There was a discussion on the radio recently about the value or otherwise of university. One woman put the case against very well: you might make friends and you might deal with great minds but a lot of students don’t do much work and miss half their lectures: and, even if they learn anything, most of it’s completely useless and doesn’t teach them any real-life skills.
A harsh judgement, perhaps. However, nothing better sums up the time I spent studying Medieval History at Cambridge, a combination that provided, I freely admit, a double insulation against the real world which was then dominated by the winter of discontent and the first rumblings of Thatcherism. All problems are relative, of course, and ones own usually more important than anyone else’s. My problem, on my third day at Queens’, was my first supervision.
The supervision took place in one of the oldest parts of the college with a man called Jonathan Riley-Smith who was the leading expert, the go-to man as he would be called today, on the subject of the Crusades. I’d met him at my interview for which event he’d made some effort to smarten himself up. For the supervision he made none. Yes, he had a suit on but it seemed to have been designed for someone of a completely different shape. He was constantly shifting his position, giving the impression that at least one item of clothing had been put on back to front. His hair was standing on end – this we both shared – and his tie was creased and stained and poorly knotted. But it was the pipe that really cemented the impression of academic central casting. It was always either belching evil-smelling smoke, or being held upside down and scattering cinders and ash, or going out altogether. Books and papers were piled up everywhere. The armchairs were of the vague, faded colour that is found nowhere else apart from in don’s studies. The early autumn sunlight angled through the grimy mullioned windows illuminating the clouds of smoke that rose whenever Riley-Smith managed to get his pipe going and the clouds of dust whenever he shifted in his seat. The room, the man, the atmosphere – all were exactly what I had expected them to be.
None the less, I was apprehensive. Was he about to ask me some piercing question, laugh at my stumbling reply and then vow never to teach such an imbecile again?
His next remark, though possibly well-meant, was even more disconcerting.
“This,” Riley-Smith said, waving his pipe around, “is the room in which Erasmus wrote most of his translation of the New Testament.”
I glanced around nervously. I was dimly aware that this document had changed the world. Luther and Tyndale had both used it for their vernacular translations in the 1520s which became the sparks that had lit the spiritual, intellectual and political ferment of the Reformation. It was as if he had confronted me with the piano on which Beethoven had written the Moonlight Sonata, the easel on which Leonardo had propped his canvas before painting the Mona Lisa or the laboratory in which Rutherford had split the atom and been told: ‘well, that’s what’s happened so far, now it’s your turn – do your best.’
After this setback we talked for a while about Edward the Confessor who would, I learned, be the subject of my first essay. After a while I asked him what lectures I should go to.
He grinned and took another formidable pull at his pipe. That’s easy,” he said. “None of ‘em.”
This was unexpected. “But…you’re down for giving one,” I replied.
He waved his hand. “Ninth century France,” he said dismissively. “Don’t know anything about it. I was drafted in when Baldwin had a heart attack. Most of the others are going to be completely awful as well.”
“Oh. What shall I do?” I sensed I was almost wailing.
He threw out his arms again. “Read, my boy. Read. We have some of the finest libraries in the world here.” He gave me a list of a dozen books to get me started and briefly disappeared behind a cloud of smoke. The supervision appeared to be over.
I staggered out and went to the college bar. There I saw Chris, whom I’d first met the night before, and who was studying Natural Sciences. He said he’d just been told he had hour-long lectures every weekday starting at 9am, 10am, 11am, noon, 2pm, 3pm and 4pm. He asked how many lectures I had.
“You’re not going to believe this,” I began.
I felt a bit uneasy. For my last few years at school I’d partly fought against and partly succumbed to the peer-group notion that it was cool not to do any work while the teachers were telling us to do more: and now, in my first educational experience as an adult, this had all been reversed.
Anyway, I was a good student and did all my weekly essays. Eighteen months passed and the week arrived when we historians were about to take our Part Ones at the end of the second year. Every other faculty did theirs at the end of the first year which allowed less time to screw up. I felt pretty confident.
