After a summer that dwindled, there was a fervent excitement amongst my friends and I to be back in college. It was a term that promised reunion and a sense of normality. The buzzing silence of libraries, laughter echoing in staircases, the whirring of coffee machines muffled by music from a singular AirPod. It was never going to be like any Cambridge reality we had experienced before, though. I didn’t expect it to be. But to return to Cambridge usually feels like coming home – a sense of comfort and familiarity. Except this time, it was as if all the furniture had been rearranged. Something was off. Even so, one thing remained firmly put: the speaker. Exactly where it had been left. Even when the world comes to halt, the track still seems to play.
So, here is my Michaelmas through music.
Week One – Life on Mars, David Bowie
There is a certain hum that rings in the air when everyone returns back to college. Arriving blissfully naïve to the workload ahead of us, our only priority is to throw our arms around the people we haven’t seen over the vacation. I felt this more than ever this term, but there was an underlying uncertainty that seemed to quell the pace of a normal first week back. It oddly makes me think of Life on Mars. No one really knows the lyrics to the beginning.- coming back was like tentatively mumbling along to it. No one knew what was going on. But still, it’s Bowie. Like Cambridge life, he is recognizable. And more often than not everyone knows the chorus. Reaching this bit of the song is like that feeling of retrouvailles that only comes after spotting a friend from across the lawn, or from walking past a gyp to smell burnt toast, fairy liquid and alcohol spilt from many nights before. The lyrics are as confusing as the first week of Michaelmas turned out to be, and yet there is something comforting in the knowledge that the chorus will remain unchanged. Even if Cambridge was a little different, it was still Cambridge.
Week Two – Fluorescent Adolescent, Arctic Monkeys
Corridor parties, Cindies substitutes in bedrooms, and 9pm marquee raves. If this song were an object, it would be a sock on a smoke detector. I remember hearing someone play this out of their phone as I sat in bed. The tinny din of the beat leaking through the thin walls and under my door. Drunken chatter coming to a crescendo at “the best you ever had…” A rule breaking anthem, coronavirus precautions had been swapped for college dorm commotion.
Week Three – They Can’t Take That Away from Me, Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong
Week three was a week of empty biscuit packets and extended reading. The mundane reality of Cambridge hit, and the novelty of the architecture and Market Square began to wear off. College drama was no longer boiling over, but just simmering, and I was cracking on as per. Ignoring the responsibilities I had piling up, and the numerous lectures on Panopto, the week went relatively smoothly. A little slower paced, this week carefully danced along, like fingers on piano keys. Melodic and reasonably upbeat. I hadn’t been torn apart by my supervisors yet, so what else is there to do than sway to some jazz.
Week Four – Dreams, Fleetwood Mac
The halfway mark was met with national lockdown. But this week was the beginning of finding meaning in the little things, and the things that hadn’t gone as hoped. This was the week of taking walks to Grantchester and getting romantically caught in the rain. I was on a walk with someone near the meadows by the back of Newnham, and she told me that the clouds reminded her of the women in Botticelli paintings. I can’t look at clouds the same way anymore. In hindsight it all feels as if it were a Coming of Age film. It was all sunsets and jumping on abandoned punts in the fog. Just as Stevie Nicks says “you want your freedom” and bizarrely even in a national lockdown, I think I found it, even if momentarily.
Week Five – Wuthering Heights, Kate Bush
The only way to deal with this week is to dance around in a field dressed all in red. Chaos. Confusion. Way too much work. Week Five is a little crazy anyway, let alone with everything that was going on this year. Of course, there must be a student out there that’s mastered their workload, like Kate Bush has mastered composition. Unashamedly not me.
Week Six – Tired of Being Alone, Al Green
I never really recovered from Week Five. Al Green was my soundtrack of this week of late mornings, unbrushed hair, and forgetting to water my plants. This is the classic ‘Sunday Morning’ playlist song. Every morning of Week Six was as productive as a Sunday morning. Nothing was getting done, other than an insane amount of croissant eating. Somehow I thought some 70s soul would ease me through it all. My coffee went down a little nicer, and the butter on my toast spread a little smoother. It’s also the perfect song to sing in the shower.
Week Seven – Le Temps de l’Amour, Francoise Hardy
I have a running joke with my friends that 60s music makes me feel like a bond girl. My friends also know me as that girl who wears the leather jacket. And I feel the two go hand in hand. I don’t know if it’s the intro, or the raspy toned first verse, but this song could make anyone feel powerful. Totally the kind of energy I needed to get through this week. Armed with caffeine and a pair of black stilettos, we just about made it.
Week Eight – Both Sides Now, Joni Mitchell
Fast forward to Bridgemas and bittersweet goodbyes. Nothing makes me more teary than when this song sounds in that Love Actually scene, when Emma Thompson realizes she’s been cheated on by Alan Rickman. We all had the same feeling in the pit of our stomachs this year, when it came to leaving. The end of term came with immense relief, but a fleeting sadness than can only be remedied by the company of friends. Driving off from college was harder than ever this term. Leaving a life you’re so fond of behind you is difficult – particularly when you don’t know you are coming back.
That term was a term like no other, and yet what is distinctly Cambridge has remained unchanged. Just l when the world stopped, the music kept playing.
Image Credit: Kings College Cambridge / wikimedia commons