Saturday, June 22, 2013

UK: Gaudy

By the time I had parked in St Giles and collected my room key from the girl in the College porters' office, the dinner was ending. Changed into smart casual, I headed for Third Quad and the College Bar, passing wine-loudened stragglers in the dining hall, knots of blacktied alumni on the path and a servant watching a man being helped back into his wheelchair at the foot of the steps.

Second Quad, where the JCR (junior common room) used to be. This comprised four rooms:  first, an oak-lined room for morning toast and newspapers (and a small red-haired mathematician who would complete the Times crossword as fast as he could write the answers). This opened onto a second room with a TV, where we would watch Match of the Day and hold JCR meetings; the year before I came up, the students elected a goldfish as President (because like his predecessors, he went round in circles, opening and closing his mouth) and appointed an interpreter to convey the President's rulings. Across the stairway entrance, the Piggery, where they played poker and table football, and one Welshman would regularly smash the glass top on the Gottlieb pinball machine when he failed to get a replay.

Once, as the dons proceeded from sherry in the Senior Common Room to the dining hall, they were met with a hail of breadrolls from the open JCR windows as they passed; from then on, they simply used the path on the other side of the quad. Late at night, Bill, the medical student and rugby player, would shamble through the archway from Third Quad, stand solus in mid-lawn facing the Junior Proctor's room, drop his trousers and sing the Sheep-Shagger's Song in a hoarse, drink-exhausted voice. A decade or two ago, the bar (smartened and relocated) included a reference to his ritual in its decor, echoing the way that Oxford had become a theme park dedicated to a cute version of its history; missing the jab of atavistic defiance in his nightly bawling against authority. The decor has changed again, now that a new, ambitious generation is in possession and society here is restratifying (as a St Andrews graduate confirmed to us later that night); the low Gini Index days of the Seventies are gone.

Escaping the roar of the bar, I drank my vodka tonics and exchanged news and reminiscences with half-remembered faces. Below the College library (where one used to catch glimpses of a silent, white-haired professor of Celtic) once lay the evil-smelling toilets or "traps", graffitied ("beware of limbo dancers"); and the baths to whose provision an earlier Principal had objected, saying that the terms were only eight weeks long, and besides, he and wife went to Rhyl every summer.

I went out of the massive wooden side gate to get a lamb kebab from the large, clean van on Broad Street (no more dodgy late-night boiled hot dogs on Magdalen Bridge now, I expect) and got back in using the electronic key, for the days of open College premises have passed. "Weren't you at dinner?" "No, you only get to talk to two or three people and you can't hear anyway. What was the food like?" "Not bad, though there wasn't very much." "And the wine?" "Better than last time." The speeches had been few and short; the Principal had said that if this were America, the doors would have been locked and donations solicited. We expect to be invited back more frequently now, the retired and retiring, the greyhairs watching the smartly-attired whippersnappers walk past from their post-Finals celebrations. There is the sound of fireworks, startling a bat; youngsters are collecting each other and working out where to go; the lights come on in the Graduate Common Room.

A few minutes to go before the bar closes; last chance to get one or two more in. My friend strolls into First Quad to find a toilet and look for an off licence; comes back empty-handed and goes down the bar to get a couple of bottles of red. We sit on a bench in the moonlit sky, chatting to the late leavers. Isolated wisps of backlit clouds drift above the parapets; ghostly white birds wheel over the buildings at midnight; the moon's face appears at a crenel. It is Midsummer Night, and the stage is all but empty.

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