A Cambridge Rout and How To Cheer Up Afterwards


One of the last great amateur sporting events is the Oxford & Cambridge Boat Race held each year in April. I recently watched the 160th running of the race; and it became everything one hopes will never come to pass in a sporting event.

It so happens that four members of this year's Cambridge boat call St. Edmund's College — my present and former bolt-hole — home. This struck me from the first as quite extraordinary luck and in January, as I prepared for my trip over, I looked forward to meeting them all and enjoying some backslapping camaraderie.

(Perhaps we should take a moment here to reflect upon what modern elite male rowers look like. For one thing, they're enormous people. The average height of the Cambridge team this year, for example, is 6'6". And rowing also produces a particularly fine figure: magnificent legs, deep chests, powerful arms, with no single element overdone. They're an impressive visual; Evelyn Waugh (via Anthony Blanche) described rowers as "meaty boys" .)

The Cambridge Light Blues vs. the Oxford Dark Blues. You'd just about come up to their clavicles. No, probably lower. The two wispy coxswains are in the front.

Once I arrived in England however, I realized how naive my expectations were. Thirty years ago these four men would probably have lived in college with the rest of us.

These chaps seem much more clubbable, if a little less athletic. I'm won over by the bags alone.

Nowadays, the Oxford and Cambridge boats are enriched with young cherries from the rowing world: ex-Olympians and Ivy League rowing stars who burnish their amateur rowing careers with a few years in an Oxbridge boat. It's a little depressing. I think Oxford may have started it; but Cambridge is now an enthusiastic comrade. A very large percentage of both boats are North American.

So despite my little flutter, let me assure you the four Edmundian rowers certainly haven't contaminated the precincts of St. Edmund's. Ever since I arrived I've been asking people if they've ever clapped eyes on these men and no one has — not even the men who row for the St. Edmund's College team in intramural racing have seen the Cambridge rowers. It's all quite scientific now. The men are enclosed in their own intense and calibrated rowing worlds and don't seem to venture beyond them. The other part of it is that though both Oxford and Cambridge have their own rivers (the Isis and the Cam, respectively), the Oxford & Cambridge boat race takes place on the River Thames in London. So I was imagining that the chaps must have been spending a great deal of time plying their eights up and down that river in preparation. (Okay look, I admit I'm prepared to make some allowances for physical Gods.)

 For this year's outing the defending champs, Oxford, were heavily favored (I think they had three ex-Olympians in their boat); but at the very least I knew Cambridge would certainly give them a run for their money. I admit I was also enchanted with the idea of actually being back in Cambridge for the boat race again. And of actually being at the college where four of the Cambridge team were members, even if notionally. And further still, of actually watching the boat race in my college with fellow Edmundians around me. I have attended the race in person. But like spectating any long race, once the racers have passed your fixed location, there's not a lot to see. I was happy to stay out of the wind in the warmth and dry of the St. Edmund's Combination Room (like a large living room) watching on a giant screen.

Fellow Edmundians watching the race.

The television coverage began around 4:30 pm with heartwarming vignettes of various Oxford or Cambridge oarsmen. We watched the Cambridge team tucking into large, attractive meals and realized at once this couldn't possibly have happened at our college where the kitchen is obsessed with portion control. We watched vignettes of races past; we watched a vignette about the coxes. As the vignettes and other preparatory comments continued, I began to get the impression that the BBC's coverage seemed distinctly lopsided in favor of the Oxford boat. I began to brood.

Before the main event, there's always the race between Oxford's and Cambridge's second boats: Isis and Goldie respectively. Cambridge's Goldie boat got absolutely creamed; shockingly, spectacularly creamed. I began to think the BBC knew something I didn't.

Then it was time for the centerpiece of the day. (In the interests of clarity, there are 8 rowers in a boat plus one coxswain, who steers and hectors.) But within minutes of the off there was trouble. Though I'm not quite sure how, the two boats clashed (knocked against each other's oars) causing the No. 2 man in the Cambridge boat (a Wisconsonian, as it happens) to catch a crab and almost fly away.

You can see the No. 2 man has been nearly thrown out of the boat with the force of his oar getting 'stuck' in the water and acting like a brake. This is called catching a crab.

We later learned that not only had the poor bastard gotten a violent dunking and the shock of his life, but in the moment suprême, his rigger had broken rendering Cambridge virtually down a man. The seven others rowed the rest of the race as if their lives depended on it but it was clearly hopeless. When they crossed the finish line 15 minutes later the Wisconsonian burst into tears and fell back into the comforting embrace of his teammate, No. 1. It was touching.

