Ex-Cambridge Student James Hayes has written his first novelJames Hayes with permission for Varsity

Behind the pristine facade of a collegiate University full of archaic tradition, the realities of student life, ‘beyond the looking glass’, can often be demystifying. And while the well-trodden cobbled streets of Cambridge have long provided authors and creatives with a perfect backdrop for their protagonists, Homerton alum James Hayes has set out to write his debut novel for a different purpose: to uncover the “the lies behind Cambridge minds”.

Loosely based on his own experiences studying Land Economy, Hayes hoped to utilise his free time during lockdown to “dispel the challenges of being a student” in Cambridge, an endeavour that was “fresh in his mind after graduation”.

“Getting the grades is one thing, but playing by the rules of high society is another”, he tells me.

So much of our student experience resides in continual flux. Hayes’ narrative captures the ubiquity of personal growth and change as a Cambridge student. Stripping down the Cambridge experience to a consolidated, common core – through a blandly named protagonist, “Harry”– is a surprisingly effective tool to psychoanalyse the social complexities of Cambridge life.

"It’s something that I’ve frequently found myself questioning," James tells me, especially when put in unusual, uncomfortable or simply odd social situations (such as the first time interacting with a fellow or the first time at a formal). He wanted to unpack the intricacies of Cambridge rituals he felt like he knew nothing about.

"When people go to Cambridge, they change – usually for the better"

The Cambridge student experience is characterised by a number of inescapable – albeit familiar – hurdles. The “arsenal of jargon” that freshers are thrust into; college and subject superiority; wider social challenges, sexism, class differences, and cultural differences are all fair-game for Hayes.

These are the “lies” at the centre of his narrative: though he tells me that these, perhaps, are better put as facets of the Cambridge experience that have been “too exclusive for too long” and not “scrutinised” enough. Hayes describes the challenges of acclimatising to Cambridge during first year; the distance from home friends or family, the implicit peer pressure to do more and more outside your degree, facing imposter syndrome and the “pressure to compete”. Hayes’ book also tackles more weighty issues, such as student suicide and sexual assault – “digging into the extremes” of Cambridge life.

“When people go to Cambridge, they change – usually for the better”, he says. Hayes believes that Cambridge allows students to “grow as an individual and learn how to hold themselves”.

"The Cambridge bubble does eventually pop”

Weaving together Hayes’ own personal experiences and those of his peers produces a composite product that he hopes can be equally an “attack” on the privilege of boys clubs, like the “Pitt Club members”, and a way to improve the accessibility of the Cambridge experience for students that are “not from Eton, Harrow or St Paul’s” and have a natural stepping stone into University.

Hayes places his protagonist at Trinity, rather than his own Homerton which he describes as “strange and exciting” in accepting “more state school kids” than other colleges. This difference Hayes tells me was prominent in his experience of formal dinners. Hayes feels that the incumbent principal Simon Woolley, who he recently encountered at Homerton May Ball, is “doing wonders for the college” and there seems to be less segregation between student and staff than elsewhere. Hayes’ focus on accessibility in his writing seems to have turned him into something of a minor celebrity in Homerton: anecdotally, he tells me about twins who recently approached him in the Homerton May Ball queue to tell him that ‘they loved his book’.


Mountain View

Time to say goodbye

Yet, Hayes’ mawkish narrative does at times border on a cliche autobiography. The work hard, play hard culture of the University leads his state-school educated protagonist – which ultimately cannot be removed from Hayes, himself – to morph into a drinking soc member that indulges in cocaine-infused nights out, replete with public school stereotypes. You get the type. This may be alienating for some (one review reacted to this as “mediocre at best, but also kind of icky”), but Hayes’ guiding principle to allow his readers “licence to interpret” the unique challenges of being a student in Cambridge provides equal opportunity to understand or ridicule his caricature of the drinking soc trope.

Hayes’ self-awareness forms the biggest strength of his work. And while he “didn’t want to achieve everything” in his debut novel, Hayes feels empowered to “follow on” and explore the Oxbridge experience from multiple perspectives: his sequel (aptly named The Lies of Oxford Minds) takes a feminist lens, following the experience of one of the characters in his first novel in “The Other Place”, though he his mindful about the challenges of “writing on behalf of women”.

Reassuringly, Hayes tells me that the “Cambridge bubble does eventually pop”: you will end up at some point “in an environment where not everything is traditional”, you will have to “get your hands dirty”.

After Cambridge, you’ll experience “boredom, without the same mental challenge or stimulation” that the University – despite the lies behind its students’ minds – provides in abundance.