A Misspent Youth

I went to university in 1961 as one of the country’s top science students. Two years later, I was an arts student on the verge of dropping out altogether. I am not quite sure now how this happened. It would be easy to put it down to the temper of the times and claim that I was part of the vanguard that led to all those hippie dropouts of the late sixties. There is a speck of truth in this. The people I became friends with were all questioning the establishment and several of them, like me, made dramatic changes of direction. None of them took such a cavalier attitude to their education as I did, though.

I think I was confounded by my own nature and by the particular circumstances of my life. I was in the science stream at school because I loved mathematics and if you wanted to do maths, you had to take on the rest of the science package – physics and chemistry in particular. Outside of school my intellectual interests ranged over English philosophy and foreign novels as well as history, politics and the problem of religion. These things energised me whereas the school curriculum, apart from the maths, was something in which I was only mildly interested. I went through the motions and did what I had to do. From the outside, I was something of a model pupil. In my last year I won a prize for being just this and my school testimonial described me as ‘a sterling youth’. In fact I was a fraud and university exposed me as a reckless creature without objectives.

The first trap was the student common room, a gloomy space under one of the old buildings, with low tables and big armchairs covered in red vinyl. It was a male preserve (perhaps it was even designated the Men’s Common Room, I don’t remember now) and was occupied between lectures by bridge players. I had never played bridge but I was fond of five hundred and I knew that bridge was supposed to be a superior variant. Pretty soon I was an addict, spending hours and, sometimes days on end at the card table, cutting lectures and tutorials in my new enthusiasm. The hours of practice honed my skills. I joined the University Bridge Club and became a member of a fours team that reached the final of the Auckland Provincial Championship. I dropped the game after that, though. I knew I could never have become a really good player. My mind was too unsystematic to keep track of the cards with the necessary precision. I played on intuition rather than observation and, in consequence, made disastrous mistakes at awkward moments. If you were to generalize that judgement, I couldn’t possibly comment.

It is often suggested that people fail at university because they lack the discipline for independent study. That wasn’t quite the case with me. The bridge aside, I did plenty of independent study – into modern French novels and existential philosophy, for example. It just wasn’t that relevant to stage one physics and chemistry. My problem was and still is that I have an addictive personality. I become fixed on things – some of them important and some trivial – and once fixed I tend to pursue them exclusively. Over the years I have learned to curb this tendency. Back then I was lost.

One Response to “A Misspent Youth”

  1. maggie@at-the-bay.com Says:

    I’m fascinated Chris that you played (or perhaps still play) Five Hundred more by intuition than “necessary precision” which is why I have never dared to try and learn Bridge, assuming my complete lack of mathematical ability would preclude me from achieving even a modest level of success – yet, I like you, as a child, played both Euchre and Five Hundred at the kitchen table with my family and had tremendous good luck based on ‘intuition,instinct, bloody-mindedness’ which is of course, the fun of the game. Oh to declare “Ten No Trumps” and terrify everyone. It is only as an adult, when I rarely (perhaps on holiday with an enthusiast) that I have come to see that some people really do keep track in their head of all the cards and that my so called luck and intuition, is merely that – luck – oh, but it is so much more fun (well, I tell myself it is). And even more hilarious when my dear spouse who did not grow up playing cards and when learning to play, struggled with the left and right bower, and frequently reneged (innocently, he always proclaimed) and to much consternation and frustration and finally, hilarity.

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