June 21st, 2008


Revisiting Aberdeen University thirty years on

For the most amazing Proustian rush of your life, here's what to do. Go to university in a chilly north British town from, say, 1978 to 1984. Listen to lots of indie music, read the NME, study English, Sociology, Psychology, hang out with art students, that sort of stuff. Then -- this is crucial -- don't go back. Not for at least thirty years.

When you finally do revisit, make sure you choose a beautiful sunny day in summer. Walk around on your own, investigating the buried archeological layers of your own soul while replaying in your head the songs you associate with these granite buildings and grim 70s interiors. Revisit the sacred place where you lost your virginity, the place where you wrote the songs for your first album, the place where you told author Ali Smith about the big crush you had on her.

Take the 20 bus from Marishall College and the Student Union (both about to be turned into something else) to the ivy-clad gentility of King's College, where you attended lectures and read books of fashionable alienation late at night. Then continue to Hillhead Halls of Residence, where you lived for three years. Tell the porters you were a student here thirty years ago, and ask if you can stay overnight. They'll charge you £20 and give you the keys to a little cell with a desk, a lamp, a bed, a basin, a cupboard, a mirror. You'll wake up there and walk out into this amazing simulacrum of the scenery of your youth. It'll be the most incredible time machine you've ever assembled, the biggest expanse of adult life you've ever eliminated all at once, a succession of madeleines.

Bear in mind that this kind of thing won't happen twice. Next time you visit your old university it won't all be so powerfully evocative, so multiple. The seagulls will just be seagulls, not 1979 Simple Minds seagulls. And there's nowhere else you knew this well, and left deep-frozen in a time-sealed capsule for quite this long. The poetry won't ever be quite this poignant again, the personal archeology quite this deep.