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Tuesday, August 2, 2016

"All in the golden afternoon/Full leisurely we glide"

Saturday last, I saw an article on Facebook marking the final summer graduation ceremony of the year at Oxford University.

Golly, I thought. Has it been so long?

My degree day was August 2, 1980- the last of that summer's. There is no one, single graduation for one's class year: people are on all kinds of schedules, though, among most of my undergraduate friends, the geographers and theologians and philosophers and literary chaps and chapettes all tended to be on the same track and finish together. In those days, many just went down from Oxford to start whatever they were doing next. The formal ceremony isn't required to graduate; nor- at least then- was a certificate given unless one really insisted. It took me some pains to get one issued by a lady behind a dutch door in the Registrar's Office. She was bemused by how insistent Americans were on having that piece of paper.

Degree Days were held in The Sheldonian Theater, a grand Christopher Wren design completed in 1669, with a magnificent frescoed ceiling by Robert Streeter (“future ages more will owe/more to Streeter than to/Michelangelo”, one optimistic ode ran).

I was the only Mansfield College graduate to get his degree that day 36 years ago, which meant someone had to present me. Most of the college faculty were away (the chaos of the filming of the movie Heaven's Gate at the college was an extra incentive to be elsewhere) or busy that Saturday, so my tutor dredged up an emeritus friend of his at Hertford College- who looked like Sir Thomas Beecham- to do the honors.

I and another stray stood on either side of him, his hands clasping hours, and the three of us walked up to the Vice Chancellor on his throne, bowed together, then stood as the professor recommended us for our honors in Latin. The Vice Chancellor responded in kind, we bowed again, and retreated, still facing the Vice Chancellor, from whence we approached.

As each group was approved, they exited by a side door into the courtyard, where a college scout waited (the going rate was a quid for the service, but I gave mine a fiver as there was just me and he was losing money on the deal) to take out old, sleeveless, tabbed gowns and give us our new, all-enfolding, nearly floor-length ones and our hoods. Mine was trimmed in white fur, and I cut quite a dash.

We were then all corralled into phalanxes at the great double doors, opened for ceremonials into The Sheldonian, swung out. On signal from within, we marched through again, in all our new finery, to what the Iron Chef narrator always called "the people's ovation and fame forever."

A careful reading of my diploma makes clear the University was just humoring me. It was making no commitments at all: "I certify that it appears by the Register of the University of Oxford that Lindsay Taylor Thompson, Mansfield College, satisfied the Examiners in the Final Honour School of Philosophy, Politics and Economics (Subjects taken: Philosophy and Politics) and was placed by them in the Second Class; and having, in accordance with the Statutes of the University, kept the prescribed residence and passed all necessary Examinations, was on the second day of August, 1980 admitted to the degree..."

The next morning, opposite the Court Circular page in The Times, I found myself listed, in tiny, box score print, as a graduate with everyone else from the day. Most important things in life in those days were, after all, not real until they appeared in The Times.

After I sat my exams in June, my parents let me stay in Oxford to summer's end: the first summer off since I'd turned 16, and the last of my life.

It was a languid Brideshead Revisited summer, with picnics along the Cherwell, an unexpected if doomed romance, and late dinners with friends and evenings solving the world's problems in The Emperor's Wine Bar in Broad  Street. The bartender, Jerry McHugh, was a Latinist who wore spats and a monocle. Seeing our pint glasses going low, he would hoot from behind the bar,"Now, gentlemen: more Guinneii?" Whether it was the proper Latin plural for Guinness, I certainly had no idea, but I was always fascinated by how the density of the brew was such that, if one gave the glass a turn, the bubbles rising to the head did so in a spiral.

I lived out of time in that place for two years. It was its own universe, and one it was easy to see no reason whatever to leave. When one leaves Oxford, it is called “going down,” because nothing in life will likely excel it.

Young man, thinking he has world by tail

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