You can pay a few quid for a tour of lovely Magdalen College, but please be my virtual guest at high table. I promise a new perspective.
My old friend, Stewart Wood (at right with my husband, Henry) is both a Magdalen fellow and Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s advisor. His boss keeps him busy, but Stewart took a night off before President Bush’s visit to take us to dinner at high table. It was a special night, Magdalen College’s 550th. Happy Birthday!
After admiring the Magdalen gardens and deer park,
. . . we had a champagne reception in the Senior Common Room. The oak-paneled chamber was out of another century and not a recent one with its deep-set windows overlooking the quads. The dark wood furniture was antique; the art was museum quality and the arm chairs were red leather before a fireplace.
There were the dons in black academic gowns, their guests and the college president. It was very social, and people were curious about what an American novelist was doing at Oxford. I was struggling to describe my genre of women’s fiction, when one fellow figured it out: “an Orange Prize book!” I wish. Magdalen has quite a literary history: Oscar Wilde and C.S. Lewis.
When it was time to dine, we filed out a tiny door onto the roof. The roof? Yes! Philip Pullman did not invent his heroine’s rooftop rambling. Before Lyra, dons have been walking the Magdalen roofs every evening, and now I follow in their footsteps. I did promise you a new perspective!
There was a wooden walkway, covered in chicken wire for better footing. I was relieved my heels weren’t too pointy. Way down below was the cloistered quad. Even in the highest echelons of English learning and antiquity resides the silly sign:
We entered the dining hall through another Hobbit sized door. The main entrance for the students, who ate earlier, was at the other end. That entrance is approached by a grand stairway. The high table is literally a long table placed at 90 degrees to the others on a raised platform below the oak-paneled end wall. Do the students wonder how the dons mysteriously apparate at high table?
Before we dined, the Magdalen Boys Choir sang hymns from the balcony, and we stood for a Latin grace. Seating was open except for those at high table. By silver clad candlelight, we enjoyed a fine 4 course meal: soup, fish, meat and pudding. Then, as is English upper class custom, we changed seats for dessert wines, fruit and chocolates. You hold onto your napkins but nothing else.
This time we were seated at high table, but first I admired the 550 year old royal charter displayed under glass. There were plenty at hand to translate the Latin. The delicate writing was perfectly preserved except for one smudge.
I slipped out to the loo (English for toilet) which was in an annex from the courtyard, built into the fort-like walls. There was even a moat. Henry gave me directions: “down the hall, take a left, down the stairs and a sharp right, pass the 3-headed dog….”
Thankfully there was no vicious dog, but there was a phantom call box. I half expected to find Dr. Who. I was certainly a time traveler.
It was good to walk and test my balance. After the champagne, white and red wines, I decided to pass on the sauterne and only took a thimble full of port, which is always passed to the left. The rooftop footing on the way back to the SCR was more treacherous in the dark.
Someone must have refilled my glass during dinner without my noticing, or why else would I consent to be weighed after eating so much? That leather bound stool is a scale, and my weight is now preserved for posterity in the Magdalen SCR record book. It was in stones so I have no clue. It’s hard enough to multiply by 14 when totally sober.
Stewart and I became close friends in our early 20’s. I was finishing college, and he and Henry were starting graduate school at Harvard. Being around Stewart makes me revert. Instead of staggering home to bed, I accepted his invitation to visit the Magdalen student bar.
Henry chimed in that it would be “research” for my novel. He was right. My protagonist is 20, she wouldn’t decline a pint (or a half pint in my case.) The bar was hopping with students celebrating the end of term and exams.
It was all good fun until I woke up the next morning. Hmm, now I remember what being 20 really felt like. On top of that, I’d agreed to meet an Oxford student for a pint the next evening. If I’m looking a bit worse for wear in the photo, you know why. Marisa Benoit was great company and perked me up.
Marisa first came to Oxford on her junior year abroad, and now she’s come back for an MSC. She’s from a really small town in Maine. I was thrilled to meet her because she has given me insight into my character who comes from a similar background.
Only Marisa’s back story was better than fiction. Her father is a tugboat captain in NYC, my hometown. He works 2 weeks on and off and decided to raise his family in Maine. On board he reads my blog (hello, Captain Benoit!)
Marisa gave me a tour around Lincoln College. The time to see it is in the fall when all the ivy turns bright red. I peeked my head in back then but had longed to see more.
Lincoln is a small college, but has a large graduate student population, making it a good choice for further degrees. It’s a warm, cozy place unless you're an imp.
An imp? That’s a daemon they keep locked in a cell by the student bar. No, I hadn’t even started drinking when I heard this tale. That’s him in the photo. I’ll zoom in closer for a better look. Do you sort of wish that I hadn't? He makes gargoyles handsome.
The Lincoln Imp used to grace a corner of the front quad, but now he’s been locked up for safe keeping, and a modern imp has taken his place. Are you thinking what I’m thinking? This imp could be the inspiration for Pullman’s daemons and the deathly tunnels below Oxford. It gave me the chills.
The library at Lincoln gave me good chills. It was once a chapel (they have another) but is now devoted to worshiping books. Wouldn’t you want to study in this glorious space? Thanks, Marisa, for the tour and the pint.
Another new friend this year is Bee. She writes a similar blog, Bee Drunken, about life as an American married to an Englishman here. We also share a love of reading. You have to check out her funny post on the 9 signs of going native (English.) For #10 I'd add putting the wash out on the line as soon as the sun shines. Bee and I met for a Port Meadow walk, but of course it was pouring. We had lunch at The Trout instead.
When people ask what I enjoy about blogging, it’s the 2-way street. I’ve “met” so many interesting people though comments and blog links. It has made this year living abroad feel much less lonely. I love hearing your responses. I also appreciate writing and publishing in an instant click.
A bunch of you have asked me about buying my novels. It will be a wait. My agent is looking for a publisher for my first novel, Moose Crossing, now. S.A.D. is still in revision. I’ll be writing NOT CRICKET (A MATCH FOR EVE) when I return to the USA based on material collected in this blog. It takes a long time for a manuscript to become a published book. Read my post, Shaping a Novel, if you want to learn more about the process.
I will announce the good news on my blog and add links when (if?) the books are available for purchase. It’s conceivable they will end up with different titles. In the meantime, I’ll definitely keep blogging when I go back to Maine, and I’ll revisit England from time to time. I still have a few more weeks left. So much to do!