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.

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