Tuesday, 16 October 2007

Yes, Thanks, I'd Love Another Glass

"Oxford," the Warden of Green College explained, "is a peculiarly opaque institution."

I thought that was an appropriate choice of words on his part. It helped explain what can be so disorienting to someone who went to, say, the University of Maryland. Most students at Oxford, for example, don't take classes. Some do, the ones studying science for example. But the vast majority embark on a journey of independent study, guided through the jungles of knowledge by a native bearer known as a tutor. The tutor suggests a course of reading, and assigns and critiques writing and translation assignments. It's up to the student to actually do the work, and to attend lectures that might be appropriate.

As for that opacity, Oxford University is made up of 39 different colleges, each an independently-functioning organism. Then there are countless institutes. There's the Bodleian Library, one of the world's largest. Each college has its own library, too, which may or may not allow students from other colleges to check out books. A library card--called a "Bod" card--is required to accomplish anything at the university and it's issued in a matter of...days. (There's a lot of medieval-style waiting at Oxford.)

So, Oxford is not a very streamlined system. It's a collection of fiefdoms, with, I imagine, the same sort of bloody skirmishes and convenient alliances that characterized actual fiefdoms. Every few years someone tries to reform the system, fails and goes away.

Which is fine with me, since what Oxford does very well is what the English do very well: exercise a set of traditions that have the comfort of a well-worn leather club chair. The photo at the top of the page is of the place cards from a formal dinner that My Lovely Wife and I attended last week. Each college has its own rules and traditions when it comes to dining but even a relatively relaxed place like Green College, to which I'm assigned, puts on a jolly good show.

Every Thursday there's a formal dinner at Green, served in a high-ceilinged dining room built in an 18th-century observatory. It's "7:30 for 8," meaning the couple of dozen diners gather in a common room for sherry and wine at 7:30, mingle (I tried to work the words "I say" and "frightfully" into conversation: "I say, this is frightfully good sherry"), and then troop upstairs when a gong is sounded at 8.

Green has no "high table," the seat of honor in many colleges, where it's often an actual high table: a table elevated above the rest, from which the college's big cheeses can survey the scene, "Harry Potter"-style. But there is still ceremony. After we'd taken our seats, Colin Bundy, the Warden of Green College, dressed in his robes, banged a gavel signaling us to stand up, then recited a Latin grace. (At least I think that's what it was. He may have been telling us where to get our parking validated.)

And then we sat down for dinner. I haven't had a bad meal at Green, where I sometimes eat lunch (less formal; no Latin). You'll notice that my place card has a red smudge on it. It's wine. Wine is the default option at dinner; you have to tick a box on your reservation form if you don't want it. It's all so civilized--no, civilised.

To my eyes, the stain looks like a cartoonist's thought bubble. What was I thinking? Probably something along the lines of, "I say, a chap could get frightfully used to this."


suburbancorrespondent said...

I say, they don't treat you like that at the Post? Frightfully shocking...

Paul said...

You think college dinners are odd, try the British military (Google "Mess Rugby" and "Mess Cannon"), or the livery companies (Google "livery dinner" and "loving cup")!