I received an invitation last week from my old university college to attend a gaudy.
A what? A gaudy – from the Latin gaudium meaning enjoyment or merry-making – is a term used at Oxford for an alumni reunion, in this case for anyone who started at my college between 1988 and 1991. This involves a formal black tie dinner in our old college dining hall – think of the Great Hall at Hogwarts in Harry Potter, but without the ghosts, wizards and Sorting Hat – consisting of passable food, lots of wine and port, and an address from the college rector which is really a thinly veiled plea for donations that goes on five minutes too long and ends up on the wrong side of cringeworthy.
I have previously attended one gaudy, about ten years ago. My memories are slightly hazy – I can’t imagine why – but it was what any reunion generally is. I went with a group of friends. We drank in the college bar beforehand, reminiscing about old times. We went into dinner, where we reminisced about how bad the food used to be. We drank too much wine, reminiscing about times when we got hopelessly drunk and threw up all over the front quad/a staircase/ourselves (delete as appropriate). We bumped into contemporaries we had not seen since leaving university, some of whom quickly reminded us why we had never bothered keeping in touch with them in the first place. We retired to bed – some of us even less gracefully than usual – and went our separate ways the following day bemoaning how we were getting too old for this and swapping hangover cures.
Pretty much par for the course, really.
What caught my eye, though, was that everyone had been invited to write a message, to be compiled into a booklet. There is space for about 200 words there – an open invitation to tell our contemporaries whatever we like about ourselves. The alma mater of all Facebook status updates, if you like.
As it happens, I’m not intending to take up the offer. I wouldn’t be saying anything new to anyone I want to communicate with – most of them are connected to me via Facebook, Twitter or this blog anyway – and I don’t see the point in broadcasting a personal message to anyone who I haven’t been bothered enough to see in person in the past ten years anyway, which is about 95% of the invitees.
What it did do was pique the interest of the writer in me. If I had 200 words to write a message to people I hadn’t seen in ten or in some cases twenty years, what would I say? Would I write a serious autobiographical pen portrait? Or would I be more frivolous, flippant and off-the-wall? Would I focus on my career or my personal life? Would I be boastful or self-effacing? Would I focus on one specific aspect that summed me up, or try to somehow cover all the bases?
Actually I don’t know for sure, so it’s quite a relief not to have to make that particular decision. Instead, here are a few versions – all 200 words or fewer – that I could have submitted. Some are 100% accurate, others are touched with a hint of hyperbole, and some are written with tongue firmly in cheek. I’ll leave you to work out which is which.
#1 – The CV
After leaving university, I worked in a variety of marketing and strategy roles for W H Smith, Royal Mail, Tesco, BBC Worldwide and now 3M. I have an MBA from Cranfield and a CIM Postgraduate Diploma in Marketing. Heather and I married in Malaysia in 1997. We now live in Thatcham near Newbury and have two sons, Isaac (aged three) and Toby (aged one). I love good food and wine (as my waist-line will attest), travel, sport and writing, and formerly represented both Oxford City and Hampshire at korfball.
#2 – The boy who became a man
It’s now more than half my lifetime ago since I first came to Oxford. Then I was a boy, more callow than his 19 years would suggest and naive to the harsh realities of life at a top university. I left with the bitter taste of academic underachievement. Now I am a man, still younger in his mind (although sadly not body) than his now 40 years would suggest, who can look back from a distance on his undergraduate years and appreciate the many positives: life-long friendships, a wife who has given me two wonderful sons, and a deep sense of failure which felt like the end of my world then but gave me the drive I needed to forge a successful career. As the saying goes, what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger, and university didn’t kill me. I got a lot out of the university experience – very little of it was what I expected.
#3 – Look how brilliant I am, you losers
I’ve done better than I ever thought possible. The City and its financial trappings weren’t for me. I wanted a varied CV packed with blue-chip names. Among others, I’ve enjoyed success with the UK’s biggest retailer (Tesco), one of the best-known names on the high street (W H Smith) and the most revered media company in the world (the BBC). Now I’m working for one of the most innovative companies in the world: 3M, the maker of Post-it Notes. I went to one of the top MBA schools in the country and finished top of my year – that’s how brilliant I am. I’ve had one hell of a career to date, and I’m not even at my halfway point yet. Bring it on.
#4 – The limerick
There once was a young man named Tim
Who as an undergrad was a bit dim
But he found a good wife
Then he sorted his life
And has two boys who look just like him
#5 – The man in the shadows
I dare say some of you won’t even remember who I am. Or you may have known me as the shy, quiet one who washed out with a poor degree and his self-confidence ruined. That’s who I was then. It’s not who I am now. I’m still shy, I still lack confidence, and I’ve had plenty of ups and downs. But I’ve found my niche in my career as a strategic marketer and planner. True to my nature, I’m not so much a from-the-front leader as someone in the background who helps others to succeed. Colleagues appreciate me as someone creative who thinks a little differently to the business norm, something I pride myself on. I married my college girlfriend and we now have two young boys. Life is good, but I’m not the type to stand up and shove my successes and happiness down other people’s throats. You may not even notice me at dinner tonight. But if you do, come and say hi.
#6 – Short and sweet
Strategic marketer. Father of two. Sports fan. Enthusiastic blogger. Bit of a geek. That’s all, folks.
Each of the above is in some way representative of both my post-university life and facets of my personality. I’ve had a good life so far, but not one so fascinating you would be rushing to make a documentary film about it. I’m just me – normal, ordinary me. Like a die, the pen portraits above present six sides of me. Each has a different face, but they are all part of the same whole. In some ways, 200 words is more than sufficient – and yet nowhere near enough. But then that’s what, if you look hard enough, makes even the most ordinary of people endlessly varied and therefore fascinating, no?