Cycling · Politics · Sport

Week 36: UK General Election Debate in Cambridge

On morning of bank holiday Monday, I played a Real Tennis friendly against a guy named Paul, who told me that he was trying to convert from his squash skill to tennis. I played off a slightly lower handicap that I ought to have, and so lost 1-6, 2-6, 3-6. The following days were spent at the department, barring an Orientation committee on Monday evening at Pembroke College Graduate Parlour. We’re making some significant progress with it, and are just about ready to start making some progress towards the more complicated parts.

Tuesday evening after dinner was spent out on the river in the college Kayaks with Jacqueline. We went upriver this time, making it as far as Grantchester. This side of the river is much more exciting as it snakes its way through countryside rather than down through the city centre. It is also a much less congested part of the river, we saw only other kayakers and the occasional paddle-boarder.

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On arriving home on Wednesday evening, I switched on the television to tune in to the election debate. For those unaware of ongoing British politics, the country is at present in the final throws of a snap election campaign. As a Commonwealth citizen with leave to remain in the UK, I am eligible to vote in the upcoming election. It is an interesting experience to be forming political views in a new country where I have not grown up with two decades of a civic education. I’m aware that my peers have prejudices towards or against certain parties based on recent political history that I am not predisposed to. Rather, I am more impressionable than normal to campaign arguments than I would be at home, where my political views tend to be based more on ideology than campaign pledges.

I will be voting in the Cambridge constituency, which encompasses just the city and none of the surrounding areas. As such, the local politic tends to be very pro-European and liberal, given the large population of young students, especially compared to the more conservative rural areas beyond the city limits. In the last election, the constituency was narrowly won by the Labour party over the incumbent Liberal Democrats, with the Conservatives a distant third. Chances are that it will remain a Labour vs Liberal Democrat constituency again this time around, so to have an influence on the outcome, it is strategic to choose one of the two parties (excepting arguments of long-term political movement). The changing political landscape through the campaign and the substantial narrowing of the opinion polls has left me unsure of which way to vote, and will probably commit rather late in the piece. Watching the debate was an attempt to help solidify that position.

The debate was a seven-way affair between the largest parties in Great Britain (Northern Ireland has their own political parties): the Conservative’s Amber Rudd (the Home Secretary, Prime Minister Theresa May has refused to appear in any debates), Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn (having only decided to appear earlier that morning), the Liberal Democrat’s Tim Farron, UKIP’s Paul Nuttal (Nigel Farage is no longer the leader), the Green Party’s Caroline Lucas (their co-leader) the Scottish National Party’s Angus Robertson (the head of the party in Westminster; Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon is the party’s leader) and Plaid Cymru’s Leanne Wood (the party’s leader in Wales).

The other reason that the debate caught my attention was that it was being held in the Senate House in Cambridge, in the centre of town. Having grown up in Adelaide where the major political events are usually reserved for Sydney, Melbourne or Canberra, it was a little surreal to be so close the the centre of national attention. Just as the candidates were making their closing statements, I decided to go and see what I could in person, so jumped on my bike and rode in to the centre of town. King’s parade was closed off with a police guard, but they permitted me to walk my bike through towards the Senate House.

There as a sizeable crowd of people mingling about at the gates to the Senate House, beneath the King’s College chapel. On the lawns in front of the building, television cameras were set up and focused on the building. The crowd was definitely pro-Labour, evidently the student Labour organisation had organised some kind of formalised gathering. They were chanting pro-Labour chants and slogans as we watched from a distance while a number of political staffers and media officials walked in and out of the two buildings. At one point the crowd saw what it thought was UKIP’s Paul Nuttal and gave a resoundingly negative reception, but it may have just been a bald staffer. They did respond with a wave and a bow however.

Some time after the debate and post-debate interviews, the crowd were greeted by Jeremy Corbyn himself, who came out to give some words of encouragement to the supportive crowd. This got the crowd very excited, and is a simple, inexpensive yet effective gesture by a party leader to their supporters aimed at gearing up their enthusiasm for the final week of the campaign. While his speech was read directly from his regular stump, the crowd got as much out of him as they could.

Some time later, the Green Party’s Caroline Lucas left through the front gate with minimal fanfare, but the other party leaders left via the rear exit. Now the crowd’s attention was focussed on the two sets of cameras set up for the 10 o’clock news. While at one point it looked like long-time BBC news anchor Huw Edwards would present the news from in front of the Senate House, it seems that the produces pulled him somewhere else due to fears of the raucous crowd disrupting the coverage. That didn’t stop Sky News’s political correspondent and host of the previous debate, Faisal Islam, from doing his live news cross outside, much to the delight of the crowd. After his live cross, he fielded questions from the crowd and engaged in a generally pleasant discussion with students from his alma mater. At this point, the crowd got bored and left, which meant that the BBC could safely do live crosses for their Scottish and Welsh news programmes without disruption. I stayed to watch, but went home after.

