03 March 2006

Ale Verses

On Shrove Tuesday Brasenose traditionally holds an evening meal called "Ale Verses" where college members set satirical words to popular songs and sing them while passing around big jugs of warmed, spiced ale. I missed out on the opportunity to sign up because tickets go fast and I was in Hong Kong when they were released. Luckily I managed to find an inside source to get me into my latest experience with old school Oxford.

My friend Sarah (doing a DPhil in law) is the Assistant Dean of the college. Essentially she gets free residence and food in college along with a modest stipend in exchange for helping the Dean keep the punk undergrads in line. Crucially she also gets an honorary membership in the Senior Common Room (SCR) with the rest of the fellows. This means she can invite people to dine at high table, even on Ale Verses night.

So I not only got to go, but got to sit at high table to boot. This means we gathered in the SCR parlour before dinner for a beverage. Then we process down to the hall and take our seats at the high table. The dinner was fairly standard (high table food is very nice, though) followed by pancakes for pudding (in England the sweet course right after the main is "pudding", which is followed by cheese, fruit or chocolate and called "dessert"). Pancakes on shrove Tuesday is a British tradition evidently arising from the practice of using up eggs and milk before lent, but now the heathens in Britain just call this day "Pancake Day" with no concept of its ecclesiastical connection.

After dinner huge silver tankards filled with warm, spiced ale are passed out to all the tables. To drink you first bow to the person on your right, then recieve the tankard from him. Then you bow to the person on your left, take a drink and pass. While this is going on everyone is standing on the benches in the hall and singing the songs that have been submitted this year. The verses are submitted anonymously, but a fine bottle of champagne from the college cellars is given to the authors of the best verse. Tunes included "The Star Spangled Banner" (after which I yelled, "Play ball!" but nobody got it), "Money, money, money" (with lyrics by the Chaplain about the college's newly opened "Development Office" in charge of soliciting donations from alums) and the winner, a rousing Brasenose fight song set to "The Men of Harlech", which is some Welsh battle song I'd never heard of (although I expect at least one member of the Williams family to drop some obscure historical knowledge in the comments).

After dinner I got to go to dessert in the SCR dining room. The fellows all sit in the candle- and fire-lit room and pass port, claret and sweet white wine (always to the left). There's cheese and biscuits, fruit and chocolate too. We also sang a few of the verses which there wasn't time for in the main gathering. Finally, the most junior fellow present must bring round the silver snuff box and offer some to everyone in the room. I think I took too big a pinch, because I almost blew my nostril off. Hopefully I'll do better next time.

We finished the evening down the college bar where I finagled a free round from first the chaplain and then the tutor for graduates. Given that every stage in the evening involved drinking, you can see why this country is full of alcohol abusers. Given that the fellows do this rigmarole every Tuesday, Friday and Sunday you can see why they're rotund.

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