The fairy tale of Cambridge

In her frank guide for freshers, Martha O’Neil looks at whether Cambridge is all it’s cracked up to be

Martha O'Neil

Cambridge – Disneyland or Riot Club?Max Pixel

Dearest, darlingest Fresher,

I’ve hardly had a moment to stop, this summer. Barely a chance to think about heading back to Cambridge with all my worldly possessions piled high in the boot of my Mum’s car, my reading-list suitably untouched. I’ve interned and worked and spent the best part of two months on public transport or eating out with friends or eating in with a pot of peanut butter for my company. A delicate balance of being busy and being indulged, made all the more delectable by the care-free, self-loving attitude I’ve acquired over the past year. And, somehow, I feel like a new me, heading into second year.

This time last year, I, perhaps like you, was fraught with insecurity. Anxiety even, mixed with an ugly obsession with wanting to fit in, to succeed, and nerves that made me feel as if the walls around me were capable of crushing me. My way of coping with this was to fade into the background, a docile wall-flower or a wall-weed (perhaps?), only awakened by conversations of Brexit or the Bake Off. And so Freshers’ Week was awash with worry and expectation. Cambridge, after all, had been my dream – if it did not live up to this fantasy, then all of my hard work, all of the unhappiness at school, all the stress of sixth form, had been for nothing. It was as if my whole self-worth was hinged upon Cambridge.

"Cambridge, after all, had been my dream – if it did not live up to this fantasy, then all of my hard work, all of the unhappiness at school, all the stress of sixth form, had been for nothing."

So, I was shocked, really, when the Disney Land of my dreams was not the reality of a being a Cambridge student. It had the appearance of Disney Land, sure – the grand halls, the spiralling staircases, the paintings of monarchs on walls so high you could not see the details crafted into the ceiling. The gowned nights and the banquets and the midnight walks along the river Cam. A Prince Charming, ball gowns, choirs singing noon and night, Shakespeare, bejewelled shoes and afternoon tea or prosecco, barefoot on the lawn. But, and it saddens me to say, Cambridge is not a fairy tale.  

Sometimes lightning strikes the Magic Kingdom, the Gods stir and the rain falls heavy on your windowpane, making the walls quiver, the river overflow. You can become trapped in your room or the library, quite like Rapunzel in her tower, slaving over work and stressing about some minor comment muttered by your supervisor. You can have deadlines which become monsters in your mind, and, sometimes, you stare into the mirror, mirror on the wall, asking yourself how you became an individual addicted to praise, a fiend for validation, for proof that you are entitled to even be a citizen of this Kingdom.

Your tiara may slip a little, as you wake groggy-eyed, still tipsy from the night before. You may realise that Prince Charming, although indeed charming, is not the one for you. You may find that as the clock strikes twelve, you turn into a pumpkin, rather than your mode of transport, after you eat too many cheesy chips when returning home from Wednesday Cindies. And you’ll watch a blue-red dawn break over the Cambridge skyline, not with the love of your life, most likely, but with Hobbes or Plato or Pythagoras or some other boring, dead, white male.

The moral of the story?


Mountain View

Do I really need to read my reading list?

Cambridge is not always a dream. It can be, and in some sense you have to make it so. Indeed, sometimes Cambridge can seem more Game of Thrones than Cinderella, what with college family incest, college rivalry, the feasts, the public flaying (I joke, I joke). But if there’s one thing that my first year at Cambridge has taught me, it’s that you have to love yourself to succeed. This was something I only realised in Easter term, and I so wish I’d learned it sooner. I wish I’d known that you will not complete your reading list, you will not attend every lecture, you will not submit every essay on time, you will forget to go to numerous interesting sounding Union debates, and you will be ok. I promise.

Even when it feels like everything that could go wrong, has gone wrong (and trust-me, I wrote an article about my dress splitting and exposing my bum on my way to Lola’s on the first night of Freshers’), you will make it through. Not by wishing on a star, buying a magic lamp or being kissed by a frog at Life, but by believing in yourself and finding your voice.

It takes time, but eventually the glass slipper will fit and all will fall into place. You’ll still revel in the beguiling novelty, the beauty, the extravagance of Cambridge, and you’ll learn to cope (perhaps not entirely master) its demons too. Believe in yourself, take pride in what you have achieved so far and keep on going, keep on walking the yellow brick road even when Oz feels so out of reach. With term fast approaching, I know how far I’ve come in the last year – so far, in fact, that I can hear the munchkins singing in the distance.

You can do it.

With love,

The Fresher Fairy Godmother

You can do it.Pixabay