Cambridge, England – May 2001

Trinity College

Trinity College

Welcome to the first of many (I hope) Cambridge updates. Now, let’s get one thing clear before I go on: This is Cambridge UK. It’s not in the US or Canada (despite what a large number of people I have to speak to for work reasons believe) and, despite the endemic foot and mouth crisis, is still open for business. So, please don’t send me emails asking if you can take a train from New York as I will get upset.

I have chosen a good time to return to the UK: the trains are useless, our Prime Minister is losing the plot (though I still fancy his wife), whole chunks of the country are being bought up by Bill Gates and the tourist industry has been decimated by mad cows or foot and mouth. The joke which went round the office this week, and believe me there are enough mad cows there, was:

Two cows standing in a field. One turns to the other and says,

“Are you worried about this mad cow thing?”

To which the other replies, “Not really, I’m a hedgehog.”

The foot and mouth crisis has been handled terribly badly – no one listened to my advice of shipping all the infected cattle over to France (well, their lorry drivers do spend half their summer burning our lambs) but I am glad to say that the crisis seems to be coming to an end. In real terms the effect on the tourist industry has been devastating with many people staying away. As a country we rely on tourists and through BootsnAll I shall be trying to encourage as many people as possible to visit the UK.

Magdalene College

Magdalene College

So what about Cambridge? I am new here as well and over the next few months I shall we getting out and about as much as possible to explore this historical and perplexing city. The weather is now warm enough for me to take off a few jumpers and the spring flowers are all out in bloom, so it’s time to start my exploration of the city.

My initial thoughts on the city are that is much smaller then I expected, I can walk from one end of town to the other in about five minutes. Unless that is, I stop off for a swift pint in every pub along the way – in which case it would take me the best part of a week, liver damage and my girlfriend would probably have sold my record collection by the time I got home.

The second thing you will realize is that Cambridge is one of the most ethnically diverse cities in the UK, if not the world. I have yet to be served by an English person in McDonald’s and have actually spoken more French and Portuguese in the pubs than I have ever done in Portugal or France. There are so many Japanese people on the streets I often feel like I am back in Tokyo. And then, there are the students…

The students of Cambridge are a funny lot and have ideas of grandeur that often means that your average Cambridge undergrad has to turn sideways when entering the local pub to let his ego in. One particular story sticks in my mind.

Queens' College

Queens’ College

Years ago when I was a student, every university would have its own student bar. The poor students could stagger from their boring and tedious lecture straight into the comforting arms of a pint. Even better, this beer was heavily subsidized. In order to facilitate the average student’s descent into alcoholism a national union of students was set up – this meant that any student who stupidly found themselves away from their local university bar could pop into any other university, flash their ID card and spend the night getting bombed out of their minds on cheap beer. Almost every university joined this scheme, except, of course Cambridge who refused to let anyone apart from their own people into their bars. To make matters worse, their beer was the cheapest in the country. Obviously, this didn’t make them very popular.

For some reason I once found myself inside a Cambridge University bar – the exact details are somewhat blurry but I do remember wearing a suit and tie, so perhaps I was working. Whilst leaning on the urinals getting rid of a good night’s session of beer a spotty student, complete with cravat and tweed jacket walked in. He looked down his nose at me and said,

“You aren’t from Cambridge, are you?”

I shook my head, which made the room spin even more. Mr Tweed Jacket continued, “At Cambridge we think we run the country…well, in actual fact we do. Those oinks at the other lower class engineering universities (he mentioned mine by name) are just our cannon fodder.”

I went to leave in disgust. Mr Tweed Jacket watched me stagger to the door and sneered,
“In Cambridge we are taught to wash our hands after using the lavatory. ”

I hung on to the doorframe and said “Well, at my engineering university they teach us not to piss on our hands…” and then staggered back to the bar.

For this month’s first report I took the love of my life out for a meal at a Chinese restaurant (it’s a pity that BootsnAll don’t pay expenses). On the main Reagent Street in Cambridge is the well-respected Chinese restaurant Charley Chan (14 Reagent St). Despite it being a Monday night the restaurant was packed out and we had to wait for a table.

Corpus Christi

Corpus Christi

The menu was reasonably extensive and contained a lot of the traditional Chinese dishes such as shredded deep fried chili beef (which was sublime), excellent duck and succulent sweet and sour chicken. The waiters, all Chinese who barely spoke English, were somewhat erratic and our food arrived in the wrong order and with the wrong dishes, but the excellent wine list more then made up for this. The prices were reasonable as well at about £15 per head (though that’s not an expression I feel comfortable using around Chinese people after the time I ended up eating brain at a Chinese medical school function).

It was whilst I was sipping my Chinese brandy that I had an epiphany and rushed to the toilet, which as I had expected were spectacularly clean. Before the thought passed I climbed on the toilet seat and did what generations of Chinese have been doing for years. Anyone who has spent any time in China would have done the same – believe me.

I shall return next month with reports from some of Cambridge’s tourist attractions.

Philip’s Smalltime News
(a monthly slice of world shattering reporting from the local papers)

This week’s local paper reported that readers of the News DO know their road signs.

Following a report by the RAC which revealed that one in two motorists could not correctly identify signs in the Highway Code, we threw down the gauntlet – and ran a fun competition asking readers to have a go at pinpointing six common ones.

For the first correct entry picked out, there was a super prize – a free tank of petrol up to the value of �30 from Q8 in Cambridge’s Elizabeth Way or Huntingdon Road, Girton.

It doesn’t get any more exciting than this.

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