I drew the short straw amongst members of the HCR committee (the graduate student government at Brasenose College) and was thus the graduate representative at the Brasenose Society Dinner last night. The event is a black-tie alumni dinner hosted at the college each year, with the principal (if unstated) aim of fleecing wealthy old codgers to line the college coffers. Universities in the UK are much less successful than their American counterparts at encouraging alumni giving. As times grow tighter, however, there are more and more events like this happening at places like Oxford. Brasenose in particular is looking to leverage its upcoming cinquecentennial in 2009 in a major fundraising effort.
As a guest of the society, I was seated at high table, along with the most important (and hence oldest) alumni. Promptly upon taking my seat the gent to my left informed me that he was totally deaf in his right ear, so I should not take offense if he ignored me throughout dinner. To my right was a man from the class of 1949 with the most spectacular comb-over I'd seen in a long time. There was one wisp of it that had fallen backwards down his neck, that looked like the string they dangle out of wrapped packages that you pull to rip them neatly open. He was a fairly nice fellow (took his degree in chemistry, ran a few companies in that industry and finished his career in textiles) but when he actually asked me what graduate activities they should support, I was thrown off. The President of the HCR had told me to try to needle them for money, but I thought she was joking. So I bluffed and talked a bit about housing (which is a serious concern among the graduates). We'll see if his goodwill manifests itself in a big fat cheque.
I do have to admit that despite the aged company, it's hard to beat a black-tie dinner in the BNC hall. They bring out the best silver (instead of endowing scholarships and buildings, the alumni have been donating pitchers and candlesticks for 500 years), the lights are dimmed so that it seems like the candles are the only source, but without actually having to eat in the dark and the food has all been prepared by the first chef (even the beef wasn't overdone!). The only thing this particular event was missing was the elegance of many women in ball gowns (since the college didn't even admit women until 1973).
After dinner we had a brief break outdoors while the staff cleared the tables of the dinner dishes and set them for dessert. It was actually a lovely, clear night at that point (of course it had started absolutely pissing when I was cycling from my house to the college) and before going back in the Secretary of the society introduced herself and said I needn't sit at the high table for dessert if I didn't want. I gratefully sat in the back with the JCR president (the only other person in the room who was younger than 70, it seemed) and promptly threw back a few glasses of dessert wine as a reward for having dutifully made it through dinner. Our new table companions were an even more interesting bunch: one member of the class of 61 who was outrageously drunk, and a man from the class of 46 who we actually thought might expire during the after-dinner speech. Speaking of which, I'm not sure if it is a peculiarly English tradition, but after dinner speeches seem to be required to consist entirely of re-used, sexist jokes. Last evening's was particularly bland, so I escaped soon afterwards.