My time at Cambridge

" I often have Girton dreams. It is such a wonderfully strange building, it haunts my imagination even now. Cambridge still surfaces in my sleep, too. I dream of the river and punting - or rather, being punted, since every time I stood on the end of a punt I fell in. I remember arriving in the autumn term, when Cambridge is about to get extremely cold with the mist coming in from the Fens. Here there were long corridors, very dimly lit, and Gothic arched ceilings. It was the first time I'd ever lived apart from my parents, the first time I'd had a room of my own - with all the freedom and fear which attaches to that. I loved the sense of a company of ghosts of women who had founded that place and fought for the right to education; you could feel their presence in the air.

The college had its drawbacks. I was colder then than at any time before or since. And the food was unspeakable, the worst kind of boaeding school food! I very rarely went into hall after the first term: a good way to lose weight - that and the cycling. To avoid cycling down the Huntingdon Road into town in winter, we all used to hitchhike, although it was forbidden.

Sally Beauman

One of the drivers who used to give us lifts was a legend; he had a little mirror below the dashboard so that he could see slightly up your skirt. One day when I had a lift I looked down and thought, "Oh God, there it is!" But he was a mild man and no harm came of it.

I don't now think in a Cambridge-critical way when I'm actually writing; that would have a distancing effect of the wrong, self-conscious kind. But I do think in that way when I'm planning a novel, when I'm deciding on structure and shape and narrative approach. Cambridge won't provide flesh but it's useful for bones. And Cambridge helped me to learn to read; the 'practical criticism' course had a great deal to do with that because it concentrates on the minutiae of the writing. I have a vivid memory of sitting down at a seminar and being presented with a piece of prose or verse; you look at a piece completely blind and assess it and date it on its own merits.

I went to lectures in the first term, then gave up. Later it made me so cross that I hadn't done enough work. But I went up at eighteen, from a cloistered life at a girls' school where it was unimaginably sheltered: I worked, went home, did my homework, had my supper, did a lot of reading, then went to bed. And here was this place filled with temptations, among them men; to be seduced away from work was quite pleasant.

I used to write poetry. Was it published? Certainly not! But with your Part I you could submit original work and I remember sending off a great bundle, mainly short stories and some - God help us - sonnets and villanelles.

The one thing I wanted to do at Cambridge was act. I'd acted at school, so as soon as I came up, I went to the ADC for auditions. I can remember so well a most hideous atmosphere. As you entered the building, an atmosphere of feuds and jealousy and rivalry and spite drifted out through the door. The theatre was male-dominated. There was Howard Brenton and there was David Hare - but I can't remember any women writers and directors. There were no women among the Peter Hall impersonators who were auditioning you in the stalls. One of them later showed me his notes made at that audition; for the women, he'd simply put down remarks about their physical appearance - and given them marks out of ten. I got a 7½ or 8. I thought it was funny but it made me angry that this was the only way they could rate women. It shocks me still.

I then had the part of Hermione in The Winter's Tale. It was the most dire production and the scenery included clouds that wobbled. I played Natasha Petrovna in Turgenev's A Month in the Country and Mrs Alving in Ibsen's Ghosts (which we took to the Edinburgh Festival). There was going to be a production of The Birthday Party, but after the read-through there was trouble with the copyright so they did The Caretaker - all male - instead.

Sally Beauman

I was in one or two productions a term; it took up an enormous amount of time. I got a 2i in Part I and then slipped to a 'theatre' 2ii. You can't blag your way through Finals. I remember standing outside the exam room, waiting to go into the Metaphysical Poets paper - about which I was quite confident - and then Clive James said, 'You do know that when Donne writes about "the little death" that's actually orgasm?' I didn't know that. All confidence drained away.

The novel paper was a nightmare. The trouble with that damn paper was that I'd read all the novels and all the novelists that the examiners decided to ignore that year. Only one of those I'd prepared came up, so for three questions I had to improvise. That was why I was making bricks without straw - an especially bad idea when the brick concerned is Henry James.

I had fallen in love at Cambridge and got married the summer I went down. My husband, who had a First, won a Harkness Fellowship to the States. I then had no work permit, so my first job was at the Iranian embassy in Washington. I was secretarial window-dressing; my main job was to order the caviar for parties. But I had an office all to myself, where I wrote my Cambridge novel, because it's good to get that out of your system. Published? It's still in a drawer. "

Cambridge Alumni Magazine (CAM) / No. 37 / Michaelmas Term 2002:

Interview by Jonathan Sale


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