No one wants to lose that way. But of course no one wants to win that way either. The reaction of the Oxford boat to winning the 160th running of the race was distinctly muted. How could it not be? The race had been a rout; a walkover. The contest for which they'd all been utterly sacrificing themselves for a year had never really begun. No sportsman wants that kind of victory.

The reaction to all this pain and drama in the St. Edmund's Combination Room during the race was also distinctly muted. It was a pity that despite our connection on paper to these men, no one knew them. We were prepared to cheer for an idea and a presumption of connection. But I thought, "Thirty years ago we'd have rubbed shoulders with these men. We'd have eaten with them, lived with them, studied with them. Their tragedy today would have been ours as well. It would have been enormously personal. As it is, today has been disappointing in the way any sporting event with the 'wrong' outcome is." And after the race was over, we all just dispersed. I felt quite sure I hadn't gotten what I wanted.

Once I got back to my room I immediately booked a flight to Amsterdam to visit my brother and his family who live there. I told everyone else who asked that I was off to ameliorate my depression with drugs and sex. I felt sure my fellow collegians looked at me in a new way. In fact my brother and his family distracted me from my disappointment in my favorite ways: through good conversation, hilarity and absolutely outstanding food. I'm happy to report that 1) I ate the most perfect cheese croissant (kaas croissant) of my life, or indeed of anyone's life; and 2) I dined at the new-ish two-Michelin-star restaurant (Bord'Eau) in the Hotel de l'Europe. We chose a tasting menu and a dazzling succession of dishes and wines appeared before me culminating in the finest lamb I've ever eaten in my life. It came, the head-waiter explained, from the northern Dutch island of Texel (in Friesland). Texel is also the name of the breed. They're medium-sized and eat the complexly-flavored grasses which grow near the sea, and inhale the scented and salty sea breezes which pervade, and taste like a fantasy of what lamb should taste like. We were agog.

Texel sheep on Texel Island, Netherlands.

I bucked right up.

Ticking Boxes


The other night I attended a Formal Hall. In truth the evening took a turn for the worse.

But before I describe my path to calamity I should probably first tell you that formal dining at Oxford and Cambridge (Oxbridge) is a highly ritualized activity amongst the various colleges that make up the two universities. It's a ritual that's been going on in some version or another for centuries (Cambridge, founded 1209).

King's College, Cambridge Formal Hall c. 1900

There's the everyday dining of course, which usually involves queuing with a tray to go through a kitchen line; and then there's the formal dining, which happens once a week or so. Formal dining involves the wearing of your best clothes and black academic gowns, pre-prandial sherry-and-milling in an assembly chamber, a dining room in low light, heavy with starched napery, silver, crystal, candelabra, menu cards, elaborate place-settings, and grace spoken in Latin by the college's Master before and after the meal. But most decisively — and the really scary part — is that formal dining nowadays involves a placement. What I was about to learn was that the cardinal rule in purchasing real estate is not wholly dissimilar from that of formal dining — it’s all about location. 

My stalwart and husband Robert Webber and I were just on the phone reminiscing about Formal Hall thirty years ago and he reminded me that there was no placement in our day. Rather, after following the Master, Fellows and guests into the dining hall, a highly decorous free-for-all took place in which we desperately tried (without appearing to be trying or desperate) to scan the room for worthy partners in mealtime conversation, knowing from experience the pain of drawing either a bore or a weirdo. Sometimes the strategy worked, sometimes not. Indeed, I recognize I may very well have missed the occasional life-changing colloquy; but after a few Formal Halls trapped for the entire evening next to someone who speaks an almost incomprehensible version of English, someone with an alarming skin condition, or someone without any discernible conversational skills, it just…hardens you. You engage in the decorous free-for-all like you mean it.  But I digress. Thirty years on there's now a placement here and unless you're well-connected enough to organize a buffer of familiars ahead of time, your evening may be in peril.

Thus it was for me the other night: grappling in the dining minefield without even the hope of reinforcements. During the lonely sherry-and-milling period I approached the seating chart with trepidation. The English are still (and surprisingly) attached to boy-girl-boy seating. I admit I've been living in the hinterlands for awhile, but I never had the impression American hostesses lived or died by alternate-sex seating as the traditional English do. So though I was sure I'd be sitting between a couple of chaps, the fact that I didn’t recognize either of their names on the list afforded ample opportunity to fret during the remainder of the sherry-milling period. No one was talking to me anyway of course.

