MARK TURIN Distant Neighbours



© Mark Turin, 1997

I'd like to share with you, dear readers, a few of my first impressions of your esteemed university. I arrived in Leiden in September 1996, to start a PhD. in a new discipline, in a new country. But first let me take you back to my interview, a few months before, which secured me the position.

At that time, I was researching and teaching in Cambridge, in England - a university not unlike your own in terms of its intellectual heritage and reputation. I arrived at my interview in a suit and a tie, 20 minutes early, on a bright and breezy morning in spring. I loitered around in the courtyard for a while, until I was more or less on time, and carefully made my way up to my future professor's room. I offered a timid knock on his door, immediately answered by a jovial "kom binnen" from within. I opened the door to see a man, on the phone, speaking in some unearthly language, with his shoes off and legs folded underneath, in the lotus position, sitting on a chair. Unorthodox, one might say. "Coffee?" he smiled, as he turned from the phone. "YesÉ" I nodded in reply. "Downstairs, black-no-sugar-for-me" said the man. So, off I padded, rather befuddled by my first encounter. As we drank our coffees we discussed many things - which hospital in London I was born in, where he grew up and even my grandmother's maiden name. Everything, in fact, except the details of the research position for which I was applying. "So" he said, after about 2 hours, "when do you want to start?". "Are you offering me the job" I asked, rather taken aback. "Oh yes!" he replied, "I thought you'd gathered that by now."

If this isn't anything out of the ordinary to you, my dear readers, then let me take you further back, a long, long time ago, to a planet far, far away. This place is called the University of Cambridge, and however extraordinary its inhabitants may seem to you, they seem perfectly normal to me. To 'get in' to Cambridge, you have to pass an ordeal, euphemistically nick-named 'the interview'. Interviews were reputed to take place in dark and musty rooms, with a panel of dark and musty dons firing existential and life-threatening questions at their victim to see if its brain was up to scratch. One favourite anecdote is of a professor who used to start his questioning in a friendly-enough manner, only to launch a rugby ball at the interviewee halfway through a sentence. If the interviewee caught it, he was 'in'. If not, it was all over. Another tells of a professor (perhaps even the same man) whose opening gambit to the interviewee was "Surprise me!" One bright young spark was alleged to have set fire to the pile of papers on the professor's desk with his lighter. Not only was this interviewee 'in', he was awarded the College Scholarship. So there it is. My island is different to your reclaimed-land.