Column 3: Cash, 26th October 2002
Being a student is all about coping with a small budget, and if you’re especially thrifty, you can usually stretch out a year’s student loan to cover your expenses in London for about three weeks.
As a very old man once mumbled to me when I asked him for financial advice, “look after the penis, and the pandas will look after themselves”. I don’t know what he meant either, and it cost me my job at the local zoo, but perhaps he was telling me it was a good idea to save money wherever I can (and not, as I thought, to expose myself in the penguin enclosure).
So, how to stem the flow of cash from your wallet into the outside world? First, get your food expenditure down to a minimum. Vegetables are cheap. I bought an onion the other day. I got home and looked at the receipt, and it cost 8p. Now, on its own, that wasn’t a very nice meal at all, and I probably should have bought some indigestion tablets to go with it, but at least it hardly cost me anything.
Second, scrimp on rent by living in a rat-infested cesspool. Being London, this means you could have had a fifty-bedroom palace in Leeds for the same amount, but try not to worry. You can blow all that hard-saved cash by drowning the sorrows of your miserable existence down the pub. Excellent.
Of course, poverty breeds crime, which is probably why I was plagued by theft when I was in halls. I was particularly distressed by the loss of four Cornish Pasties. When I noticed my milk was going missing, I devised a cunning plan.
No doubt several of you are also experiencing milk loss, so do what I did: wait until you’ve only got a few centimetres of milk left and dilute it with water until you’ve got half a bottle full. This way you don’t end up wasting much real milk, and it looks pretty much the same. Next, take your 1kg tub of table salt and pour as much in as you can be bothered to. Shake it up, and voila. If you’ve put enough salt in, even a splash in some tea will be heartily disgusting. The only thing left to do is tempt your milk thief, and there is nothing more tempting to somebody who is looking to steal some milk than a big sign attached to some milk, saying “PLEASE DO NOT STEAL MY MILK”. So, try that. No need to wait around – you should be able to hear the retching from your bedroom.
Of course it’s not just students who face financial hardship – the recent announcement of the plan for top-up fees shows Imperial is on a diet of Tesco Value Beans too. The rector thinks the answer is charging students more, but here’s a crazy idea – why doesn’t College spend less? If it means cutting out a few lectures, so be it. It’s a sacrifice I’m willing to make.
Column 2: Food, 19th October 2002
I’d love to be able to cook properly and healthily. My diet over the last two years has consisted mainly of ready meals, crisps, chips, burgers, kebabs and pies. Especially pies. They’re easy to shove in the oven and damn tasty, but they haven’t done much for my physique.
Of course, when I came to university, I was a great muscular hunk of a man with biceps the size of trees and capable of lifting car parks. Honest. But now I’m just a great lardy chunk of a man with biceps the size of pencils, and barely capable of picking up anything much bigger than a pint of Guinness.
I have tried to eat more healthily. One day I went to the supermarket, and I bought four lovely deep-green Granny Smith apples, five nice ripe bananas and a kilogram of potatoes.
Three weeks later I threw out four light-green apples which now resembled the bland “Golden Delicious” variety. I’m sure this is how they are cultivated – if a supermarket hasn’t sold a load of their tangy, flavoursome Granny Smiths by their Use By date, just leave your them out in the warehouse for a couple of weeks, and voila, a truckload of apples with all the flavour of soggy newspaper which you can label “Golden Delicious”.
The kilogram of potatoes was trying unsuccessfully to pretend it was a house plant, and, following several letters of complaint, I threw out the five brown mushy bananas which could now be smelt as far away as Amersham.
I thought I’d scrap the fruit and vegetables plan and decided to concentrate on doing actual cooking. I got “How to Cook” by Delia Smith. She was arrogant enough to try to tell me how to boil an egg! Well, I tried it. Several boxes of eggs later, I had probably successfully cooked enough which weren’t cracked or practically raw to finally have some breakfast.
However, by this time it was 6pm. So I turned the page. “Egg and Lentil Curry with Coconut and Picked Lime”. Hmm, steady now Delia – you’ve devoted the best part of a whole tree telling us how to cook an egg and now I’m supposed to have things like “3 cardamom pods, crushed” and “turmeric powder”? I thought I was taking it seriously when I made the special trip to buy eggs for the first time ever, and now you’re expecting somebody who can’t cook at all to have a full spice rack?
I think I’ll stick to the pies. My arteries may completely seize up well before I go to pick up my first pension payment, but at least I’ll have had 50 years of fool-proof, reasonably tasty British cuisine, rather trying to perfect one of Delia’s mad recipes. And how would I cope with becoming an old man anyway? Old people smell funny, watch Countdown, spend all day complaining and have all the strength of a particularly feeble gerbil. Oh well, it looks like I’m there already.
Column 1: Filth, 12th October 2002
Fresh! Aaah! Wake up in the morning in those crisp, clean sheets, open the window and breathe in a lungful of fresh country air. Brush your teeth with that minty toothpaste, full of freshness. Freshen up with a nice shower. Refresh yourself with a glass of orange juice and some toast. Fresh! Yes! Fresh is clean and sweet-smelling and full of energy and lovely.
Something of a mystery, then, why new university students are called “Freshers”. If there were a group of people less clean and sweet-smelling than students, I really wouldn’t want them near me while I was trying to eat.
By now most freshers should have realised why they don’t show you round halls of residence on university open days. Going to university is great, but for all that new-found independence, you’ve got to sacrifice a few things. Things like basic hygiene, for instance. Decent cooking, for another. Furniture manufactured since 1978.
At home, you can leave crockery near the sink and, in a few hours, it’s gone. If you want a cup of coffee, get a mug out of the cupboard. Grab a spoon from the drawer. Make it. Simple. Nice.
At university, if you want a cup of coffee, run your mug under the tap and scrape the congealed stuff from the spoon. Put the dirty, wet spoon in the coffee jar and then the sugar jar, and then wonder why all your coffee granules have turned into one huge, jar-sized mass, and why your sugar has brown lumps in it.
You can just about put up with that for your year in halls. But in your second year it gets worse. In your own flat, at least now you know whose hair that is in the shower, but if you leave it there for 24 hours, it doesn’t magically go away – somebody has got to clean it up. Probably you.
Students often go into their second year and forget that cleaning is something that needs to be done more than once every six weeks. When it gets to this stage, you can forget about cleaning the bathroom with a cloth – you’ll need a chisel.
It’s a lot simpler to just clean up more regularly. But try telling that to your fellow students. You could draw up a rota, but you know even before you write it that they will read it as avidly as the latest update to your Barclaycard Terms and Conditions, and with about as much enthusiasm as, well, cleaning the toilet. And if you’re lucky, it will be kept to just as accurately as a typical bus timetable, i.e. with absolutely no correlation whatsoever between who’s supposed to be doing the cleaning, and who’s there with a scrubbing brush.
No, the only sensible solution is just to live with it. Brace yourself, lower your standards and get on with it. Sit down in your rickety wooden chair, open wide and swallow a mouthful of whatever is parasite of the day. It’s good for the immune system.