But the gong was finally struck, a minion in white gloves announced dinner, and the Master and his wife led a slow procession out into the evening air, across the triangle of lawn to the dining hall. My senses were on high-alert. I understood full well I was within seconds of the dénouement. I arrived at my place first. I stood behind my chair as is the custom, until all the guests sort themselves out and the Master takes his seat. Chap number one appeared. No.......more accurately, Humpty-Dumpty appeared. Forty-ish, standing about 5'6", a wonderfully well-formed sphere — arms and legs attached — stuffed into a three-piece navy pinstripe suit with a narrow, close-cropped sward of hair running along the rear hemisphere of his pate, ear-to-ear. The small, round wire spectacles fastened to his egg-shaped head only added to the impression of rotundity. He made no effort to speak to me of course; so I turned and introduced myself to him. Within seconds, chap number two appeared. Very tall, he. Fifty-ish, a Fellow of the college. Yet the man didn't seem to have the inclination to introduce himself either despite the fact that it seemed pretty obvious to me he and I were dining together. I again introduced myself and we were away.

I spent the next hour and a half between these two charmers. Humpty had no conversation at all unless I was willing to interview him. He was a mature student, had gotten a degree in physics undergrad and was, after years of computer programming, here to do a degree in philosophy. His mien seemed distinctly odd to me (when I learned he was back to do another degree I said, "Aha.........well you're certainly not wet behind the ears then." He considered this far too long and said, "My ears aren't wet.") After a few sensitively-posed questions on my part he admitted that when he'd gotten the diagnosis of Asperger's he'd been relieved. Finally we had something to agree on. At some point in my increasingly weary questioning, I began holding a hand occasionally over one ear, but unsurprisingly, he didn’t pick up on the hint. Suddenly I just blurted out "back to you in the studio Diane," spun around, and picked up where I’d left off with my friend on the right who was somewhat more loquacious. He was an agricultural historian — which fascinated me but which, regrettably, he balked at talking about. We ended up discussing how the colleges are able to keep costs down by buying insurance, food and electricity collectively. Observing lively conversation up and down the other tables throughout the evening, the nagging realization set in that in terms of social geography, I’d somehow materialized deep in Siberian territory.

After awhile I livened things up a bit (unfortunately not on purpose) by failing to notice the waiter had begun refilling my red wine glass and reaching for it in mid-interview with Humpty. The poor waiter was slow to react and continued to pour wine all over the immaculately-starched tablecloth. I immediately snatched the salt grinder, calling loudly for paper and began to grind salt onto the expanding puddle. But neither the waiter nor anyone in my vicinity seemed to have heard of this technique for preventing red wine stains and they all looked absolutely aghast. I quail to tell you further that within ten minutes of this debacle I'd succeeded in overturning my glass of Riesling all by myself; but as it was white I decided under the circumstances the best policy was to pretend it hadn't happened at all. The worst of it was that I wasn't even drunk.

So it was we slowly made our way through three courses, two wines and espresso (the port tradition seems to have died at my college). Finally the Master rose, said grace again, and we followed him out into the Combination Room for more relaxed milling and time in the college bar.  Perhaps it goes without saying that I fled at this point in exhaustion.

As I made my way out into the evening air and back across the triangle to my room I mused about how thirty years ago many Formal Halls ended in spontaneous and enthusiastic dancing, Fellows and students alike. I thought about how I'd gripped Iris Murdoch's hand tightly on one such evening (she was a guest of the Master) and we'd formed a small circle with a few other students; dancing and hopping and throwing our clasped hands up and letting them fall in unison, moving in and out of our circle. It had been hilarious and great fun. Miss Murdoch was game. She'd won the Booker Prize by then, though hadn't yet become a Dame.

When I got back to my room I sat down at once and wrote a mail to the Dining Steward:
Dear XXXX,

I’m afraid it’s Kate Weiner again.

I’m happy to tell you that I’ve now managed to sign up for the Formal Hall on the 14th. As you're in charge of the seating chart, I wonder if I overstep to ask if you’d be kind enough to place me in between two humorous and charming men who speak terrific English?

All the alternatives are distinctly discouraging.

Yours sincerely,


He quickly responded:

Dear Kate

Very pleased to hear that you’ve made it on again. I can think of a few Fellows who tick most of those boxes, so we'll do our very best to seat them next to you.

All the best,

  I live in hopes.

In fact, this isn't my college either because photography is strictly prohibited.

