Last weekend I went to a college-organized reunion. I hesitate to use the decidedly Wodehousian name of “gaudy”, although that is indeed what the college called it. Call it. Suitably, it involved many of the trappings of Oxbridge life that make these institutions so very attractive to overseas students and tourists: black tie, dinner in the wood-panelled college hall, uncomfortable silences etc.
Well, I can’t say I didn’t go along of my own free will. But I was rather trepidatious beforehand. Gaudies typically invite students from a range of years of degree commencement, and I’d always felt that – even while I was still there, just about – I rather lost touch with many of those people, in favour of students from other colleges, or from many years before or after me.
Moreover, the people who I do know, we last met on the college grounds in unhappy circumstances, and I didn’t know how much that might overshadow the event. That group – my group – was never exactly stereotypically Oxbridge either, so it was entirely possible that I would end up in the company of fifty ra’s, rowers and toffs, and not really know or want to talk to any of them. And, if nothing else, it cost me fifty quid for the privilege; that alone surely entitles me to be at least a little bit sarcastic.
All this occurred to me as I considered booking it; but, after going freelance last year, I’d spent so long outside my comfort zone that it seemed fitting that, for one night at least, I would shimmy another step away from it. The worst that could happen was that I ended up politely shunned, but get a decent meal inside me, and then be home for midnight.
All the early signs were ominous. It turned out that, perhaps owing to under-advertising, our own event wasn’t nearly as well attended as some. And of the forty or fifty alumni, only five were from my year, including me; and I was the first of them to arrive. But three of them turned up soon afterwards, and turned out to be exactly from the crowd I’d have most liked to have seen.
These things always involve a bit of mingling, and I did also end up speaking to people I barely knew. But that was all right: by that point I knew that I was going to be sitting next to a friend for dinner, and while I would try to be sociable, I predicted that I would reach a point where, fed up with the business, I’d just chat with her instead. And given that my other neighbour was a city trader, and that the quondam socialist firebrand opposite me had gone to work for Goldman Sachs, this prediction came true before the dessert course.
Being back was in some ways like being in a dream: bits and pieces had changed; the elevated walkway near where I used to room with Dan had some kind of odd trellis; the layout of the grass in the back quad had been subtly rearranged, with a new bank of lawn against a wall. Meanwhile, odd little details like the stairs down to the band practice room – in the basement for reasons of amplification – looked exactly, weirdly the same: it was as though it had been redecorated, but then someone with an eye for detail and a knack for distressing had replicated every scuff and scrape on the stairs’ right-angle turns, as if to commemorate every drumkit or guitar case that had ever been boinked against them. Colleges have a weird attitude to tradition and it wouldn’t have surprised me much.
Ultimately, I got drunk, and I stayed reasonably happy; it was more successful in that sense, then, than several of my evenings as a student. And despite it ending up as that very same social group, we avoided any mention of a certain absent friend, who might have been in our hearts, but didn’t cast a pall over the evening. As I left to catch my bus, on the far side of daylight saving, I bumped into the one remaining porter from my days at the college, and we chatted in the lodge about nothing much of consequence. But it felt like a link in a plain, unassuming chain I’d re-forged with my past, a chain I might at a future date pick up, or respectfully leave behind me, as I chose.
Also, I learned how to tie a bow tie properly. Don’t ask me to do it after the tokaji wine goes round, though.