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John Walsh

John Walsh: The black-tie dinner at an Oxford college that told me dress codes do matter


It's a storm in an egg cup. At Oxford University, students at Brasenose College have been rebuked for inappropriate dress and for "a failure to distinguish between public and private spaces". In other words, they've been told off for coming to breakfast in jim-jams and dressing-gowns.

In the very dining-hall where the undergraduate David Cameron once breakfasted on toast and Frank Cooper's marmalade, the new generation are shovelling down porridge in their night attire. No wonder the Brasenose principal used nanny language to dissuade them ("I trust that this slovenly practice will cease forthwith.")

Connoisseurs of correctness and protocol, however, will tell you that dress codes at Oxford have always occupied the eccentric end of the scale. Students sitting exams have to dress up in full subfusc of black shoes, socks, trousers/skirt and jacket, white shirt and bow tie, plus mortar board and gown, and very cool they look, too.

I had the pleasure of being back in Oxford at my alma mater, Exeter College, at the weekend, to attend a lecture on The Origins of Sex by the college's brilliant senior history fellow, Faramerz Dabhoiwala. Forty years after I first walked awestruck through the front quad, I was invited to swan about the Rector's Garden, to sit amid the huge blown tulips, gazing at the honey-coloured stone and the ancient gargoyles of the 15th-century Bodleian Library, thinking that JRR Tolkien would have sat in the same spot – he joined Exeter 100 years ago and became professor of Old English – to check out the same view.

Formal Sunday dinner in hall provided a chance to inspect modern Oxford dress-and-behaviour protocol. The dress code is childishly simple: black tie for chaps, discreetly sparkly frocks for the ladies. Gowns are worn by college tutors only. What's extraordinary is the va et vient, the amount of moving around that goes on.

After pudding, you're told to take your glass of claret with you, and everyone troops after the Rector into the Fellows' Garden for a digestif stroll. At the far end of the garden, under the lime trees, you stand, chatting like cruise-liner passengers, looking down on Radcliffe Square, the most beautiful view in Oxford, while the light fades. Then you head back to the dining-hall for fruit, chocolate, snuff and the circling decanters of port and Sauternes.

Just as you're planning to stay there forever, you're ushered back downstairs to the dark-wood-panelled Senior Common Room for coffee and urgent gossip. And that's when one of Exeter's raffish dons invites a chosen few strangers to climb several staircases in the back quad, to go out on the roof and pat the arse of the Antony Gormley "Standing Man" statue for luck... Hooray for Oxford silliness. I trust that these extremely un-slovenly practices will go on for a long time.

Roger Bannister is still pretty nippy

At the weekend, I bumped into Sir Roger Bannister. The man who first ran a mile in less than four minutes is now 83 and in extremely good spirits. I thought of the forthcoming Olympics and decided that – the minute a gap appeared in the conversation – I'd ask his opinion of Usain Bolt. We talked for several minutes – about Stirling Moss, about Bannister's love of Chaucer, about his days as a medical student, and his 40 years as a practising neurologist.

After we parted company, I kicked myself for not soliciting his opinion about Mr Bolt's expertise. It gradually dawned on me that, after a lifetime of being bored rigid by people asking, "What was it like to run a sub-four-minute mile?", Bannister must lately have grown weary of being asked, "That Usain Bolt – he's pretty nippy, eh? What d'you think? Pretty quick?" And, therefore, seizes the opportunity to talk about anything else.