Tales of the City: A gaudy display of advancing age

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The Independent Online

The last time I went to a "gaudy" or, as it's sometimes defined, a "reunion of decrepit Oxford students at their (slightly older) old college" was seven years ago, and that was bad enough. The pre-dinner drinks were held in the old Junior Common Room and, as my friend Rob and I saw the elderly faces, we agreed warmly that the college authorities had been quite right to include the ancient dons and college lecturers in the celebrations. We pushed past the toby-jug faces, the wizened features sprouting hair in three shades of grey, the mulberry noses, the leopardish liver spots. We marvelled at the inventiveness of nature, when it starts painting human flesh with emblems of great age. I'd gone only 20 yards, when I saw the mummified but unmistakable form of Hector B (upper second, PPE) and realised the crumbling old wrecks were my golden-lads generation, a shade past their sell-by...

The last time I went to a "gaudy" or, as it's sometimes defined, a "reunion of decrepit Oxford students at their (slightly older) old college" was seven years ago, and that was bad enough. The pre-dinner drinks were held in the old Junior Common Room and, as my friend Rob and I saw the elderly faces, we agreed warmly that the college authorities had been quite right to include the ancient dons and college lecturers in the celebrations. We pushed past the toby-jug faces, the wizened features sprouting hair in three shades of grey, the mulberry noses, the leopardish liver spots. We marvelled at the inventiveness of nature, when it starts painting human flesh with emblems of great age. I'd gone only 20 yards, when I saw the mummified but unmistakable form of Hector B (upper second, PPE) and realised the crumbling old wrecks were my golden-lads generation, a shade past their sell-by...

This time, the drinks were in the Fellows' Garden. As I made my way through, gazing in awe at the 50-year-old faces, as I watched 120 of my former peers among the immemorial trees of Exeter College, I wasn't filled with intimations of decrepitude but of bolted growth. Instead of people's faces changing, entire bodies seemed to have taken on additional avoirdupois. The lanky intellectual who used to tremble over Mandeville's Travels was now as broad across the gluteal region as a hippo. Mike F, once so dapper, mignon and pale he was considered a dead ringer for Marcel Proust, had become as uncompromisingly solid, as a Big Mac. The raffish Johnny R, who once had the look of a Giotto choirboy, had acquired a secondary cara-pace of dead skin around his cheeks and forehead...

What the college had acquired is a new attitude to making money. Anxious to be seen as a good value college rather than one of those languorous, spendthrift places that treats their students like part of the Brideshead dream, Exeter has now got itself a "development office", which sits hatching plots all day for cutting costs and extracting money from sentimental alumni. They're very good, but sometimes it's hard to ignore the resemblance between the college's go-getting schemes and Sergeant Bilko's motor pool.

We filed into the great dining-hall, where 120 candlelit places were laid on four long tables. It was a gorgeous sight when you were a student, one to treasure in your memory. Now, it's become a movie cliché - we were looking at the dining hall at Hogwarts School, only half the size. "Do you realise," hissed my neighbour, "that applications for Oxbridge have gone up by a third because they think it'll be just like Harry Potter?" Over the mushrooms, the gazpacho, the salmon and the cherries, I heard from all sides that Old Boys' children were now being given guided tours of Exeter's hall because it is, of course, the model for the Great Hall where Lyra hides in chapter one, volume one of His Dark Materials (Philip Pullman is another old boy). "They even got taken down to the Senior Common Room, which is called the Retiring Room in the book," hissed my neighbour. Visions filled our heads of coach parties of Pullman fans milling around the hall waving paperbacks. "Didn't Tolkien study here too?" asked a chap who was now big in department stores. "I'm sure we could capitalise on that. I hear they're putting up a blue plaque outside the Eagle & Child, where he used to drink. And is it true they're making a movie of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe?" By the time I hit the after-dinner bar (gaudiasts used to stay up until 3am drinking claret from the college cellars; now they stand in the bar flooring lager until the place shuts at 11.45pm) I'd heard enough about charitable giving, enlightened philanthropy, and the maximising of college income to last a lifetime. Is there no chance of being allowed to remember one's alma mater as a place of innocent luxury, rather than a penny-pinching, begging-bowl-rattling offshoot of the heritage industry? And is there any way of saying that out loud, without sounding like a tragic old fart?

Naughty (but nice)

I'm not saying I'm entirely unfamiliar with striptease shows; but it came as a bit of a surprise to find myself sitting the other night in Hoxton, at the rough end of north London, vigorously encouraging a gentleman called Walter, in a Britney Spears schoolgirl wig, to divest himself of yet more girlish foundation garments. It's not a phase I'm going through (I sincerely hope); it's just the delight of rediscovering the burlesque.

Burlesque is the link between Olde Tyme Music Hall and modern sex shows. It originally meant a mocking of high art "by grotesque exaggeration, or by combining the dignified with the low and the familiar". Classic American burlesque involved girls in vast wigs and corsets, peek-a-boo dances with ostrich fans and balloons, risqué tableaux of Louis XIV shepherdesses, droll comedians who never spoke, mime artistes who never sang, and a general atmosphere of louche titillation. At Hoxton Hall, the best thing (apart from the music, by Rod Melvin, the Groucho Club's resident keysman) is Immodesty Blaize, a substantial lady of Eurasian features and a talent for tassel rotation that hasn't been seen since The Graduate. She has great poise and immense wobble. Watching her riding an enormous rocking-horse while wearing a Carmen Miranda headdress and little else, one is pitched back to a time when Edward VII would have journeyed miles (even to Hoxton) to see her and invite her to supper. Go check it out.

'Immodesty Blaize and the Adventures of Walter', Hoxton Hall, London N1 (020-7684 0060), Saturday and Sunday

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