the music was cool, particularly this little number:

I made up for lost time on the M4, briefly entering hyperspace somewhere between Membury and Swindon. My impossible journey was now looking more hopeful. Perhaps I would reach Wales before nightfall.

When I finally left the motorway, somehere near Carmarthen, I found myself in countryside that was even more beautiful than I remembered, with lush, verdant valleys and densely-wooded hills. I was now in Welsh-speaking Wales and passed through villages with names that defeated my satnav lady: Llanllwni, Llanybydder, Maesycrugiau...

In Coming Up For Air, George Bowling is horrified to discover that the idyllic village of his boyhood has been transformed into a town of drab, modern housing estates and I wondered what I would find as I turned the corner at Cwmann and entered Lampeter. I needn't have worried:

Saint David's University College is the smallest campus the Britain, with a mere 750 students in a town with a population of around 3,500. I chose to go there because I wanted to experience something that was as far removed from my life in suburban London as possible. It was in Lampter that I learned the meaning of the the old Chinese proverb about being careful what you wished for.

Lampeter was very cut-off. The nearest city was 50 miles away and the town lacked a cinema, Indian restaurant or bookshop, so it wasn't exactly buzzing with life. Sundays were particularly grim, as the local authority was dominated by religious zealots who decreed that the pubs were not allowed to open.

But the plus side of the size and remoteness of Lampeter was that it was easy to get to know people and lack of local entertainment inspired some very creative solutions from the students (mostly alcohol-related, I'm afraid to say).

Saint David's attracted several categories of student. Some were there because they hadn't got the grades they needed to be accepted by the university of their choice, including of small contingent of Oxbridge rejects who were attracted by the architectural similarities with Christ Church college in Oxford.

A few chose Lampeter because of its long tradition as a theological college, training generation after generation of Anglican clergymen. Indeed, the SDUC rugby team was still known as the 'Vicars'.

Others, like me, were attracted by the University's rural setting and its rather eccentric character (I turned down the chance to study in a 'better' place because I hated the Brutalist architecture of the campus).

There was nowhere quite like Lampeter.

My weekend visit could have been a salutory lesson about the dangers of nostalgia for the George Bowlings of this world, but it turned out to be the most enjoyable thing I've done for a long time. Sitting outside the Union Bar at 1.00 in the morning, drinking with friends and people I hadn't seen since Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister, I realised how happy I was.

It wasn't about going back. We had lived our lives all over again and weren't the people we were, but because we had all gone through something together at an important time in our past, I felt a deep affection towards everyone I met (along with a even deeper gratitude that they all recognised me).

At some point in the evening, we were joined by someone I never knew well but always liked, known as 'Earl Grey'. He had clearly been drinking for quite a while and showed no intention of slowing down, so I was rather surprised when he casually announced that he was being married by a druid in three hours' time. "I think he's in a car somewhere nearby. We're having a bit of a party tomorrow. You should all come's not far."

The Earl rattled off an set of directions which I knew would lead to disaster (I've learned to be wary of anyone who uses the phrase "You can't miss it"), so I got out my smartphone and asked him to point his house out on Google Earth. He couldn't find it and we ended up with a name and an instruction to turn left.

The following morning, we were in a dilemma. Would the Earl remember inviting us? He was quite drunk. But on the other hand, if Earl Grey was expecting us, it would be rude not to make an appearance. We decided to go and after a slightly challenging journey, found him drinking tea in his garden:

Earl Grey gestured to us to sit down at a wooden table and as I was thinking what a nice little garden he had, it gradually transpired that he also owned the adjoining fields and a river. The Earl gave us a tour of his land, which included a cider making facility, bee hives, an orchard, a caravan and the site of a medieval building.

I don't usually fall victim to envy, but it was hard not to be impressed:

Earl Grey even has his own sword in a stone, albeit a slightly rusty one:

And he built the bridge in the background. 

