Glass ceiling

During their week in the UK our Chinese group is visiting Oxford, London, Cambridge, Brighton and Windsor. Apart from the rushed day in London, each trip includes generous shopping-centre time and, for the adults, there is an additional trip to Bicester Village reduced-price designer-fashion outlet. Today’s trip was to a Cambridge shopping centre. Admittedly, when we arrived in pelting rain its glass ceiling provided welcome shelter (once they’d taken the obligatory photo of students with school banner by the back entrance to King’s College – presumably to prove to those back home that they had actually been to Cambridge) but Friend and I were getting increasingly pained that they’d spent two hours in a coach and had only punting and commerce on their schedule. So, with some difficulty, we prised the two Chinese teachers of English from the shops and persuaded them to come with us to King’s College Chapel. The sun came out in celebration, the sky turned blue, and Cambridge suddenly looked glorious.

We’d said beforehand that there was an entrance fee (a lot less than the made-in-China goods they’d been buying) but when we got to the chapel entrance they baulked. I couldn’t bear it. I paid for them to go in. And I think they genuinely liked it: the stained glass colours thrown by the sun onto the stone, the delicate fan vaulting, the Tudor rose motifs, the side-chapel memorial to Rupert Brooke and others at which Friend recited a Brooke poem from memory, the illuminated manuscripts… We hoped, as they scurried off via the shops to punt, that when they saw the Chapel across the Backs they would think about the inside.

Later we found three of our students ambling in the streets. We coerced them past a college lodge, asked if they planned to go to university one day and explained that university students lived and studied in these rooms around the grassed quadrangle. Eyes opened, cameras came out.

I know it’s snobbery but I feel it's been such a sad waste of a day for most of them.

Black and white in colour 24

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