Politics · Socialising · Travel

Week 37: Canterbury Term Trip and UK Election

The week started, as my weeks often do these days, rather uneventfully. Aside from a tennis match on Monday morning, I was mostly caught in my now regular routine of working in the department all day, punctuated by lunch in college, and home for dinner and bed. Monday evening was, though, punctuated by an Orientation Committee meeting. We are now almost at the point were we can start to, in detail, prepare the orientation camp activities. Unfortunately, Harum couldn’t make the meeting, so it wouldn’t be until Wednesday that I could catch up with her. We went out for dinner at Smokeworks late in the evening (Harum was fasting for Ramadan), where we could catch up and discuss what needed to be discussed. This eventually led us to getting off track and discussing things far beyond Orientation. We later found ourselves at DarBar, amongst the spill-over from a formal at Newnham that had finished that afternoon.

Thursday was a day of national prominence; it was finally time for election day in the UK! The campaign had been ongoing for some weeks now, though probably to a reduce extent compared to Australian elections, where campaign posters and letterboxing is more prominent, at least comparing the districts I’ve lived in. What had started as a seemingly inevitable landslide victory for the Conservative party had turned into a competitive race. I spent the election day itself quietly, not fully focussed on anything other than the politics. I walked out to the guildhall in the city centre to cast my vote. Being an Australian citizen with a permanent address in the UK, for some obscure reasons, permits me and my other Commonwealth friends to vote in national elections (though, amusingly, not my American friends; their taxation without representation slogan doesn’t seem to worked on this side of the Atlantic). I voted in the Cambridge constituency; which last election was a tight race between the Labour party and the Liberal Democrat party. As it turns out, the enthusiasm amongst the youth for Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn and his leftist ideals won over the Liberal Democrat’s anti-Brexit message, at least in the hyper-liberal bubble that is Cambridge. Much of the rest of the East of England was solidly Conservative.

Once again, there wasn’t a lot of fuss at the polling station. In Australia, it is customary for local community organisations to run sausage sizzles or cake stalls outside polling places as a way of raising funds. The actual group which runs the sizzles/stall is dependent on the venue in which the polling place is located: schools, community halls, sports clubs and churches tend to raise funds for themselves, though often with assistance from the local country fire service brigades (or members thereof). The fact that the voting rules are more complex in Australia (having to rank all candidates rather than select only one) means that almost every polling station has a number of party volunteers handing out cards which give recommendations on how to vote. In my experience (in a rural electorate), election day is a time when people from all across a given community are brought together, chatting and mingling for a decent period of time (and often ending up at the pub afterwards). By contrast, voting in England is a no-frills affair. Apart from one person handing out a Liberal-Democrats flyer, nobody was waiting outside, there was no queue, and I was in and out in a matter of minutes. There was no sausage sizzle (or in the nomenclature of Twitter, no #democracysausage). There was no cake stand. There weren’t even any #dogsatpollingplaces, which is apparently local national tradition.

Disappointed by the lack of meaty snack, I arranged with Annalise and Jacqueline (who, also being Commonwealth citizens also got to vote) to cook up some sausages for dinner to share. The second problem is that, in England, it is very hard to find decent sausages. For one, almost all sausages in this country are pork sausages, whereas most sausages at home are beef sausages (or at least beef and lamb), which makes them, in my opinion, quite bland. For another, the sausages are significantly shorter than at home. A typical sausage-in-bread served at an Australian sausage sizzle consists of a sausage placed diagonally across a cheap slice of white loaf bread, such that the ends of the sausage extend beyond the extremities of the bread. I am yet to find any sausages in England which can cover even the straight edge of a slice of bread, let alone the diagonal. Finally, English sausages are fatter than Australian sausages, which means they must be cooked slower and at a lower temperature in order to avoid having the outsides overcooked but the insides raw. Even the onion, when served with a sausage in this country, is only lightly cooked, when it ought to be approaching burnt. In the end, to simulate something approximating a true sausage sizzle, we ended up having to place one and a half sausages end-to-end across the diagonal to make up for it. The whole charade was somewhat amusing the Canadian Jacqueline, who didn’t understand the fuss that Annalise and I were making over it all.

