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.