In 1923 two precocious and fury-filled Cambridge undergraduates – Christopher Isherwood and Edward Upward – co-wrote some extraordinary, inventive, and obscene stories. Together they imagined a hidden obverse to the actual city that they inhabited, dominated as it was by ‘the poshocracy’ of well-connected young men and judgmental and tedious dons. Their fanatical projection they called ‘The Other Town’ was accessed through an unassuming door in a wall just off Silver Street, one of the roads that leads towards the river Cam. Once through this portal the vista was both familiar and utterly discordant: populated with characters derived from Thomas Browne, Beatrix Potter and Edger Allen Poe, filled with intensely technical and idiomatic speech, and littered with rituals, haunted buildings, and menacing shadows: it was a home-grown kind of Surrealism avant la lettre.
Cambridge under COVID 19 has been utterly transformed, changing in ways that make it resemble a city which – if not as overtly strange as Isherwood and Upward’s ‘Other Town – then at least as unsettling to walk through. A bright and warm sun shines on a King’s Parade without a single tourist; most University buildings – without people around them – now look like architectural models; and nearly all undergraduate students have now departed – with some Finalists not to return. The personal dialectic of the supervision and the collective tension of the exam hall have given way to the solitary screen-flicker. Beyond the University life in the city continues, as it does for any other comparably-sized place in Britain, with ripples and tremors of fear – as well as solidarity in the weekly clapping and banging of pans in appreciation for the National Health Service. The rituals of the everyday now come complete with angst and care, symbolised by the 2-metres of distancing as people pass by each other gingerly in on the pavements of Mill Road – and it was there I watched a woman take off her face-mask to have a look at the house where Rajani Palme Dutt (once the chief theoretician of the British Communist Party) was born in 1896. Indeed it was in the streets around the Mill Road railway bridge where he first started thinking about inequality, and hence the differing life-chances for the railway workers who lived around there and those such as ‘the poshocracy’ indicted by Isherwood and Upward. For as the surface patterns of life in 2020 are transformed via the virus so too do other patterns – of unfairness and history – come to haunt us. These can also be seen palimpsestically in the very geography of the streets and the great green spaces between, for places such as Midsummer Common have always been useful to the city in commerce, life and death – for Fairs and for Plague-pits. In 1630 an episode of the Bubonic Plague reoccured in Cambridge, as it had done in varying degrees of severity every twenty or thirty years since the Black Death. But this was an especially acute year, as Henry Butts, the University’s Vice-Chancellor, recorded in a letter to Lord Coventry:
[in] the present state of the town the sickness is much scattered, but we follow your lordships counsell to keep the sound from the sick; to which purpose we have built 40 booths in a remote place upon our commons, whether we forthwith remove those that are infected, where we have placed a German physician who visits them day and night and he ministers to them: besydes constables we have certain ambulatory officers who walks the streets night and day to keep our people from needless conversing, and to bring us notice of all disorders.
Here, like in 2020, quarantine is being arranged, surveillance is being performed, and doctors from around the world are working in Cambridge. But so too, later in his letter, come the fears of ‘the disorderly poor’ who would bear the brunt of the epidemic – and who apparently could not be trusted. This past does still haunt some of us, but the Cambridge which will emerge sometime in the future after the virus has passed – or been tamed into a containable hazard – will also have to acknowledge that this city of continual intellectual intensity, beautiful buildings, and glittering new industries in the Science Park has such a hidden side, an obverse which stretches back centuries. For the virus might usefully remind Cambridge that multiple ‘Other Towns’ – of poverty, suffering, and resistance – is as much part of its history as any sublime and packaged view.