Recognise this riddle?
Some acres of this Middle Earth are handsomely attired with the hardest, sharpest, most bitter of man’s fine belongings…
A quickening delight lies in this treasure, lingers and lasts for men who, from experience, indulge their inclinations and don’t rail against them; and then after death it begins to gab, to gossip, wrecklessly…
Most people won’t be aware of it, let alone know the answer1, and yet, if you’ve spent three years living and studying in Exeter, you will have inadvertently wandered past it hundreds of times, possibly while gazing at your own contorted reflection in the six metre steel pyramid sculpture on the high street (the one with the impressive shiny balls at its base), a gleaming priapic tribute to the city’s heritage, engraved with cryptic poems written in the 11th century. And how many of you have seen the small rusted sign on Blackall road, which reads :
“I don’t like text in art, but walking along this road holding the hand of a girl I loved was the happiest I’ve ever been”?
You’d have to look a little, because it’s hidden behind a parking meter, which is either an indication that the local traffic council don’t particularly care for art, or that the poet lacked confidence in his romantic gesture.
What is perhaps a little more widely known is that in 1684, the ‘Devon Witches’ were tried at Exeter castle and executed in Heavitree, the last people in England to be put to death for witchcraft. Fitting, then, that just over four hundred years later, many of Exeter’s historical sites would gain some level of notoriety as the inspiration behind J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books. And the link to that world-famous wizard is the sole reason most of us came here in the first place, right?
Suffice to say, for such a small town Exeter has a great deal of personality, a bizarre concoction of old and modern, the strange and the wonderful. And like a twisted tour guide, I have been asked to give a brief, and therefore utterly incoherent, impression of my time here, a Pollock of scattered, colourful memories…
I spent the year before my arrival here working in shabby hostels, immersed in a world of bed bugs, questionable food, and girls funding their travels through casual prostitution. So I was well prepared for the experience of living in halls. Ever with a thrifty eye, I chose Kilmorie — a high ceilinged Victorian building on Pennsylvania Road with labyrinthine corridors, rusting balconies which swayed precariously in strong winds, and an ancient library-cum-games room with a torn up pool table. It was a pauper’s paradise.
The place was in such a state of disrepair that the University didn’t seem to care what damage we added, so we set about doing our worst, and by the end of the year we were informed that the building had been condemned as ‘unfit for human habitation’, with the discovery of asbestos the final nail in the coffin.
Despite this, by the following year the University had chosen to house the overspill of Chinese students in that majestic crack den, seemingly without having done anything to ameliorate the condition it was in, a prime example of their steadfast dedication to profits over conscience. You couldn’t help feeling sorry for those new arrivals — coming from one place with questionable human rights only to arrive in another. They must have had quite a shock.
As a side note, I like to think that in my own way I contributed to the early cultural experiences of a number of those same foreign visitors during fresher’s week of my second year. Walking past my old halls one afternoon, I noticed a pigeon struggling frantically in the grass, its neck broken. Seeing the poor creature in horrendous pain and feeling duty- bound to put it out of its misery, I stepped up with my large black cowboy boots, and after a great deal of hesitation, stamped my heel down onto the bird’s head. I took my foot away, content that the deed had been done well, yet the pigeon began flapping manically once again, entrails protruding like macabre sarcoid silly-string. With a final warrior-like howl (for ‘warrior’ read squeamish dandy) I slammed my boot down again and crushed the bird’s skull. Having completed my task as inept executioner, I turned to meet the petrified stares of four newly arrived girls who had been unloading their bags from a taxi. Welcome to England, ladies.
My own culture shock upon arrival in this curious tardis of a city was less dramatic, but equally eye-opening. Call me naïve, but having grown up in a city in the Midlands which at one point boasted the highest gun crime and teenage pregnancy rates in Europe, and whose most famous icon was a thief who ran a medieval terrorist network named the ‘Merry Men’, I hadn’t ever come across public school folk, or indeed heard of the species known as ‘Rah’. Some things will remain a mystery to me no matter how long I’ve been here.
Firstly it’s that label. Like the Loch Ness monster, Jesus, and Osama bin Laden before he got shot in the face, rahs are seemingly intangible creations constructed around speculation, and a tough stereotype to pin down. The myth surrounding ‘Rah’ culture appears to have been built upon hyperbole, sweeping generalisations and a tautology resting on resentment for those who are products of the middle class public school system dressing and behaving like products of the middle class public school system.
