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Into the Inner Sanctum at the University of Oxford July 14th, 2010

Yesterday evening I unexpectedly found myself an awkward guest in the inner sanctum of British academia, having been invited by a colleague a couple of days earlier to dine at University College, here in Oxford, where I’ve come to attend a William Blake conference.  Lowbrow as I am, when I accepted the invitation I had imagined a casual meal in a cafeteria-like setting.  But when I arrived straight from the pub–wearing blue jeans, a summer shirt, and without a jacket–an immaculately attired waiter ushered me into a beautiful dining room panelled with dark wood on which were displayed fine old works of art, including a framed engraving of the famous Dr. Johnson, who had supped there long before me, way back in the eighteenth century.  Supper formally began when my colleague, who was host for the evening, hit the table loudly with a gavel–which I must admit gave me a bit of a start–and announced the benediction–in Latin; and the meal was presided over by a wonderful ninety year-old professor–a fellow of the college since 1948!–who held court at the head of the table, affably regaling us, with a mind as sharp as a razor, with interesting and funny stories of the college.  Out of my element in such a setting, I was careful to observe the table manners of my dining companions, so as not to embarrass myself by using the wrong utensils in the wrong way at the wrong time.  Thankfully, as the evening progressed (from wine, to soup and bread, then to the main course and on to dessert and coffee), I became increasingly at ease, so that when the affable old professor addressed me–at first by asking if there were any grizzly bears where I live–I was able to respond articulately, and the evening ended up being very pleasant.  I suppose I should have cultivated some ironic distance from the quaint, ritualized character of the evening, but I must confess I thoroughly enjoyed myself, and I seemed to amuse my fellow diners–and even the magnificent old professor himself–with stories of black bears in my garden and moose in the driveway at home in Prince George.

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