John Walsh: College reunions give us a chance to monitor each other's, ahem, progress

Tales of the City

Share
Related Topics

Let's have one other gaudy night," says Antony in Shakespeare's play. "Call to me all my sad captains; fill our bowls once more. Let's mock the midnight bell." And mock it we did on Saturday at my old Oxford college's Gaudy Night. These reunions occur every six or seven years, and give ageing graduates a chance to monitor each other's progress in the, ahem, corridors of power, to exchange fascinating views and to mock each other's absurd pretensions towards importance in the public eye.

Surveying the physical changes wrought by time is no longer as dismaying as it was some years ago. When you're 40, the sight of your one-time room-mate Philip, once a skinny ephebe with golden ringlets, now transmogrified into a burly renegade with a head like a Sumo bouncer and a body to match, is frightening. In your mid-50s, not so much. You just hope you won't have to endure too many conversations about prostate cancer.

Not much has changed about the 700-year-old college, except the bloke on the roof. This is one of Antony Gormley's mass-processed bronze figures that are posed dramatically on skylines across the nation: but the Man on Exeter College is a particularly disturbing specimen. "You can see it most clearly from the gate of Balliol," said the rector, Frances Cairncross, "but that can't be helped." The statue has, she noted, prompted anxious American tourists to shout: "Fer Gahd's sake, don't jump!"

One thing that's changed since the last gaudy is that old boys aren't constantly badgered to endow their college with large sums of money or remember it on their deathbeds and inscribe it in their wills. Instead, we're invited to think of ourselves as family – an extended family of like-minded intellects who might feel like helping junior family members with their education expenses.

But are we really a family of like-minded intellects? A theme of the evening was CP Snow's dictum about the Two Cultures of arts and science and how seldom they overlap, because of the reluctance of humanities students to grapple with anything harder than a three-pin plug. Readers of Ian McEwan's new novel, Solar, have included scientists impressed by his research, and long-term McEwan fans comprehensively at sea in his fictional world of climate-change research. Only last week, my colleague Tom Sutcliffe remarked how much more intellect was demanded to understand quantum theory than to understand Paradise Lost.

In the bar we talked about all these things, about medical breakthroughs, Hadron Colliders, stuff like that. I kept my end up. When David K, a physics undergraduate back in 1972, talked about his work in genome sequencing, isolating the roots of malaria in Africa, I nodded sagely and asked, you know, intelligent questions ("So this malaria gene – how big is it exactly?") and impressed my interlocutor with my grasp of human cell research. Then he started asking about the arts.

"Do you know this chap, Brian Sibley who writes about art in an evening paper?"

"You mean Brian Sewell? He's very highly regarded, very mocking and brilliant."

"He called Matisse 'overrated'. Is that true?" I was nonplussed. "It's neither true nor untrue," I said. "It's just an opinion about art."

"But if it's unverifiable as true or otherwise, why read this person?"

"Er, David ... " I said. "This is criticism. These are just pronouncements which ... "

"You review books don't you?" he persisted. "How does that work? You read the book to the end, then – what? – you find something to say about it? You offer a value judgement?"

"Well, er, yes," I said, "you infer the author's intention in writing it, and try to assess if he or she has pulled it off."

"What if you're wrong? How do you know you've understood the author's intention?"

"David," I said, "I don't think you've grasped the basic premise of literary criticism ... "

At which he smiled. It was only later, on retiring at 4am when the malt whisky ran out, that I realised. My former co-student had been letting me know something – this was how scientists would sound if they asked arty folks questions with the same ignorance that arty folks display when asking about science. A salutary lesson, silkenly delivered, by a brainier sibling in the graduate family.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

Day In a Page

Read Next
The Public Accounts Committee found widespread concern among civil servants that they would be victimised if they spoke out about wrongdoing  

Nikileaks explained: The sad thing about the Nicola Sturgeon saga is that it makes leaks less likely

Jane Merrick
New SNP MP Mhairi Black distinguished herself in Westminster straight away when she made herself a chip butty in the canteen  

The SNP adventure arrives in Westminister - but how long before these new MPs go native?

Katy Guest
Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

Join the tequila gold rush

The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
12 best statement wallpapers

12 best statement wallpapers

Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

Paul Scholes column

Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?