Thursday, October 16, 2003

Holy dinnertime, Batman!

There are perhaps only a handful of places in the world where walking about in a dinner suit, Chinese silk waistcoat, a flapping academic gown and haplessly begging your downstairs flatmate to tie your goddamn bow tie for you will cause not one ripple of attention, or even alarm.

Cambridge is clearly one of those few places where you can be inconspicuous while looking like Bruce Wayne simultaneously trying to wrestle his way into his cape and out of his dinner suit, as nary a second glance passed over us as we scampered late towards the “Trinity Hall Middle Combination Room, 2003” photo shoot.

I was seriously struggling on the bow tie front, having got in late from lectures and set a land speed record for showering and getting into black tie and an academic robe (ten minutes flat).

Fortunately, the one flatmate who’s both British and a veteran of three undergraduate years at Cambridge is a master in such matters and fixed me up during a sartorial pit stop in the Porter’s lodge.

We drifted inconspicuously into the tail of the photo queue, while at the head women in long dresses and long robes and men just in long robes (well, and dinner suits, obviously) ascended a perilously high set of photographers’ scaffolding under a lowering and spitting sky. I was directed to the penultimate level.

A steeply stacked cliff of dark formalwear spread below.

“Doesn’t exactly feel secure does it?” I muttered.

“Try doing it in heels,” retorted the girl next to me.

Afterwards came a lecture on college history, too long to relate, that focussed far too much on the college’s legal tradition. In sum: (1) the Black Plague was generally a Bad Thing, especially as it wiped out the administrative caste in the local clergy, our college was thus founded as the first specific (cannon) law training school in England, possibly Europe; and (2) most of England’s most distinguished nineteenth century judges studied here, as did many signatories to the American Declaration of Independence, including one John Hancock.

Drinks at the Master’s Lodge followed. Occupying a goodly portion of the Colleges’ fairly small grounds the Lodge is a pretty decent spread. The Queen slept in one of the guest bedrooms recently, so it can’t be too shabby. She was following in the footsteps of the earlier Queen Elizabeth who signed the guest book some little time previously.

Fortified with champagne, we swooped on the college hall, robes-a-flapping, in our best Harry Potter style for the dinner to celebrate our “matriculation”. There was a Latin grace (which I couldn’t honestly follow), a toast to the Queen, mercifully brief after-dinner speeches of welcome and thanks and a terribly short little Latin blessing from the Chaplain at the end. I thought Henry VIII or Edward the child-king had done away with Latin in the English church, but anyway.

There wasn’t a Sorting Hat, that function having been previously performed by the far less transparent process of the Board of Graduate Studies (BOGS).

The question that then emerged was, “How does one groove to a daggy disco mix in formal wear and long academic gown?”

The obvious answer being: “Badly.” At that point I ducked out to compose this entry, before returning to the fray sans tie, sans jacket, sans robe and sans common sense and all coordination.

I am not entirely certain how I got home, or whether we went on anywhere after the dancing. That was last Wednesday.

This Wednesday was the first “casual” graduate hall – which means dinner in a robe and a suit. My “casual” suit is still somewhere in the international mail, so I banked on no-one noticing its absence after the pre-dinner seminar and sherry at the Master’s Lodge. (A selection of housemates and I arrived too late for the seminar, but in time for sherry – bat-robes snapping at our ankles in a nipping and an eager air.) The principle difference at dinner last night was that the regular Grad Hall is a strictly BYO affair.

There were Latin graces again, no toast to the Queen, and the main course was a pretty good salmon steak.

Plates are first distributed empty, deposited in between a bewildering array of cutlery, and food is then served by a waiter from your left, doled out silver-service from a large tray. This is classy, but can result in inequities of portion allocation. I won on salmon, but lost on the pavlova, compared to those around me. (Note: dinner every night is not this cool, it’s a once weekly event for which you have to a buy a ticket. Most nights the dining at college is cafeteria-style and commensurate in quality.)

We were all expected to rise when the High Table left the room, which felt rather like a school assembly, but a combination of tradition without being too stuffy is worth going through the odd anti-egalitarian ritual.

Afterwards there was a general shedding of gowns in the Middle Combination Room and the imbibing of port and coffee. Then I somehow wound up going to the Italian Society “squash” with one Italian and a small horde of Greeks at the rather lovely Clare College.

The event, which was largely about free wine, proved why a Cambridge “squash” (social club sign-up event) is so called: it involves packing a huge number of people into a small space. We stayed there some time. I had occasion to say, several times, “Non parlo bene l’Italiano” – which seemed to impress native speakers considerably. (Given how good their English was, I can’t imagine why … )

I have distinct recollections of a cab home.

This morning I took my time over a bit of a recovery breakfast: nectarine, two fried eggs on toast, black coffee and honey-sweetened porridge with thickened cream.

My act of virtue and daring was cycling in along the (usually fiendishly congested) Mill Road. It easily cut 10 minutes of my usual trip in.

Work is going to have to take a much larger role soon, though I have a “see you in the Squire library” pact for tomorrow – and I may have discovered my dissertation topic. I now have two weeks to get the paperwork in and get it formally approved.

Still, need to go home and tackle tomorrow’s reading. And cook dinner, as it’s only 9.00 pm. But that’ll be an early evening in the life of a graduate student at Cambridge thus far.

How’s your week been?

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