Lotus Eating


I've so far said very little about the physical shock of removing myself from the clutches of a hard, grinding USDA Zone 5 winter in Clinton Corners, NY to a moist and mossy, mid-forties USDA Zone 8 'winter' in Cambridge, England. For someone as interested in horticulture as I this has meant one moment of astonishment and exclamation after another.  I arrived in mid-January (mid-January!) to find winter aconites, crocuses, snowdrops and hellebores blooming everywhere. A number of shrubs like Daphne and Mahonia Japonica, with ravishing fragrance, are now at the height of their powers.

It so happens that this town boasts a fine botanic garden. The brainchild of John Henslow — a professor of botany at Cambridge University and a teacher of Charles Darwin — the garden comprises 40 acres and began development in 1846. I'm quite sure that my stalwart and husband Robert Webber and I courted in this garden thirty years ago (I have a dim-ish memory of being there together and feeling absolutely thrilled by the novel intimacy of my hand in his); but I knew nothing about plants then. In fact, for all these years I've remembered the place as an arboretum rather than the beautifully designed and intriguingly filled garden that it is.

So my forays this time have been to feast my eyes on the orchid festival now in progress in the garden's extensive Glasshouse. Midwinter is the time orchids bloom in this half of the world. I made my way over on my bike in the rain. Here are some of the pleasures for you snow-blind, winter-weary Zone 5s:

A Paphiopedilum hybrid

A different Paphiopedilum hybrid

The second type of orchid I encountered in the Glasshouse was the Cymbidiums, all of which varieties, incredibly, seem to have their origins in the land of haggis and bagpipes. Who knew Scotland was an orchid-breeding hotbed? Please share if there are any orchid historians out there.

Cymbidium Loch Lomond x Angelica's Loch

Cymbidium 'Loch Helen'

Cymbidium 'Sandridge Torch'. This orchid's
coloring is a combination of rust and port.

Miniature Cymbidium Strathclyde 'Lewes Fire'. This picture
does no justice; this orchid is literally merlot-colored.

Next I found the miraculous Vanda orchids.
The Vanda orchids are like exotic birds. Suspended from
 the rafters, living off the air and nestled in small
 contraptions called Vanda boxes (I swear; do a web
 search). They must hang above pools of water which
 provide the requisite humidity.

This is a Vanda hybrid white. Another case of my skills at
photography failing to do the luminosity of these flowers
 justice. They are by far the most beautiful of all the Vandas:
 white petals like crisp bed-sheets with perfect lavender centers. 

The Vanda hybrid blue.

This photo below is loosely one of a Vanda hybrid pink. But really it's a stealth photograph of a couple who — while I was lurking in the Vandas — appeared with a photographer and proceeded to have their wedding photos taken. They were both middle-aged. They had just come from the registry office. She was French, like a worn and emaciated Piaf bird in black and brown knit with a black net eye veil. He was English and unremarkable in a standard bad suit. Their appearance during my orchid investigations was a gift. "Okay.............stand there," said the photographer. "Darleeng," she said, "Don't hold me so tight." "Is that alright?" She, fretful: "Mmm." Despite my excitement I had the presence of mind to offer them felicitations. They seemed pleased.
The wedding couple obscured by Vanda
hybrid pink.

Following this excitement I took myself off to the Canary Island House (arid) to wait for the rain outside to stop. There are definitely drawbacks to Zone 8. But when it finally did stop and I began to walk towards the garden's entrance, imagine my astonishment when this ran across my path:

A Reeves's Muntjac deer. Also called a barking deer.

It looked like it could be a small dog; or a large rodent; or a deer whose legs had been sawn off midway. Fortunately I bumped into a garden employee who was able to explain what I'd just seen. There are about 5 to seven of these little deer living in the botanic garden. They're rarely seen. She told me they all seem to eat the most expensive plant material. (Incredible, isn't it? Their bastard relatives in Clinton Corners do the same goddamned thing!)I've now read that Muntjac come originally from southeast China and the ones in England are the result of escapees from captivity.  They're about a foot and a half tall and have little tusks growing out of the sides of their mouths. There's a governmental open season on Muntjac; but looking like that you'd have to be pretty hard to take their extermination up as your idée fixe.

Getting To Grips


Finding my feet in Cambridge has proved a far more faltering and unsure course than I predicted. Somehow I expected I'd arrive and hit the ground running but this hasn't been the case at all. So bear with me.

The centuries-old open-air market in the center
of Cambridge runs 7 days a week. 

I thought I'd remember every nook and cranny of this town only to find that — despite much of it being ancient and thus unchanging — it's hugely changed. More prosperous-looking now, its hugger-mugger shops are upmarket and shiny and clearly cater to a more sophisticated clientele than when I was first here.

