Marcus Berkmann

The lessons I learned at my Oxford gaudy

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I went to a gaudy last weekend. Several British universities now host these splendid events; mine was at Worcester College, Oxford, from where I graduated in 1981 with a double third in mathematics. A gaudy is essentially a reunion weekend with knobs on. At Worcester they are blessedly free, which is great for paups like me who can enjoy the exceptionally good food and, particularly, wine with a huge stupid smile. (The only cost was £42 for a guest room for a night, and my God do you need that.) Gaudies typically occur for each year’s intake only every seven years, and when you get the invitation you need to respond by return, because if you don’t you won’t get in.

I won’t pretend that I didn’t have rather complicated feelings about either my college or my course. My thirds weren’t the traditional gentleman’s degree, fuelled by idleness, brandy and cigars. They were what you get when someone who isn’t quite good enough for his course works his socks off. But this was nearly 40 years ago. Time is a great healer, especially if you have made sure not to open a maths book at any moment in the intervening decades.

Now, as a writer, I am driven by an unquenchable curiosity as to what has happened to everyone. Happily, as we get older, more and more of my contemporaries are attending these events. At my last gaudy in 2012, there were only about 20 former undergraduates from my year (out of roughly 100). This year that figure had doubled. More than a couple of people I spoke to admitted that they had been quite nervous about it. (None of us would have admitted to that 40 years ago.) What I hadn’t expected was the sheer benevolence that radiated from almost everyone. People in their late fifties may just be nicer than everyone else, especially when they’re eating and drinking for free. They’re certainly a lot drunker. Most of us stayed until the bar threw us out at 12.30 a.m., and then went to bed reluctantly.

Worcester took women for the first time in 1979, the year after I arrived, and several of these pioneers were there. It should come as no surprise to learn that the women all looked great, while many of the men looked older than time itself. I learned several important lessons. One, that while many people become nicer as they age, people who were dull 40 years ago are still not terribly interesting. Boredom is a constant, it seems. Two, that most of us age more brutally in our fifties than in all the preceding decades, and that no one ever told us that this would be so. Three, that many of these friendships I have with people I never otherwise see are incredibly strong and need to be pursued properly. When my friend Simon said at breakfast the following morning, with a wry chuckle, ‘See you in seven years,’ I thought, no. Six months max. I’ve actually arranged to meet someone else for lunch next week. The autumn sun shone throughout on Worcester’s spectacularly beautiful gardens, and all was for the best in this best of all possible worlds.