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Varsity Vignettes

The University of Nottingham, in the Midlands of England, is just outside the city proper. It is set in a huge park with a boating lake at one end. Weeping willows dangle romantically over the water and when you take your girlfriend out on the lake and row your boat beneath them, sticky black stuff falls onto your head, suitably destroying the moment. The lake is inhabited by the most enormous carp I've ever seen. Nobody ever fishes there, and the carp are very tame. They greatly enjoy ham sandwiches and students are often to be found throwing their lunch into the water.

An old university tradition that I've just made up requires that students who fail their end of term exams must be chopped up and fed to the carp. Over the years, an awful lot of students have failed their exams. The size of the fish can't be explained by ham sandwiches alone.

Along with the rest of the first year students, I arrived at the University a week before the term officially started. It was probably the first time most of us had been away from home by ourselves and the University authorities were keen to minimise the trauma. Hence this initial, very special week, known as freshers week. It was specifically designed to make us feel wanted and to acclimatise us to the university environment; curing our homesickness by keeping us busy in a mad social whirl. And so we wandered in a daze, attending dances and concerts and spending money to join societies whose meetings we would never attend. Fleecing the freshers in this manner is an old university tradition that I haven't just made up. It's the only way most of the societies managed to stay solvent.

Because the Nottingham University campus is so large and so self contained, most students lived in halls of residence. I lived in the oldest and smallest of the halls. It was called Wortley Hall. Some students in Wortley were in double rooms, but I was lucky enough to have been allocated a single room. Not all students were fortunate in their random choice of room mate. Brian was sharing a room with an archetypal Welsh rugby player whose personal habits were so revolting that Brian, a sensitive soul, took to sleeping in the bath rather than in his bed. Fortunately we had two baths in the block. Unfortunately I soon commandeered the second bath because I wanted to grow the world's largest chemical garden in it. One shower now had to serve the whole block. Somehow we managed – and everyone, including Brian, was very keen to see the final results of my experiment.

My chemical garden was only a marginal success. But I remain quite proud of it. It was probably the last chemical garden ever grown in the Western world. I don't think you can get the secret ingredient any more. It requires large amounts of water glass – a concentrated solution of sodium metasilicate, once commonly used for preserving eggs but now quite obsolete in this refrigerated age. You mix it half and half (ish) with water and then drop chemicals into it. The chemicals precipitate their silicate salts which tend to be rather voluminous and which grow into spindly, wavy and very attractive multi-coloured shapes.

I'll swear I visited every chemist and crumbling back street grocery shop in Nottingham.

"Water glass, me duck?" was the generally astonished reaction. "Water glass? I haven't been asked for that for years. I might have an old can somewhere in the back of the storeroom. Wait here."

After much searching, the proprietor would emerge in triumph, blowing the cobwebs off an old, rusty can of water glass. The faded label generally had a picture of a woman dressed in quaintly old fashioned pre-war clothes, grimly dropping eggs into a bowl. Usually the shopkeeper was so glad to get rid of the rubbishy thing that I was given it for free. I'm certain I tracked down every remaining can of water glass in Nottingham. Nobody will ever be able to make a chemical garden in Nottingham again.

When growing a chemical garden, it is important to let the silicate solution settle down. There should be no convection currents remaining from the initial swirling as you dilute the solution and stir it into the container. The silicate salts that form the garden are very delicate and tend to shatter under the force of the currents. I let the water glass settle in the bath for five weeks before I started growing the garden. In retrospect, it wasn't nearly long enough. I did get some nice growths, but too many of them succumbed to the hidden turbulence of the currents and collapsed into sludge at the bottom of the bath. Actually, I quickly came to suspect that this would have happened no matter how long I left the solution alone. It seems likely that the solution never really settled down properly because of the vibrations induced in it by the clomping feet of dirty students heading past it on the way to the shower.

Nevertheless everyone agreed that the experiment had been well worth while and can we have our bath back now, please? Reluctantly I washed the sludge down the drain and normality returned.

Geoff bought a dartboard and hung it on the wall of his room. We played darts every day. Unfortunately we were utterly shite at it and every game turned into a race for double one. Loser had to make the tea. We got very good at subtraction and complicated factorisation. We knew exactly what double and triple numbers to aim for, we just couldn't hit them. Well, except for double one of course. We drank a lot of tea as well.

