Sunday 27 June 2010

A veritable feast

No idea, 20.0 units. It was quite a night for alcohol, what with the pre-dinner Riesling, the Bourgogne Chardonnay with the salade de crevettes grandes avec gazpacho, the Médoc with the supreme de canard aux lentilles du puy, the Sauternes with the tarte ganache au chocolat avec cacahuètes sucrées, the Dow 1977 port with the fromages and the Crozes Hermitage and more (but different) Riesling with dessert, not to mention the two large glasses of Macallan with which I rounded off the evening in the Senior Combination Room. All free at the point of delivery, too. I think someone might have made a speech about how we should all give the College lots of money in return for the matchless benefits of our education, but luckily all the booze has completely wiped it from my memory.
Some choristers came and sang to us during grace, and a silver salver of rose water was passed down the table towards the end of the meal, as of old, to the evident bafflement of most of those present, but the cigar humidor was sadly absent. Something for which I was thoroughly grateful this morning, I must admit, since for me the crucial difference between a slight sense of over-indulgence and feeling stonkingly awful is usually precisely one Havana cigar.

Some may be surprised by the absence of swan from the menu, since the College is one of those few British institutions permitted to kill the birds for the table, though anyone who has actually eaten swan would not be. I have done it once, at a May Ball several decades ago. I grasped at once that the fact that the College authorities were prepared to serve it up to mere undergraduates at a Ball, rather than reserving it for the dons’ most important feasts, might indicate that it was not up to much. I was not wrong.

By careful pre-arrangement, I was seated at dinner with one old friend to my left and two more opposite the pair of us, though sadly the noise levels in the Hall meant that I could make out precious little of what the two latter actually said. To my right was seated quite possibly the most boring man in the world, as is traditional on these occasions, though as luck would have it he had taken the same precaution as me and had brought along three other almost equally boring people with whom to converse during the evening. I do believe that they were all sporting thin moustaches, which is clearly a reliable badge of the terminally dull. I think the highlight of the occasion for him was concealing an empty water bottle, emblazoned with the College coat of arms, beneath the table with a view to smuggling it home as a souvenir. It said something for his lack of ambition, given that the table was liberally supplied with items from the College silver collection.

Although slightly troubled by my own deafness, most of my contemporaries looked in reasonable shape. Sadly the same could not be said of those from the 1955 intake, most of whom seemed to be equipped with sticks, hearing aids or other signs of physical infirmity; or to be suffering from the sort of mental frailty that allows a “black tie” dress code to be considered compatible with sticking on a black bow tie while wearing an ordinary grey business suit or a frogged green velvet smoking jacket and deep-sea diver’s flippers (actually, I made up the bit about the flippers). One could see those of the 1971/72 vintage nervously casting their eyes around and thinking “Oh Christ, next time we come back here we are going to be like that.” I certainly did.

We had encountered one of this group at tea at the Master’s Lodge in the afternoon, when a youngish woman helped a shaky old stroke victim to a seat at the shady table where Mrs H had plonked herself and The Boy, close by the oldest attendee of all (matriculated 1934, and celebrating his 95th birthday today). Attempting to make conversation, another oldish chap leaned across and asked “Has your daughter gone to get you some tea?”


“Your daughter. The lady you came with.”

“Oh, that’s not my daughter, that’s my WIFE! Second wife, of course!”

Marvellous. Seated on the other side of the friend to my left at dinner was a remarkably spry old boy of 82 who came from North East England but had picked up a soft American accent during 35 years’ residence in New Jersey. Sadly it turned out that his good health was not matched by that of his wife, who was in a care home in the States, some 250 miles from where he lived.

“Couldn’t you find anywhere nearer?” my friend enquired.

“Well I COULD”, came the reply.

It left me wondering whether, when the time came, Mrs H would consider it kindest to place me in a care home in my native North East, while she remained 230-odd miles away in Cheshire.

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