My mother used, whenever one of my cousins (and I have a lot of cousins) turned eighteen with the intention of going to university, to buy them an electric kettle as a birthday present. We, the children, would get mugs to go with it. The result was a gift that was both symbolic and practical.
When I turned eighteen, one of my cousins returned the favour and gave me the purple box in the picture above. It contained:
- a mug, and two teabags
- a packet of instant soup
- a tin of baked beans
- a jar of Marmite
- a tin opener
- a potato peeler
- two tea-towels
- a bar of chocolate
It also contained two pages of (hilarious) instructions on the use of the above items, which has allowed me to reconstruct the contents at over a decade’s distance, and concluded:
9. The box. This will be useful for keeping things in. During your years at university you will come across many things that cannot be defined or categorised. Put these things in the box, to avoid having to define or categories them. It is also shiny, which is always good!
The contents have gone the way of all flesh – actually, the tin opener might still be knocking around – but the instructions and the box itself survive.
The things that I have apparently been unable to define or categorise, as evidenced by their inclusion in the box, are:
- my last pair of glasses
- a previous pair of glasses
- six fabric floral corsages
- a luggage label in the shape of a cat’s face
- two CDs of wedding photographs
- an enamel rose-shaped brooch
- a monocle
- one of those fancy plastic combs that’s meant to make it easier to do a French pleat, now completely useless to me
- an elastic band with a sequinned flower on it, which I suppose I could use as a bracelet these days
- seven bottles of nail varnish
- a pillbox full of glass-headed pins
- more safety pins than I can be bothered to count
- two small scallop shells
- a pair of nail clippers
- a quantity of small change in euros
- a toy car
- a badge saying ‘Altos prefer it underneath’
- a magnetic bookmark with my name on it, telling me that I’m ‘A female tower of strength’
- a brooch made of buttons and wire
- a cross and a fish made of clay, which date from the Methodist and Anglican Society Welcome Week event 2005, at a guess
- a medal of the Blessed Virgin Mary, provenance unknown.
Gosh. That was illuminating. And it saves me from making a cheap point about how the only thing I found that I was unable to define or categorise was myself, which I would otherwise be tempted to do.
No, my cousin attended to my practical needs. My aunt on the other side of the family, meanwhile, presented me with a stack of useful books and newspaper supplements. They included, as I recall, The Bluffer’s Guide to University, the Cambridge University Student Union guide to pretty much everything (my cousin – I have, as I’ve mentioned, a lot of cousins – was an elected rep of some sort), and several years’ worth of the ‘how to survive at university’ insert the Sunday Times produces annually. To this I added Gaudy Night and Dear Bob, which I think I must have received the previous Christmas, and which was an amusing, if incompletely, guide to being Christian at university.
Armed with all that, I did reasonably well, academically and socially, at university, and mostly enjoyed myself hugely. But the book I was missing was the one that said ‘there’s more than one way to be Christian, and that’s not incompatible with not being straight…’
So I wrote it. I’d love to think that it’ll make it into someone else’s university survival kit one day.