Trinity Street, across from Trinity College. Lots of
charming little one-off shops.

Yes, I see many more chain-store premises (frankly now a pretty ubiquitous first-world problem);

This mall....err...arcade wasn't here 30 years ago
 and is full of chain stores.

but there are also plenty of much more interesting stand-alones.

And in thirty years there's been a tech boom running alongside the business of the university which has changed the face of the area. Collectively this cluster of start-up companies concentrating on biotechnology, software and electronics is called the Silicon Fen and its businesses operate in a number of purpose-built 'science parks' sprinkled in and around. Very like Silicon Valley, the success of the Silicon Fen has affected the housing market and sent prices through the roof. There's still plenty of new luxury building going on around town — with the really prosperous boffins commuting from fancy piles in the surrounding countryside. And with all this new focus, getting back and forth to London has become a dream — a 50-or-so-minute dash versus the bad old days of slow, stopping trains that could take two hours. But the result of all this development is that London aside, I read that Cambridge is now the most expensive place in the UK in which to live. I find the price of everything here shocking; but then I'm trying to slide along on a modest budget. 

During a recent cab-ride my driver was eager to talk to me about the interesting work in which these Cambridge technology companies were engaged. "My brother-in-law was explaining it to me," he said; "They're working on drones the size of flies over there. Can you believe it? Drones the size of flies!" I must tell you I've really been mulling that one and intend to make enquiries.

By the way, still no sign of Prince William.

Me & the Royal Family


I first arrived in Cambridge in October of 1983 and quickly made friends with a screamingly funny divinity student named Joe Marshall. Joe was interested not only in God but in amateur dramatics. It so happened that Prince Edward, Queen Elizabeth's youngest son, also arrived in Cambridge in 1983 — a dewy, apple-cheeked nineteen-year-old. He too was interested in 'amdram' and within a term was cast, with my friend Joe, in a production of Arthur Miller's The Crucible.

From the Crucible, Cambridge 1983. Edward is in the gray waistcoat; my friend Joe Marshall is on the left.

Thus it was that as rehearsals progressed, I was Joe's guest at one such, observing the proceedings closely. It was astonishing to find myself in an intimate rehearsal room with the Queen of England's boy; the owner of a face (indeed, at 19 a very beautiful face) I had seen only on newsprint and in the reverential coffee-table books favored by grannies.

Prince Edward at Cambridge, 1983.

We all went out for drinks after the rehearsal. Somehow Edward and I were standing at the bar together ordering for some of the others; and then it seemed that Edward realized he didn't have any money to pay for the drinks (I overheard a cast-mate grumbling in a loud, amused voice, "He never has any bloody money"); and then it seemed he hit up one of his cast-members for a fiver; and as we stood there waiting our turn, it suddenly whacked me between the eyes that this guy — in the most casual and unselfconscious way — was holding a bank note upon which his mother's face was etched. That gave me pause.

Several years later, when I had graduated from Cambridge and was living and working in London, I went as often as I could to watch the polo on Smith's Lawn in Windsor Great Park. I had at that time become quite intoxicated by the game. The Queen too, of course, took an interest and most Sundays that I was there, she was too.................housed in a sweet little wooden royal box that had been constructed at the side of the field. I could easily see her and her guests sitting up on the second floor balcony of this bijou lodge, on mismatched chairs with exhausted-looking cushions. Sometimes I could hear ice clinking. These were casual times. Often the Queen would drive herself over (she lived just across the field after all), a faded royal standard rising in jerks up the little flagpole soon after.

And at the end of each match a couple of security men would appear with a rope and move to semi-encircle Her Majesty as she left the box — a rather half-hearted cordon sanitaire to keep the hand-full of us at bay — while she handed over a trophy and shook hands with the sweaty victors. These rope half-circles that we stood behind were actually very close indeed to the royal personage. So close, in fact, that after several months of this I confess I had begun to feel almost casual about the sovereign's presence.

But me and the royal family were all a very long time ago. Save for a few months here and there, I've not properly lived in England since 1990. I assumed that the constant path-crossing had ceased. I don't even think I would have considered them blog-fare either. Until, you may imagine my surprise when I learned yesterday that the Duke of Cambridge — aka Prince William — has just joined me for his own Cambridge University sojourn, here to study agriculture.

St. John's College. It may be Prince William's new base of operation; but for me it's the short-cut to town.

And he's going to be studying agriculture at St. John's College which, it so happens, I've always used as a short-cut conduit from my own college to get into town. Does this mean William and I are also destined to cross paths? Is there something to all this? I wish I had a swami to consult.