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On Friday afternoon, Krittika had asked me to give a punting tour for her Beninese friend and his family, who were all visiting Cambridge for the day. However, by the time I arrived at college it was pouring with rain. We waited inside for the rain to clear a little, showing them what there was to see inside Darwin College. Once the rain did slow, I went to get the punts out, but we didn’t eventually end up going since we were worried it would come back (as it later transpired, it did not). So instead, we walked into the centre of town. As Krittika’s friend’s parents could only speak French, the stories of Cambridge that I wanted to share had to be translated through Krittika’s Canadian French. We tried to visit King’s College, but guests weren’t allowed as it was exam time (a note for potential visitors to Cambridge to avoid exam term). Instead I thought to take them up the tower of the Great St Mary’s Church; this gives the best views of the centre of Cambridge and into many of the colleges that would otherwise have been closed. We did, however, manage to make our way into St John’s to see the all-important Bridge of Sighs. I had to leave after that as I had a Real Tennis match that evening against Charles, who I had played a fortnight ago, which I lost 4-6, 5-6.


Saturday was time for another long bike ride. The weather was warm and the wind was blowing a westerly, so I headed east into Suffolk. Weary of a high UV rating in the benign English temperatures, I stopped at a pharmacy on the way out of Cambridge to get some sunscreen, which later transpired to be a good move. My ride took me out on some of the boring, flat and busier roads towards Newmarket, but thereafter I was in the rolling hills of Suffolk. Here, the roads were quiet as I weaved between the various villages. When planning the route, I had noted a road that went through the grounds of an old manor house that I thought would be good to check out. But when I arrived at the road, I discovered it was a ‘restricted byway’, which in England means a road you can only traverse in a non-motorised vehicle. This means that the dirt surface was poorly compacted, and I was swerving around ruts and potholes. At some point, there was a steep climb where the wheel tracks had been gouged in mud, which was a struggle on my skinny road tyres. Over the top, the road transitioned into an awful covering of loose gravel, which made it like cycling in sand, only with an added risk of puncture. Where I could, I mounted the kerb to get some degree of smoothness, but this was only possible where there was no hedging. At one point my wheel slipped and I nearly came off into the ditch, but somehow recovered to make it to the end of the road unscathed. Once in the grounds of Ickworth House, the road surface smoothed and I was cycling amongst the sheep.

I stopped briefly to have a look at the house, but then realised I was probably going to miss my train. I raced down the hill into Bury St Edmunds, but arrived at the railway station three minutes after the train had left. This left me with an hour to spare in Bury St Edmunds, so I went to a cafĂ© on the high street. On the menu they had a so-called “Aussie burger” which I decided I had to try. When it came, it was a toasted sandwich with a beef patty, salad, and most amusingly, a pineapple ring. It really could have done with some bacon though.

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That afternoon, I got a haircut from a hairdresser in town, before meeting up with Jacqueline and Annalise to visit the Strawberry Fair, a free music and crafts festival on Midsummer Common. While we only stayed an hour, we watched the thousands of people drinking and smoking and generally having a good time. It was a strange mix of families with young children, new-age hippie types and music fans. We didn’t have a strong desire to stay long, but there were a lot of dogs to watch.

Instead, we went out to nearby Joanna and Danny’s who were hosting a house party that night. It was here that we spent most of the evening. Joanna and Danny had set up a campfire pit in their back garden, which was burning with a fair bit of smoke. I spent a good hour or so tending to the fire, trying to get some heat into it and get the wet pieces of wood to burn. It took some attention, but it eventually got burning nicely. Attempts were made to toast some marshmallows, but it mostly served as a nice comfort in the ‘summer’ evening. The evening ended with Matt Cassels insisting on reheating unpopped popcorn kernels in the microwave, much to Joanna’s discomfort.

A sleep in on Sunday morning was followed by brunch at Pembroke College with Jacqueline and Paul Meosky, the latter head-down in his MPhil thesis. Pembroke College has nice waffles at their brunches, which Paul had piled onto his plate. The rest of the day was taken rather easily, I joined Krittika and Annalise in an introductory Real Tennis session for Olly. This was followed by the Gates Council change-over meeting following the Easter elections. We now have new social officers, tech officer, communications officer, treasurer and community officer. I was only there fulfilling my role as Orientation co-director and didn’t have all that much to input this time around. Finally the evening finished with dinner at Churchill College with Jacqueline and Paul Bergen (they were having a burger night).

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