Party like it's 1993Liz Fraser

The freshers reading this weren’t born when I had my Freshers’ Week. The less we mention this from now on, the better I will feel about myself. Thank you.

I came up to Cambridge on the 2nd October 1993. To give you some cultural references from that time (I use the word ‘cultural’ loosely here…) Take That’s ‘Relight My Fire’ was at number one, Jurassic Park and The Fugitive had just come out, and Pulp Fiction was yet to make us aware of the existence of chaaaarming motherfuckin’ pigs. John Major was Prime Minister, and Friends had not started yet. Yes, you heard correctly: Friends had not started yet.

Much was the same for a fresher then, as it is now. Pigeon holes, hand-written names above doors, queues for the showers, toast-related gyp room fire alarms, occasional vomiting in the Scholar’s Garden, pub crawls, and total confusion about how to cross from Pembroke St into Mill Lane without getting killed by a cheese delivery lorry.

Nightlife was largely limited to table football tournaments and drinking games in the College Bar; a pint of lager was £1.20 in my day. Then again, a 3-bed house near Jesus Green was £3.75, so in relative terms it wasn’t all that fantastic. For those who liked to extend their sweating and drinking into the small hours, we had two night clubs to choose from: Chicago’s, which was somewhere near Waterstone’s, and Cindies.

Yes, dear young reader, Cindies is older than Friends. Remember that next time you are grinding against a Modern Languages student, and give a nod to those who have ground [grinded? Discuss…] there before. For the stagger home, the Death Van was there 22 years ago, as was Gardies. I’m pretty sure there are still drunk photos of me aged 19 stuck to the wall in there somewhere.

Much of student life is exactly the same. But SO much has changed. On that October day in 1993, I lugged my trunk up the steps of Memorial Court, to the bottom of S staircase. I had an attic room. This meant 25 trips up and down four flights of stairs, carrying all my Stuff.

In 1993, ‘Stuff’ meant the worst jeans ever known to fashion, giant plaid shirts, T-shirts so baggy you could fit most of your new friends into them, body suits with poppers at the crotch, a kettle, four mugs, a jar of Nescafé, a packet of Digestives, postcards of The Joshua Tree, an assortment of CDs and… a hi-fi system.

For those unfamiliar with the latter, a hi-fi system was like an iPhone, but slightly less portable. It came in seven handy parts: a CD player, a radio, a record player, a tape deck, an amplifier, and two speakers. Each section was the size of a small house, and weighed 700kgs.

This is how we listened to music. If we wanted to go crazy and listen to any new music, we had to go and find a human in possession of a hi-fi system, and ask them if we could please borrow one of their shiny round things, called CDs. Then we’d spend an hour recording from the CD onto a cassette, thus being able to listen to all our favourite music as if it was being performed in a sand storm, in a cave, underwater. With screech owls.

1993 was a time when communicating with people required a lot of effort. This was the pre-mobile phones era. It was also pre-Tinder, pre-email, pre-Whatsapp, pre-Skype, pre-social media, pre-Netflix, pre-laptops, pre-flipping INTERNET era. Yes yes, the internet existed, but only CompScis had heard of it, and we never understood what they were talking about anyway. It was also pre-Instagram, so we all looked shit all the time. No Valencia filter kindness for us. Just acne and vodka blotches.

If you wanted to meet up with someone you had to walk all the way to their room, often across town if they lived out of College, write on the notice board outside their door, and hope that they got it. If they didn’t, you didn’t see them. End of story.

iMessage of the '90sLiz Fraser

To write an essay, you had to cycle to the Department, join a queue in the library to get the journals containing the articles you needed for said essay, then discover they were all already in use by some bastard efficient anorak from Homerton, wait (without being able to fill the time with Buzzfeed articles; you actually had to talk to people, or think), finally get the journals, queue for the photocopier, get to the front just in time for it to run out of ink and toner, ask the librarian for more ink and toner, be told the library is closing now, abandon the essay, cycle home in the rain, go to the bar, get drunk and spend all evening trying to find one person who actually knows what the hell toner is for.

Now, almost all the articles and papers are available online. All the time. And there is NO INK OR TONER ONLINE. I actually hate you all a little bit for this.

In 1993, studying occurred in one of two places: your room, or a library. Not over a cappuccino in town. Café culture was confined to the basement of Woolworths, or Paris. Flat whites were items of underwear you’d accidentally left under a pile of heavy books. There was one café in town, and it served two types of coffee: black, or white. And we could afford neither. This is where the kettle came in. Inviting someone for a cup of Nescafé and a custard cream was 1993’s Netflix and Chill.

But what we lacked in instant communication, 24/7 entertainment and latte art, we made up for in other things. Like... job prospects. And peace. It was fairly unquestioned that after graduation we would all get a job, maybe not well-paid, but a job nonetheless. Most assumed that we would probably own a house within a few years as well – and many did. Almost nobody graduated in debt.

Were we happier, with the simplicity life afforded us then? I do not know. I do know that I feel more stressed now than ever, with a constantly bleeping and buzzing phone, work that never switches off, and the pressures of modern life.

And now, as I watch my eldest daughter applying to (sssshhhhhh…) Oxford, I wonder just how different, and perhaps more difficult, her time at University will be than mine was.

No, she won’t have to queue for the photocopier. She can email her supervisor if she needs to. She carries all the music she could ever listen to in her pocket. She won’t have vodka blotches in her yearbook photos. But she, like you, is living in uncertain times, with no guarantee that her degree will be of any use at all, or that she’ll ever repay her student debts.

One thing is the same now though, as back when I was a Fresher:

These years are to be enjoyed. Taken for everything they are, experienced, felt, devoured, lived. So get out there and live them. Take everything this place has to offer you. Take it, and enjoy it. You’ll be missing those gyp room fire alarms and essay deadlines before you know it.

Liz Fraser is a best-selling author and broadcaster, columnist and stand-up.

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