The day still had some heat in it, as it wasn’t quite five o’clock yet. Harriet sought out a patch of particularly plush looking grass and sat gracefully, smoothing her dress out carefully and folding her legs beneath her, a far cry from when she used to throw down book bags and collapse anywhere there was space to. This quad had always been thronged in the better weather, the perfect space for studying outdoors, what with its proximity to both the Old Library and the dining hall.
The quad was quiet now, all the students home for the Easter break, the campus and its amenities given over for events like conferences and weddings. Still, Harriet felt as if the ghost of her undergraduate self was going to come trotting out of the library, ring binders and text books clasped to her chest with one arm, sticking earphones in with her free hand, squinting in the brightness of the sunlit quad after the gloom of the library.
What would I say to my eighteen year old self, Harriet wondered idly, ripping up clumps of grass and sprinkling the blades. Beware false friends, the smiles of certain boys, the effect that the love poetry of Pablo Neruda will one day have on you.
– ‘The Best Thing I Never Had’.
Back when The Best Thing I Never Had (aka Little White Lies) was just a foetus of scribbles in a notebook and three-quarters’ formed ideas, I fully intended to create a fictional university for Harriet, Adam and the rest of the gang to attend. I toyed with the idea of using something like Bournemouth University – which might have facilitated some romantic walks on the beach? Or one of the campus-less universities in Central London – lots of dashing for the last tube train, and heartfelt conversations sat on the benches at Southbank? In the end, I knew that the tone I was going for necessitated the same experience I had – a relatively small, insular campus where everyone is up in everyone else’s business like woah.
So I made the decision to just sort of never mention the name or location of their university and started writing away. On my re-read of the first fifth or so of the first draft I noticed things that niggled my OCD: Harriet and Adam turned left from their lecture theatre to go home in one chapter, and right in another. The fictional ‘Armstrong’ seems like a bar at some points, and more like a comfy pub at others. It didn’t feel like a real place, because – of course – it wasn’t. So I rolled my eyes and started mentally using my own university, for consistency, telling myself that I’d go back and take out anything too obvious in the final edits. But by the time I got to that point, what was there wasn’t my university any more, it was Adam’s, Harriet’s, Leigha’s, Johnny’s, Sukie’s, Nicky’s and Miles’ – and they wouldn’t give it up.
So although some more specific locations might have had a less-than-subtle name change, Adam & co are proud alumnae of Royal Holloway, University of London, like me, my other half and a rather large proportion of my closest friends. Don’t let the name fool you – it’s not in London. With well under 10,000 undergraduates, postgraduates and staff at any one time, it’s rather titchy; it’s more three degrees of separation than six.
When I started as a Fresher in September 2004, I was ‘housed’ in the Founders Building, the original university (which was ladies only until the 1960s) building built in the 1870s by architect Thomas Holloway. A Grade I listed building – it took some getting used to. Although the rooms have had recent refurbs, back in the day there was no internet, my corridor smelt like lasagne 24/7, someone set off the over-sensitive fire alarms by haphazardly spraying their deodorant at least once a week and there was nothing funnier than watching people get lost (come on, it’s not that hard! It’s Founders’ East, and Founders’ West and North Quad and South Quad – how is that confusing??). I was super lucky, because I was put in a double room with a roommate who never showed, so I got a double-sized turret room for the whole year – and no, it never gets old telling people that you’ve lived in a turret.
And although Best Thing only covers our protagonists’ final year of study, where they’re living in houses out in the student village, Founders is still a star. The ‘Old Library’ that Adam and Harriet frequent is Founders’ Library (as cunning a disguise as Clark Kent’s glasses, right?); Nicky and Miles book their wedding into Founders’ Chapel and their reception in the Victorian Dining Hall. Keep a look out – people are always nipping through the ‘quad’ or hearing the chime of the clocktower telling the time.
Before I turn this blog post into what it really is – an excuse to post up what I delicately refer to as ‘Founders porn’ – one last thing. The Royal Holloway motto is esse quam videri – to be, rather than to seem. A good lesson – and one that the cast of The Best Thing I Never Had could certainly have used.