Dinner with the Pres

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In my first ever sharehouse (a quaint 3 bedroom terrace with a curtained-off dining room serving as the 4th bedroom), one of my housemates was a certified Hoarder. She boasted a collection of 500(!) moth-eaten t-shirts, and within weeks her scores of half-empty sauce bottles, plastic bowling sets, Christmas g-strings and spent tealights consumed every inch of communal space. One of my major bugbears (besides her refusal to dispose of vegetables even when they passed the point of decomposition) was that she never hoarded anything useful. We were forever short on toilet paper; never on liquifying cabbages.

Two nights ago a group of postgrads were invited to dinner at the college President’s lodgings. There, I was exposed to the opposite end of the hoarding spectrum. Basically, a shitload of incredibly rare, valuable treasures.

The evening started with champagne and a tour of the house. I surreptitiously peeked under an armoire and discerned that the carpet was in fact cream; you wouldn’t know otherwise given that every inch of the floor was overlaid with Ali Baba-esque Persian carpets. Up at the Old Library, the extent of the rare book collection was best illustrated by the President lamenting Magdalen’s lack of a first edition Shakespeare (the first edition Milton, Newton, Oscar Wilde, Ptolemy, Copernicus and the oldest known fragments of the New Testament were floating about somewhere on the shelves, natch).

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The President casually opened a secret door – masquerading as a bookshelf – to reveal the Summer Common Room (almost as exciting as when you get to enter the freezer at McDonald’s birthday parties as a kid and see where they store the bags of French fries) which was dotted with portraits of Magdalen’s esteemed alumni. Including 9 Nobel Prize winners.

Dinner was in a room filled with Britain’s finest collection of Iznik pottery. I was seated next to the Pres himself which meant I had to be on my game (and recall all the etiquette tips I picked up from watching Kylie Booby’s season of Ladette to Lady) but was treated to stories of his travels, projects and hobnobbing.

For example, I learnt that the Dalai Lama (who stayed at the residence with his coterie of monks) favours brown Clark’s rubber shoes and hits the hay at 6pm, that Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip had a sense of humour when the President staunchly defended Magdalen’s historical resistance to royal meddling, about the politics of the SKA (the world’s largest, 1.5 billion Euro radio telescope project), and the work of Angela Merkel’s husband (one of the President’s close pals).

A Classic Oxford exchange: the President announced Bhutan as his favourite holiday destination. Someone piped up that they’d add it to their go-to holiday list…only to be shut down by the President saying that it’s very difficult/expensive to get an entry visa. Not a problem for him, of course, as he visits as King Jigme and Queen Jetsun Pema’s private guest.

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(Sidenote: world’s most beautiful couple?)

After dinner, a glimpse at a beautiful Burne-Jones sketch, and a gander at some amazing medieval tapestries including one which had had a square segment cut out and sewn back in. The explanation? It was used by Cardinal Wolsey as a doona, with a head hole cut out. Of course.

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