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I love Lucy

THE ARTS editor summed it up, standing at the door to the bar with his arms outspread like a prophet delivering a benediction: "Feck! Drink! Older women!"

He'd had stomach trouble that day, not feeling too good, cold evening, only just got the fire going, could run to a cup of tea perhaps but as for going out for a beer, out of the question. All his ancestral Scottish genes were yearning to say, "You'll have had your tea," but years of living in Cambridge and the iron was rusting in his soul.

He softened up fast, after easing his feelings with a brief introductory lecture on his ailments, and produced some whisky. "Just the one," I said, and he said that was just as well because there was only a drop left and he was only having the one himself, what with his stomach and everything, not to mention just having got the fire going. Then we opened another bottle, and after a while I said, "Well, they'll have finished dinner now, I'd better get going."

"I'll come to the end of the road with you," he said, putting his scarf on. At the end of the road he said, "I'll just walk to the corner with you," and at the corner he said, "I might as well come to the college with you but I'll not come in."

At the college we were met by a wall of academic women: young ones and old ones and in-between ones, all gowned, some in their scarlet, and the gossip and chatter and disputation and anecdotes, and the smell and sight and sound of clever, focused, happy women which is the nearest we'll get to heaven on earth. "I'll not stay" said the arts editor. "We've got speeches now," said the redhead, "at least stay and have a drink until we've finished the speeches." "I'll stay and have a drink until you've finished the speeches," said the arts editor, and we went up to the bar.

Normally around this point I'd tell you who Lucy Cavendish was, but I can't find my Chambers Biographical Dictionary so I can't pretend I just sort of, you know, know who she was. All I know is that Lucy Cavendish College, Cambridge, is named after her, and that I cannot imagine a more profound honour, because the college - "Lucy", as it's known - exists for one purpose only, and it's perhaps the noblest purpose of all: to give people a second chance.

We hate second chances in this country. We like to say, "You've made your bed and now you can lie in it," and when they cry we smile and feel better about the pigsty we've made of our own bed. But at Lucy they say: "You've made your bed and now let's try again." The only criteria: they have to be over 21 and they have to be women.

I've met some of those women. A mother of three, her tremendous intellect freewheeling for lack of anything to grit against, driving her demented. An East End gel, her choices apparently drugs, drink and hooking or, if she really did well, a job at the Boots makeup counter. A nursing sister. An army officer who blew her first chance at Cambridge by leaving after a term to get married.

Lucy transforms lives; turns existences into lives. An intellectual powerhouse, a community whose members would be disaggregated and of no account, their splendid minds wasted, if it did not exist. You can sense the atmosphere the moment you walk in. It is, literally, joyful. And, like all great institutions, Lucy is an act of faith. A handful of women dons who thought "Why not?" and acted upon it. Two American women who had never been to Cambridge, never been to university, who heard about it and left their fortune to Lucy, securing its future. The new library was under threat from government cuts, "but it's all right now", said the Librarian, not mentioning that the reason it was all right is that the Fellows had paid for it themselves, selling their shares, borrowing from their banks, raising second mortgages: thousands pounds to keep it growing, to keep giving those second chances. There are not many institutions which inspire such faith. Mrs Thatcher didn't believe in any of it - thought only money counted - which is why we hated her so much. Not for her materialism, but for her stupidity in not getting the point.

The greatest - perhaps the only true - good of this century has been the rise of feminism, and it is the cause which Lucy serves. Feck! Drink! Older women! But look around at them. Look, and feel the hair stand up on your neck, and the tears of sheer admiration prickling your eyeballs, that such a place is possible.