30 March, 2013

Lunch at an Oxford college

I had an interesting experience the other day--a friend invited me as her guest to lunch at an Oxford college. It proved quite an eye opener.

What very soon became apparent was that tradition is certainly not dead at Oxford (just in case you were in any doubt!). As a part-time college lecturer my friend is permitted three free lunches per week in college, and she can bring one guest with her per lunch.

She (and others) may well be permitted free lunches, but hierarchy abounds in the system. First off, there are two dining halls. The one my friend attends is the ‘senior’ dining hall, which seats all staff who hold sufficiently senior positions within the college. Below this is the ‘other’ dining hall, which seats students and those members of staff who are not sufficiently senior to merit admittance to the ‘senior’ dining hall. (When I say ‘below’, I mean that literally as well as metaphorically--diners entering the upstairs dining hall are able to gaze down on the plebs below via an elevated viewing platform.)

There is also a form of hierarchy at work within the ‘senior’ dining hall. This centres on the (silver!) napkin rings, which are numbered. The more senior you are within college, the lower the number of your napkin ring. As a part-time, fixed-term college lecturer, my friend was languishing somewhere in the seventies, followed only by hourly paid tutors and junior research fellows. As a guest, I had no ring, but I did have a napkin. Thick white linen, no less!

The lunch itself is pretty full on—a hot main course with vegetarian option (or you can have a salad if you prefer), followed by a hot pudding (or fruit or cheese and biscuits, if healthy eating is your thing). There’s a choice of still or sparkling mineral water and tea/coffee (cappuccinos and lattes available too!) to conclude. As soon as you've finished, your dishes are whisked away by one of the hovering, dark-suited waiters.

After lunch my friend gave me a tour of the college. I saw the beautiful drawing rooms in which people relax with a cup of coffee and the paper, the Fellows' Garden (students are admitted, but must keep noise levels to a minimum), the rolling mound of a recently-discovered underground wine cellar in the grounds of the oldest part of college...

It was more like a stately home or a top notch hotel than an educational establishment. It was a treat to be a guest, but I'm not sure that I would have liked to be a student there. My alma mater, the University of Edinburgh, despite its ancient roots was fully integrated into modern life, even in the 1980s, when I was there. And I rather liked that.

23 March, 2013

The politics of the playground

Relationships in the context of school can be very difficult, sometimes, it seems.

Having two children, and having experienced the same things with both (and having discussed this with other parents), it seems quite normal that young children change their friendships on a regular basis. A best friend seems to be a very transitory concept at this age, with 'best' friends sometimes changing on a weekly basis. They can be pretty nasty to one another, too. Once someone is out of favour, they are often ostracised from the whole group. But then, of course, this changes again in a few days. I understand that this is all connected with learning about relationships and friendship. Getting a grip on empathy and people's feelings and loyalty. But it's quite a tough learning process.

It can be tough for parents too, as you spend a good deal of your time comforting your upset offspring and, on other occasions, gently explaining to them that, perhaps, they didn't handle that situation with their friend as sensitively as they might have done. Some parents, though, take things to extremes, snubbing other parents in the playground whose children are no longer friends with their children. This seems a pity. While there's a developmental reason for kids behaving like this, their parents should surely be well past the developmental stage. Shouldn't we be setting a good example for our children, rather than a bad one?

16 March, 2013

Oh, how easy it is to misinterpret via email!

Interesting incident at work the other day.

Via email to a small group of people:

Me: 'Please can you have a quick look at the attached list of interview questions. Let me know if you want to make any changes – otherwise I will print them and put them in your interview packs.'

An unnamed respondent: 'I will take a look at the questions. However they should not be sent to the candidates as they should not be able to prepare answers beforehand!'

Me 'Of course I wouldn't send them to the candidates! I mean the interview packs for you (the panel)!'

Utter. Email. Silence.

09 March, 2013

Why are people so dishonest?

We've had a bad week this week due, largely, to people's dishonesty.

First off, it was our gutter. This had been leaking for a while and we thought it was time to get it fixed, particularly as the run off was falling just over onto our neighbour's house. We called up a company that looked reputable, had reasonable reviews, etc., and they said they could fix it. But they certainly didn't. A couple of days later it rained and, lo and behold, the gutter was still leaking. We called up the company to say we weren't happy with the job they'd done and were promised that the owner would ring us back. He didn't. We tried ringing their land and mobile numbers again several times, but to no avail -- no one answered. So, we're back to square one (gutter still leaking) and, furthermore, minus £144. (Yes, we shouldn't have paid on the spot and yes, we did try to stop the cheque once we'd realised that the gutter hadn't been fixed, but it was too late. Lesson learnt.)

The second thing was my scarf, which I mistakenly left on the bus on my way home from work. (I was too busy worrying that my bag of shopping was going to fall on the floor and then trying to negotiate descending the stairs of the double decker with said bag of shopping in hand.) I rang the bus company's lost property department the next day, but the scarf wasn't there. Clearly, someone on the bus had picked it up and taken it. The scarf wasn't particularly special,  but I'd had it for years and really liked it. So did someone else, apparently.

Hence this week, in the absence of money and scarf, I'm rather despairing of the human race. Why, oh why, are people so dishonest?

02 March, 2013

The Judas Kiss

It was my birthday last week and my husband and I had a cultural night out in London to celebrate.

We went to see ‘The Judas Kiss’ by David Hare, which was playing at the Duke of York’s Theatre. It had unreservedly good reviews and, as per the reviews, was indeed excellent.

The play focused on Oscar Wilde’s later years, while he was being tried, and afterwards, once he had served his prison sentence and was living, impecunious, in Naples. As you might imagine by its title, the central theme of the play was betrayal—largely the betrayal of Wilde by his lover of the time, Lord Alfred Douglas (Bosie). Another prominent theme was that of ageing, with the vitality and inconstancy of youth (personified by Bosie) contrasted sharply with the slower pace and resigned acceptance of one’s fate that is more typical of middle age (personified by Wilde).

Rupert Everett played Wilde and he was superb. His portrayal of the spent, stooped playwright was utterly convincing. Hare’s dialogue was witty and razor sharp and, predictably, Everett’s delivery proved spot on. It was a sparkling performance and my husband and I left the theatre feeling highly satisfied and with plenty to talk about. Always a good sign!

If you are able get tickets, I would definitely recommend seeing ‘The Judas Kiss’.