Failing to pack

By Juliette Guéron-Gabrielle

I am packing my second-year room. I feel nostalgic for everything that was, for every piece of fabric, small paper note, mismatched earring. 

I chance upon old objects I barely touched: a red notebook I brought in France and didn’t have the time to fill; the toothpaste my ex bought me whose taste I hated that I stashed in a drawer; the yellow poncho my mum thought I would need that I never took out of its plastic wrapping.

Piles of newer objects too, summer piles, from days after exams when time flows differently. Days spent laying on the grass, chatting. The Grantchester pile – towel darkened by river mud, bathing suit, sun scream. Five-pound bright pink cap I wore once. 

Flowers on the road to Grantchester.

The pile of dresses I wore this June, when the weather softened and putting together outfits felt like too much effort.  

On shelves, high-heeled boots, neatly aligned below my favourite books. The Hemingway novels I read in Lent when descriptions of Spain, paved streets, and whiskey felt like a nice escape from claustrophobic Cambridge. My favourite Romain Gary, La vie devant soi, the most touching description of love I have ever read. Social outcasts huddled in a small, stinking Paris appartement, and when one dies the other covers her in perfume and makeup, until he is forced out of the appartement, into a world where she – the prostitute that brought him up – can no longer protect him.

A lot of objects I wouldn’t have bought were it not for lockdown. Memories of being in Cambridge in Lent: a calmer, sweeter rhythm, less to do, more cooking, kitchen chats, and walks. The chequered board I would bring to hall when I got weirdly obsessed with chess.  

A large French press I used once this year when we had breakfast on a Selwyn rooftop. Blanket spread out, fear of porters, sticky pastries. Memories of my friends smoking on that rooftop, extending the break; memories of watching the morning melt into the afternoon. 

Too many clothes, given I wear the same ones all the time. Hard to decide which ones to take home, which to leave in storage.

By now, my room’s floor has disappeared under open suitcases. I have lost all concentration. I end up on messenger.

I don’t know what to do. I have too much stuff

In Lent, one of my friends got weirdly into minimalism (her own chess). She was watching documentaries, reading articles, and talking about the class privilege that comes with selecting what belongings one keeps, but also, the mental peace that it brings about.

Surrounded by stuff, I understand her fascination. It feels like none of these clothes or books matter. It feels like this year, this stuff, helped me grow, and now I can live independently from it – like they are crutches I no longer need.

I know I have to pack, and then put the boxes in the Selwyn storage, and then go to London and not miss my Eurostar.

But I have stopped packing, because packing feels too tedious and strangely emotional, like being forced to close off a part of my past I am not ready to let go of.

I leave my room to go join my friends. It is 1AM, so if we stay up until 4AM, we’ll hear the birds; at 5AM, we’ll see the sunrise. Then I can pack, then I can leave.

View from Castle Mound that morning, 5:02AM.

I don’t want to spend the night reminiscing about my second year, about the different terms, the habits I took on and then shed, the essays, the people, the nights out. Trying to figure out what mattered, to remember the highs, the lows. 

I don’t want second year to be over.

I want to see one last Cambridge sunrise before I leave the country. 

Make one last memory.

Header image by author – ‘View from my room’

The curse of choice

By Ceci Browning

At eighteen, it feels as though all of our choices are still ahead of us. Most of them, anyway. While Cambridge is not a big city, it is a lot bigger than the schools we are coming from, where the couple of hundred people who make up the sixth form feel like the only other people we will ever know and could ever love, and so we brim over with excitement at the fact that it is a place full of strangers. The problem, however, is that so many of these strangers who stroll past us every day, these new friends and potential lovers, are crippled by this new sensation of infinite options. And for those among us who resist the pull of choice, those who know exactly what we want, the simple act of asking is not enough to overcome the curse that has befallen the others. We are forced to live with the fact that in our modern society of Instagram squares and Facebook friend requests, everyone is running in opposite directions. Nobody wants to commit to anybody else, for fear that there is always someone better.  

A couple of weeks ago, over a smashed avocado bagel and a stack of blueberry pancakes in a café garden, I had a conversation with a good friend of mine about exactly this. We don’t mean to, we sort of slip onto the subject accidentally, but once we arrive it feels as though we are meant to be there, and I glow a sort of orange colour with the satisfaction of being understood. She gets it, my friend. Both of us know what it feels like to have been let down by somebody simply because they are afraid of picking just one person.

