Dining with the Dons

23Oct-1

The other night, us Magdalen law kids were invited to a High Table Dinner with the Fellows. At the risk of sounding like a polar explorer from the 1920s, bouncing a grandkid on his knee and reminiscing about Antarctic otherworldliness, now THAT was an experience.

Given cryptic meeting instructions, by 7 we were bumbling around the cloisters, looking for a door emblazoned ‘Smoking Room’, or at least with tendrils of smoke seeping out from under. When we finally found it, we rang the brass buzzer…and were shown up into this crazy beautiful room. I’m talking walls crowded with Dutch portraits, Turners, a Rembrandt etching, framed Iznik tiles (all of which I examined while one of the Fellows bemoaned Magdalen’s ‘lacklustre’ art collection); mantelpieces adorned with weighty silver items and a casual Nobel prize medal; a table of esoteric magazines (for all your decanting, country gentlemanly and marquetry interests); and plush leather couches where you could just imagine the caterpillar from Alice in Wonderland luxuriating. The dress code for the evening was ‘gowns to be worn, but not formal’, so I was pretty gleeful that one of the guests was in an embroidered velvet smoking jacket.

After soaking up some sherry, we walked out this teeny dwarf door onto the rooftop of the cloisters, and across a rickety walkway to the Dining Hall back entrance. I’m pretty sure that silhouette-wise we looked like absconding orphans in a gothic cartoon.

Dinner itself was pretty top-notch. It was like the ‘Be Our Guest’ scene in Beauty and the Beast; courses swooping in and out, dancing silverware, strange confections. I was too busy speaking to the Fellow on my right to eat much – I shared my misconceptions that all English wildlife was sweet and waistcoat-clad (curse you, Beatrix); he expressed surprise at just how unintelligible Australians are (pulling me up on every second word and extolling the virtues of elocution lessons) – but I did manage to down some watercress soup, a tennis ball of quail, and some rhubarby goodness. Ooh but ‘Parisienne potatoes’? They’re just tatertots, people.

After dinner we retired to the Fellows’ sitting room, which was a dark wood-panelled den with a crackling fire and horseshoe arrangement of chairs. Perfect for plotting an empire’s downfall. Madeira, port, elderflower cordial and wine from the college vineyard (natch) circled round like a lavish old-timey sushi train. But actually…because when the crystal decanters reached the end of the horseshoe, they were placed in a brass bucket atop an oak ramp, and ricocheted a few metres to the people on the other side (the ‘port railway’, because manually carrying the bottles would be déclassé). One of the Fellows came around with the snuff box. I tentatively took a pinch, then did a bit about snorting it with aplomb when he told me to take it like coke (jks – the only thing I’ve ever snorted is my own phlegm).

Later, it was back up to the Smoking Room for coffee and the Jockey Weighing Seat – guests to be weighed and a record made in a leather-bounded book. Not surprisingly, the girls all demurred. I wish I could say that I advanced the feminist cause, but it felt all a bit Biggest Loser (and I was the one who’d faked an ACL injury and loaded up on poptarts during the week) so I didn’t pony up.

So, to recap the High Table Dining experience: pretty dope. I need to learn not to gawp so much.

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