A few days before the first exam, I ran into my friend Sean who was doing the same papers as me. “Brian, Brian,” he said, “look, just tell me about Otto the Great.”
I swelled slightly. I knew quite a lot about Otto the Great, a very significant figure in medieval German history. What did Sean need to know about him? His motives during the Rebellion of the Dukes? The Ottonian Renaissance? His relationship with the Papacy, the Slavs, the Byzantine Empire? His Charlemagne complex?
“Yes, yes,” he interrupted me. “All I want to know is…”
“Look – was he French or German?”
We both got the same grade, which briefly pissed me off.
Another year rolled by and finals approached. Anglo-Norman Feudalism – not a phrase you read every day – was one of my papers. A few weeks before the balloon went up I met George on the bridge in the middle of the college. George was also a historian and also studying this paper. He was vastly cleverer than me. He had this way with him, as many very clever people have, of fixing a half-smile on his face when listening to what you were saying in which surprise, contempt and disappointment were mixed in roughly equal measure.
That expression was there when I answered his first question, whether I’d read a 20-page article with the snappy title of Politics & Property in Medieval England by JC Holt. I told him I had but hadn’t understood it.
“No,” he said, “I don’t suppose you did.”
Even George, not the most empathetic of men, must have seen from my expression that this was going a bit far. “I didn’t understand it the first time either,” he grudgingly admitted.
“How many times did you read it before you did?”
“Three. You need to read it again, and again, and again. Until you understand it. Don’t bother about anything else. When you understand it you will understand everything. Nothing else matters. If you understand it you’ll get a first in that paper at least. If you don’t you won’t.”
If I’d climbed a Himalayan peak to learn the secret of life and the universe from a aged savant I couldn’t have hoped for more unambiguous advice. I followed it to the letter. I got a copy of the article and read it six more times without success.
Then I read it for the seventh time and I got it.
I can’t, after this passage of time, tell you what ‘it’ was, not exactly. There are no facts or examples I can now recall which might describe this minor epiphany. The closest I can come is to say that it was like seeing and understanding the complex and interconnected workings of a watch, or standing on a mountaintop and having the mist suddenly clear so that the whole landscape lay spread before me. George had been right. It all made sense. No intellectual achievement since has come close to that moment. The entire business of my being at university at all was vindicated. I paid no further attention to any revision for this topic, fearful that one more fact might shatter my insight which was, I suspected, probably pretty fragile. Three days later I went into the exam and duly, in that paper, got a first.
There were four other papers. The one I’d marked down as my banker for my best marks was on the Crusades. I was particularly fascinated by the Fourth Crusade of 1204, one of those extraordinary events which show just how badly fate can wreck the best-laid plans. The expedition never left Europe, sacked two Christian cities and conquered Constantinople. By the end most of the army had been excommunicated. It was the spiritual equivalent of an AA class going on a drunken rampage and stealing the crown jewels. I knew a fair bit about it and had a reasonably original theory about what had been going on. All I needed was a question, any question, on this event. I had established from past papers that one always came up. Judge for yourself my disappointment when I found no such question there.
There were a lot fewer questions to choose from that I’d expected, only ten rather than about 17, which should have given me a clue as to what was going on. I chose my three essays, spent an hour on each, and finished the last with a few minutes to spare. As I was putting my sheets together the exam paper fell on the floor and landed the other side up. There were eight more questions there, including one on the Fourth Crusade. I’d forgotten to turn the paper over.
At no point in my life since has anyone asked me about the Fourth Crusade. I’ve told a few people, unbidden, usually failing to notice that glazed, twitchy expression that only deep boredom can engender. I don’t think that perfect theory is there any more. Nor could I tell you a great deal about Anglo-Norman feudalism nor my old friend Otto the Great. As for turning over pieces of paper, only a few weeks ago I had to fill out and post off a form and a week later it came back with a note telling me there were more sections on the back that I hadn’t completed. Seems like that woman on the radio was right after all.