Both my friend and I expected to turn up at university, break a few hearts, kiss a few frogs, and then meet the person that we would waste away our three years in the city with. After a couple of failed attempts, we imagined, with people that had odd taste in music, or were too busy earning their blue in some obscure sport, or lived at a college on the other side of town, we would fall accidentally into relationships with people who were none of these things, people who had been looking for us just as much as we had been looking for them. We were without doubt that it would unfold like this. Everyone meets their significant other as a student. Right? Everyone gets to slow dance at May Balls and share brunch on Saturdays and do inappropriate things in their gowns after formal dinners. It will happen eventually, we thought. Like our parents before us, and their parents before them, we will meet someone at university. Yes, eventually, the person who we’re going to see in our early twenties alongside will present themselves. 

I thought it would be easy, she says. 

Me too, I agree. 

But a few days earlier, leant over the shoulder of a different friend in our shared gyp and watching as he swiped through Tinder, I had discovered something. Left. Right. Right. Right. Left. Right. Right. Girls wearing mini dresses at formal dinners. Girls playing sports with swishy ponytails. Girls in patterned flares and round sunglasses. Beautiful girls, all beautiful, but just not quite enough to notice the difference between them. Not in real life, but on this app, certainly, the girls are just cut and paste copies; he knows that if he gets bored of one, there are plenty more smiley rectangles in the stack just waiting for him. He will never run out of options.

The problem, I propose to her that morning, through a mouthful of squishy green avocado, is that there is too much choice. 

My friend sighs, then wipes the maple syrup from her plate with one neat sweep of her fork, and pushes the last bite of pancake into her mouth. 

Of course the guys we want don’t want us back, I announce to her across the table. Why sleep with one girl when they could sleep with ten? Why settle for us over and over again when they could easily have a new girl each week of term? 

Both my friend and I had been seeing guys who were one foot in and one foot out. My friend went on a handful of dates with hers, to bars and to pubs, as is expected, but also for coffee, on alcohol-free daylight dates. That’s normally a good sign, she insists, brow furrowed. They got on well, she tells me, really well, talking and laughing about each of the things they had in common, and she had let herself begin to think that maybe it wasn’t just sex. What was missing after all? Was the jump from the point they were at to some kind of commitment really that far? But instead of sliding slowly into a relationship, her almost-boyfriend slid in the opposite direction. Instead of memories shared, she was left with a stony silence. She was left with walking past him but not quite saying hello. She was left with unopened Facebook messages and deleted texts. 

Mine was different from hers. He told me upfront that he didn’t want a relationship. And that was okay. Really, it was. Wanting to be in a relationship and being able to manage a casual arrangement are not mutually exclusive. In fact, I think that very often they occur at once, since we settle for casual until we find serious, just to pass the time. We may hope that casual turns into serious, but we keep looking, just in case. We hedge our bets. We gamble. 

But there was something special about this guy, I relay to my friend. She touches my arm gently. She nods her head and looks straight at me, hazel eyes wide. I know this look. It is a look which says, I know, I get it, I’ve been there too. I realise I do not have to tell her the rest of the story for her to know what will happen, but I carry on regardless. 

It felt different, I say again. I too thought it might be more than just sex. Him and I talked. Properly and earnestly talked. He was gentle and thoughtful and kind, and for the first time in a long while I felt comfortable opening up to somebody, letting them see the sad blue-grey parts of me that weigh me down when I don’t rush through life fast enough. More importantly, he had opened up to me too, casually but cautiously. I sensed there was a lot standing between him and how he really felt, but was honoured that I had been allowed to see at least the edges of it. For a little while, it was as if we were the only people in the entire world. 

And then it all goes pear-shaped. He panics. My friend’s guy panics. Each realises that things have gone too far, that the relationships are too real, and their fight or flight responses kick in. Yet again, we both feel the strain of time, acutely aware that it is another chance gone, another person we have put our love and our energy into only to get nothing back. We wonder why they didn’t like us enough to put both feet in. We wonder why they didn’t want to at least try. 

That morning, over breakfast, my friend and I, between us, succeed in putting two and two together. With so many options to choose from, no wonder they don’t want to jump into relationships. They are young men, dripping with vigour and confidence. At the flick of a wrist, the press of a button, they can have new, brighter, more mysterious versions of my friend and I. And why would they not do so, since whoever they end up in bed with, how do they know that there is not somebody slightly funnier, a little more sporty, just a fraction better looking waiting in line? 

