Cambridge Days

Magdalene formal hall

Friday marked my first formal hall at Magdalene. It’s a tricky event to describe without dipping into Harry Potter comparisons – I mean, where else do you find long rows of gown-bedecked students, dining by candlelight? Sure, the hefty silver candlesticks at Magdalene don’t exactly levitate in mid-air, but there are still enough of them to serve as the only light source in the stretching hall.

I realize, of course, that Harry Potter is a cheap cliché for describing Cambridge. It’s like bringing up Blade Runner when talking about Tokyo – the simile feels spot-on, but all too easy, more atmosphere than reality. Nevertheless, I’ve found Harry Potter remains the finest template for describing how the whole University – College relationship functions. For graduates, at least.

For instance: I got strange looks when I first told friends I was studying at the University of Cambridge, and then explained I’d be at Magdalene College. (And the Judge Institute for Management, as well.) How could I attend three schools at once? Now I tell folks it’s like attending Hogwarts School for Magic, but having the Sorting Hat stick you in Gryffindor House on your first day. (Or Slytherin, as some have slandered.) Harry Potter’s school has just four Houses; Cambridge has 30-odd colleges. But you get the gist of how it works.

I didn’t actually request Magdalene. It’s old (576 years), small (a few hundred students), and home to the likes of C.S. Lewis and proto-blogger Pepys. But I knew its reputation from tour books – the college is still notorious for being the last to admit women, in the 80’s. (That would be the 1980s, not the 1880s.) Sounded suspiciously crusty, a Porterhouse Blue kind of place.

It’s not anymore, not for the grad-school crowd, at least. Magdalene these days is like anywhere else in Cambridge – which makes sense, considering that most graduate students are placed there by chance, like me. If anything, Magdalene’s old stubbornness in clinging to its other customs, like the anachronistic formal hall, is considered charming and special, now.

So what about dinner, you ask? Well, it’s supposed to take a while to get to it, you see. To begin with, there’s the dressing up – black tux or suit and tie, plus a gown on top of that. Post-arrival, sherry might be served (in another hall, mind, not the main one), and then, once you’ve finally meandered into the dining area, there’s a grumbling period of waiting until the High Table (Fellows, professors, etc.) finds their seats. The buildup continues with a large gong being rung (swear, I’m not making this up) to signal the start of the Grace being recited… all in Latin, of course.

formal hall 2004

And then (only then) you get dinner. First course, white wine, Main course, red wine, Dessert, Savoury trifle, right on to petit fours and port or coffee. Last of all, another Latin benediction. Just like home, non?

Yeah. Having both dined and worked in the U.C. Berkeley cafeteria system, I gots to say dinner here is a serious step up. (I’d say the same about the schoolwork, too, and would catalog all that in detail, but that’s not nearly as fun to write about…)

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