The invitation, just arrived, is to a college gaudy. It's the third to which I've been asked in twenty years and a tempting prospect, even admitting the bald truth that inclusion on the guest list has nothing to do with merit and everything to do with maintaining allegiance.
Oxbridge gaudies are all about the connections once made, which often seem irrevocably lost but which are revealed to have resisted all life's efforts to break them. Blame it on the collegiate system. That boaty with whom you shared a staircase in your first year; the loud heavy metal fan who was your surprisingly quiet tutorial partner; the first Colombian you'd ever met who turns out to have much more in common with you than you remembered.
Gaudies aren't the exclusive preserve of Oxbridge, of course, but novelist Dorothy Sayers has a lot to answer for in terms of it feeling that way. Her 1935 novel Gaudy Night does for Oxford revelry and reminiscing, what one of her other bestsellers, The Nine Tailors, does for Fenland bell-ringing; keeps them perennially in print and mind, and not just with sentimental Oxbridge graduates in need of light reading on a dark, winter evening.
Of course, should I to go to the gaudy I know I'll be well looked after, not just in Hall. College rooms may range from dismal to palatial, but without their domestic staff not only would they be considerably grubbier and less commodious for members young and old, but the dust would lie thick. Secrets, however, might be better kept: much vital college knowledge — or is that gossip? — depends on them.
Scouts in Oxford, bedders in Cambridge: they don't just empty the bins. They are cleaners-cum-confidantes, scourging student consciences as effectively as scouring basins. My college had some truly memorable scouts, young and old, several of whom were second generation or more. They played witness to the term's highs and lows, could ease an essay crisis with biscuits and tough-love hoovering, and then remove the empties the morning after.
It's surprises me, therefore, how invisible college domestic staff are. Unusually, Christ Church picture gallery has a fine painting by John Riley entitled The Scullion of Christ Church. Why it was painted and who paid for it is unknown but it is likely that its handsome, enigmatic subject was more than a mere servant, perhaps a balladeer, and something of a character to merit such an honour. Admittedly, in recent decades Christ Church has included a gargoyle of a well-known scout as part of the restoration of its stonework — but formal images are, sadly, rare.
In September of this year, however, All Souls unveiled a portrait, by Cambridgeshire artist Benjamin Sullivan, of 27 of its non-academic staff. Four years in the making, the 'All Souls Triptych' was initially displayed at the Ashmolean. It's a large, intensely realistic portrait of the domestic, maintenance and administrative staff who keep the college running, realised in a format traditionally reserved for sacred subjects. Both of its time, thanks to rich contemporary detail, and timeless in its humanity, it represents the beating heart of the college, without which its labouring brains unquestionably couldn't function.
There's symbiosis on a larger scale, too, in the relationships nurtured between Oxford, Cambridge and their respective twin cities. In 1957 Cambridge was twinned with Heidelberg, Germany's oldest university, whilst Oxford was, in 1947, twinned with Bonn, forging one of the first post-War Anglo-German links. The significance of such a gesture should not be underestimated. It's hoped that peace and goodwill flow from the mutual understanding such alliances promote, and not just at Christmas time.
I think, therefore, I should go to the gaudy.