The plan, I imagine, was for a night in town, but we never made it that far. We stopped into the Thresher at the bottom of the hill and Mass bought a packet of More (not the Menthol ones) and then we went over the road to The Rose of Mossley, and drank dark mild, which, at 75p a pint, was not significantly more expensive than the Carnatic bar. The bar was closed for the Valentine's Ball. My girlfriend at the time, a psychology student at the Queen's College, Oxford, could not be persuaded to attend. If I even invited her. Massimo was terminally single, and neither of us had the cash to buy a ticket. We had a few and walked up the hill picking at chips and gravy, steaming in the February air. Noise came from inside the main building. Posh kids having fun.
We crashed a lot of balls that summer, travelling as far as Leeds in order to do so. On one occasion Mass was completely without formal clothing, but managed to acquire a long black cape from somewhere, which he wore over his reeking jeans. This was the first such undertaking. Security lapsed after eleven o' clock, and we slid in.
I think of my first spell at university as a time of immense and concentrated egoism, I suppose everyone does. I didn't have much time for politics, though I did march against student loans and poll tax in Glasgow, because I wanted a look at the place again, and there was a girl I liked who was going. I disliked Thatcher and wanted her out, if only because she was all I could remember. A limited horizon behind me. I deplored the fact that there existed, in my lifetime, in my present moment, the idea and practice of Apartheid. I didn't eat their apples. I disliked the accent. I knew who Nelson Mandela and Steve Biko were, but I didn't have a poster up.
The DJ played this song:
And I pogoed up and down for three minutes or so along with everyone else. I was wearing Doctor Steve's dinner suit, which was a little long in the arms, I remember. Then the music stopped. The DJ, who was at least as drunk as everyone else shouted "(unintelligible) FREE...!!! NELSON MANDELA IS FREE!!!" We were all very pleased, of course, even the posh kids, and we shouted and swore. Then the DJ played this song:
And we fell about the place in a boozy hopeful rapture.
South Africa remains a troubled and divided nation, from what I can tell, but this moment was one of very few from my youth which history has been unable to tone. Its lustre is undimmed and its promise consummated, all because of one man. When one apparently impossible thing is achieved it tends to make us believe that other impossible ends might be reached, and maybe distant notions of a fairer world aren't so impractical. Hope persists. Nelson Mandela is free.