Tea at Claridges . . . and dinner at Westminster School
The husband is away, and I have been in London working (in fact the whole day I spent in the Institute of Classical Studies Library was the most delightful, uninterrupted Library day I have had for months ... and my 'holiday' is I hope going to involve many more such). But the evenings have offered some more sybaritic rewards.
On Tuesday, I went to meet an old schoolfriend, who mostly lives in Singapore, for tea at Claridges -- an English experience we thought we should try before we got too old. It turned out to be rather good, and though pricey, you wouldn't have been able to eat any supper after it (three courses of sandwiches, scones and cake -- with, for us, jasmine tea; and we added a glass of champagne to start). And it wasn't too much of a replica of itself if you know what I mean (elegant modern china, not something pretending to be what your granny might have had).
But the real surprise was the other people eating there... lots of them. There are roughly three 'sittings' and you need to book a good way in advance -- the though-put must be in the hundreds. Some were predictable enough: families and quite a few Muslim groups (the champagne was very much an optional extra -- it's a good place to come and celebrate alcohol free). The surprise was a significant minority of tables occupied by men, mostly in pairs, but a few threes and fours. What were they at? My tea companion thought that business deals were being struck, also in an alcohol-free zone. Another friend later suggested that tea at Claridges must be a spot on the gay scene ... More ideas?
Anyway, the next night, it was dinner at Westminster . . . .School.
I had been invited to the annual Election Dinner. It is effectively their end of term dinner, but it's a custom that goes back centuries to the time when the dons of Trinity Cambridge and Christchurch Oxford came up to choose their scholars for the next year. After the more formal process, there was a dinner in which witty epigrams were exchanged in Latin -- celebrating (or ribbing) those who were leaving, and commenting on contemporary events.
That tradition continues -- though the epigrams are hardly extemporary, if they ever were (I really don't think that even in the 19th century people came up with clever bits of Latin over the pudding course; I don't even think that the Romans could do that). On this occasion we were given nice printed pamphlets with the epigrams, as well as meditations on the same theme in English, and an English verse proemium reviewing the past year from a Westminster perspective. In fact there is quite a Westminster School perspective to the political year, with all those old boys in government. Or, as they put it:
"A Westminster Crew now mans the Ship of State --
Deputy Clegg, First Officers Huhne and Grieve,
You can be sure, the Nation's problems will relieve!"
One of my favourite verses was in honour of the school librarian -- who is retiring to France.
"Ad Selma Thomas
Africa te genuit, novit te Etona fidelem;
hic inter libros optima sella manet.
Gallia nunc regito; me, succedente librorum
et custode alio, semper habebis ibi."
(see the Selma Thomas puns underlined!)
And in English, with a slightly different emphasis, but similar point:
"To Selma Thomas
'Librarian' is a double role;
To care for books with heart and soul;
But there is more you need to do,
To care for those who read them too . . .
. . . All our learning is misleading
If not based on love of reading.
And Selma gave us what we need;
Kindness and love for all who read."
You couldn't put it better could you? And, yes of course, before you all write in, I do abominate the privilege that such schools as Westminster represent. But this was an impressive occasion and the privilege needs to be more widely shared not abolished.
And why was I invited? Not just to admire the Latin. I suspect it was something to do with the fact that the current head of Westminster is a classicist, Stephen Spurr, with whom I spent happy hours at the British School at Rome when we were both graduate students decades ago. It was there that Stephen (who was doing his doctorate on Roman agriculture) met his splendid wife Susanna -- who was then, guess what, a librarian!
So it is another feature of getting old, to add to lads standing up for you in the train. People whom you think of as a 'mate' are now addressed by others in slightly reverential tones as 'headmaster'.
Anyway the good news is that under Dr Spurr, the traditional of the Westminster Latin Play is to be revived.. this autumn, all being well. So watch this space.