Yesterday I drove my father to his old college in a senior British university for a donor’s club lunch. It was a fascinating but unworldly experience at which I should estimate the average age of the guests was about 60, but only that low because about 30% of them were current students.
University towns or cities have an atmosphere all of their own – you feel it every time you visit one. Even in the city centres, amidst the chain shops and all the bustle of shopping streets, the world seems full of students, tourists and their guides, and quaint charm that is hundreds of years old.
Our first engagement of the day was to listen to a music recital by students in the chapel. Never mind how youthful policemen and women tend to look these days, (to me) university students barely look beyond puberty.
I’m afraid that classical music is not a special interest of mine, so this half hour of my life was spent taking in the surroundings – including a range of faded old paintings, ancient pews and ancient people – and trying to stay awake through four plickety-plonk items: a Mozart piano composition for four hands (two people); two mediocre choral pieces featuring a mixed-gender choir; a piece for two cellos; and finally a Chopin piano interlude.
From there we moved to an ante-chamber for 45 minutes of drinks prior to lunch. This was a bit of an ordeal for both of us. For my father, because he has difficulty in standing for longer than ten minutes at a time thanks to his ill-disciplined legs; and for me, because of the signature characteristic of any gathering of alumni of these august academic establishments – i.e. an all-pervading air of superior entitlement.
Having responded truthfully to the opening questions, either “And what year did you come up?” or “What subject did you take?” [answers: “I didn’t” and “I refer you to my previous answer”] in the first three groups I introduced myself to by chance, I then gave up and in all later exchanges responded with “1970” and “Law” and left it at that, partly on the basis that from a personal point of view I felt this helped me fit in more … and partly because I figured that the possibility of anyone finding out different was miniscule.
I think I got away with it.
Later, in the dining hall, we sat down to a pleasant three-course lunch, albeit that serving a pork belly main course to ninety-plus diners was probably foolhardy; the crackling was burnt black and the meat stringy and chewy. As I was doing all the driving, I drank water throughout.
The sense of being surrounded by elite academic people continued. The lady on my right, the daughter of an eminent scientist and married to a historian, was herself a former leading figure in the NHS. I didn’t even have to lie about my vintage at the college, or indeed my discipline – she assumed both those for herself – and in giving her details of my law career [the summit of which in truth was probably being a founder member of my firm’s football team] I think I broadly got away it. We ended by having a lively and vaguely flirtatious conversation about the way society was moving in the 21st Century – in other words, going to hell in a hand cart – and a variety of other subjects, all conducted in that familiar relieved and gushing manner that people adopt when they attend something that they fear in advance is going to be an ordeal but then, through meeting someone of similar mind by chance and gaining a ‘connection’ of sorts, find that they both enjoy.
The president of the society walked to the top table microphone as coffees were served and made an excellent short speech, in which he thanked us all for coming, gave a potted historical background to the club, thanked all the organisers and staff and told a couple of jokes.
The best of these informed us that the previous evening he had been attending a function some two hundred miles westwards [viz. the Wales v England rugby Six Nations clash at the Millennium Stadium], whose result he had greatly enjoyed. The locals had been very noisy and midway through the second half took to abusing the match official by chanting the ultimate insult “The referee’s a banker …!” (“… at least, that is what I think they were intimating …”).