And Now For Something Completely Different

Wherein a Stanford professor teaching abroad revels in English absurdities—and Oxford' s quirky table manners.

January/February 2012

Reading time min

And Now For Something Completely Different

Illustrations by Bruno Mallart

As an American citizen, the idea of a British monarchy—or any monarchy—seems absolutely preposterous to me. While I find the notion of inherited privilege unsavory, most of my colleagues at Oxford University seemed totally unperturbed by it. On the other hand, they despised Prince William and Kate Middleton's royal wedding, especially the hullaballoo leading up to it. A fear of its pomp and circumstance, like the terror of plague, drove them to holiday in the Cotswolds, to take bucolic hikes in the Lake District—any pastime far from the BBC's coverage of the "stately" pageantry.

But I'm decidedly pro royal wedding: As an American I'm smitten by the superficial ceremony of it all, its senseless pomposity, histrionic spectacle and grotesquely false opulence. In short, I'm a glutton for garish British entertainment. I can't suffer the idea of William the future king, but I think it is a perfectly good use of my time to debate the merits of Kate's wedding dress, not to mention all those hats on display—the aptly named fascinators. One looked like a giant IUD fastened to a woman's forehead, and that alone was worth the price of admission.

I came to the realization of my antimonarchist, pro-wedding stance while teaching at the Bing Overseas Studies Program in Oxford last spring. When I applied to teach there, I hadn't anticipated William and Kate's royal betrothal, much less the calendar of their nuptials. It was only one of many unintended but pleasurable diversions during my assignment overseas.

I suppose I should wax thoughtfully about the value of a liberal education in a global context, recount the significant work undertaken by my students in Oxford, convey the manner in which I was positively transformed by the pedagogical opportunities, and relate how my teaching was renewed by the experience abroad. These are all sensible topics. But I'm drawn instead to talk trivia, the frivolous stuff outside the classroom and away from the students. I'm talking about an absurd but thoroughly enjoyable ritual called high table. It's medieval and funtastic!

The Stanford in Oxford gig comes with an unearned but welcome affiliation as visiting fellow at Brasenose College. Brasenose College was founded in 1509. If you are an American, you probably don't believe that this year actually existed; it is too long ago to be imaginable. In California things are historic if they are 25 years old, and we increasingly have the capacity to be nostalgic about breakfast. But Oxford actually has a college called New College, founded in the 14th century (apparently by dinosaurs).

Two dinosaurs with the heads of men in bowler caps trounce through Oxford. Once smokes a pipe and the other holds a cane.

In case you don't understand the byzantine concatenation of organizations tenuously cobbled together to form Oxford University, let me concisely, if glibly, explain that Brasenose is one of dozens of colleges that make up the university. But unlike our seven Stanford schools, Oxford colleges are significantly autonomous yet duplicate places, each with its own residential hall, library, admissions process and faculty. Except that in Oxford faculty means department, and faculties are completely different units, separate from the colleges.

The peculiarities only begin there. The professors, for the most part, are called fellows (whether male or female, jolly good or otherwise). A student doesn't study a subject, he or she reads it—quite often in a one-on-one relationship with the same fellow year after year, an "all your eggs in one basket" arrangement that doesn't exactly parallel the American ideal of limitless choice. The senior common room is both a place (a kind of fancy faculty lounge—one that has crisp daily newspapers in an array of languages, as well as scones) and an organization to which one belongs (the professoriate). What we plainly call fall, winter and spring terms are called Michaelmas, Hilary and Trinity.

Other linguistic challenges follow, ones that go beyond the standard Rosetta-resolved stuff like lift, lorry, flat, torch, boot and pants. At one point I actually stumped the natives with the following scenario: Imagine that you chance upon a gruesome car accident involving severed limbs. It could be called a bloody mess. But if someone were to amplify the description by adding a vulgarity—a bloody bloody mess—which "bloody" (the first one or the second one) would need to be censored by the BBC? My Oxford colleagues found this a perplexing if ultimately irrelevant scenario: The BBC was fully occupied with nonstop coverage of the royal wedding.

The students don't study for exams, they revise. This makes it sound less stressful. (And I imagine that there are probably cucumber sandwiches involved.) They don't even have to take exams until the end of their final year. This also seems charming until you realize that this one set of exams defines 100 percent of their transcript. Exam taking is further burdened by a fussy dress code made up of fastidious, if arbitrary, sartorial rules. Among these, one must wear a white carnation to one's first exam, a red one to the last exam, and a pink one to all intervening exams. I'm convinced that a dissertation exists somewhere that documents an ancient cabal between the British flower industry and university elders. Probably something Cromwell did.

Back to organizational matters. There are some 38 or so colleges that comprise Oxford. They go by names like Christ Church, Corpus Christi, All Souls, St. Johns and Jesus. They don't go by names like Mohamed, Brandeis, Trotsky or Secular Humanism. No matter. They all have fabulous wine cellars. I'm told that the one at All Souls is so large that you get around it by subterranean golf cart.

The wine is good news for me: Spectacular ones are uncorked with dinner every evening at high table. This is not especially good news for the students: They sit at lower tables (not so high) and get water. The divide between the fellows and the students is part of a deliberate class system, a status hierarchy that has been manicured—like Oxford's quadrangle lawns—over centuries. (It reminds me of that monarchy thing.) Within each division there are endless subdivisions in the pecking order, evidenced by the graduate students' middle common room and the undergraduates' junior common room.

