A matter of degree

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Some people never seem to get over it. It rules their lives. Personally I believe I got over it a long, long time ago. After all it is now some forty + years since I was there. I’m talking about Oxford or to be more precise Oxford and Cambridge because I went to both. That’s why during the annual Oxford and Cambridge boat race I’m a little more undecided than usual - that is apart from the normal signs I display through being born under the sign of Gemini. Apart from those who simply can’t get over having been there, there are those who try and play it down. I suppose you could call that inverted snobbery rather like the revered don I knew from Cambridge who always described himself as a plumber’s mate when he was at a social gathering where no one knew him.

I don’t think I’d go as far as that but it is extraordinary to hear mature adults chaffing each other with references like ‘Oh, of course you went to the other place.’ For some reason Oxford seems to be more tied up with the snobbishness business. People still talk of the ‘Oxford accent’ as if when you’ve been there you come away speaking in a rarefied manner. But then don’t these people speak like that all their lives? On the ‘do I keep on about it?’ or ‘do I play it down?’ scale, I suppose I must be about half way – I mean I’d hardly be banging on about it all now if I had no attitude at all. But then at the back of mind there is one incident that puts the whole matter into perspective - embarrassing perspective.

The time had come for me to go through the ceremonial part of taking my M.A. and I phoned a longstanding chum who had shared school, military conscription and university with me and who was also going to collect his M.A. at the same time.

We had agreed to meet up again at a much-loved pub – which was a mistake. It was not conducive to academic seriousness and we reverted to adolescence again as one does on occasions like these. Therefore when it came to the coaching bit – fortunately we had been at different colleges – we went to meet the worthy dons who were going to present us at the ceremony, in a somewhat befuddled state, us I mean not them.. Mine was decidedly earnest and treated the whole business as a matter of life and death. There was a lot of Latin in the text that he showed me and obviously from the look on his face I wasn’t appreciative enough. In the end we agreed on a form of signs that he would use to indicate where I should stand, sit and proceed during the ceremony. While I was being initiated, the same process was taking place in my friend’s college. Just before we entered the doors of the Sheldonian Theatre (the one with the magnificent ceiling which very practically as this was England depicts the sky rather than shows the actual sky as happens in the Greek model it was based on), we caught sight of each other and would have dissolved into hysterical juvenile heaps, had we not gone on to sit in different rows inside. Somehow we got through the ceremony without disgracing our distinguished alma mater. The gowns we had hired were duly returned to the head porters at our two colleges with the appropriate tips to the accompanying ‘Thank you very much, sir.’ It all seemed so simple and painless as we emerged into the public crowd in that autumn afternoon sunshine as fully fledged members of the MA community. It was at the same time a strange experience. However hard we tried, we couldn’t stop reminiscing and wondering how it had all happened in the first place. Maybe the aura of the Sheldonian had rubbed itself off on us. In a way we were beginning to feel rather important. This should have been a warning.

It was traditional tea-time by now and we started our search for one or two of the places we used to frequent some twenty years before where for a matter of shillings you could sit in style and great comfort for a whole afternoon with just one pot of tea and nobody bothered you. But first this one and then that one had disappeared, changed or been turned into expensive restaurants. Then I remembered one small hotel just south of the city. Yes, it was still there and I swear the sign indicating ‘afternoon teas’ was the original one I had seen so many times in the past. In we strode preening ourselves in our smart dark suits pushing aside the large group of people gathered in the reception area. It was then I made my fatal error. At this stage in comics in the ‘50’s you would see a sign appear saying ‘Watch out!’ It was very hot and I removed my jacket. I approached the receptionist intending to enquire about the possibility of afternoon tea. She beamed and uttered a joyful 'Ah’. The group buzzed with excitement. Did they know about me, then? She turned to the waiting group. ‘Ladies and gentlemen’ she announced ‘at long last our coach driver has arrived.’ Clearly despite my academic honours I had not lost the common touch.

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Author: Alan Townend