The Junior Common Room of the School of Oriental and African Studies is a noisy, tatty, paper-strewn room with a curving wall at one end like the stern of a small liner. Tall windows let in plenty of wind and sky, and when I was studying there I used to imagine I was sailing steerage class on a slow voyage across Bloomsbury.
My train was due to leave Euston station — just up the road — in an hour. My old college was as good a place as any to wait on an afternoon of bitter cold. I took my packet of tangy-cheese-flavoured Doritos, my carton of cappuccino, and my subsidised copy of the Guardian newspaper and found a comfortable berth on a battered old sofa under one of the tall windows. A plain white T-shirt was laid out on the table in front of me. Across it, a student seated on my left was carefully thickening the words YARL’S WOOD — I AM ON HUNGER STRIKE with a green felt tip. On my right, a man who looked like a middle-ranking Foreign Office diplomat — dark suit, navy-blue striped shirt, navy-blue tie — was having an informal one-to-one tutorial in spoken Mandarin with a teenage Chinese student.
Finding yourself sandwiched between interesting or highly contrasting neighbours is quite the normal thing at SOAS, which draws students from all over the world. On my first morning as an undergraduate, I squeezed into the only available chair in a Swahili class, and found myself seated between Henry, the previous year’s whipper-in of the Eton beagle pack, and Mariam, a female Marxist Eritrean war veteran with scars to prove it. To get to the class, I’d had to push my way through a demonstration in the entrance hall, where representatives of the Islamic militant society Hizb ut-Tahrir were chanting ‘Death to Zion’, or something similar, at members of the Jewish Society, who had turned out to challenge them with a dignified silence.