“A man that is young in years may be old in hours.” –Sir Francis Bacon
We dotted a tiered building. Some had climbed suspension cables and concrete to the top; others stood on individual blocks between top and middle. We—four friends, my wife, and I—planted ourselves on the large terrace halfway up. Everyone watched the night sky. Last light this time of year is near 22:30, and it was now fifteen minutes beyond that. Then we heard a dull thud and saw a dim trail of light to the West followed by a burst of blue. And then another, this time green. “See if you can guess the next colour,” said someone next to me. “Purple,” I said, thinking of my alma mater. It was green again. Three boomers—the variety you can feel in your chest—rocketed up and exploded. The show began to escalate, and we stood there, mesmerised and silent.
The building on which we stood is perhaps one of the ugliest in Cambridge. Students and Fellows of Christ College lovingly refer to it as ‘the typewriter building’, but even that noble name cannot redeem it. It is, during the day, a blight on the landscape and a sad testament to the pretensions of an age that tossed out architectural continuity and beauty for the sake of surprise, utility, and a particular theory of art as statement. It falls into that most terrible of art-categories, the conversation piece. But this night the typewriter building, peppered with stationary, up-gazing students standing on various key levels, lit only by the filtered blue glow of city lights and the flashes of distant fireworks was as beautiful as I had ever seen it—perhaps as beautiful as it will ever be, for it held divine image bearers, who, though dizzied and confused by imported, digital pleasures minute by minute, will still stop to look—if not at the stars—at man’s fire in the night sky.
This was not our first fireworks show in Cambridge. We watched them shoot from the river on the fifth of November, standing on Midsummer Common. That time, a child sat on my shoulders, eating a brownie, chattering, and strewing crumbs in my hair and another child stood next to me, holding my hand. That was a glorious night, but we still felt like strangers and aliens observing another man’s ceremony and another man’s festival. This time was different. It seemed, somehow, more comfortable, like it was as much for us as for those standing with us. What is more, it felt like an end—like a rounding off of sorts. Easter Term was complete, and with the fireworks went the Cambridge year. The city was nearing the conclusion of its yearly cycle—students flooding out, tourists flooding in, punting solicitors prowling ever farther in search of prey, sporadic showers brewed in the fens interrupting humid afternoons, green upon green upon green in the parks and hedges and lanes, paths foot-flattened; sluggish brown water, stirred and muddied by steady run-off and boating; scaffolding around gothic towers and neoclassical pillars, and BBC One blaring out over worksites. I felt old in hours and new in minutes. I knew in that moment I was a newcomer to this city and only beginning to work into its routines and attitudes and moods. I knew that the first year had been largely guesswork—a gauging of the atmosphere from fragments of conversation and snatched weather reports, an extrapolation from particular to local, a series of social triangulations and prevarications, a long succession of bike rides and internal mappings, a march of ancient and new routine, of prayers, of sleeps, of study, of walks, of meals.
The display lasted only fifteen minutes and left us in a half-dark. The night was humid, and the smoke of the show began to float East across the city towards us and settle like a fog. We said goodbyes, found our bikes, opened the gate, and trundled down King’s street toward Jesus Green. The streets were emptied of people, and street lights glowed beyond their shells. I began to smell the sharp, almost spiced odour of firework smoke. We turned off of Jesus Lane, passed the ADC, the Maypole, and Park Street Primary, and were in the open of Jesus Green. By now it looked like a fog had slithered up from the river and mingled with the smoke. It wreathed the lamp posts and haloed their lamps. Our bikes creaked slightly on the uneven ground, and I called out to my wife, “A Sherlock night, huh?” She must have nodded, for I heard no response. I saw us then, as one might see us from the river—two black shadows cutting through the ground-clinging fog at an even pace, her back straight, mine bent to the handlebars, legs moving in even pumps.
I thought then how this place has made me a kind of connoisseur of bicycle form: the elegant, the lumbering, the sleek, the symmetric, the safety-conscious (always the least elegant and most uncomfortable), the cautious, the foolhardy. I know them at a glance. I know too the look of large men consuming small bikes, and large bikes consuming small men. A bike may extend a woman’s beauty in striking ways or minimise it. The bike can make the athletic man look coltish and the willowy man strong. Some days I believe I can tell a man’s politics by the way he bikes—the more safety gear, the farther he is to the left. But delusions abound in the translation of forms, and I hold these views lightly. Still, I have found that the great difference between the graceful and the jolting cyclist is in how he deals with natural road bumps. The safety-conscious man and the cautious man stiffen and lock and shake and jar and judder and pull their brakes and frown. The graceful man and the confident man absorb shocks with knees and shoulders and neck, stand on pedals, maintain speed. Their movements are even and slow, like eagles wheeling in an updraft. The cautious lurch and twitch like dying insects. I fancied that night that we were among the graceful.
The fog and smoke lessened as we climbed Carlyle Road, dismounted, and locked up our bikes. Muffled music floated from the Trinity May Ball downtown and beacon lights moved across the sky. Alexandra Gardens sat dark, and our apartment waited. After stopping just a moment to listen, we stepped across the street and inside, the fireworks still ringing in our ears.
The next night, I sat in a crowd atop Castle Hill. A light rain fell. We shared olives and prosecco and watched the southern sky over St. John’s. The rain stopped. We heard a thud. The sky lit up red. The crowd ahhhed approval. I thought again, as I gazed down on the ancient city, that, if last night had been the end of the year, this was its beginning. I felt a sense of completion and of commencement—of having become a resident of a place. I know its grocery stores. I have heard its celebration and its lament. I have lain on its greens and boated its river. I have a barber. Though Kansas will always be my native land, I have lived in Cambridge long enough to miss it when I leave, for I have heard the steady march of localism.
R. Eric Tippin
Written with great delay and much consternation
Corner House, Cambridge
June 19-28, 2016
"Nocturne: Blue and Gold"
Oil on Canvas - c. 1872-1875
James McNeill Whistler