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I went home at 10pm after a game of cards for the polls to close and the election coverage to start. Straight away, the BBC publishes their joint exit poll, which suggested the nation was heading towards a hung parliament. This was an exciting result, so I stayed up through much of the night to watch the results come in. Election night coverage is also very different between Australia and the UK, which I’ll detail here. In Australia, elections must be held on Saturday, so the polls close and the count starts at 6 pm. In the UK, elections are traditionally held on Thursdays, so the polls stay open until 10 pm to accommodate those who spend the day working. This means that the results aren’t even discussed until quite late in the evening.

In Australia, votes are counted initially at the polling station itself, with tallies reported into district offices. This proves to be an effective strategy in the large, rural electorates, because it would be very expensive to ferry small numbers of ballot papers large distances across the outback late at night to get to a counting centre. The UK is a lot smaller, so they bring all of the votes together to do their counts, and so have to wait until all of the ballot boxes arrive before votes are tallied. This is usually only a problem in northern Scotland (especially the Orkney and Shetland islands) or in parts of Wales. So in Australia, the small polling booths report in a given electorate one-by-one, and you get a very coherent idea of the relative swing in a given seat within an hour or two. The election, provided it isn’t on a knife-edge, can typically be called within two hours of the close of polls; the remainder are just details.

In the UK, apart from scrutineer’s estimates, you don’t have any idea how an individual constituency will fall until all of the votes are counted and the seat is declared. That means you get rather amusing declaration ceremonies where the returning officer lines the candidates up on stage and reads out the number of votes each candidate received. This often leads to joke candidates standing in high-profile constituencies (e.g. the Prime Minister or Opposition Leader’s seats). The late start combined with the relatively slow count means that the result isn’t really known until about 3 or 4 am, so I stayed up quite late to watch the results come in. As has been much publicised, the final result was a hung parliament, which made for greatly entertaining viewing. The downside was, I was completely exhausted come Friday morning and spent a large amount of the day asleep. The afternoon was spent trying to recover from the late night, which culminated in eating dinner with Jacqueline, but not a lot else.

Somehow, the end of the Easter term had arrived, which means on Saturday it was time for the Gates Term Trip. This is a termly event organised by the social officers which involves getting out of Cambridge and going somewhere exciting. Back in Michelmas, we went to Leeds Castle, Kent. In Lent, we went to the theatre in London. But now, we were heading to Canterbury, Kent, home of the leading figure in the Church of England (after the sovereign): the eponymous Archbishop. Unlike the previous two trips, the group was significantly smaller (people have exams or reports to write), but we still had enough to pile onto the coach that picked us up from Queen’s Road. It was about a 2 hour drive to Canterbury, mostly on one of three motorways, which made looking out the window a more tedious task than it otherwise could have been.

We eventually pulled into the coach park at Canterbury, after having driven around the Roman-era stone walls. Joseph, one of the social officers, marched us in towards the centre of town, up the hill to where the cathedral towered over the town. We were in somewhat of a hurry, because we needed to be on time if we wanted to see the cathedral’s crypts, which would be closing at noon for a wedding, go figure. We spent a good hour or so wandering the near-thousand year old halls that had seen many moments of history, notably the assassination of Thomas Becket. I often quite like English cathedrals, especially compared to their European counterparts, as the former tend to be lighter, more spacious, and have beautiful cloisters and side-halls, in a way I haven’t quite seen on the continent.

We left the cathedral hungry, and I found myself alongside Jacqueline, Annalise, Joanne and Matt Lemming. A little bit of a search online suggested a small café just south of the city centre, and so there we went. We took advantage of the weather to sit outside in the garden behind the shop and ate our way through a selection of burgers, sandwiches and wraps. We stayed a good hour, as our next scheduled destination wasn’t until mid-afternoon. Outside the café, Matt found a large and fluffy dog which suddenly received a lot of attention from Annalise. Walking back into town, we found a market, where Matt picked up some cherries to share before eventually sitting ourselves down by the next attraction, where there was a second fluffy dog and from that moment until we had to go inside we lost Annalise (in a figurative, not literal, sense).

