29 Jul Formal at Oxford: Tradition and History
I am fascinated by museums and history. As a boy, I enjoyed playing with old books and searching for hidden items. Often, I was reprimanded by my bemused mother whenever I engaged in random searches that left a mess. It felt exhilarating finding and reading old stuff (it still does). Ancient things are special, more so here in Oxford, where the ancient and modern exist side by side. Two beautiful stark opposites that must co-exist. For instance, Merton’s Mob Quadrangle, dates as far back as the 1260’s. When standing in it, one can experience what it felt like to study in the medieval times. In contrast to the 2008 Hawkins/Brown designed Biochemistry building, a seamless contemporary laboratory. These, alongside the many ancient traditions make Oxford unique. They include, the culture of wearing the sub-fusc (University gown) to different university events, the formals, exam carnations and endless Latin references. While some colleges are relatively modern and recent, what they lack in ancient structures, they make up for with better resources, spacious common rooms, lecture theatres and beautiful gardens. It is a tradeoff. In this blog post, I will share my experience of attending a formal (a dinner hosted at an Oxford college hall) and use it to highlight the significance of maintaining traditions and history.
Before I arrived for studies at Oxford, I was eager to attend as many formals in as many different colleges. Members of each college have the privilege of attending formals at their colleges, and may invite up to two or three guests. Formals themselves take on various traditions and nomenclature, for example; Lincoln College calls its formal “The Great Hall” while at Oriel, as is at Lincoln, before formal, a student/bible clerk must recite a version of the Grace in Latin. Formals are popular (not just for the chandelier and three-course meals but) because you get the chance to interact with other students at the college. Above all else, it is a great opportunity to visit other college halls. For example, Christ Church College (which counts Charles Dodgson as one of its alumni) is immensely popular as it is believed to have inspired the Dining Hall in the Harry Potter movies. Formals also help develop camaraderie because one gets to engage and talk to academically gifted and interesting individuals, sometimes over good wine or apple juice.
One Friday after a revision seminar at St Hughes College, I rushed to pick up a few groceries. While at the grocery store, Julien, a classmate, tapped me on the shoulder and asked if I had any plans for the rest of the evening. We had mooted the idea of having exchange formals at each other’s colleges but had not yet decided on when we would do that. He invited me to a formal at Lady Margaret Hall (LMH) that evening at 7:20pm. Some seats had become recently available because a colleague’s intended guests had their flight delayed, and could not make it in time. Although, I could have easily given him a rain check due to the the looming examination clouds hovering over my head, I asked what the menu was. When he clarified that it was not an exclusively vegetarian dinner, I happily accepted the invitation.
Different colleges require specific dress codes for their formals. I asked Julien if we had to suit up or wear the sub-fusc to which he replied that there wasn’t a particular dress code. Perhaps that’s (one of the reasons) why LMH is known as a liberal college. He accompanied me till I bought all my groceries. We walked out of the store to Magdalene Street, where we parted ways and agreed to meet up at 6.50pm outside my accommodation. Julien jumped on his bicycle and rode to his place to change. I dressed up, sat on my bed and waited for his message to confirm his arrival at our agreed rendez vous. Upon his confirmation I came out on Ship Street. It was windy and cloudy. We are neither fortune tellers nor meteorologists, but could tell it was just a matter of time before a heavy downpour would follow. We therefore needed to rush to LMH. First, to obviously avoid the rain but even more so, to make sure we got the nicest seats. Although Julien had come with his bicycle, we decided to walk, so he had to drag it along.
As we reached the end of Turl street, it started raining heavily. We started running. It was more difficult for my colleague as he had a bicycle to maneuver with. We sheltered ourselves at the intersection between Blackwell’s and the Weston library for close to ten minutes. It was now 6.59pm. If we were to make it in time, we had to rush through the rain. We continued running again, like boys rushing to the school bus. We ran across Broad Street, switched onto Parks Road.
We made it on time, soaking wet. Even though we had our rain coats on, our shoes, and trousers were literally dripping with water. We put off our rain coats and hung them by the entrance. Our blazers, shirts and bow ties, still looked sharp. But for our shoes and trouser hems, you could not tell what we had gone through. While we had been stressed and thinking about the upcoming exams, we left all that stress at the entrance of the hall, just like we had our rain coats.
One of our mutual friends had reserved us the best seats in the Hall, right in the middle column. Unlike most college halls, with benches, LMH has chairs. Therefore, one did not have to shift whenever someone wanted to leave their seat. The hall was well lit; everyone was really dressed up. I loved how the rays of the sun shone, peering through the high sealed windows of the Hall. That, combined with the candle lights made the hall come to life. The Principal (Head of House) who, sits with senior fellows at the high table, struck the gavel. Someone said the Grace and the festivities began. Porters rushed through the corridors and served, the starters, main course and then the desert. That night, I enjoyed the company of my neighbors. The conversations spanned across many topics, and I learnt about new places, cultures and we exchanged ideas. After the dinner, as is usually the case we then proceeded to the Middle Common Room (MCR). I met more new people, some were students from Newnham College, LMH’s sister college in “the other place” (Cambridge University).
It was a good way to wind up the day. I made new friends and I learnt about the amazing research that people are carrying out. Formals are a great opportunity to connect with people, have good food and above all get immersed in one of the many traditions. They make one holistic. While some students have argued against traditions, for example, wearing the sub-fusc to every examination, others have expressed discontentment with some of the ancient buildings because of their small corridors, steep stairs and poor heating systems. These, may be valid shortcomings to preservation of the ancient, however, the structures have a human feel to it, that we are not all free from flaws. They connect us to what the past was, and in so doing, they hold intrinsic value. This encourages continuity and appreciation of history. For instance, through formals one broadens their network and learns the value of being versatile enough to maintain conversations with persons from different specialties. Truman commentsin his Memoirs,1945: “Year of Decisions”, “I had trained myself to look back into history for precedents, because instinctively I sought perspective in the span of history for the decisions I had to make. That is why I read and re-read history. Most of the problems any person has to face have their roots in the past.”