Eventually we got fed up with darts and took up Monopoly instead. During the summer term we would go out on the roof where there was a flat sunny nook well sheltered from the wind. We played Monopoly all day long. Geoff was a born and bred Londoner. He claimed that gave him an advantage; he knew the Monopoly board better than the rest of us ever would, having tramped all over it in his youth. I suspect there was some truth in his claim. He won the game far more frequently than anybody else did. Of course, maybe we were just shite at Monopoly as well.

John was a motor cycle freak and his room was largely occupied by an enormous motor bike chassis and the engine from a Morris Minor, with very little room left over for John himself. He was trying to combine the one with the other, convinced that if ever he succeeded, he'd have a super powerful bike. John's subject of study at university was mechanical engineering, so it was clear that success was imminent.

John's only subject of conversation was motor bikes. At meal times, he would regale us with motor bike reminiscences. He was particularly fond of telling us every detail of all the various accidents he'd had on his bikes. He'd had a lot over the years, and he hadn't emerged from any of them unscathed.

"There I was, flying through the air after I hit the kerb and shot off the front of the bike," he said one breakfast time as he used a couple of slices of toast to scoop up watery fried tomato and rubbery scrambled egg. "I put out my arms to try and cushion the fall. That was a big mistake. When I landed I broke both arms. Snap. Just like that. I was in plaster for six weeks." He shook his head sadly. "But that wasn't the worst of it," he said.

Someone always took the bait.

"What was the worst of it?"

"I was in plaster from my wrist to my shoulder on both arms," John continued. "I couldn't bend my elbows or reach behind myself. I had to call my dad to wipe my bottom every time I went to the toilet." He speared a sausage with his fork and chewed in meditative silence for a time. "I used to pray for constipation."

John never succeeded in marrying his bike chassis with his Morris Minor engine. He also failed his exams. The carp fed well that term.

Greg was studying mining engineering, though if you asked him why he'd chosen that particular subject he became very vague. He seldom went to lectures. He slept all day because he worked most nights as a bouncer at a Nottingham night club. He knew many dubious people and bought very dubious drugs from them. Once I went to his room to get some coffee (I'd run out) and I found Greg sitting bolt upright on his bed, completely catatonic from whatever it was he'd been ingesting. His eyes were wide open and they tracked me all around the room, but there was nobody home inside his head.

"Can I borrow some coffee?"


I took the coffee and left him to it.

One day Greg got a letter from his tutor, a man who Greg rarely visited and who appeared determined to extract the maximum possible amusement value from his recalcitrant student. He arranged a perfect summer vacation job for Greg; working as a labourer in a coal mine in Northumberland. Greg was horrified – the last thing he wanted to do was go down a mine. He sent a letter back to his tutor by return of post.

"Thanks for the generous offer," said the letter, "but I won't be able to take you up on it. I'm spending the summer vacation in hospital having my haemorrhoids repaired."

We acquired a magic ball from a toy shop. When you dropped it, it seemed to bounce back higher than the original level from which it was let go. This was intriguing. The ball apparently violated all the conservation laws that underpinned everything we were taught in lectures and that we used every day in our laboratories. The fundamental laws of physics were in peril. The very structure of the universe itself was under threat from this bouncing ball!

Careful measurement proved that it was all just an optical illusion; the ball was indeed bouncing very high, much higher than a normal ball would bounce, but it wasn't bouncing higher than the original point it was released from; it just looked as though it was because of the unexpectedly high return. If left alone, like any other ball it would eventually run out of energy and stop bouncing. But whatever strange material it was made of did seem to be highly efficient at converting potential energy to kinetic energy and back again with very little loss; hence the enormously high rebound. The conservation laws still applied (thank goodness); they just applied a lot more slowly than we were generally used to. The laws of physics were safe. The universe would survive for at least another day. Entropy could go on rising. On balance that seemed like a good idea.

"If it bounces so high when you just drop it from waist height," mused Greg one day, "what would happen if you dropped it off the roof? Would it bounce right up to the top of the building again? That would be an amazing thing to see!"

Now that the thought had occurred to us, it was irresistible. We hurried to the highest roof we could find and dropped the ball eighteen storeys. It hit the concrete pavement and, stressed beyond its storage capacity, it shattered into millions of minuscule fragments. Obviously there was a finite limit to the amount of energy the magic material could absorb before disintegrating under the load. What a shame.

