It’s just like Harry Potter, people keep saying. (And who can blame them? There’s an H on the library walls.) One of the most Potteresque of all Oxford traditions is the dining experience. Our college has two formal dinners: a lesser formal on Monday nights, when academic gowns are worn but formal dress is not required, and one on Wednesday nights when academic gowns are worn over formal attire.
Our first formal Wednesday dinner provoked the first of many clothing crises. (Whispers throughout the day: Gowns or No Gowns? Full Subfusc or Just Gowns? Ties or no ties? Skirts or pants?) We waited behind our stiff-backed wooden upright seats until the fellows and faculty members of the college processed in to the hall and took their seats at the high table which is at the front of Arlosh Hall, directly under the portrait of young Arlosh painted in early nineteenth-century Arcadian innocence, flowing-locked with a spaniel looking adoringly at his master’s hand. It is in memory of their young, dead son that Lord and Lady Arlosh dedicated this hall; the name sounds like onomatopoeiac eating noises of the Hungarian stew variety. The high table is perpendicular to three longer tables which stretch down the length of the hall under the gazes of various other portraits (upright dissenting ministers, and one maiden-faced older woman in her lace cap) and seat the students.
Unusually for a dinner meal at Harris Manchester on any other night of the week, there was wine on the table, and the hall lights were dimmed to enhance the atmosphere. There's no need to artificially create the atmosphere that the buzz of excited voices and the surprise that students seeing each other in their stringy and piecemeal regalia for the first time creates. This was, if you will, the Start of Term Feast.
Conversations halt abruptly when a gavel bangs, a short prayer is uttered like a military command, and we're welcomed to our seats by a brisk Amen and the sound of scraping chair legs. It took us a few meals in college to become accustomed to the staff who works in Arlosh, who walk around behind us putting bowls of soup in front of us (from the left) and removing them (from the right), to the cheerfully savvy Mr. W, whose portrait hangs in the foyer of Arlosh Hall, and who presides over the meal with the quickness of an stage manager.
“Doesn’t it feel strange to be served?” we said to one another the first week. “Doesn’t it feel wrong not to remove your plates yourself?” “Isn’t it embarrassing to leave half of your bread-and-butter pudding in the bowl? Isn’t it rude?”
Soup or salad, an entrée and a dessert – all vegetarian-friendly. Cheese and port on formal nights. Port, which prompts a new set of whispers (Is it to the left or the right?), indicating that life at Oxford is, at least at the beginning, a series of anxieties about whether one is transgressing or passing at this great game.