Half a world away, ties that still bind

Exeter College, Oxford (image courtesy of Wikipedia)

Last weekend I stepped back in time to a point more than half my life ago as I went to attend a gaudy (an Oxford term for a college reunion dinner). It is 22 years this autumn that I first went up to Oxford as a fresh-faced undergraduate, only to leave it as a world-weary graduate. My time at Exeter College was – how do I put it? – not exactly a roaring success. I had neither the aptitude nor the attitude to shine in my chosen subject, chemistry. And by the time I left I had had enough of academia, a feeling which was entirely mutual.

If I do say so myself, I have always had a well-balanced view of my undergraduate years insofar that I carried a chip on both shoulders about it for several years afterwards. I received what started out as minimal support from certain tutors – I can remember being chastised after turning up five minutes late for a tutorial on crutches, having torn my knee ligaments the previous day – and ended up as passive-aggressive hostility on both sides. I’m not blaming them (at least, not any more) for my own shortcomings, but let’s just say I wasn’t exactly overwhelmed with empathy from some of them either.

The reason I’m telling you this is to explain why it is that I have a slightly different relationship with my alma mater than most alumni do. Whenever I set foot in my old college – Exeter College, fact fans, is where Inspector Morse died, just inside the entrance to the porter’s lodge which is to the left of the picture above – I experience the same sense of nostalgia that I imagine my peers also do, but it is also tinged with something akin to regret which, in turn, has replaced an emotion which used to be equal measures shame and bitterness.

Let me be clear about this: regret (or whatever amalgam of feelings it now is) is only a small – and ever diminishing – part of what I experience when I step over the threshold into the college. There are a lot more positive emotions, and rightly so. For one thing, if not for Exeter I would never have met Heather. And there are many other good memories which are inextricably linked with the college. But the one thing I have never felt is pride about my time at Exeter, and that is a part of my peers’ shared experience which I will never be a part of.

Anyhow, that’s more than enough maudlin. It’s the gaudy itself I wanted to write about, and write about it I shall.

Half a world away from our previous existence, it was clear that people had changed a lot in the intervening years. Waistlines and hairlines had expanded and receded. And yet the more things change the more they stay the same as old patterns started to reform. The old social groups soon gravitated back towards each other, and familiar patterns of behaviour quickly re-established.

It’s funny how tight the college bonds are when you start looking. Including myself and Heather, I counted at least six intra-college marriages (there may have been more that I wasn’t aware of) among the 80-odd attendees. I had come as part of a group of nine, all of whom have remained in regular contact since leaving uni – for instance, Heather and I are godparents to R and A’s three children (and vice versa), and attended their wedding, whose service was conducted in the college chapel by C’s father. The ties that bind, eh?

The reunion part of the evening went much like any other. I spoke to some old contemporaries, some of whom I had not seen in nearly 20 years. Gossip was shared – children here, an unexpected marriage there – post-uni histories swapped, and one serendipitous exchange where someone had read and been touched by a piece I wrote last year marking the first anniversary of the passing of a mutual friend from a brain tumour. (It turned out that this other person had recently had a tumour successfully removed.) It is little moments like this that make the whole evening worthwhile.

After dinner, we were treated to a thankfully light-handed reminder that budgets are tough in modern-day universities, before one of our own was asked to give a short speech and toast. N reminded us that being at Exeter was always about more than just academic studies, and that there was a reason why so many of us had chosen to attend that evening – it certainly wasn’t because of the quality of the food – that spoke of a deeper set of personal and shared experiences that remain long after the memory of chemical formulae and quantum mechanics have faded. Here we all were, graduates of the same college covering a full spectrum of academic subjects and professions, from teachers and artists to captains of industry – I’m more a foot-soldier of industry, myself – including one who had flown in from New York where he now lives just for this event.

N was right. There is something intangible that holds us all together and only really comes out on a night like this. Which is why, despite my ambivalence towards the college itself, I am always happy to return for such events because any institution is always more than just the sum of its bricks and mortar. And the passage of time somehow makes those ties even stronger.

After all, where else could three of us decide that – with two dodgy knees and a litany of ailments and afflictions between us – we would all compete in a 5km race at some future date to be arranged? (It’ll never happen, mind you.) Still, at least I didn’t succumb to a midnight doner kebab this time …