Dave played double bass in a trad jazz band. They called themselves The Campus City Jazz Men. They eventually made an album (Jazz On A Boot Lace). I still have a copy, and it's not at all bad. But at the beginning of their career, they knew only one tune: Ain't She Sweet. For a Rag Week stunt, they decided to go busking. Since they only knew the one tune, that was the only tune that they played. None stop. For 18 hours. They were trying for 24 hours but their stamina ran out. Their audience ran out after about 2 hours. Ain't She Sweet is not one of the tracks on their album. They never played it again after that first mammoth endeavour. They detested every hemi-semi-demi-quaver of it.

The band had a semi-regular gig at a pub called The Bell. One of the tracks on their album is called Dorothy and it was written by the band themselves as their tribute to the landlady of the pub, the eponymous Dorothy herself, a fierce lady who stood no nonsense from anyone. Everybody was terrified of her.

One steamy summer day some friends and I were drinking in The Bell. The pub was crowded and the atmosphere was very hot and muggy and so we took our pints out on to the pavement in a vain attempt to cool down. We'd only been outside for a few minutes when Dorothy herself appeared in a towering rage.

"What do you think you're doing?" she demanded rhetorically. "Are you deliberately trying to get my license confiscated?"

"What's wrong, Dorothy?" I asked, genuinely puzzled.

"I don't have a liquor license for the pavement," she yelled. "I'm only allowed to sell drinks inside the pub. Get back in. Now!"

She bustled us back through the door. Meekly, we went.

Many people have been thrown out of a pub. But I am one of the very few people in the world who has been thrown in to a pub!

You couldn't be a student in those days without being involved in the politics of the era. The killing machine that was the Vietnam war ground inexorably away with no end in sight, and civil rights were a burning issue (sometimes literally). Only the political left seemed to have any solutions to these problems. Sometimes it seemed like the left wing was the only viewpoint that recognised that the problems even existed at all! We weren't the first generation to believe this but, as it turned out, we were pretty much the last generation to believe it. I still think that's a shame. As a direct result of that shift in fashionable thinking the world is a poorer place now than it was then.

Like all universities, Nottingham had its radical student fringe. We had a sit in once, protesting against the war. There was a huge turnout because the organisers had the brilliant idea of showing pornographic movies to while away the long hours of boredom. There's a limit to how many times you can chant "Give peace a chance."

Derek was a socialist (as were all right-thinking people. Joke! Insert emoticon of choice). He played lugubrious tunes on his violin and claimed inspiration from the Thoughts Of Chairman Mao Tse-Tung. That famous little red book was on every student's bookshelf at the time, though I suspect that few of them read it, for it was rather dull and self-contradictory. Together with his friend Michael, Derek organised a socialist soccer team. Every time they scored a goal, they would wave their little red books triumphantly in the air. Another success for Maoism. Imperialism And All Reactionaries are Paper Tigers (pp 72-81. I still have my copy of Quotations From Chairman Mao Tsetung. Have you still got yours?).

Michael was a close friend of Tariq Ali, the organiser of many of the more effective political demonstrations of the time. Though he was based in London, Tariq Ali was often to be found at Nottingham. Strangely, however, he had almost no involvement in any activism on the campus. I suspect he came there to relax and perhaps to play a game of socialist soccer. That was a joke he would have greatly enjoyed. He was passionate about his politics, but he was also a wonderful conversationalist with a wicked sense of humour. I liked him a lot.

One day Tariq Ali arrived at Nottingham with a taciturn and very hairy man who appeared to live only on beer and cigarettes. This was Mick Farren, another political radical and journalist. He wrote much of International Times, an underground magazine that was required reading in those days, though its habit of printing articles in light green ink on a slightly darker green background sometimes made its message difficult to decipher. It was usually on sale in the University Bookshop (distribution was erratic; it didn't always turn up). I always made sure to buy every issue I could find. I didn't keep them though, and now I rather regret that. I suspect they'd be worth a lot of money if I still had them.

Today Tariq Ali is a respected member of the establishment though he is still politically active. He writes erudite novels and political tracts which few people read. He retains his impish sense of humour. His book Pirates Of The Caribbean: A New Hope is a thorough analysis of the political philosophy of Hugo Chavez, the President of Venezuela and leader of the Bolivarian Revolution.

Mick Farren went on to make several forgettable rock albums which all had wonderful titles and execrable songs. Mona – The Carnivorous Circus and Vampires Stole My Lunch Money are two examples that spring to mind. These days he makes a comfortable living by writing cynically decadent fantasy novels.

I have no idea what Derek and Michael are doing now – but I do know that the carp never got anywhere near them. They both ended up with very good degrees, as indeed did most of the rest of us.

Isn't that what it's all about?

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