I went to a poetry reading in Cambridge last night to hear Jo Shapcott read. It was held in Trinity College one of the oldest and richest colleges in the University. Four cheery Porters greet me at the lodge. A cursory glance tells them I am not a student, Cambridge Porters pride themselves on being able to spot a student at fifty paces. “Can we help Madam?” They often use the royal we, Cambridge Porters operate as a pack with the Head Porter being the alpha male. I note that the students they have been dealing with prior to me have been addressed as Sir and Miss, age obviously pushes me into becoming a Madam. They talk amongst themselves when I ask about the whereabouts of the poetry reading as if they have to agree by unanimous decision that I look the right sort of person to come into the college, one of them is wearing a bowler. “I have just this minute given the keys to the Old Combination Room to a young poetic gentleman in a duffel coat, I suggest you follow him.” There isn’t a flicker on his face; he has no doubt experienced a trickle of young poetic men in duffel coats over the years and has learnt not to flicker but can express a puckish note of irony in the tone of address. Young poetic gentlemen of the college do go on to become cut-throat big wheels in the City, Cabinet Ministers, Professors at other less well-endowed colleges,scientists who offer the meaning of subatomic life and gravity and media stars. Cambridge College Porters I feel are still trying to live down and live up to the novel ‘Porterhouse Blue’ and Skullion the Head Porter in that book which is a difficult thing to do.Of course Trinity Porters may well point out that the college described in that book best fits Clare, a poor relation down the street.
I spot the duffel coat disappearing across the huge quad. I know better than to cut across the lawn, Cambridge College turf is lush, velveteen green and only allowed to be stepped on by bare footed pixie sized girls who would leave no trace of their presence. I think they have CCTV cameras trained on their lawns, Head Gardeners look at the footage late at night for evidence of any student trying to inaugurate a line of desire. A planner once told me those paths trodden down regularly by people as a short cut across green land is called a line of desire. I have always thought it a rather wonderful name. I walk a line of desire. Mental note to self, must write poem about lines of desire, especially that well trodden one at the local park and ride which goes straight through a rather prickly shrubbery to the waiting buses. I imagine a Head Gardener’s aim is to nip in the bud any line that students may desire to establish. Have they developed some chemical over the years that they spray on the grass to deter students, like the products you can buy that are meant to ward off cats using your garden as a toilet? I know they don’t work as I watch the local cats hunker down regularly in my grass despite their use but perhaps students are easier to discourage than cats, they have less sense of their own superiority.
The Old Combination Room is imposing, groaning with huge paintings of benefactors and old students over the past three centuries. They seem to be all named after pubs like The Duke of Sussex or The Marquis of Granby ( which was a fine spit and sawdust miners pub I once knew intimately). The chairs look original Chippendales and there is a grand piano covered up and awaiting a madrigal group in the corner. There is a decent turn out but small considering how fine a poet Jo Shapcott is. The young girl on the committee sighs and tells me it is nearing the end of term and students are desperately trying to pad out their portfolios. I thought only artists had portfolios, huge ungainly things which the Boo (Beloved Only Offspring) tells me are very difficult to navigate through the ticket machines on the tube and which tend to poke fellow travellers in the eye in the rush hour. Now Cambridge students have them as well apparently but perhaps given the age of the university it was they who had them first; Shakespeare after all had a folio, which must have been carried around. I picture the students, heads bent over books and laptops into the early hours drinking endless cups of coffee and desperately trying to develop the art of padding. I hope they sometimes have time to follow a line of desire (but not the cocaine sort of course).