Of course, there are the lucky ones among us who have found significant others, and are painfully happy in their neat pairs. I have not forgotten these individuals, but for now I am choosing to put them to one side. At eighteen or nineteen, it is understandable that so many students want to ‘play the field’, trying different kinds of people on for size. I think this desire lives in all of us. It is the curse of modern dating, and it is very difficult to root out – this awful but glittering thought that somebody else is always waiting. Somebody whose voice you haven’t heard, whose mouth you haven’t tasted, and whose body you haven’t touched. Firsts are exciting, I know, but when will firsts get boring? When will those running away from the people who care about them realise that endless choice may be more harmful than helpful? Getting into a relationship is not going backwards. Picking one person, and letting yourself be their person too, is not giving up. We forget, letting somebody care about us, especially in this spiky, unforgiving academic environment, is actually the best thing we can do. 

My friend and I pay for our breakfast and then walk slowly back through the centre of town. It is still early morning, so the streets are mostly empty. Pigeons roam the pavement. The sun shines. King’s chapel sits regally. We are still single, that has not changed, but we are okay. We are recovering, albeit slowly, from our most recent round of heartbreak. The awful curse of choice is not going anywhere, but we can accept it now, because we are sure that one day, one bright shining day, just like this one, somebody will pick us. One day, properly and wholeheartedly, in a week, or a month, or even a year, somebody will choose us over anyone else.

Photograph taken by the author.

The Invisible Woman in Cambridge Portraiture

By Eleanor Antoniou

I had never given much thought to the portrait paintings that surrounded me in my college hall, but last year when I attended a talk as part of the Rising Tide exhibition, I realised that the majority of the portraits hung in Cambridge colleges depict white European males, whose portraits converse with each other to imply that the narrative of Cambridge’s past is solely theirs. 

While I’d glanced at the male-dominated walls during formal dinners, I’d never considered the effect they can have and the atmosphere their presence creates. Today, our college spaces are no longer reserved exclusively for men, and yet the artwork installations surrounding us suggest that the female experience has been made invisible. For the students who eat beneath these portraits every week, for the women who clean our college spaces under the eyes of so many unmoving male faces, these paintings suggest a certain history of the college and portray a particular message: this is a space in which the female experience, and female achievement, are not as important as their contemporary male counterparts.  

This disproportionate representation in publicly displayed portraiture exists not just in Cambridge but across the world.  During the 1970s Women’s Liberation Movement artist Mary Beth Edelson highlighted the gender imbalance in her piece entitled ‘Some Living American Women Artists’, a reworking of da Vinci’s Last Supper, in which the men are replaced with the images of 69 female artists, a striking acknowledgement of the women that are all too often left behind by history.  Even today in London, over 90% of commemorative statues are dedicated to men, something which recent campaigns are now trying to remedy.  

Naturally, the portraits in the halls of each Cambridge college have been chosen because they reflect each college’s history, and this history cannot be changed – it is perhaps unreasonable to expect that we simply swap men for women, as Edelson did in her Last Supper reworking. But does the story that we are presented with have to be so exclusive and one-sided?  

In 2018, Christ’s College celebrated the forty year anniversary of the admission of female undergraduates by reimagining the space in their Hall to recognise that, although women had only studied there for forty years, they had been involved in the life of the college for far longer than that.  Lady Margaret Beaufort refounded God’s House as Christ’s in 1505, and in her honour, Christ’s asked its students to send in their own depictions of Lady Margaret, which would temporarily replace the portraits that were already hanging, celebrating her as a woman, a mother, and an advocate for education. Students commented that their dining experience was transformed by the new exhibition; it became a more inclusive space for the college’s female students, who could see themselves reflected in the images surrounding them. 

Whilst colleges cannot rewrite their histories, they can shift the aspects of their history which they choose to portray. Evidently, bringing in new and different narratives can make a welcome and lasting impression on both female and male students, even with temporary exhibitions like Lady Margaret at Christ’s. The New Hall Art Collection at Murray Edwards College is a fine example: exhibiting one of the largest, most significant collections of modern and contemporary art by women in Europe, it champions artists who identify as women, giving them visibility and a voice.  

Women now live in all of Cambridge’s colleges: we study in the libraries, and dine in the halls. Yet the visual narratives that surround us still need to reflect this in order to highlight that Cambridge is now a place where all genders are welcome.

Featured image: portrait of Lettice Ramsay from the Rising Tide exhibition, courtesy of Newnham College, Cambridge.  

Cambridge, we have a problem: rape culture, complicity and accountability

By Xenia Haslam

Content warning: This article features detailed discussions of the reporting process surrounding rape and sexual assault.

