I first applied for an MPhil in American Literature at Lucy Cavendish in 1997, after returning from four years in Rome as a journalist for Reuters. My undergraduate education had begun in America, at Brown University, Rhode Island, and after moving to Rome (and running after popes, prostitutes and politicians - often on the same day) I decided I needed a way back into the UK which fulfilled my interests (I was obsessed with Henry James) and gave me a pre-made community.
I remember my first week very clearly – walking below a clear wide sky from the red brick of Lady Margaret Road to the soft caramel arches St John's (where I had a tutorial) and being in awe of such a place. I remember too bumping into Stephen Hawking and his wheelchair with my white cane (I am legally blind) and having a bizarre discussion about disability in the freezing wind in King's Court yard. Even as a visiting scholar at Lucy fifteen years later in 2012/13, writing a book on the history of blindness, I found I was still enchanted with the walks to chapels, the almost Stalinist UL (and my amazing library bestie and chief librarian, Colin, who found rare scripts and diaries for me) and hot chocolates in small cafes and yes, regularly falling over on cobbled streets. Blindness does not like irregular foot placement.
But while the rose-tinted glasses lasted quite a while (and still do to some extent, particularly at evensong at King's Chapel or attending formal hall) what I gained from Lucy Cavendish, and rely on almost every day of my working life as a writer, journalist and campaigner for disabled people’s rights, was the sense, as a woman with fading eyesight, of my own intellectual worth and resilience. Of course, being at Cambridge, such a sentence would be a natural consequence. Attending lectures where Germaine Greer could dissect Jane Eyre, or Ophelia in Hamlet in a hour and make you believe you were, like Jane, mistress of your own destiny, blind or not, would surely have an impact at some point.
But what also struck me most was the range of people I would talk to at Lucy who had all experienced life on such different levels and in such different arenas. Such chats usually occurred over long lunches in Warburton Hall long after the canteen had closed. I met an army officer who had not had the chance to attend university, an Olympic skier, who had spent her entire life training, and a ballerina who wanted to use her sensitivity to music and narration in a different way. I even recall a brilliant ramble with a Wellcome Institute fellow, who explained how the creation of the human genome project would change medicine altogether because it would mean each disease and illness would be looked at on an individual level. How far seeing she was.
So after Lucy, I really began to listen to my own thoughts, to shape them, expand them and then believe they have validity, even if later proved wrong. And I learnt to get up again, if I fell over, metaphorically or literally. And this is a fundamental intelligence I carry with me today. After Lucy, I continued to be a journalist at the Daily Telegraph (everyone laughs when I tell them I worked on the Financial stories after studying Henry James), and then a senior producer at the BBC’s Radio 4 Today programme where I covered everything from murders in Italy to the financial crash in 2008.
In more recent years, and after spending a year as a visiting scholar at Lucy Cavendish, I wrote a book (out next September called "Life Unseen: the history of blindness) on the history of blindness (it has a whole section on blind women) and then shifted my focus to become a campaigner and public affairs person to advocate disability rights. Somehow I got tired of regurgitating news story after news story, so decided instead to put my media acumen into better use to help people who needed a platform to be heard.
In other words, it would be fairer to say that there is really no life after Lucy Cavendish – but rather, Lucy comes me wherever I go. Since I left Lucy I have been busy giving a voice to people who are often ignored or left in the corridors of history. And almost every day I rely on my Lucy brain training in thinking outside and around the mainstream convention box, whether in the press or on the page. I keep too the sense of not being scared to voice difficult ideas and arguments – and believing ideas have a fundamental place in shaping how we treat others. Disabled women in particular are often not heard in the world – and I have learnt to stand up in a room of grey musty bankers and try and persuade them to make bank machines more accessible, as well as lobby parliamentarians, here and overseas, not to ignore their disabled citizens.
Cynically, a few years ago I might have said that years of being a journalist shaped my mind and helped with seeing stories from different angles and asking difficult questions. And maybe too going blind gives one a sense of priority and coping with change. Yet I do think that my time at Lucy gave me the initial space to listen and observe, and think about myself and the world in a different way. I even gave my first lecture about blindness for an Anna Bidder evening at Lucy,(thanks to medievalist Professor Anna Abulafia). I can promise you, going live on national radio was nothing as scary as that first lecture where history dons sat in the front row glaring menacingly at me. And because of my rigorous literary training, my dream of writing a book about a vast sweep of history somehow was less daunting. Literary bookish folk like to be solitary, but they also like to know there are other bookish folk slogging it out too, just round the other book shelf.
So life after Lucy is in fact Life with Lucy, and I think all my contemporaries, who I spent all those languid lunches with (how did I even finish my thesis) would say the same. Knowing your mind, and knowing how to use it are things worth finding and I learnt to harness mine both at Lucy. And for that I will always be immensely grateful.