Jemima Lewis: Live the Brideshead dream - go to Newcastle

It's more fun at the redbrick universities, lounging on soft lawns, motoring through beautiful scenery
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The Independent Online

My hearty congratulations to Candice Clarke. The lucky 18-year-old from Essex has been turned down by Trinity, College, Cambridge, despite having five top-grade A-levels. Like everyone who gets rejected by Oxford or Cambridge, she was wounded at first (she accused the "snobby" Cambridge dons of only wanting "smoked-salmon eaters", instead of working-class "Pot Noodle girls" like her). But now she's off study medicine at Newcastle University, and it won't be long before she's feeling considerably more cheerful. Without even meaning to, she has made the best decision of her life.

People who go to Oxford and Cambridge very rarely make it out in one piece. They may look sane enough - impressive, some of them - but peer closer and you'll see the glint of hothouse madness in their eyes. It's inevitable: take thousands of the cleverest - and most highly-strung - teenagers; cloister them away in awesome buildings vibrating with historic expectation; let it be known in a million small ways that they are the élite, with whom future hope resides; throw in the usual agonies of youth - drugs, sex, trying to be popular - and you have the recipe for a nervous breakdown.

Clever, ambitious people shouldn't live in close proximity: the competition drives them mad. Often, the worst affected are those - like Clarke - who have done exceptionally well at an ordinary school, and are therefore accustomed to the comfortable sensation of being a big fish in a small pond. When they get to Oxford or Cambridge, and see the hordes of Mekon-brained swots limbering up for world domination, they suddenly feel excruciatingly small. A lifetime of self-confidence can unravel in a second.

Redbrick universities, by contrast, are marvellously restful places. For those who insist on working, there are good courses to be had. (Newcastle's medical school, where Clarke will be studying, is one of the best in the world.) But most undergraduates have other priorities: making friends, sleeping around, discovering a measure of financial independence, tentatively trying on their adult skins.

It isn't often said these days - what with funding being such a touchy subject - but university ought to be fun. If it were just a matter of learning, no one would bother. A library card, an adult-education course and a little self-discipline would suffice. A university education, though, offers something that no other can: a glorious Indian summer of freedom before the long, dark winter of adulthood sets in.

It's much easier to have fun at the redbrick universities - especially the northern ones, where the cost of living is cheap, the cities are great in their own right, and the academic element is easily pushed aside.

When I was at Newcastle, a little over a decade ago, it was still possible to go for a year without handing in a single essay. This meant that we were far better placed to live the Brideshead dream - lounging on soft lawns, motoring through beautiful countryside, reading all the novels we liked, bubbling over with affection for new friends - than those poor drones who had gone in search of it at Oxford. It helped, too, that the students ranged in ability from the exceedingly bright to the downright dim. There were many human virtues, but few were conducive to competition.

I became best friends with a girl called Jan, whose identical twin, Kate, was studying English at Cambridge. At the start of their respective university careers, they were impossible to tell apart. Both were good-looking, stylish, sharp-witted and slightly hyperactive. Both suffered from the ambitious person's terror that somewhere there might be a bigger, better party going on without them. But as the years passed, Jan's neuroses were worn away by the languid pace of our undergraduate life. By the end, she could hardly be prised out of her pyjamas.

Kate, meanwhile, was miserable at Cambridge. Every time we saw her, she looked thinner, tenser, more bug-eyed with anxiety. Her competitive instincts were strained to breaking point by the immediate proximity of thousands of like-minded strivers. The hothouse had entered her soul. Even now, while Jan radiates an air of zen-like contentment, Kate has the skittery body language of someone who fears, quite wrongly, that she is not excelling hard enough.

A lifetime of anxiety is too high a price to pay for a little extra learning. Candice Clarke should count her blessings. I have only one caveat: if she thinks Newcastle will be less posh than Cambridge, she had better think again. Even in my day, the Etonian count was high, and I'm told that these days the city is completely overrun by braying Sloanes. Still, she needn't have much contact with them. My advice would be for her to stock up on Pot Noodles and comfortable pyjamas, climb into bed and settle in for the laziest - and happiest - years of her life.