Sunday, 29 June 2014

Gaudy Night, Christ Church, Oxford, June 2014

"Gaudeamus" is Latin for "let us rejoice",and that's where the name "gaudy" comes from for the periodic parties that various colleges, including mine, hold for old boys and girls. Originally, I think they were just reunions (and with no girls), maybe with a nudge towards encouraging former BAs to apply for their MAs and increase the voting bloc for the Chancellor of the University; these days their function, for the colleges, is to stir up a warm nostalgic glow leading to cash payments or fresh clauses in the wills of the grateful dead.

At Christ Church, they take place every seven years or so, in black tie and gown, with rooms available for those who need to stay the night. So, it was time to dust off the dinner jacket, which hasn't been worn since the last one, in the autumn of 2006, and my gown which has only been worn for extra warmth in the winters. Having been taken out for the day by the Colonel (one of the two Elizabeths I met at Oxford in my first week back in October 1985 and we've been friends ever since) to Stowe Gardens (bonkers, but stunning), I wanted a shower before getting into the glad rags, and must confess to sneakishly hoping that HL would arrive home whilst I was in the bathroom, see the ironing board, and take pity on me and sort the shirt out. And it was so. Except that he shrieked "this bloody shirt is YELLOW". Whoops. Nice to know at least something is aging worse than I am - which became a bit of a motif for the evening. Fortunately there was a spare, which I realised, as I put my cufflinks in, belonged to the first husband of a friend of mine in Romford. I introduced her to the man who became her second husband. And come to think of it, the cufflinks were a present from other friends in Romford, one of my colleagues and her first husband. My ministry seems to have left a trail of divorcees. Curious thought. But as I brought a little of Oxford to Romford, so I brought I little of Romford to Oxford, for Gaudy Night.

The bow tie is always the daunter - if you've not done one for a while, you wonder if you'll still remember how, but Mother's lesson from 29 years ago came back to life, and I got it right first time. It's like tying a big thick shoelace for a big thick child. And so to the bus stop. There appeared not to be anyone else in black tie on the No. 8, but they might have gone on an earlier bus.

And then evensong. Christ Church is a peculiar place because the college chapel is the cathedral for Oxford diocese. Or, there are those who might say that rather oddly, the cathedral has an Oxford college attached to it. Historically there have been tensions between the two entities, leading at one time to serious investigations into the possibility of a divorce, but the lawyers concluded that this would result in a very rich cathedral, and a very poor college, and the boffins lost interest in the idea pretty quickly. Alas, the bus ride was later than I had intended, so I missed most of the service, but as I was checking at the makeshift Porters' Lodge (the original is being tarted up for corporate purposes, I think, as they do a roaring trade when the pesky students aren't there) I met Barry, an old friend from my year, who ended up marrying the other Elizabeth, the Brigadier, and I took their wedding service. My hand-written homily on that occasion is rather flatteringly framed in their downstairs lavatory. Curious to think that back in the 1980s I spent rather more time with him than did the lady who became his wife in 1996. So, we listened to the anthem and a few prayers together, and I took him to see the Bishop Bell chapel, and the altar made from a lump of tree from Windsor Great Park that the Queen, our Visitor, gave us. Bell, bishop of Chichester, and a friend of the martyred Dietrich Bonhoeffer, opposed the saturation bombing of German cities in World War II, and was locked out of his own cathedral by the dean because of it. They say possibly it lost him the chance of Canterbury. It went to Geoffrey Fisher, but no one remembers him, and I'm glad George Bell was one of ours.

It set the tone for the evening, one of tribal belonging. We were drinking under the 17th century vaulted staircase, and eating under the 16th century roof, not as honoured guests, but as members. This was, is, our college. In Latin, Christ Church is rendered as "Aedes Christi" which gives it its nickname "the House", but it has always seemed to me an unnecessary vulgarism, and "aedes" surely is closer to "building or edifice" than "home", so I've never used it, although it appeared on the seating plan and in the speeches. But home it became for those three short years, and unlike the home I grew up in, where no one new ever appeared (after my sister), and nothing new ever happened, a place for making friends, and for learning to party. There was some studying, too, but I left that mainly to the others, I felt they had it covered. They were awfully bright.

I'd said to the Colonel in the afternoon "of course the real purpose of a Gaudy is to see how fat, grey, and bald, the boys are, and how many of the girls have had "work" done". I'm not clever enough to detect female cosmetics, but the chaps did not disappoint - and nor, with my grey hair and whiter beard, did I. Some were quite unrecognisable, ravaged by corpulence and the decay of stress. Some looked just as they did nearly thirty years ago. They wouldn't say that, because one knows one's own body, and at nearly 50 you're a different model from what you were at nearly 20, but some were pretty then, and were pretty on Thursday night.

With my own circle of friends - although we meet shamefully rarely - it was like walking back into a room after having left to take an unimportant telephone call. The last time was nearly eight years ago. Since then, some have had children, lost parents, got new work, retired, I've married and developed arthritis, but we're all much the same as we were long ago. It was a reprise of the freshers' theme "I've made these friends, I'm OK now, I'm not homesick". The comfort of the strangers who become your friends. That's the biggest lesson of going to college. At school there wasn't a lot of choosing friends, you just had to sit next to them in class. At college it was a free choice - or you could have no friends - and I'd choose just the same today.

The food was astonishingly good. Christ Church is a very rich college, so people are surprised that when we were undergraduates the food was crap. As an undergraduate, I looked longingly up to High Table from the low tables, imagining that the great and the good were eating lovely things whilst we ate the scraps. But no, when I was finally invited to High Table years later, the food was crap there too. But there's been Regime Change in the kitchens, and this was not only the best meal I've ever had at Christ Church (which wouldn't be saying much), it was a very good meal indeed.

And then there were speeches. Only two. One, a rather wittering and gabbled thing from someone they say is a poetess from Scotland. The other, a much more measured, and witty, contribution from our de-mob happy Dean who is retiring this summer. Yet another Cambridge man will replace him, alas, but we have been well-served in very different ways by the three I have known. And next time, well, there's someone waiting in the wings who can do a better than indifferent after dinner speech, and knows and loves the place very well indeed. Just saying.

And so to port and fruit, and milling about, and eventually the Senior Common Room until 3 in the morning. Many stories to tell, and to listen to, tragedies and happinesses, and we all plough on. In the small hours I headed for the bus stop fairly sure that the buses had indeed stopped, and so they had, so I walked home to Barton. It took about an hour. In full fig, I was a cross between a penguin and a bat, and when the streetlights caught my shadow, it was like Darth Vader. This being Oxford, no one turned a hair.

I wondered if I was the only one of the three hundred in Hall that night who had signed on at the dole office in the morning. I wonder if I shall still be in seven years' time.

Gaudeamus indeed - until the next time.

Richard Haggis
Barton-upon-Bayswater, Oxford
June 2014


  1. As Clive James says, the time comes when your classmates become too bald and fat to recognise you any more.