Not to suggest that there isn’t a general air of smug, bourgeois entitlement amongst some members of the student population, a number of oxygen thieves with more money than charm. But getting upset about people acting within the trammels of their upbringing is as useful as going into your garden and telling the tulips they’re whores. As Aldous Huxley wrote, ‘We are at once the beneficiaries of our culture and its victims’. Even I’ve had to come to terms with becoming increasingly middle class; my once decidedly northern accent has changed, I’ve developed a taste for brie, olives and Earl Grey tea, and I’ll happily reference Aldous Huxley to support a throwaway argument.
One event that punctuated the end of my first year was the patently horrific Exeter Bombing. Horrific thankfully not for the loss of life that could have potentially ensued, but because of the pitiable incompetence of the perpetrator. A twenty-two year old British convert to radical Islam, reportedly with the mental age of a ten year old, went into the Giraffe restaurant in Princesshay with the intention of sticking it to the infidel (and long necked mammals), only to detonate the homemade nail bomb in his own face with a blast of such ferocity that customers in the restaurant described the sound as being “like a lightbulb exploding”. He would have caused more havoc if he had simply gone ahead and smashed a few lightbulbs, they’re a nuisance to clean up. Nonetheless, it was a dramatic afternoon. The city was on lockdown, with armed police guarding every possible route, ambulances rushing to the scene to treat casualties complaining of mild tinnitus, and everyone questioning why the bomber didn’t target JD Sports.
Certain things remain ubiquitous in accounts of student life, and there will always be obligatory references to crazy drunken nights and the hangovers that inevitably follow. But those stories pale in comparison to the decadent epidemic created by a chemical called Mephedrone. Perhaps you’ve met.
Mephedrone radically changed the social habits of a staggeringly large number of the student population in 2009, on account of being very cheap and extremely addictive, and during that year, life for many became a cross between Fear & Loathing and Night of the Living Dead. No longer was it necessary to go home at 3am on a Wednesday: you could carry on partying until Sunday without the inconvenience of sleep or food. Each night, debauched soirées were being held in houses all over town, each a firework display of button-black pupils and bruxic grins, with greasy amphibious wretches chattering endlessly. Everyone knew each other, without any idea how or when they had met before, and it was possible to be regaled with a person’s whole life story without remembering their name. Because of its legal status at that point, and its availability online, people who would never before have considered taking drugs leapt nose first into the frenzy, delighted with the benefit of the postman being their unwitting drug dealer.
Even when the media became awash with outlandish horror stories warning of the terrible danger of ‘Meow Meow’2 after a number of deaths were linked to the drug, the general response among users was “They took a couple of grams and dropped dead? Hell, we’re super human! On we go…”
Despite all the fun, it becomes difficult to formulate constructive or rational thoughts in a brain which you are mainly using as a chemical sewage system, and as ‘real life’ slowly became something certain people visited only occasionally, the romance wore off and was replaced by shivering paranoia, not a feeling you want to have to deal with when you’re supposed to be giving a presentation in a 9am seminar after five days awake. Grades undoubtedly suffered dramatically, and people dropped out like lemmings off a cliff.
If details of my academic experiences are conspicuously absent, it is because my relationship with the faculty has inconsistently ranges between hesitant flirtation and mutual antipathy (and that’s just with Philip Hensher). During my undergraduate studies I was one of those pricks in glass houses who complained about the fees and the lack of contact hours with teachers, and as an indignant counter-intuitive protest, failed to turn up to the majority of lectures.
I also landed on the wrong side of the dreaded BART system all too often, having just put the finishing touches to another world-changing essay mere minutes before the deadline. Remonstrations that the staff are “all slaves, time is an illusion, this is not ten past four on a Friday, this is the ever changing now!” do not, as I painfully discovered, prevent you from being capped at 40. The miscellany of grades from my creative writing studies, an area that is notoriously subjective, has been so varied that I really don’t know whether I’m an under appreciated creative prodigy or simply an articulate imbecile, and the marker’s comments I’ve received don’t necessarily give any clues…
Here are some of my favourites:
“You have managed to create a character who, though witty, is even more monstrous and detestable than Humbert Humbert.” (In response to a story in which I based the protagonist on myself.)
“You write with a rich and poetic vocabulary… but all too often I was left asking myself ‘what on earth is going on?’”
“In aiming for greatness, you all too often come across as pretentious, which I found intensely annoying.”
That I will use as my epitaph.
2. No one actually called it that (naming it after something sounding like cat food somewhat undermined its potency).