Daniel Hilton

If you were to somehow break into my college room and pop open the drawer beneath my desk, having waded your way through crumpled clothes and overdue library books, you would be presented with a formidable collection of scraps of paper and pocket-sized items. Wristbands from college ents, name places from fancy benefactors’ dinners, programmes from arts nights, postcards from zine launches, and much more. This is only a selection of the Cambridge paraphernalia I have acquired over the past three years.

I could put such tendencies down to my sentimental personality (yes, I do say a heartfelt ‘goodbye’ to my room at home before leaving for a new term at Cambridge), but I don’t think I’m exceptional in this desire. Material items are fodder for humanity’s nostalgic posture. I have a friend who collects menus from every formal he’s attended, A5 sheets swirling with puddings and wines pinned up on his posterboard for all to see. I know another third year whose cutlery collection is bolstered by the spoons used in Hall, fancy silverware tucked in amongst his own less ornate utensils. And not to mention those who are drawn to accumulate stash representing every society they may be even tangentially connected to.

“Material items are fodder for humanity’s nostalgic posture”

In-and-of themselves, however, it might seem that these objects don’t mean all that much. Menus are printed en masse, wristbands serve the wholly functional utility of getting you into a venue, and those programmes go out of date as soon as the events they detail have passed. And we’re Cambridge students. Surely we shouldn’t care so much about material things? What matters is the matter of the mind: intellectual objects, philosophical objections. Right? Maybe not.

After three years of studying theology, I cannot help but see the theological resonances in our obsession with material things. Western minds often conceptualise religion as purely a matter of belief, but this fails to recognise that as embodied creatures, our encounter with the world is as much physical as it is spiritual. We see something of this in the Christian sacramental tradition. Bread, wine, water, and oil are the materials that make present past memories, by re-enacting the resonant stories they hold within them.

And it is not just what those things represent which captivates us. It is the things themselves. Don’t get me wrong: I don’t see such observations as evidence for the condemnation of a woefully consumerist, materialist culture. Rather, this is an ode to our love for the material, because it is the substance both we and our memories are made of.

“For every formal menu we collect, there is the stinging pain of a meal we were not invited to”

When I look at my obnoxiously bright red netball dress, I’ll remember the Cuppers final our team played in April, how it felt to run across that court and narrowly beat Jesus in a thrilling game. When I hold those fraying paper wristbands, I remember serving drinks behind the bar at numerous college bops, the lyrics of Robbie Williams’ ‘Angels’ (the closing anthem of every John’s ent) seared into my mind. And perhaps one day I’ll come across the name place l or menu from my matriculation dinner all those terms ago, and marvel at the timid excitement of 18-year-old me. She hadn’t yet studied all the Theology she would come to cherish; she hadn’t yet met all the people she would come to love.

I like to think of myself in 20 years’ time, pulling out a memory box from under my bed. I sift through the dust and find in concrete form the narrative of my time at Cambridge. But that sepia-tinted image is troubled by a more profound truth. In collecting some items, and throwing away others, we construct a particular story of our time in these hallowed halls. For every formal menu we collect, there is the stinging pain of a meal we were not invited to. For each May Ball, or Varsity Trip poster that hangs on a wall, there is the unspoken echo of the times we have not had fun at Cambridge – the times in which we have really struggled. And perhaps I’m sentimental for the notes I made for my first ever supervision, but I probably won’t look back fondly at the hastily typed essay submitted late at night with not much sleep.


Mountain View

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Material matters to us, but it can also deceive. Its presence sparks memories, but makes invisible those thoughts we would rather left un-‘recollected’. And I can’t help but think that despite its power, there is something missing in the material. The paraphernalia I collect will one day fade away. Inevitably, I’ll accidentally leave behind a bag on a train, or I’ll spill water over my formal menus, and they’ll decay. I might rip my college stash or have it end up in a pile of mud. It won’t last. Even the articles I’ve written, like this one, will ebb with the tides of history, and the words I’ve spoken in supervisions will only last as long as a professor’s memories.

All in all, that might sound like a pretty bleak vision of things, but I take comfort in the precious fragility of our material, and the vulnerability of our memory. I’ll treasure those items for as long as I have them, but I know I won’t have them always. The Bible says it best: “Do not store up for yourselves treasure on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasure in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:19-21 NRSV).

So, on the cusp of graduation, I look back on my time at Cambridge with a full heart. Perhaps it doesn’t matter too much what material I keep and what I chuck in the bin. Experiences are made concrete in the person they challenge you to become, the story they narrate of who you are. Who I am. And that’s something I won’t be forgetting any time soon.