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The Meaning Of Life From A Student Point Of View
University! Now there´s an institution! I always said that if anyone could model a society based on university values they could count me in. This would mean that the vast majority of the population need not work very hard, would not get paid very much but would be fed regularly and allowed to spend half their time in bars buying up as much half price beer as could be imbibed in a night. Cannabis and other hallucinatory aids would be legal and freely available as optional extras for those with more creative tendencies, while the idea of any fixed moral standard would be given up in favour of “a little bit of what you fancy does you good!” And if anything happened to threaten this idyll of perfection, these uni-citizens, guardians of world knowledge, would be perfectly within their rights to take up banners and march in protest. The national anthem would have to be something by Motorhead.
What am I saying here? I´m coming down I guess in favour of a more romantic view of life, more “nurtured-by-love” than “driven-by-greed”. There are serious differences between the two, the one filling our hearts with warmth and security, the other dangerous and all-consuming, though no two people can agree which is which. For my part, I could not believe my luck. The first day at Badock Hall was like Nirvana, a spirit existence of pure ecstasy. Out of four hundred odd students, over half were single available females. It was the perfect opportunity for a bit of greedy love-nurturing.
I was so happy I couldn´t help but chuckle as I unpacked my bags in one of the four hundred single bedroom units that had been allocated to me overlooking sloping open green gardens and fertile trees. The room was tiny, just big enough to contain a single bed and a desk, but it was all I needed. I chuckled because I´d got my car. There it was in the car park, my slightly dented yet proud maroon Marina with its vinyl back seat polished and waiting.
Unlike school there were no feelings of being in the wrong time zone at Bristol. Everything in fact was modern and liberal and fair. The attitude of the lecturers surprised us after the close attention we had received at school, since they virtually paid us no regard at all. They said their bit, at lectures and tutorials, perhaps two or three times a week, then left us to it. It was up to us.
The morning after the Fresher’s Party I stayed in bed till twelve, then panicked when I realized I had missed a lecture. But then I remembered this was not Trollope´s. Here, nothing happened, no one noticed if you went missing, so I went back to bed. It was very fair. We were given access to the best education, the best brains, and it was up to us whether we put it to good use or not.
Fresher’s Week was a chance to meet veteran students and join the various clubs and societies they had dreamed up in a moment of idleness, an odd assortment of activities and time-consuming drivel that in my mind did not match up to even ten minutes with Rita the Stripper, and not till it was over could we apply ourselves to the more serious business of learning. In between lectures and tutorials, which in total took up about twelve hours a week, our time was our own, which sounded great, but the importance of self-discipline soon became apparent.
Most lunch times I found myself in the giant refectory, where you could get a decent meal for under a pound. It was next to the Wills Memorial Building, the focal point of the university, a large, neo-Gothic structure at the top of Park Street which looked like a cathedral and built by the wealthy Wills family, tobacco magnates, at the beginning of the century. Students would scamper up and down the massive stairway in the foyer all day long, going to and from lectures, but despite the crowds I found myself alone a lot in the early days, since everyone had lectures at different times and in different buildings around the city.
Early on I bumped into my brother Mario and some of his friends from the Law department. He was in the third year and about to graduate. It was obvious that for the first time in his life he felt superior to me. Oxford had slipped though my fingers and I was a sad rookie at his old uni. He was okay with me, passing the odd comment, but it was clear he had no intention of including me in his circle, which was fine by me. I wanted the freedom to explore and was happy not to have my big brother and his pals breathing down my neck.
The car made me popular very quickly. At the end of every day there would be four or five fellow long-haired Badockians casually milling about the car park hoping to scrounge a lift. I didn´t mind because it was good company. After a while, I started charging ten pence each way so that my first beer every night was paid for.
The best time to meet people was in the early evening in the bar, just after dinner. Badock Hall bar had a pool table, billiards, darts and a limitless stock of cheap beer. Most nights we would sit around with our feet up on low round tables waiting for something to happen. There was always music in the background, the Police, or the Pretenders, or Blondie, artists making waves at that time, and soon a small group formed around me. First it would be just two or three of us then, if it looked like we were having a good time, others would join in. It was not unusual sometimes for fifteen or twenty idle mop-heads to be sitting around in a big circle each making their own semi-articulate contribution to whatever relevant and vital discussion was going on.
We thought it was our responsibility to change the world and make it a better place. That was the message we inherited from the 60s, that students can make a difference. But we always had that one thing on our minds which got in the way. One night Gerry, the biochemist from Northern Ireland with an explosive orange Art Garfunkel hairdo, put it succinctly in neurological terms: “It´s jost anutter biochemical fonction,” he was saying in his attractive Belfast lilt, and a few more stopped to listen. “Tere´s nutting else to it. As parts of t´body are stimulated signals are sent via metabolic processes to t´reticular formation at t´brain stem and tis is activated, so you have t´sensation of pleasure. Occasionally t´process resolts in a shortage of oxygen and excessive pumping of t´blood round t´body, which is why you get hot and bottered during sex. It´s all linked to t´hypot´alamus you know. Tat bugger is responsible for all sorts. Loike so many tings about our bodies, it has its own memory and is t´erefore habit forming, so it´s easy to become addicted to sex.”
