I remember my first black tie dinner at Oxford, sitting with my tutors and the other three English Freshers about a fortnight after we arrived. I was terrified; mostly I remember the interminable pauses before we were allowed to eat, the heat of the dishes, and the terror that I might accidentally use the wrong fork. I had yet to negotiate the combination of long, low bench and swishing skirts (how to clamber over the bench in a ladylike fashion), I still thought I was a ‘quota pupil’ and I’d never drunk so much wine in my life.
All my fears were, of course, nonsense – table manners are the same in Oxford as the world over (mostly boiling down to ‘don’t be gross’ and ‘start on the outside and work in’, although m’boy did manage last night to have a rogue and errant sorbet spoon left over at the end of the meal), nobody looks good climbing over the bench (yet another reminder that College Halls, like much of Oxford, were originally designed for men), I got a first & well, the combination of champagne-white-red-dessert-port is still lethal.
Candlemas is our College’s big feast day – although the doctrine of Mary having been ‘ritually unclean’ doesn’t appeal, I love the story of Simeon and Anna, and the Phos Hilaron is my favourite part of Evensong (and on Sunday we finally heard it in context). I can’t find the arrangement college uses on YouTube, sadly. The college prayer always makes me laugh, suggesting as it does that once dead, all Orielenses can expect to waft up to an Oriel-flavoured segment of college heaven, where if we’re lucky we’ll sit at the same table as our generous but hilariously-named benefactors. Apparently you have to give one million pounds to get your name into the prayer in perpetuity; the collegiate, C of E equivalent of masses for the soul. Monday night was our English Dinner, complete with the traditional rituals of Fresher Girl Gets Sharked By Awful Second-Year (poor darling, her face went from polite horror to utter contempt by the end of the night), My College Son Behaves Appallingly and Unintentionally Hilarious Speech From A Fellow. Not forgetting, Most Recently Hired Tutor Quite Possibly Wishes Himself Dead. There are dreadful photos, mostly blurred and/or incriminating. Not, of course, as bad as the cast party that ended at 5 a.m. when all involved awoke on the SCR floor…
Last night, though, was a board meeting for the Oxonian Review – things are going (reasonably) well but the Senior Editors have introduced some procedural changes which should make things simpler. It is, to put it mildly, a little strange to be so outnumbered by Americans on the board. I’m hoping that the forthcoming introduction of our blog – I’m the Arts & Theatre blogger, hurrah! – will help us to be Oxford-centric in at least one area. We’re blogging the Oxford Literary Festival in April (tho I wonder if Wedgwood will still be funding anything..); I’m really excited. Meanwhile, there are some great articles going up – my favourites are Jack Methven’s On Harold Pinter and Katie Wake’s The Prostitution of Publishing. Go and read.
Dr Sophie Duncan is Fellow in English at Christ Church, University of Oxford. She works regularly as a historical advisor and as a dramaturg for theatre, TV, radio and film. She likes theatre, detective fiction and cocktails.