The second scheduled attraction was an animatronic museum/show which recounted and retold some of the famous Canterbury tales: fables and short stories written down in the 14th century in the manner of pilgrims heading to Canterbury. However, it took me until well after the visit to fully appreciate this fact; it didn’t make a lot of sense to me to begin with. As such, I exited mostly confused, but eventually caught up to everyone else. The fluffy dog was still outside, and so Annalise was still perennially distracted. While some went for ice cream, Jacqueline and I opted to find some grass to sit on and watch the birds for a moment, while we waited for the rest of the group to pass through.

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The third and final pre-organised attraction was down by the River Great Stour, which runs through the base of the city of Canterbury. There, we met with a set of tour guides which were touting people on the street in the same way that punt touts tout in Cambridge. There were also punt touts touting punts in Canterbury, but we would instead be guided along in a rowboat. Our group split across three boats, eleven to a boat, for the hour-long tour up and down the river. Our guide was a former drama student, so he knew how to tell a good story of Canterbury. He also sussed out that we were Cambridge students and knew we would be wise to any degree of inaccuracies in his stories, which unfortunately abound among punt guides in Cambridge. As we went up and down the river, he told us of the black and greyfriars that used to live in this part of the world, the history of the public schools in Canterbury, and a bit of Shakespearean history along the way, all of which was tied into the city and it’s surrounds. I simply enjoyed being out on the admittedly shallow water, cruising under the very low bridges that spanned the river. Compared to Cambridge, once can’t just show off the old colleges, and so the stories were integral to making it an interesting experience.

It was almost time to head home, so we started making our way slowly back to the bus, though not before grabbing something to eat from a corner store. We climbed back aboard, many exhausted after being out in the sun today, and made the two hour journey back to Cambridge. Many were tired and slept the way back, but others were yet still talkative. But the day was not yet over; upon arriving back in Cambridge, I rode out to Jesus Green, where Krittika was hosting a birthday potluck out in the park. Myself and the others from the trip arrived well after it had started, but we settled down into conversation whilst drinking and snacking our way through the remaining drinks and cheesecake. There were a number of people here I knew well from Gates and surrounds, and it was nice to catch up with such a number of people. There was some who were throwing a frisbee around, but I opted just to sit and hang out with some friends.

A lazy Sunday morning post-Canterbury quickly turned into a lazy Sunday afternoon, but that was interrupted by offering to go over to Annalise’s to help her prepare for the informal birthday gathering she was hosting that afternoon. This meant cutting, heating, serving, carrying, pouring at the head chef’s command. I did, however, inadvertently get to denominate the meal as a ‘hipster salad’, due to the presence of kale, quiona and avacado and it’s being served in a hollowed-out pineapple. Jokes aside, it came out really nicely, and a number of people showed up (with cake) to help eat it all.

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After dinner, we all filed through Trinity College to the backs (the edge of the river Cam), for the Trinity College Choir’s Singing on the River performance. Apparently, this is an annual tradition where the choir would sit in punts on the river and sing a series of songs to a large crowd gathered on the riverbank as the sun set. We laid out on a patch of grass near the front, and waited keenly for it to start. Over time, though, we got quite a selection of Gates scholars in a concentrated area. I spent the time awaiting the performance chatting with Callie and Edyth about all manner of things. When it eventually did start, it was smooth and soothing music, but it would have been more fun if the crowd were to sing along. While novel, the acoustics in the river were terrible and it was a real stretch to try and hear them. They started off with what would perhaps be deemed more traditional pieces, and ended (albiet after a relatively long interval) with some more fun and childish ones. For their final piece, the punts were pushed off from the bank and poled downstream and out of sight, the choir still singing.

NB: In this post I refer to sausages-in-bread in the South Australian nomenclature. The nomenclature used in other parts of Australia is a subject of linguistic controversy. Also, for purposes of the record, New Zealand claim that sausages-in-bread are their idea.

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