It was like a Breughel painting. A graphic Hades.
The last time I came to Cambridge for one of these summer schools, people were invited to arrive on the Sunday, since courses start at 9 am on Monday, and some bastard forgot to open the bar. There was ill feeling. There was serious ill feeling, and some very rude remarks about the English.
Today, Sunday evening, I was assured by the porter at Selwyn College that the bar would be open at 6 pm. A Presbyterian sense of determinism led me to the off licence to buy some insurance.
Sure enough, as I got near the bar at the appointed time, the porter told me that the bar would not be open tonight. She suggested that I show for dinner at half six. I repaired to my room and consoled myself with the insurance of the bottle shop. I was annoyed. One of the reasons I have gone to Oxford and Cambridge – the choice of tense is not accidental – was to enjoy the company of people who know they have a lot to learn. I have done about half of a dozen at each, and I know something of what is on offer.
So, at half six, I approached the appointed place at the college hall not expecting grace in Latin, or at all, as I used to get at Maddingley Hall, but a reasonable meal with reasonable wine in good company. My heart miss-gave as I heard a racket emerging from the hall. I could recall eating in the hall. It is one of those stately halls garbed in timber, but it has some modern portraits of people who look frankly fascist, and a column embraced proscenium where you think some impeccably dressed white gentleman might do something unfortunate to a goat. Tonight the hall could have hosted a pregame function for Man-U.
It was choc-full, like a footy crowd, with cafeteria service. Start with the pudding, Dear, then choose between ravioli and roast chicken, and you can add chips, and one of those little bottles of sham red with little round glasses that you used to get on TAA in the fifties. Which you pay extra for – remember, Ducky, the bar’s shut.
I bore my tray to a spot where I spied some room for my plate, and wine, as unworthy as they both were, and I sat down. When one of a group of aquiline matrons told me that there was no cutlery in my spot. I recall now it was the end of the table. I was – really – minded to ask whether she had adored Jefferson to utter such a self-evident truth, but I was morbidly preoccupied by wondering whether the excision under her bottom lip had been transposed to the top of the nose. Before she moved away – not without ostentation – she told me that that since I had been to Cambridge before, she might tell me that people had previously been seated in the hall by reference to their standing, or words to that effect, but that that rule had been recently relaxed. She just wanted me to know that I was in a state of grace. But that I should know better.
Now, this kind of balls-up happens. And we chuckle about it after a few drinks, and we try to put the outrage to good use. That which does not kill us makes us better, some say.
The whole overturn now going on in the West refutes that silly saying. As does the decline and fall of the Roman Empire – or anybody that whose time is up.
This balls-up at Selwyn College was an outrage. This insolence of office is not good enough. And it is a terrible symptom of our times. People who should know better are just failing us – and the revenge of the losers looks frightful. If this kind of insult can be put on us at Selwyn College, Cambridge, what hope have we?
My late father – God bless him – told me that he was used to being insulted, but that he preferred to be insulted by experts. Tonight I learned again what Mac meant.