Brushing with royalty
Cambridge University is a bit like ancient Rome: grandeur exists cheek by jowl with squalor. One minute you’re in a lavish, wood-panelled, portrait-lined dining hall, with silver on the table that anywhere else would be safely behind museum glass. The next you can find yourself in some seedy back-stairs or damp, forgotten store-rooms of which even the most under-funded FE college would be ashamed.
This always makes for a dilemma if you’re thinking of chatting up some Labour party bigwig. Take him (or her) to high-table with a nice glass or two of claret and the full “Cambridge experience” and there’s the fear that he will soon be sounding off about the lives of fetid luxury we lead here. Take him to the buttery (our jargon for “canteen”), where most of us usually eat, and he’ll be distinctly miffed that he wasn’t given the claret treatment.
Last Wednesday I went myself for a rare taste of the grandeur. A garden party in a marquee on a college lawn, policed by officials in top hats and bowlers – carrying strange poles topped with gold (for ceremonial purposes only, I think).
The amount of security on the way in suggested a mystery guest. The hot tip was Bill Gates.
The party was a “Reception for New Scholars”, thrown by the Cambridge Trusts. This is a wonderful charity which sponsors students from overseas to come to Cambridge – and without it the University would be much duller, mono-cultural place. Hundreds of them were there on Wednesday: a mathematician from Syria, a lawyer from Zambia, scientists and engineers galore from China, plus a galaxy of talent from the United States (including some of “my” classicists, which is I guess why I was invited).
These were getting the “Cambridge experience”, with elegant little sandwiches, old-fashioned lemonade and a nice white wine (though 11.30 was a bit early in the day, even for me). It all could have belonged to the Cambridge of a hundred years ago, except that half the students were women – and the mystery guest arrived by helicopter.
It wasn’t Bill Gates (though he has been a major donor to the Trusts). It was Prince Charles, who proceeded to do a royal walk-about through the marquee.
Us elderly cynics slunk to the back row with our sandwiches to avoid any possibility of meeting the guest of honour, and to mutter in the usual way about the expense (and worse) of royal shows and all this Cambridge flummery. After all, I mused, every ritual needs its cynics. What wedding would be complete without those prepared to make caustic jokes about “just causes and impediments” and “the exclusion of all others”.
In this case, though, the shine was rather taken off our cynicism by the fact that the students were clearly having such a good time and, unlike us, were very keen indeed to brush with royalty. The Prince himself was being a real pro and was engaging with all-comers with more than just a regulation, 10-second pleasantry. Spotting this, the cynics changed tack and embarked on the “what a terrible job that must be” routine.
Besides, as one of my fellow back-row boys said, the thing about Cambridge is that it goes on performing rituals like this even when no-one in the outside world is watching. Which either means that we are a load of crazy solipsists or that somehow there’s life in the old ceremonies yet.
A final note for blog-followers. A student at the garden party charmingly suggested that some of his peers had taken my reflections on the examination system in my first post to indicate a rather lax and carefree attitude to the current Tripos exams. Let me take this opportunity to point out that intellectual doubts about a system, at a theoretical level, does not interfere with one’s ability, or commitment, to police it with a rod of iron!