Louis Ashworth / Varsity

Varsity’s first issue was published on January 07, 1931. If we ever possessed copies of the first editions in our archives, then they have long since turned into dust - and Varsity’s turbulent history of bankruptcies, amalgamations and uncountable editorships mean that even our piles of dust have been misplaced. To get back to the very start, you have to enter the UL. Make it past the mute, pleading eyes of masters students as they look up from an endless corridor (all language other than Ecclesiastical Latin vanished from their heads) and you will find the microfilm archives on which Varsity is stored. The room itself is an archive of the 70’s - towering projectors built from laminated wood and bakelite, which hum and rattle in the dark, as you crouch under a yellow desk lamp.

“News receives a curt front page, and the rest of the paper is devoted to theatre and film reviews”

They reveal a very different paper to the one you hold today. Far from focusing on Cambridge, the stated aim is ‘to tell you what is happening in London … for in spite of the car ban, we still manage to spend a few hours in town’. News receives a curt front page, and the rest of the paper is devoted to theatre and film reviews - ending each edition with a two-page-spread reviewing a recent car model. Cars make their way onto the news page too - almost every edition contains a story of undergraduates being hauled up in the local court, with offences ranging from driving without lights, to ‘H.E. Shaw of Christ’s college, who … said that he was driving from London to Cambridge and when near Royston felt very tired. He did not remember anything about Trumpington, until he hit the wall’. Upon exiting the car, a banker recalls Mr Shaw asserting that ‘I want this hushed up’; nearly a century on, we can only apologise to Mr Shaw for Varsity’s indiscretion.

The first edition sells well - the second beginning with a humble apology to those seeking a copy who had to be turned away after we sold out. And on the second page, we get a glimpse of the Varsity of tomorrow: an article titled ‘CAMBRIDGE PSEUDOEDUCATION’, which provoked a critique in London’s Daily Express the next week. It creates a weird sensation, which we have become familiar with in the archives - the experience of reading sentences which a friend might have said yesterday alongside those which haven’t been uttered in decades.


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‘Consider, for instance’ our journo writes, ‘the state of the English Tripos … the ground to be covered is so wide that it is impossible to study any part of it with the thoroughness which it deserves’: ‘the syllabus definitely militates against any attempts to acquire a proper knowledge of English literature … other faculties are in little better case.’ One undergraduate, ‘being afflicted with too great a love of his subject’, is applauded for leaving Cambridge to pursue his studies at a German University; acknowledging that ‘most lectures are little more than a waste of time … they are either dull or interesting (mostly the former), but rarely instructive.’

They are lines that echo through my head during a 9am on the history of political thought, which begins and ends with the question, ’What is the history of political thought?’. Nobody seems to know - least of all the historians of political thought. The thirties disappear into the present, in a lecture hall which probably hasn’t changed either - until the conclusion of the article is reached: ‘parents throughout the empire are persuaded to send their sons to Oxford or Cambridge in spite of the expense: they leave Cambridge endowed, it is true, with a certain prestige, but with little else.’