Sat in a green armchair in the hotel where he conducted Varsity interviews as a student, author and journalist Sathnam Sanghera orders a Sauvignon Blanc. Despite noting that the hotel has been greatly spruced up since his student days, returning to the city nevertheless means that “no matter how old I am, I feel slightly homesick, slightly out of my depth and slightly intimidated”. I jokingly suggest that a professor might turn up demanding an essay and Sanghera chuckles, saying “the first thing I did when I got into my room was to start reading a book” – you can never leave the Cambridge habits behind.

Finding himself in “a very, very academic college without realising”, Sanghera’s overwhelming memory is of work. “I wish I’d had more fun”, he tells me, before double checking that I’m not working too hard, pointing out that my “notes look way too neat”. I promise him that it’s just my handwriting but he is keen to reiterate the importance of soaking up the time you have here: “I just wish I’d worked less. That’s my advice to everyone. Obviously some people reading this will end up winning the Nobel Prize for science but my advice in general […] is to work less because no one has ever asked me for my degree results. Ever.” Sanghera graduated from Christ’s with a first-class degree in English Literature, so the work did pay off. “In a way it all worked out”, he acknowledges.

When he wasn’t studying, he was writing for Varsity and freelancing for national newspapers. “Thank God there was a lot of journalism”, he says, “because my social life was non-existent”. He remembers it being “quite difficult to break free of Christ’s and the bar that closed at eight o’clock” – and didn’t open at all during exam term – but Varsity offered an escape. It also furnished him with plenty of stories, such as the time they asked Stephen Hawking for his opinions on his favourite bands in the BRIT awards shortlist: “he sent us back a detailed reply, talking about his favourite Spice Girl – Geri was his favourite”. Varsity was the place where he could practice his creativity, getting the experimentation out of his system. “Thank God it wasn’t online because it all disappears. All of it has disappeared so the bad writing is not out there for people to find”.

“Work less because no one has ever asked me for my degree results”

Speaking of technology, Sanghera remarks, “You guys have Tinder. I mean, it would have been nice to do some of that”. Despite studying a heavily female course, he was surrounded by male friends doing English at Christ’s, and so although “there must have been people having dates […] we all struggled”, getting into relationships after graduation. Aside from Tinder, Sanghera appreciates many other developments which make Cambridge “a very different place now. You have things like pastoral care and mental health awareness – there was none of that then and you were just left to work things out yourself.”

There was “so much about my childhood I’d repressed”, he says, noting his lack of knowledge about his class, his parents and his father’s illness, which, combined with “the weirdness of Cambridge” led to difficulties in making sense of his time here. “I didn’t understand the whole class divide. I didn’t realise that there were lots of rich people pretending to be poor because I was poor pretending I wasn’t poor”. Sanghera remembers there being “all sorts of social codes” he didn’t understand, including during his interview for Varsity editorship. He ran alongside Dan Roan, now BBC Sports Editor, but ultimately missed out, being informed that “they didn’t believe a single word that we said”. It clearly still haunts him, telling me – or himself – “I’ve gotta get over that”, before explaining that “it was just one of the many moments I felt at Cambridge where I didn’t know what happened”.

Access to Oxbridge is extremely important to Sanghera – he wrote an article for The Times in 2018 discussing Oxbridge’s access problem in depth – and so I am keen to get his opinion on Cambridge’s recent decision to scrap state school targets. He notes that “amazing work has been done in the last five years” to create access schemes “so it would be sad if we backed off, but I do think quotas in themselves sometimes can be counterproductive”, using himself as an example. As a teenager, Sanghera worked in a factory and received free school meals, yet the government’s assisted places scheme meant that he was able to gain a state-funded place at a private school. For Sanghera, “foundation years are the key” to levelling the playing field, explaining “that is where the real change is happening”.