We sat by the river, with John Renbourn playing gently in the background, next to a table laid with grapes, bread and cheese. I think I must be a bit of an old hippy at heart, as this seemed like paradise:

But Earl Grey's estate is a mere suburban garden, compared to his friend Paul, who is also an ex-Lampeter student. When Paul left university, he tried a number a jobs, including working at Threshers in Putney, but had a hankering to go back to Wales. Once he'd made his mind up to return, he learned Welsh and took any job he could find until he had enough money to buy some land.

Today, Paul owns ten acres of land, somewhere up a nearby mountain. Because his house is at a higher altitude, he gets snowed-in for at least two weeks longer than Earl Grey. It's a lifestyle that wouldn't suit everyone (he didn't get electricity until 2003), but he seems a contented man.

I felt inspired by my visit to Earl Grey and, perhaps, a little dissatisfied with my pokey little house and its postage stamp-sized garden. They really were 'living the dream' and, unlike some English incomers, had made a real effort to integrate into the local community. I returned home a little misty-eyed, then my wife reminded me that it wasn't her dream and suggested I went there in February.

In the evening I squeezed into an old dinner jacket for a Lampeter Society dinner and had a very enjoyable time. After several difficult months, it was a tonic to be with old friends again and I left feeling as if I'd come back from a very long holiday.

I realise that it can be a mistake to revisit the past, but last weekend I learned that it can be an even bigger mistake to turn your back on it.


Canadian Chickadee said...

Love your last line. I've been in the throes of mixed feelings ever since I attended a major milestone reunion of my high school. Some aspects were great. I reconnected with friends I hadn't seen since we received our diplomas. One or two people hadn't changed at all (more's the pity!)

I really enjoyed this, Steerforth. Thanks for sharing.


Séamas Poncán said...

Ah, but I'll bet they don't have sheep watching them while they work.
Or maybe they do.

zmkc said...

The way you built up the fear of disaster and then gave the reader happiness instead was v clever - your 'it turned out to be' para made me cry, I was so pleased.

Steerforth said...

Carol - I'm intrigued. You mentioned the positive aspects of the reunion, so why the mixed feelings?

Séamus - Oh yes, they certainly do! Wales is the epicentre of the sheep world. If the sheep ever lose their fear and become intelligent, the Welsh are in trouble.

Zoe - Perhaps I should have called it 'Surprised By Joy', but I think I've used that one before. I'm very glad that you found it moving, as I was worried that it might make dull reading.

Blazing Modesty said...

I think stories about going back are so perennial because they are never dull! I consider it a brave thing to do, walking back into your past like that. Glad it turned out well!

Steerforth said...

Thanks Mrs R. On the subject of reunions, it was great to see you last month. I hope that all goes well for you in the post-W world.

Annabel said...

I guess you have to be careful which bits of your past you pick ... I'm glad you had a lovely time.

Steerforth said...

Yes Annabel. I can't say that I'd ever be tempted to attend a school reunion.

Kid said... CAN go 'home' again. Even if it's only for a short visit.

Steerforth said...

Yes, sometimes I think you can.

Annabel Gaskell said...

Meant to add - I did go to my old girls lunch 30 yrs after. There had been some activity on Friends Reunited suggesting loads would go. As it's only up the road from my Dad's I went - just me and one other from my year. Soooooo disappointing.

Steerforth said...

That must have been awful. I hope that the one other person was sufficiently entertaining.

Canadian Chickadee said...

Hi, Steerforth,

I guess it was a slight feeling of disappointment that having traveled so far (university degree in mathematics, married a handsome Englishman, traveled a fair bit, including many trips to my beloved British Isles) some of the people who thought I was beneath their notice then, still didn't want to know me now, even though I tried approach them with an open heart (and mind).

I guess I'd hoped we'd all grown up enough to move beyond the petty social type-casting of our gawky teen years and meet on a more level playing field. But apparently not.

Steerforth said...

That's very sad, but I'm not surprised. Isn't there an old proverb that says something along the lines of "Mountans move. People don't change."

It's their loss, not yours.

Tororo said...

