“I’m sorry; awfully busy with my essay tonight. Maybe we’ll go out later in the week?”
This phrase rolled off my tongue with the casual fluency of a native speaker, though my inflection was more Lawrentian than Oxonian.
At Lawrence, there are a range of excuses for why one can’t go out to the Viking Room or down College Avenue. Oxford, with its penchant for formality, codifies and establishes alternative excuses known as “societies.”
One can find a society for most any interest, sport, hobby, faction, religion or vice that one could wish to pursue in the company of other enthusiasts.
For the would-be academic, there are subject-related societies, such as the Law Society, where the great firms of London attempt to ensnare would-be barristers and solicitors with chocolate lures and champagne nets.
I, being of a more political inclination, am a member of “IRSoc”, or the International Relations Society. As far as I can ascertain, the purpose of this group is to train future Foreign Office envoys in the famed British diplomatic arts.
In the manner of the Viscount Castlereagh and Anthony Eden, these neophyte diplomats learn to distract their guests with a perfectly-knotted bow tie, the disarming congeniality of the professional boozer and the soothing tones of meaningless conversation.
However, with the British Ambassadors to Luxembourg and Ukraine scheduled to be in attendance for the next two meetings, I cannot help but feel with the suspicion of the oft-bamboozled colonial naïf that beneath each of these clubbable creatures lurks a watchful predator in the making.
Thankfully, upon leaving, I discovered that not only do I still have my wallet, watch, petroleum concessions and ten fingers, but also a thoroughly enjoyable evening.
Alcohol, indeed, lubricates social life at Oxford quite a bit. Perhaps it is drinks at the Oxford Union Society “Purple Turtle” bar after listening to debates in a hall frequented by Clinton, Churchill, and many a hackish would-be prime minister. Maybe it is “Boatie Cocktails” with a college rowing society, where you socialize with your crew and those of years past.
However, should you wish to have your pursuit of drink unadulterated by any pretense of intellectual, social or athletic improvement, there are drinking societies.
Some are vaguely disguised, such as the Oxford University Shark Hunting Club or the Hertford College Sauna Club, whose sole responsibilities seem to be the production of bacchanalia and rather spiffy T-shirts.
Some, however, are faintly disturbing, such as the Penguins, whose lewd and sexist behavior will not sully the pages of this publication and place my stipend in jeopardy.
Even more infamous is the Bullingdon Club, whose storied alumni include the current Prime Minister, David Cameron, King Edward VII, and Mayor Boris Johnson of London.
These aristocratic “lads,” as wealthy bros from the finest boarding schools of England are known, don an unusual costume of dark blue tailcoat, mustard waistcoat, and blue silk bow tie, and sneak into an unsuspecting public house. They then proceed to down prodigious amounts of alcohol and wreak havoc on the unfortunate landlord’s establishment.
As the Oxford Socialist Party would be quick to point out, these blue-blooded vandals then use their familial wealth to buy their victims’ silence and cover the cost of repairs. After being encouraged to go underground by the University, they have, so I’m told, moderated their excesses.
Victorian novelist Anthony Trollope once quipped that “Oxford is the most dangerous place to which a young man can be sent.”
While there are many ventures obviously more hazardous, such as hiking in Death Valley, riding on a late-night Greyhound bus, asking for the nearest Starbucks in Mogadishu, or leaving your bicycle on the word of a Cambridge man, the manifold snares of Oxford social life can definitely distract a young student from his or her studies.
Is it impossible, however, that these inane congregations of peculiar hobbyists serve some educational purpose? Perhaps learning the rules and traditions of the Oxford Heraldry Society prepares one well for adjusting for the less-forgiving and infinitely more complex codes of adult life.
In any case, joining a society is an excellent reason to put the usual excuses aside and get a pint with your mates, so I’ll find a ridiculous club tie and meander ever further down the path toward truly English eccentricity.