I'm actually allowed to bring guests to high table, thus conferring prestige, legitimacy, dignity and cachet (or at least great wine) upon them. I could bring a teenager to high table one day (probably a polite one who doesn't have any friends), but if he enrolled as an undergraduate the next day and I attempted to bring him to high table, the universe would spiral into a vortex of chaos. As a student he would only be tolerated at one of the lower tables, his wine turned to water in a cruel downgrade.

The food at high table, at least for the fellows, is brilliant. The chef is world-famous (in Oxford), the dishes perfectly executed and beautifully presented, and the courses tastefully paired with those wines. There is a starter course, but one doesn't consume this until preliminary steps are taken. First, members of the senior common room (the organization) congregate in the senior common room (the room) for sherry. They must all wear special gowns. Second, they process into hall in a particular order (e.g., the principal enters first, then fellows with guests) and abide by an exact seating plan (e.g., the vice-principal must be seated at the north end of the table, the bursar at the south end). And third, a gavel is banged, everyone stands, and Latin is incanted. (I caught something about God, or maybe cricket.)

Speaking of cricket, I tried to learn its mysterious and arcane rules. Despite watching several matches I was still baffled. A colleague at Brasenose who works on French literature finally explained them to me over lunch. She said: "You sit under a tree. You eat cucumber sandwiches. You applaud when other people applaud. Those are the rules of cricket."

After the dead language incantation, dinner gets under way. The starter is followed by the main course, which is, in turn, followed by cake or pie, something that anyone would sensibly call dessert but which the English call pudding. This is a very important distinction because after high table one may take dessert, a completely separate but equally mannerist ritual that follows in a different, more intimate room, candlelit and completely devoid of students (and absent of teenagers, if only by statistical likelihood, not edict).

The most impressive thing about dessert—other than the fabulous array of fruits and cheeses and chocolates—is the fact that you must retain your napkin from high table. The fellows seem to be utterly possessed by this most sacred of rules: There will be no napkin at dessert, so you must demonstrably hold your napkin (thereby signifying that you are taking dessert) while processing into dessert. The fellows follow most of the countless high table regulations blindly, occasionally complaining mildly and insincerely about their idiosyncrasy, but never giving the remotest hint that they might one day take part in changing any of them. But this napkin law they really love. They get very excited about it—probably a Pavlovian anticipation of Stilton—and woe be to anyone who forgets his napkin: more spiral, vortex, chaos.

The dessert features exactly three libations in special crystal decanters. There is claret (which non-English call red Bordeaux)—but only when claret is not served at high table, otherwise Madeira is substituted; there is sauterne; and there is vintage port. They served an exquisite 1963 Taylor Fladgate one night and I began to contemplate a permanent leave from Stanford. But one must take care never to pass the port anticlockwise (otherwise spiral, vortex, chaos).

Finally, the most recently appointed fellow serves as snuff monkey—walking around the table to offer each person a hit of snuff. I never tried the snuff. The nicotine thing just doesn't appeal to me. Up in Scotland I ate haggis and enjoyed it very much. So don't dismiss me as a prude.

The festivities—and I'll grudgingly concede, the rules—serve as a social lubricant for affable and convivial conversation with fellow fellows. I've learned all about experimental psychology, the Large Hadron Collider and the Roman Civilization. (Rome predates the 14th century, if you can believe that.) It turns out that some of these fellows know a thing or two about a thing or two. Miraculously, my Oxford colleagues took great interest in my work as a composer of uncompromising and unmarketable music, insisting that I give a lecture and a concert before Trinity concluded.

In short, high table was a kind of bonus collegial experience—a connection to bright, reflective, interesting and interested persons beyond the students in my classroom. I was, in fact, transformed by the experience of teaching my students, and through them I renewed my dedication as a pedagogue. The unexpected surplus was a gang of ritual-mongers: my wonderful colleagues at Brasenose College. They couldn't stand the pomposity of the royal wedding, but they sure knew how to throw a party every night. Well, not every night. On Saturday high table goes on hiatus. Then it's off to the pub for fish and chips.

Chips, by the way, are French fries. Crisps are chips. 

A strange looking man in a suit holds a large glass of beer. On his head is a wreath of vines and a miniature British building.

Epilogue: Blood & Thirst

Around the block from Brasenose College is Lincoln College. The two colleges share a common wall with a secret door. It remains locked all year round except for five minutes on Ascension Day when a ritual ceremony dating back to the early 17th century is undertaken.

As legend goes, a Brasenose student was being chased by a bloodthirsty mob of townies. He knocked on the main gates to Lincoln College, pleading for safe haven. Lincoln denied him, and he was beaten to death by the mob.

By way of penance, Lincoln College brews a homemade ale and serves it to Brasenose on Ascension Day. After beating willow sticks against chalked-up boundary stones (that's another story), the Brasenose fellows and students enter Lincoln via secret door and imbibe. The beer is actually brewed with a small amount of ivy—thereby making it both unsavory and slightly poisonous, characteristics I attribute to the monarchy but evidently appealing to the British.

Mark Applebaum is an associate professor of music.

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