Cambridge in October...the falling leaves on the Backs and the sense of excitement and possibility...there's nowhere in the world that brings back my younger self to me with quite such intensity. It has been a busy half-term, and a shockingly sad one, for reasons I don't want to go into here, but it began with a trip to my old university with daughter Maddy.
It's been decades since I was last at the arts faculty buildings on Sidgwick Avenue, but there we sat in the old lecture halls for a couple of the Festival of Ideas talks that she was interested in: Six languages that changed the world given by Professor of Linguistics Ian Roberts, and Truth and lies in teenage fiction, a talk by author Anthony McGowan. Both were utterly engaging and thought-provoking, delivered to the kind of packed houses that lecturers like Christopher Ricks on Tennyson used to command in my student days.
In many ways, the town and the university seem completely unchanged. The venerable buildings are beautifully cared for, though more closed off from the public than they used to be. The atmosphere is the same; even the scraps of conversation from passing students seem unnervingly the same as they always were. "...tea at Caius..." "...see you at the ADC..." "...essay crisis..."
Yesterday, it brought home how extraordinarily comforting it is, when a place stays so much the same, when I happened to drive past the location of my first real job as a trainee journalist, the next stage after Cambridge. Maddy was involved again, as she'd found a driving test theory centre that offered a slot that did not entail getting up at the crack of dawn on a Saturday, that just happened to be down the hill from the old Kentish Times building on Sidcup Hill.
After leaving her to take the test, thinking that it would be another glimpse of the past, I decided to take the road past the old newspaper office, a hulk of a 1920s/30s place with the name proudly emblazoned. But at the top of the hill there were only unfamiliar new buildings and no sign at all of what had once been the hub of a large regional paper with nine area editions. I had no idea it had gone, and the gulf between expectation and present reality was oddly disconcerting.