20 years ago today

My Dad warned me not to mispronounce the name of the College I was looking to enrol with. It is 'Emmanuel' he advised me, not 'Emmanuelle'. This isn't a soft porn film from France.

A little nostalgic


Twenty years ago today, I rolled the dice. I went to Cambridge University to interview for a place there to study Social and Political Science. My Dad warned me not to mispronounce the name of the College I was looking to enrol with. It is ‘Emmanuel’ he advised me, not ‘Emmanuelle’. This isn’t a soft porn film from France.

My Mum was ill at the time and I remember her so well that day, December 16th 1999. That morning, she helped straighten my tie. Here she was, by the kitchen table, the towering figure in my life and the most loving one too, frail and yet so determined to send me off in the most confident possible mood.

I have often reflected on what was going through her mind. On what was going through my Dad’s. It was such an uncertain and difficult time for our family. And I have both of them and my sisters to thank for helping me find a way through.

I have also often reflected on what would have happened if I had’t performed well that day, if I hadn’t done well in my A Levels the following year. Would any of it have mattered? I would have gone to a brilliant university (let’s be honest, with a much better student scene), at either Nottingham or Bristol, or possibly Southampton.

Sliding door

I often think back to December 16th 1999 as one of the real Sliding Doors moments of my life. Had nerves overcome me – I was extremely nervous – what would have happened instead? I am sure I would have experienced regrets, but then could I really know what I was missing?

Picnic by the River Cam
We all loved in a picnic after exams had ended

To be honest, extreme as this may sound, I think my life could have been a bit duller had I not succeeded. I have met friends I could never imagine not having in my life, and for all its pitfalls (my friends and I discuss how there were plenty of pitfalls), Cambridge helped me become the person I am today.

And yet it’s not at all just. That it still has the position it does today in UK society, enabling and opening the opportunities it does in a way that represents something terribly unequal. I am totally aware of that and don’t take anything I have experienced for granted – ever.

Cambridge, like Oxford, and many UK universities and institutions, need to continue working hard to open up and make themselves more reflective of wider UK society. I well remember how odd the whole interview experience was. I was well-equipped. I went to a grammar school that prepared me for the odd interview questions that would come my way.

Praising Hitler

Three amigos
Strangely attired, and still somehow a band of three

I remember the guy in front of me in line for an interview seemed to think praising Hitler was a sure-fire way to impressing the academics. I was certain he must be right! I seem to remember I was tasked with talking through what I thought about Marx. Probably not very much, but – and this is what needs changing about the system – I somehow managed to cobble something together about historical materialism or the like that just about saw me through.

One interview, my eventual Director of Studies, was a social anthropologist who may as well have come from Mars (but in a good way). Dr Sue Benson sadly passed away a number of years ago, but her warm disposition put me at ease that day, although the austere study she interviewed me in, had quite the opposite effect!

21st birthday party
I met lifelong friends, and yet it could have been very different

When all my interviews had come to an end, I exited, through the drizzle and met up with my Dad again. I think we went for an early dinner at Pizza Express. I simply had no idea what was going to unfold and how much of it would have lifelong, lasting consequences.

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