You might think that everyone who attended the GirlTalk X Bold Voices event last week on rape culture at university would have left the talk shocked and disturbed. Of the 1.8 million students who arrive at university every year, 62% will experience some form of sexual violence during their time at university, with many victims experiencing complex trauma and mental health issues in the aftermath of their assault(s). Reporting sexual assault or rape is an incredibly difficult thing to do, especially when the nature of these crimes and the societal narratives surrounding them cultivate doubt and self-blame in survivors. Yet, rather than making sure that supportive systems are in place for survivors if they wish to report, universities are consistently failing to provide accessible and easy-to-navigate reporting procedures, and – in the rare case that a report is taken seriously – the outcomes of such processes overwhelmingly seem to reflect a desire to protect universities’ reputations over the wellbeing of their students.

Unsurprisingly, when speaking to others at the event it was clear that this grim picture didn’t constitute anything unfamiliar; just earlier this year, Cambridge student Dani Bradford wrote about her experiences of the University’s deeply problematic handling of her sexual harassment case, emphasising how being subjected to institutional silencing ‘isn’t just damaging – it can be actively re-traumatising’. As a result of the secondary trauma inflicted on those who decide to report, a vicious cycle has been established whereby other victims are de-incentivised from coming forward, creating a culture in which sexual assault is actively tolerated. Despite being at a higher risk of sexual violence, those marginalised by multiple aspects of their identity are even more disadvantaged when attempting to navigate these processes, since such institutional gaslighting is both underpinned and compounded by structural misogyny, racism, classism and ableism.

As an institution, Cambridge is inarguably complicit in the normalisation of rape culture. The University’s collegiate system has prevented the adoption of a singular University-wide policy for the reporting and handling of sexual misconduct cases, creating confusion about whether survivors should attempt to report through their individual colleges or at a University level; not only has this exacerbated the existing barriers survivors face to reporting sexual assault, but this has also allowed some colleges to get away with treating sexual assault much less seriously than others, as witnessed in the case of Trinity Hall’s repeated failure to take seriously its students’ allegations against Dr Peter Hutchinson. Furthermore, the intimate supervision settings that are so unique to Cambridge heighten the already asymmetrical power dynamic between academics and students. With no formal training for supervisors regarding what constitutes inappropriate behaviour with students (let alone on how to respond to students who disclose experiences of sexual violence), this has led to students being put at unnecessary risk both of sexual assault itself, but also of their experiences being invalidated.

The inflated credibility academics are awarded as a result of their perceived intellectual superiority has fostered a culture of impunity at Cambridge; instead of those in positions of power being held accountable for their actions – including their failure to take action against perpetrating students – it is those who possess the least power that are being punished for attempting to call out their perpetrators. While events such as GirlTalk X Bold Voices provide a valuable and safe space to discuss these issues, they also highlight the urgent need for those who aren’t directly affected by these issues to hold themselves accountable for the ways in which they are complicit in upholding rape culture. At an institutional level this complicity can take the form of failing to prioritise the welfare of survivors, while at an interpersonal level it can encompass anything from failing to call out problematic behaviour amongst peers to minimising the experiences of and tone policing the victims of such crimes. 

Those in the privileged position of never having had to worry about sexual violence need to educate themselves on what it means to be a true ally – it isn’t the job of survivors to open themselves up to the possibility of having their experiences disbelieved just to try to change the views of those unwilling to accept that they play a role in perpetuating sexual violence.

If you are affected by any of the issues discussed in this article, the following resources may be able to provide support:

Sexual Assault and Harassment Adviser: specialist University support worker who can provide emotional and practical support

Cambridge Rape Crisis Centre: a charity for female victims of sexual violence

Cambridge Nightline: a confidential night-time listening service

Breaking the Silence: Cambridge University’s campaign against sexual harassment and misconduct

Photo: The Tab

Business as Utterly Unusual

by Kristina Harris

I’ve got to be honest, I’ve seen more ‘business as usual’ now than I have ever seen in the entirety of my short life. I was walking down the street the other day where substantial construction was taking place. There were metal fences framing the torn apart streets. The gravel was coming apart at the seams, and the fences twisted and turned in the most confusing urban labyrinth anyone has ever had to go through to get to Shake Shack. When I finally escaped the loud drilling of chaos, I was met with a yellow rectangular sign that read ‘business as usual’. At this moment, I stopped my pursuit of cheese fries and just looked at the sign. I turned around and looked at the calamity of construction I had just walked through and thought, they must be f**king kidding me? NOTHING was as usual on that pavement. Nothing is as usual!