A short cheer went up at the last bit. We were already members of that particular club. I was impressed by Gerry´s grasp of neurology but determined to have him a long way away from me the next time I was trying to pull.
Once I was introduced to a fellow Greek Cypriot by someone who thought he was doing me a favour but I found him too meticulous, too strait-laced, a future bank manager if ever I saw one, and after one or two meetings I did my best to avoid him. Instead I spent more and more time with a tall, hook-nosed geezer from London, from the East End. He looked like he´d been to a few Millwall games and come out on top. His name was Chukka, six foot four if he was an inch, with arms like an orangutan, long and dangling, casually carving out great arcs of air as he walked. He always had a twinkle in his eye and a joint hanging from the side of his smiling mouth. By the middle of the second term he had met and fallen in love with a dwarfish fair-haired girl with a pretty face called Linda, who was always in sexy leathers or denims like Suzi Quattro. Like Chukka she was straightforward and had no airs or graces, and they were a fun couple to know. With the difference in height there was about two feet of empty air between them but it didn´t stop them from being forever glued at the mouth, he doubled down to her and she up on tippy toes, like a couple of love-sick school kids.
Our social lives were a curious mixture of on the one hand sitting around trying to sound intelligent and on the other behaving like brute beasts, the two contradictory impulses which governed our behaviour. Some people came down more on the side of one than the other, like my neighbour Sheridan who was a pure geek and never seemed to leave his room but spent the entire time studying, fixated on the mating practices of the Lesser Spotted Eagle or some such inanity, while listening to inoffensive tunes by Steely Dan, while others didn´t study a jot for the whole of the first term and instead devoted their energies to examining the limits of their endurance to party.
I steered the middle path, drawn to the sort of people who aimed for the best of both worlds. I met people who refused to be pigeon-holed or type-cast, life´s true characters. The people I teamed up with at uni I would never forget: Chukka (who was really Charles) got his nickname from the volumes he vomited after a good night out but planned to get a first in Chemistry; Gerry, a brilliant biologist who in a future life saw himself handcuffed to the chicken wire at Greenham Common protesting against nuclear weapons or buried in some swamp in the path of oncoming bulldozers to halt the building of a flyover; and little Linda, whose pretty, petite posterior gave us all pause for thought whenever she air-guitared to rock anthems, but was one day going to be a researcher in a cancer unit, doing great work for kids. These were unpredictable people with worthy futures.
We could talk about anything without fear of criticism or attack. It struck me as a fair and constructive way of organizing things that people of the same age and with the same interests could be encouraged to live together and share common dialogue, regardless of religious or political boundaries and without fear of persecution. It bore similarities to ancient Greek symposia which produced the intellectual fruit of fifth century Athens. That it was financed by the state made it noble.
Despite our high blown aspirations, the small talk in the first few weeks centered around what courses everyone was taking, the societies everyone had joined and the amount of work everyone was getting which varied from department to department, in others words typical student trivia which soon got boring and drove some of us out of the residence hall altogether and into town to mix with the civvies.
In town we would drink among friendly Bristolians, hard working people who weren´t trying to fix the world but just doing ordinary jobs for minimum pay, watching football at the weekends and getting pissed at night. In the future, when my life was to become more complicated, I would think about that simple commitment, typical of a thousand English towns, a million UK neighbourhoods, and see it as the perfect lifestyle. But I worried that I would never fit in, never be normal. Being bright was a curse, and many students felt it, attracted to the complex, to the intangible, to the mysterious and unanswerable. I had always been that way. I still have a slip of paper with me written when I was about ten years old when I wrote: “Things to do before I get old: (A) discover if there is a God, (B) find out what happens after we die, (C) learn the meaning of life.” With that sort of baggage, what were the chances of being able to have a good time along the way?
All the bars, to survive, boasted cheap student nights during the week with wild themes, uproarious events which only delinquents and the depraved would be crazy enough to attend.
One such occasion, and the most momentous, was the Vicars and Tarts Ball. The great thing about being at Badock Hall was that we got to see all the girls at their best before we went out, so we could plan our girl strategy well in advance. They loved any excuse to get into their fishnets and parade in front of us in the bar. And some of the boys were even more imaginative than the girls. We would pile into taxis looking like the cast of “The Rocky Horror Show” the first big gay musical. Whenever we arrived in the city centre, it was as if we owned it.
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