How’s the journey going? That wasn’t meant to be a cheesy comment about your ‘personal journey’ or anything – I mean the literal journey you’re taking in the car right now. It’s Sunday, 22nd September 2019, and you’re on your way to Durham for the start of your second year. You just got a message saying that something you wrote in the summer, ‘A letter to my past self’ is going to be printed in the Features section of Indigo’s Freshers’ Week edition.
That’s my first bit of advice, actually: keep more copies of that issue. It would have looked really nice stuck on your wall. Also, you don’t know this yet, but physical, tangible memories are going to become few and far between in the next few months. Hold onto them – ticket stubs, posters, dodgy photo booth shots – while you still can.
When you wrote that letter at the end of your first year, you considered yourself something of a Durham expert. After a year, you knew how everything worked: finding your way around town; using vocabulary like summative, Billy B, and frep; surviving those morning contact hours on an ungodly lack of sleep. You’re not wrong, but allow me to add a bit of nuance here – you’re an expert in Durham right now. Future Durham is going to come with a whole new, digital sphere which you’ll have to navigate, and new words too – self-isolation, social distancing, essential journey. You haven’t even heard of Zoom yet.
You don’t know it (and it probably doesn’t feel like it), but you’re living in a golden age right now. Your time is what we in 2021 like to call ‘pre-Covid’, ‘normal times’, or ‘before the world started falling apart’. It would be very easy to sit here and tell you to make the most of it, while you still can. I could write you an extended tract about how much I miss theatres, cinemas, pubs, restaurants, cafés, parties, clubs and, yes, even lectures. I could beg you never to cancel any plans, to hug everyone you know all the time, because I live in a world where we all regret every set of plans we ever cancelled, and we all desperately, desperately miss hugs. But it would be pointless to do so, because the best way to make the most of the ‘before-times’ is just to do exactly what works for you at each moment. Keep doing that.
I’ve made the eighteen months between you and me sound pretty awful. And they are, in lots of ways – last term I didn’t even meet with most of my friends. The busy 2020 summer that you’ll organise will mostly be spent reading books in the back garden. And I spend far, far too much time looking at a screen these days. I promise all of that will make sense soon, but I also promise you that there will be good things; a lot happens in a year, even when not much seems to be going on.
People you half-know will emerge as friends you can trust, and you’ll realise how valuable such people can be when they come to your aid. You’ll spend a lot of time consuming things – books, films, plays, gin and tonics. You’ll get weirdly into long walks, which can’t be a bad thing. And takeaway coffees will never taste so good.
Maybe most importantly, you’ll learn how to enjoy your own company. Right now, you thrive on a busy existence by which you only return home for food and sleep; you spend your days studying with friends and your nights at meetings, or rehearsals, or the pub. Those are all great things and you should definitely keep doing them, but we both know how unsustainable that lifestyle becomes in the end.
In the future, you will, by necessity, learn how to slow down, and stop being busy for the sake of it – as it turns out, you can get just as much meaningful stuff done without spending your every waking moment in the outside lane.
This is not to sugarcoat what’s to come. In 2020 you will be outraged, and upset, and miserable, like everyone else. There’s a fair bit of that in 2021, too. But you will also find the very best parts of the time, wherever you can.
A few bits of proper advice, then. Enjoy the next few months. Hug the people you love, but don’t hug anyone you wouldn’t hug usually because they’ll find it weird. Stop putting all your energy into the future. You have no idea that your entire life as you know it will turn upside down and back to front, so take pleasure in what you’ve got now as much as what you think will come next.
You’re just pulling into Durham now – off you go.
Photograph by Mark Norton