The meaning a farewell dinner can take
The deeper meaning a formal farewell dinner can assume
Farewell dinners at Exeter College are highly festive occasions characterized by a strict procedure of long-standing academic ceremonies. It is this sequence of ritualised formalities which, among other criteria, gives Oxford a distinctive mark of tradition.
Despite the fact that teaching staff and ordinary students of a college form a community in solidarity and solidity to one another, there is a visible ‘divide’ between them, which becomes conspicuous to any visiting guest from abroad. This ‘divide’ is not to be understood as a sort of insurmountable caste system, a kind of hierarchy fixed for eternity, a two-class society in stark contrast to the demands from the Enlightenment. Significantly all the teaching staff (consisting of members in the rank of ‘fellows’, lecturers, etc.) is seated round a special table positioned in the centre of a raised platform, thus towering over the heads of the student body assembled round lines of tables on the floor. This arrangement serves a single purpose: the ‘disciples’ are meant to look up at their ‘masters’ in deference to what they have achieved so as to follow suit.
On August 11th, 2006, after a very enjoyable, though not quite opulent meal, which was served first to the staff members at the High Table – again a token of order in terms of discipline and the degree of achievements – the formal part was opened for: words of thanks from both sides, staff and student representatives, announcements of what was on schedule for the next term, and the like. All this was crowned by one eagerly, with almost burning desire awaited event (at least on the side of the students): the handing over of the general certificates to all those students who attended the minimum amount of plenary lectures and workshops through the chair of the programme.
Our names were called out in alphabetical order and two by two we followed the invitation up to the High Table. Each pair of students stepping up to the High Table received applause from the floor. When my name was announced second in the set pair of students whose turn it was to walk up to the ‘rostrum’ something extraordinary happened, something that will for ever stay in my memory. It will cheer me up when “in pensive mood I lie” like William Wordsworth did when he felt like dancing with “a host, of golden daffodils” he saw during the day on a walk alongside a ‘water’ in the Lake District. Hardly had I heard my name and started to make my way towards the High Table when a thunder of clapping, accompanied by jubilant cheers of well-wishing, surrounded me. I was wonder-struck. Not in the least had I expected, let alone dreamt of, so much approval. The sheer veneration, the dimension of honour bestowed upon me through this kind of acclamation, yes indeed ovations! I was benumbed if not bereft of my senses. Never had I thought that the little I had said and obviously contributed to the sessions of the workshops I had belonged to would have such a positive impact upon my fellow partners. It was this combination of love, understanding and respect from my ‘fellow sufferers’ that sent me on cloud nine.
A puny while after this ceremony Prof. Byrne came dashing down from the High Table, picking up her way between the rows of tables to the entrance of the hall when all of a sudden she swerved round and hurried straight to where I was seated. Before I had realized what her movements would have in store for me, she planted herself up in front of me and like somebody from fairyland she imparted to me this: “Albert, when I read your paper, I gave you a straight ‘A’. I cannot teach you. You can teach me.” And she continued with the advice I should not teach at a school, but at university level. Upon these words I did not know what to say. I was groping for words of thanks, so overwhelmed with joy was I. What an impression this message must have left upon the fellow students of mine who I had been conversing with as my ‘next-door neighbours’, who were sitting within earshot!
An “A” from Oxford! I couldn’t and wouldn’t believe it. Whereas after dinner everybody else went into the Undercroft bar beneath the Dining Hall to have a little party there and celebrate things in style over a glass of champagne, I hurried up to my room to digest the good news I had obtained against all expectations of mine.
The following day was the day of my departure. Due to considerably tightened security checks on liquids potentially containing explosives most flights from British airports had been cancelled, including mine from Stansted to Frankfurt. The picture of Stansted Airport was one of a total mess: people hurrying + scurrying to and fro, every now and then casting a look at the notice board where no substitutive flights came in sight, becoming more and more exasperated about the hopeless situation they had got trapped in. In this kind of utter despair I decided to take a bus to Victoria Station in London, from where trains and coaches go to the Continent at regular intervals several times a day. This knowledge of mine was based on experience from my time as a student in the late sixties, but proved one bold assumption as the old train route from London to Mannheim via Dover-Ostende-Brussels no longer existed as an office clerk at Victoria Station told me. This route wasn’t in use any more as all trains ran through the Eurotunnel with the destination of Paris or Brussels. In addition, all trains to the Continent and coaches to Frankfurt had been booked out for days in advance, so the inquiry I was given. In view of this emergency I made up my mind to organize my journey home in three major steps: a) to take a train to Dover, b) from there on a ferry to Calais in France – from my school books I knew Calais-Dover was the shortest Channel crossing, c) and from here it would be easy to book a train ticket to Brussels and perhaps further.
How wrong I was to be as to my last ‘leg’! It was all ‘plain sailing’ from London via Dover to Calais. Yet, what I wouldn’t have guessed when ‘boarding’ that plan, was the fact that from Calais all trains do not go anywhere but Paris. What a (self-)deception I had fallen prey to!
Fortunately three other people who had bumped into me at the seaside terminal in Calais came to my rescue. They, too, had been mistaken about the direction(s) the trains go from Calais. Like me they wanted to go directly to Brussels, from where we each would depart into different directions: a) the married couple per flight to Berlin, b) the Dutch student somewhere at the coastline in Holland, and c) me via Aachen + Cologne to Mannheim.
Shortly after dawn – it was very chilly on that morning – the four of us hailed for a taxi to take us to the railway station in Calais. Before we got into the cab we tried to ask the driver whether he knew any town nearby from where trains would leave for Brussels. In vain. He had absolutely no command of the English language and my partners didn’t speak a word of French, either. So it was up to me to delve for some appropriate words in the remains of my French from school years long gone by. Luckily I could make myself understood. The taxi driver let us know there was a small place in Belgium just across the border, from which trains would run directly to Brussels. Asked how much he would charge us for the transfer there he offered us a lump sum of about 100 € for his service. We agreed – with a few qualms and doubts in our stomach – and things worked out as he had promised. Upon our arrival there we didn’t have to wait long for a train to Brussels.
Dear reader, at this point you might ask what this lengthy description of my odyssey home to Germany has got to do with the farewell dinner (party) at Exeter College. Yet I can assure you there is a line between the two strings of events.
How should I have plucked up courage so as to organize an impromptu trip back home if I hadn’t been rewarded with an Oxford “A”, something which gave me strength and reinforced my determination to embark on an adventure full of hazards? An adventure the outcome of which was rather dubious.
While I was riding along on my way from Brussels to Mannheim my mind was preoccupied with a single item. All I thought was: They might banish me to some unknown place in Siberia far away from home. They might keep me there in life-long captivity in hostile climate conditions of permanent ice and bitter cold. I wouldn’t mind. With an “A” from Oxford I would endure strain in unceasing pain.
Misery in misfortune, what is thy name if Oxford University poises it with an “A”?
“Dulce et decorum est” going through hardships for an Oxford “A”.
Per aspera ad astra – as long as “Dominus illuminatio mea” [sit/est].
 Cf. the two preceding entries on a) ‘Pride and Prejudice’, b) my own ‘short short’,
contributions, which form a unit structurally + thematically.
 Latin: “Through difficulties to the stars”
 Latin: “The Lord is / may be my light (also: enlightenment)”,
the motto of the University of Oxford; words taken
from Psalm 27, verse 1, first sentence
(“The Lord is my light and salvation: whom shall