Into the swim with the interviewer behind our This Cambridge Life series

Over the past 18 months, she’s interviewed people whose specialisms range from the literature of love and loss to the fragile early life of mammalian eggs. As compiler of This Cambridge Life, Alex Buxton opens a window on to Cambridge’s storehouse of dedicated people. Now she shares her own story.

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At Jesus Green Lido, July 2018 (Nick Saffell)

Our series This Cambridge Life now boasts some 75 interviews. Meeting all these people and writing about them has been a big part of my life over the last 18 months. Everyone has a different story to tell. Together they demonstrate how diverse Cambridge is and their generosity in talking honestly about their lives is inspiring.

Transplant surgeon Kourosh Saeb-Parsy spoke about his passion for mending things. Sipping tea in a staff room at Addenbrooke’s Hospital, he remembered his first day at a London school soon after arriving from Iran. In his office overlooking the fields in west Cambridge, Sir Colin Humphreys, pioneer of LED technology, recounted the childhood operations that straightened his legs.

I caught up with Rosie Jones McVey in a houseboat on the River Ouse. As a teenager she bought, trained and sold ponies without her parents knowing. Her PhD asks profound questions about our relationships with animals. Graduate student James Downs talks candidly about his eating disorder and the need for better support.

Graeme Ross works tirelessly to help overseas staff get their UK visas. Alexander Devine is boundlessly enthusiastic about the treasures of the Parker Library. At King’s College, 20-year-old Lauren Marsh is heading for a career in hospitality. Trainee horticulturalist Bryony Langley says that gardens are for sharing and that some plants make her laugh out loud.

It’s the details that stick. When philosophy undergraduate Tara Khaled got her A-level results, she celebrated with her dad by tucking into a Greggs pasty on a park bench in Harrogate. Geoffrey Khan’s eminent career as a scholar of manuscripts started in the Middlesbrough branch of WH Smith. Zoologist Jenny York’s first word was spider.

All these people make Cambridge what it is. Now that I’m leaving the University it’s time to share my story. So here goes. Neither of my parents went to university. My father was quite proud that he’d been expelled from school when he was four. He’d tipped ink on the other children’s work. He didn’t pass a single exam until he went to agricultural college.

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Aged two on the farm

I was brought up on a tenant farm in Hertfordshire. We were often reminded that although we lived in a lovely old house surrounded by fields and woods, it wasn’t actually ours. But even if you didn’t own things, you looked after them. That was the unspoken message. We had a lot of freedom and our friends loved visiting.

As children we had stories every bedtime. Those books made a lasting impression. I can remember details of the words and pictures. Beatrix Potter’s Fierce Bad Rabbit and Phyllis Krasilovsky’s The Cow Who Fell Into The Canal. Later I was entranced by The Far-Distant Oxus by teenage authors Katharine Hull and Pamela Whitlock. They’d met at a bus stop and decided to write a novel.

Cambridge was a favourite place to visit. My mother had been brought up in a house on West Road owned by Gonville & Caius College. She took us to look round the colleges and we punted up the river into the meadows, eating cherries from the market. Cambridge seemed to be somewhere that people wrote poetry and had fascinating conversations.

I failed my 11-plus — almost the whole class did. I was at a private day school. Our teachers entered us on a whim and thought we’d sail through. We had no preparation and fell straight into the logical-thinking traps. I still remember one of the questions — about the tide coming in and the distance between the water and the deck of a boat.

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At boarding school in Norfolk, aged 13

My sister and I went to a tiny boarding school in Norfolk. Our parents chose it because it was unpretentious. The uniform included thick fishermen’s jumpers. They helped keep out the cold — there wasn’t a lot of heating. We played lacrosse in a field on top of a cliff, and boat building with Colonel Blount was an optional extra. The teachers weren’t trained and their grasp of exam syllabuses was shaky.

I was identified as bright and moved up twice. A big mistake: I took my A-levels aged 16. Two of us applied to Oxford and Cambridge. I think I knew I wasn’t Oxbridge material when I accidentally copied my friend’s name, Susan Fiddian, on to my application form. I was writing in ink and had to ask the headmistress, who wore twin-sets and pearls, for another form.

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Jumping a fence on the family farm aged 16

Oxford invited me for an interview. In those days you did the Oxbridge Entrance Exam. I learnt that I was the only applicant to have interpreted one of the questions in a particular way. Impressively, this didn’t seem to matter. But I did badly in an interview about economics. I’d been to Israel to work on a kibbutz and had nothing sensible to say about the Israeli economy.

A slim envelope arrived with a second class stamp. I’d failed to get a place. I went to Leeds University instead and discovered the Yorkshire Dales. It was a formative experience to live in a gritty northern city away from the south east. I did a degree in textiles and got a job writing about the textile industry for a group of trade magazines.

I was sent all over Europe to cover trade shows. I had to interview people, pick up what was happening, scribble my story in a notebook, phone the office, and dictate it to a ‘copy taker’. This had to include all the punctuation. It was stressful at first and I had to force myself to approach complete strangers for comments.

Amid all this I did a research fellowship at the Royal College of Art. It taught me to plan and think logically about my conclusions. After my children arrived, I became a freelance journalist. Commissions from national publications took me to Cape Town, Uruguay, Nicaragua and the Outer Hebrides as well as Essex and Snowdonia.

I love swimming and I prefer cool water. At Jesus Green Lido in 1992 I met Tim Holt, a Cambridge graduate working for Cambridge City Council. With two other hardy swimmers, I’d started the Friends of Jesus Green Lido. Tim and I collaborated on projects to publicise the pool at a time when many open air pools were closing.

Much later Tim emailed me out of the blue. By then he was working for Cambridge University’s Communications Office. He alerted me to a temporary vacancy which became a permanent post. My role changed from supporting the University’s outreach work with schools to helping to publicise Cambridge research. And then came the chance to work on a series of interviews.

Retirement is a downhill kind of word. My elder daughter, together with two friends, started a language school in Bolivia. She says that the Spanish word for retirement is jubilación. Inspired by her, I did the Celta course at Cambridge Regional College. It qualifies you to teach English to non-native speakers. Earlier this year I flew to Santa Cruz de la Sierra to teach English to some wonderful Bolivians, who arrived at 7am each morning to master the present continuous and more.

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With a class of enthusiastic Bolivians, March 2018

In preparation I volunteered at Cambridge Language Centre. Two lunchtimes a week I helped students and academics from overseas improve their English conversation skills. A Chinese lawyer told me how much he loved Jane Austen and a Romanian mathematician described life under the Ceausescus. A Korean artist hoped to catch a “big eel in the Cam River”.

This article is a big thank you. A thank you to all the people I’ve worked with over the past 12 years and especially to those who’ve contributed to our This Cambridge Life series. A heart-felt thank you to my colleagues too. Our conversations are fascinating and funny. I don’t think any of them write poetry but we work in an office where peregrine falcons nest in the turrets.

It’s a long time since that rejection letter. Under the sway of the pearl-wearing headmistress, I’d certainly applied for the wrong course. Today’s applicants get far better advice. Like others of its ilk, that quirky little boarding school closed for good years ago. I’ve now had a taste of an education I never thought I’d have.

This profile is part of our This Cambridge Life series.

This Cambridge Life

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