John Simpson: B2 Mallory, Magdalene
Intrepid traveller John Simpson returns to his room at Magdalene to find current occupant Ben Weidmann – and one very welcome addition.
The young John Simpson (Magdalene 1963) had not long returned from travelling in America – hooking up with a lorry-driving, baseball bat-wielding, Mafia-connected Teamster for a wild ride across the USA – when he faced an even more intimidating prospect: his first night in Mallory B2, nestled on the ground floor in the corner of Magdalene’s Village.
“Cambridge was still very posh,” he remembers. “And I felt incredibly middle class. I’d been reading novels by Evelyn Waugh in which people like me got chucked into fountains. I could hear people throwing bottles around and lots of posh laughter. I pulled the covers over my head and thought: ‘God, I hope they don’t come in here; but if they do, I’ll defend my castle.’”
Marauding students were not the only danger of spending a night in Mallory, however. “The nearest toilet was about a hundred yards away down a passage, so I bought an old Victorian pot to put under my bed,” Simpson recalls. The ancient gas fire – long since retired – was the only source of heat. “So the contents of the pot were usually frozen by the morning.”
Current Mallory occupant Ben Weidmann (History, Third Year) points out that there is now, happily, a loo situated just outside the door, and the two discuss that strange time of adjustment from carefree travelling to College – Weidmann spent his gap year in South America.
“If you’ve been lucky enough to spend time travelling, you feel like you’ve had significant life experiences, and there feels like a disconnect between you and people who have just come out of school,” Weidmann says. “But that gap closes very quickly.”
It helped that they both loved Magdalene – and Mallory. “At home, I’d just had a bedroom and I’d lived quite rough when travelling,” says Simpson. “And then to come here and have this beautiful, orderly set of rooms! The furniture was crap, the chairs and the sofa were rumpsprung and the bed was pretty ghastly. But it was mine.”
Both Simpson and Weidmann made Mallory’s suite of rooms their own: Weidmann with his Slipknot and Kurt Cobain posters and an extensive collection of guitar pedals (“Music is a great way to relax or procrastinate, but I try to play either at a reasonable volume or at a reasonable time of the day”), and Simpson with his Beatles records and Victorian historical paintings. The latter came in useful when covering up the paintwork, now a pleasantly neutral cream. “All rooms in 1963 were chocolate, custard or bilious green. The bedroom was bilious green. I used to wake up and look at it every morning, not always feeling terribly well.”
Sadly, these days, says Weidmann, raucous parties resulting in killer hangovers are a little harder to pull off than in the early 1960s. “College has recently sent out an email reminding us that, as per the College rules, a social gathering of eight or more people is a party. But I think there are maybe still parties. Well, gatherings,” he adds hastily. “Having pre-drinks and then going somewhere else for the night.”
For both Simpson and Weidmann, Mallory is one room among many. Weidmann is just getting started, intending to travel more in Chile, Argentina and Patagonia once he finishes university, and then teach English in China. Simpson has (so far) reported from more than 120 countries.
But it’s special, for all the right reasons. “I will remember my time here very fondly,” says Weidmann, “even though it goes so fast.” Cambridge was bewildering at times, says Simpson. “I’d say to my younger self that everything may not be perfect now, but just stick with it. Put your shoulder to the wheel and you’ll find things turn out rather nicely.”
Award-wining foreign correspondent John Simpson CBE is currently World Affairs Editor at the BBC. Ben Weidmann is in his final year studying History.