I went up to St Andrews to read History before it got all royally. It was a very remote, wet and windy place and I spent a lot of time trying to escape.
St Andrews was a good university if you happened to be a Sloane, not if you were Scottish, or a Socialist, or anybody else really. Still I enjoyed it, or at least some of it. I was doing History and seemed to study with a lot of people called Crispin or Samantha who wore matching pink jumpers slung in jaunty ways around their necks. There were a lot of frolics on the beaches and naughty goings on in the close and I felt like I was back at school and didn’t want to be.
I made friends with some other grumpy people and we hid from the joyous hordes of happy Sloanes and moaned about life a lot. I did karate and got a brown belt and joined the mountaineering club because I liked the chief mountaineer and then had to go climbing in the freezing rain and wind every weekend until I decided I didn’t like him that much. Academically I wasn’t shining either. My first paper was on Alexander the Great. In the following seminar, our professor read out my piece. ‘This student,’ he told us, should be writing Mills and Boons.’ I loved Alexander the Great – I had written, ‘ the young prince strode into the arena, his blond hair ruffled by the breeze’… and so on. It was not a great start, although my professor was hardly one to criticize, his first lecture had consisted of a slide show of him and his wife sitting on various stones around Greece and toasting each other in tavernas.
My first year I lived in a hall just overlooking the last green on St. Andrews golf course. This was of course completely wasted on me, as I hated golf, although when there were famous golfers doing a round that was quite exciting in a celebrity-watching kind of way. The whole hall was full of very loud Sloanes who put on loud fancy-dress parties. The first one I was invited to, the woman giving it, chose who you would come as, so I got to come as Mick Jagger (large lips) and she was some famous beauty queen. I looked around the room and realised she’d put all the other woman in drag, very crafty. My room-mate was a very tall American woman, who arrived as a blonde pianist, but after a week became a troubled Goth. She played obscure music and took long walks at midnight down to the medieval graveyard. If she wanted to discuss anything difficult with me, like my tendency to play the Mamas and the Papas, she would write me obscure poems about it and pin them to my pillow. If she got very upset, she would include the stuffed ferret that she kept near her bed; coming home late at night to find his beady, red eyes on my pillow was a bit alarming.
The second year I shared a house with five other men in a very tacky, (literally) house just off one of the beaches, a couple of miles down a hill from the town. Apart from destroying the beauty of the coast line, the builders had chosen the very spot where the east wind from Siberia first hits the British mainland. The houses would shake in the wind and moan all night. Walking up and down the hill with bags full of Ancient History books, which are never light, against the wind and driving snow was not a good experience. The other men were all hippies, at least in the sense that they believed that washing was the work of the devil, long hair was good as long as it was never cleaned and that car magazines are a good substitute for toilet paper. They spent most of their time closeted together upstairs playing Dungeons and Dragons. This used to go on over most meals as well, so I would be joined in a delicious out-of-date pot noodle dinner by Gandalf and a troll or two. I tried to join in a couple of times, but was always made a boring mermaid sitting on a rock for days on end, occasionally getting the chance to comb her hair. So I gave up
My third year was in a restored nunnery where there were only girls and we sat around in the evening and had interesting chats about feminist issues. My room was a converted cupboard (literally) and opened on to a brick wall. I couldn’t walk around the bed. I became a cook for the Green group and cooked disgusting brown slop at home and for them. I began to miss all the Dungeon and Dragonners.
Graduating was hilarious. St Andrews likes its traditions – it was all very Hogwarts. You had to kneel in front of the provost, dressed in a huge, musty red cloak and get hit on the head by a stuffed piece of John Knox’s trousers tied to a stick like a jester’s tickle stick. Then everyone would throw their weird velvet hats in the air and shout hurrah and we were graduates.