Exactly the kind of place we continentals daydream about, when we fantasize about strolling on this fabled countryside we heard of, that (allegedly) lies past the Channel! Is it true that grass is greener there?

Steerforth said...

Tororo - I think the grass really is greener in Wales, but there's a reason for that - it rains a lot.

I'm sure the Welsh will agree: mae'n bwrw glaw llawer yng nghymru.

Daleaway said...

I too went to a University reunion last year - of staff from the University newspaper in the 1960s.

Being a bit older than you, Steerforth, I made an unwelcome discovery: a) that old men who spent their youth listening to loud music are now universally deaf, and b) spending time in a room with them all bellowing at each other takes the skin off your ears.

Also, 1960s men knew only one way of relating to women, and once they are too old for that, leave them out of group conversations altogether. Like Chickadee I found that generational attitudes and cultural conditioning are hard to shake off. Some people just never move on. Some boys never grow up, alas.

Steerforth said...

Yes, that generation of men expected women to be liberated enough to sleep with them, but still wanted a cooked breakfast in the morning. At least, that's what the ones I've met are like. I think it's funny that all these old rockers are now as deaf as doorposts.

My generation were a sort of puritanical interregnum between the hedonism of the 60s and the postmodern sexism of the Loaded generation.

I think that the feminism of the 70s changed everything (I remember reading The Female Eunuch when I was 17) and by the time I went to university, there was a contempt for anything that smacked of sexism.

In hindsight, I think I secretly envy the men who had nothing to lose but their hearing.

Brett said...

"...suggested I went there in February."

I thought there was, "...a legal limit to the snow here, In Camelot."

Steerforth said...

"The winter is forbidden 'til December. And exits March 2nd on the spot..."

Still snowing in February.

Canadian Chickadee said...

Like you daleaway, I think a lot of men from the 1960's are stuck with the Peter Pan syndrome and don't want to grow up.

As for my graduating class, there are enough wonderful people out there that seem to appreciate me (thanks, Steerforth! :) ) so that I don't dwell on ithe ones who don't. It was really just an observation that, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Take care and God bless, xoxox

Chris Matarazzo said...

Though I have never had the pleasure of meeting anyone quite like the Earl, I was amazed by the parallel of your college experience to mine. I went to a satellite campus of Penn State -- Mont Alto, in almost the same conditions, including a student population of some 800 during the T'Pau era (and with students who attended for many of the same reasons) sans religious elements (though, there was a tiny church at the campus's entrance that boasted having been a favorite sermon spot for John Brown of the Civil War era). I chose that campus for very similar reasons. Pretty cool.

Steerforth said...

Chris - I've just looked up Mont Alto and it seems very pleasant - "103 wooded acres" beats a huge sprawl of reinforced concrete blocks.

Roger C said...

"Also, 1960s men knew only one way of relating to women, and once they are too old for that, leave them out of group conversations altogether."
"Yes, that generation of men expected women to be liberated enough to sleep with them, but still wanted a cooked breakfast in the morning."
These comments are completely idiotic. But I would say that, wouldn't I?
And it's "on the DOT" by the way...

Doc said...

I stumbled across your blog and this particular entry in the purely serendipitous way that one sometimes discovers books or music that become favourites. Thank you for writing the piece; it was a lovely thing to read.

In my experience (I suspect that I am perhaps 10 years your senior) reunions should only be engaged in if one was happy at that previous time. Ergo, I'm always pleased to go back to the reunion of an old ship I was on; it was one of my great life experiences and we tell all of the same stories every time and laugh like drains every time too. The corollary is that I will always avoid the reunions of a hospital I once worked in on the basis that those who were bullies or braggarts then will revert to type today, and make increasingly tedious attempts to restore the pecking order that existed then. Lots of us move on from those times and develop as people. Luckily I'm one of those so I don't need to spurious cache of a previous status.

In short, my advice is that if they were happy times do go back, do, do, do; but if they weren't you can't correct the wrongs and burning resentments so avoid. Do-do will still be do-do.

The rewards of a good reunion, as proved in your piece, have a price above rubies.