Nothing is even close to normal. Usually, when I talk about something being six feet, I am describing an ideal boyfriend or the deep end of a pool, not the distance between me and a friend! And masks? Do not make me laugh. I have never worn this many masks – not even when I was re-enacting the most dramatic scenes of Grey’s Anatomy on wine night. Never in my life have I felt more like a secret agent than when I whip my mask off after having looked  around the corner and not seen anyone. We’re doing happy hours alone over spotty Wi-Fi connections, and videoconferencing dates. And class? I have no idea. I slept through most of April and May because surviving is freaking exhausting.

Regardless, by whatever stroke of luck we are back in Cambridge. We are socially distantly making friends, joining clubs, and meeting girlfriends. We are doing Zoom drinks, and even wearing mascara again. The Zoom life isn’t all bad. I don’t really miss walking home barefoot, heels in hand regretting that I didn’t just wear trainers. They are back in style in a big way anyway.

For some of us, we haven’t been back in Cambridge since March. For some of us, this is the first time ever in the city. To everyone running around unsure which arrow to follow, and which side of the pavement to be on, don’t worry about it. No one knows what is going on. But, welcome back! Seriously.

This welcome is even more all-encompassing than it has ever been in the past because we have all moved into an alternate virtual reality. And no, we didn’t fall into Jumanji. We just slipped into an entirely unpredictable present, and we all found ourselves here, in this lovely town together. Nothing is the way it was, or how I pictured it. Yet, we are still expected to power through. To keep the world turning. To keep learning. To keep working. For me, it hasn’t been easy to stay focused, to stay upbeat and positive. I don’t even want to talk about how staying fit is going. But that’s okay! I am doing my absolute best.  

Which is why I am even more appreciative of spaces like Girl Talk now more than ever. It may just be the smallest corner of the internet, but this small place is just for us to be unapologetically ourselves. For our voices to just take up space. To take up six feet of space for that matter!

So, welcome back, or just welcome! Come to the blog to hear from other lovely beings at Cam who are just trying to make sense of whatever the heck 2020 is. Wear a mask. Wash your hands. And try your very best to enjoy your life. No, things aren’t the way they were, nor are they the way you expected. But that isn’t nothing. Some of the best times, some of the best nights are when you didn’t even expect to go out. When you didn’t make any plans. It might seem incredulously optimistic, maybe even freaking ridiculous. But business isn’t as usual. So, don’t make your life usual. Make it utterly unusual.

Image: wet pavement by Adrian Eckersley

#summerstories: Between Cambridge and a hard place

By Abigail Smith

As the summer rolls on, I’ve started to think about my place in life. Maybe this is a symptom of being a recent graduate, and seeing how young all the freshers are (is it cool to be 21?)

More likely, it’s because I’m entering a strange limbo — to quote Blazin’ Squad, at the crossroads. I have just graduated, but will be returning in October as a post-grad student to the same college — a fresh start in an old setting.

gals

@cambridgegirltalk on Spotify

We are excited to announce our brand spanking new Spotify playlists!

Our resident DJs, Emmanuel College lawyer Gee Kim and engineer Martha Dillon, are continuing to curate a series of playlists that celebrate the female voice in all its shapes and forms. From Japanese jazz to Brazilian bossa nova, from downtime to the dancefloor, the @cambridgegirltalk Spotify has got it all.

Continue reading @cambridgegirltalk on Spotify

Street style: #DressLikeAWoman

Following the Twitter backlash Donald Trump is facing over comments that his female staffers should ‘dress like women’, Alina Khakoo and Kitty Grady decided to take to the streets to ask Cambridge students and locals for their thoughts on gender and personality, dressing and comfort.


Polly

“I don’t think there is one particular way to ‘dress like a woman’. I make a lot of my own clothes so it’s when I’m wearing those that I feel most comfortable. I made this jumper, scarf and hat. I love it because I make clothes for my body and so they fit better. They’re so much more enjoyable to wear because I’ve made them myself.”

Continue reading Street style: #DressLikeAWoman

Grad Talk with Ruby: life beyond the bubble

For the second instalment of Grad Talk, we spoke to Ruby Stewart-Liberty who recently graduated from Jesus with a degree in history. Now working for the Civil Service, here she shares her sparkling insights and pearls of wisdom on how to shine bright post-Cambridge.

So, what do you do now?

I’m a civil servant, on the Civil Service Fast Stream.

Describe a typical day.

My day begins by squeezing myself onto the tube at 8.20am. The heady days of walking through King’s to late morning lectures are long over. Aside from that, no two days are the same! I’ve been to training sessions in the Locarno Room at the Foreign Office, attended select committee hearings at the House of Lords and I get to travel across the UK for meetings with regional teams. I’m currently writing a communications strategy for an exciting project.

Continue reading Grad Talk with Ruby: life beyond the bubble