"It was just one of the many moments I felt at Cambridge where I didn’t know what happened”Frederick Windsor-Clive with permission for Varsity

Despite studying some post-colonial literature while at Cambridge, it wasn’t until he reached his forties that Sanghera’s interest in examining Britain’s relationship with Empire began. He remembers how his final Practical Criticism exam was the opening page of Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, saying “I don’t know how I managed to understand those books without understanding the history, but I did. I think the whole of England is like that; we ignore Empire”.

“I can’t think of anything else in the world that is as contested as British Empire”

Sanghera has described how writing Empireland “was like putting Britain on the therapy couch”. With Empireworld, he discovered that “countries are all in different degrees of therapy with it […] but they’re all way ahead of Britain”. Referencing schemes such as India’s official programme of decolonisation and some Caribbean countries’ demands for reparations, he explains how “not every country has a state of deep understanding about why, but compared to them, we are in the deepest need of therapy”. He attributes this to the fact that modern day Britain is entrenched in “a narrative about ourselves which has nothing to do with Empire […] and that narrative is about us defeating the evil, racist Germans”. The mere idea that we could have also been involved in “a deeply racist enterprise” doesn’t fit into this narrative, and being an island makes it “very easy for us to act like it never happened”.

Discussions about Empire have “always been basic and unnuanced”, according to Sanghera; Britain adopted a “balance sheet view” towards it from the beginning. Regaining nuance into these conversations, however, is a challenge. “Absolutely everything to do with Empire is contested”, and in a world of social media, which further polarises people, it is incredibly difficult to talk about it without getting into a fight. “I can’t think of anything else in the world that is as contested as British Empire”, Sanghera tells me, explaining how it encompasses topics including colonialism, misogyny and LGBTQ+ rights. When I ask his opinion about the history faculty library being named after Sir John Seeley, Sanghera offers – as expected – a nuanced response: “I’m not into deleting things and undoing things because I think it turns history into a culture war and you know, Seeley was important. He played an important role as the first ever imperial historian”. While Seeley was “definitely nostalgic” about the Empire, for Sanghera, “it’s more problematic that we are run by an entire cabinet of people who only think the Empire did good things”. Again, we return to the need to reach a more nuanced understanding of Britain’s imperial past.

Sanghera’s writing career has spanned history, fiction and memoir, and he notes how this constant movement in genre means that “I always feel like I don’t know what I’m doing”. The experience of imposter syndrome is common amongst Cambridge students, but “I don’t think the imposter syndrome is necessarily bad”, he says. “It actually motivates me to focus and not to take anything for granted”. It is therefore unsurprising that his next book is “nothing like any book I’ve ever written”. “I can’t tell you what it is, but it’s surprising”, he teases, before explaining that the cause of these constant gear shifts is that he “like[s] feeling intimidated. And then you do it – that’s what life’s about”.


Mountain View

Building feminist solidarity in Cambridge

It took him two weeks to write his first column for the Financial Times, chuckling as he tells me that it “wasn’t sustainable because it was a weekly column.” He did eventually become a weekly columnist, showing the importance of pushing yourself and realising that perfectionism is “a waste of time”. It can be “a good thing to aim for” as long as you remember that “people don’t notice those small things you stayed awake all night for”. This is especially true for academic work: “it might just be skimmed, let’s be honest”, he laughs, before quickly adding, “I’m not saying that you should not try. But don’t kill yourself basically”. Work is not the be all and end all.

“I should moan about it less”, he says, noting the incredible opportunity “to be taught by world leaders”. He reflects on Cambridge’s beauty, remembering “really long punting trips all the way to Grantchester all day long, drinking in perfect weather. We did quite a lot of that – it’s stunning. I’ll never forget that”. As our conversation comes to a close, Sanghera looks out the window and we discuss the biting wind making an otherwise sunny evening quite chilly. Although Cambridge “has changed in ways I would never have imagined”, he says, some aspects – the wind, the ambiance, the beauty – remain the same.