After some considerable and epic undertaking (the likes of which had previously only been seen in the works of Homer), I was finally able to track down the suave yet elusive Head Of Maintenance. Not that he was able to enlighten me further in my quest to identify the owner of the set of keys that almost sealed the fate of Head Porter and myself. It seems that the Maintenance staff have a rather cavalier attitude to the keeping of keys, with the swapping and borrowing of each other’s bunches being commonplace. It seems that no one even realised a set was missing. Naturally, Head Of Maintenance received a stern and solemn ticking-off, delivered with the kind of ferociousness you have come to expect from this Deputy Head Porter.
On today of all days, I do not trouble Head Porter with the disappointing news that we are no nearer to identifying our assailant. Moreover, I particularly do not wish to disturb him with the shocking revelation that his precious keys are not, in the Maintenance department at least, afforded the reverence and respect that he believes they deserve. Head Porter seems to have enough on his plate already.
And so Degree Day is finally upon us!
A time of great pride for tutors and students alike, this is the day when Old College finally reminds the world what it is really here for – academic excellence. It is all too easy to be distracted by the archaic and seemingly redundant ceremonials and practices, the enduring and intoxicating reverence of the past and the ornate pomposity (not to mention the odd corpse). I stand guilty as anyone of missing the point entirely. What Old College does (and has done for over five hundred years) in a spectacular fashion, is educating and inspiring the finest young minds on the planet. Whether this is in spite of the aforementioned or because of it – well.
That really is none of my business.
Head Porter is in his element. The Porters’ Lodge is a gleeful hubbub of proud families and relieved students, resplendent in their Sunday best and gowns, respectively. Smiling to myself, I watch the scene with interest. I note that Head Porter holds a certain charm for the families, the mothers especially. To them, he has played a vital part in the success of their talented offspring. The Porters are often the first port of call for a student in need of something. Anything. Such is the Porters’ reputation for unerring wisdom and practicality that they have been called upon to deal with anything from a broken tap to a broken heart; to discuss everything from the rugby to the meaning of life.
It is a little bit like watching a famous celebrity (shall we say, Sean Bean?) being mobbed by a small group of very polite fans. Although red-cheeked and giggling, they are on their best behavior for the man who runs the mighty Porters’ Lodge. The Porters’ Lodge – which has saved the lives, reputations and future prospects of students and Fellows alike for centuries. And, of course, he is loving every minute. If he was as personable to the Porters as he is to middle-aged ladies, we would be an unstoppable force. Still, he is getting better at that sort of thing.
I watch our soon-to-be graduates in their mortarboards and gowns, uneasy yet full of pride. You can see in their faces how the celebratory nature of the day is tainted with the realisation that it is now all over. Some may come back, of course, to pursue further studies. But many will be thrust into the sobering confines of reality, somewhere that is a very different place to Old College. Then again, they will have the piece of paper from Old College that will, hopefully, act as a golden ticket to an expectant world. And that, when it comes down to it, is what today is all about. Going to collect your piece of paper.
But this being Old College, there is far more to it than that. Apart from anything, it is a bloody excellent excuse for a good, old fashioned academic knees-up. There will be food and, by God, will there be wine. Collecting the bits of paper is something resembling a Royal outing in itself. The Master and Head Porter will lead a procession of Fellows and students through The City to Swallow House, a respectably-sized building just beyond Hawkins College. A building seemingly used to hand out bits of paper, Head Porter did not elaborate further. The winding mass of students and Fellows, all in formal academic dress, must be quite a sight to behold. Not that I will get to see much of it, as I am informed that I am to walk at the back of the procession. Apart from being traditional, I am also required to ensure that no-one gets left behind or lost. Or run over. Pah. I’m looking forward to it anyway. Oh, and I’m not allowed to wave at people, either.
I check my watch and it would seem that the hour is almost upon us. I see Head Porter notice the time and take his leave of his audience. He collects his jacket from his office and comes to join me.
“Come on, get your hat on” he says. I dutifully do as I’m told. Head Porter sighs, irritated, and starts tugging at the brim of my bowler and tutting. “It’s got to sit properly!”
“You’ve never been this fussy about my hat!” I complain, trying to bat him away.
“Well, you just look scruffy. There!” He makes a final tweak and seems satisfied with the result. “You’ll need to get your jacket on, too. Come on.”
I never wear my jacket. Especially in June. But, if the moment calls for it I shall not be found wanting. On goes the jacket and I follow Head Porter out of The Lodge and on to take our places in the procession.
As Head Porter strides away to the front, I loiter somewhat sheepishly at the back. Some of the families chat with me and even take photographs. I cheer up a little at my moment of minor celebrity. In fact, I so taken with my posing and small talk that I almost miss the procession moving off. I bid farewell to my new associates and march along behind in what I hope is a graceful and dignified manner.
I had my concerns about a large and elaborately costumed procession promenading through The City in the middle of the morning. Clearly, though, the populace of The City is well-versed in this historic event and despite the fact that no roads have actually been closed, no one impedes the well-worn route. There are many spectators, in fact, lining the streets, clapping and waving. The celebration of the academic achievements of these fine young folk reaches far beyond their own family and friends. The City as a whole applauds their efforts, for they know that they are the future.
I am more than a little miffed that I am not permitted to wave. It strikes me as unnatural not to return the wave of a complete stranger. I can smile, though. They can’t stop me doing that. In truth, I can barely stop myself.
When we reach Swallow House and our young heroes-of-the-hour retire inside for the no doubt elaborate ceremony of collecting the reasonably-sized bits of paper, the Fellows gather in a wonderful little side alleyway, aptly-named Scholars’ Lane. Some have got hold of choc ices, the crafty devils. I spot The Dean reclining gracefully against the stone wall.
I subtly manoeuver myself so as to be placed directly next to The Dean, although not leaning against the wall. It is hardly my place to lean against the same wall as The Dean.
“Good show, wouldn’t you say, Deputy Head Porter?”
“Absolutely, Sir” I reply. I reach into my back pocket and retrieve a carefully placed pouch of tobacco.
“Oh, not here, for goodness’ sake” hisses The Dean.
“That Porter over there is having a smoke” I reply reproachfully, indicating a fine-looking gentleman wearing the colours of Wastell College.
“So he is,” says The Dean. “I say, he’s got a top hat on as well! fancy that!”
I admit I am a little jealous. I am immensely fond of my bowler but nothing quite beats a top hat. I had not considered it before but it occurs to me that I might look quite fetching in a topper.
“Well, that’s just showing off” I reply curtly. “What are Wastell trying to do? Trying to start a hat war amongst the Porters?”
“We’ll bloody well beat them at their own game. What beats a top hat?”
I think carefully for a moment. It’s a tough one.
“A crown?” I suggest.
“A crown? Yes, that can be the only thing…” I can see the multitude of cogs turning in The Dean’s mind. “Next term, all our Porters shall wear crowns, d’you hear? I’m not being outdone by bloody Wastell College…”
We are interrupted by shouting from the far end of the alleyway. I recognise Porter making his way towards us at a fair lick, especially for a Porter.
“Is that one of our chaps?” Asks The Dean, squinting at the earnest figure bowling towards us.
“I am afraid it is,” I reply. “And he is running. This cannot be good news…”