Wednesday, November 4, 2009

800 Years Old

It's not often you get invited to an 800th birthday party, so Ellie and I were keen to accept the one we received a while ago, and have been eagerly anticipating the occasion. Last night we dressed up in "business attire"--Ellie looking her usual brilliantly put-together self and myself in a jacket, button-up shirt and tie for the first time in as long as I can remember--and showed up for the event at the stately residence of the British Consul General, Dame Barbara Hay. The honoree? My alma mater, the University of Cambridge.

It was a gala evening--minus, thankfully, the long speeches. Dame Barbara took the microphone very briefly to welcome us, graciously, and to introduce a representative from the Cambridge in America organization, who made the obligatory pitch for funds. A current billion-pound (sterling!) effort has apparently already reached 800 million--an impressive achievement. And Eric Idle, of Monty Python fame and a Cambridge alumnus, gave us all a couple of hearty British laughs. It was a good idea, then, to hand the microphone to representatives of individual colleges to bring together their members from among the substantial crowd. I made an appeal for alumni from my own college, Gonville & Caius, to check in with me but alas, with no result.

(For those unfamiliar with Cambridge, the university is a loose assemblage of a good number of colleges, each with their own campus and facilities. Students are members of one college or another for living, dining, and other collegiate activities, but the instruction and course work is offered by the university at large. As a member of Caius, I lived in college for one of my three years--the full length of study for a Cambridge degree, as opposed to the usual four years over here--and most of my friends and associates were fellow Caius men. Yes, in those days, men. Today Caius, like most of the colleges, also welcomes women. The professor who directed my studies over the years was also a Caius don, but several of my other tutors, with specialties in their fields, were affiliated with other colleges; and the lectures were offered by the university in university facilities. I was shocked to discover that there are now new colleges I had never even heard of!)

My appeal from the podium produced no results, as I say. Ellie said it was barely audible above the din of socializing voices as the drinks and canapes were passed around. But I did run into a couple of Caius men, one of whom I already knew from the party Ellie and I gave for my fellow alumni a couple of years ago; he teaches yoga in a variety of venues. The other was a man I had not met before, who lives up north but owns a communications business down here in Los Angeles, located close to us in the Silver Lake area, so I do hope to get together with him on one of his frequent visits south.

I am particularly sensitive, these days, to the privilege we Cambridge graduates enjoyed--and indeed, continue to enjoy to this day. Deserved or not, my Cambridge degree has served as an impressive calling card for me, both personally and professionally, throughout my life. I felt that privilege keenly last night, in the company of so many abundantly gifted people, men and women, gathered on the lawn at the British Consul's residence. I was impressed by the quality of everyone I spoke to, young and old--by the intelligence, the wit, and the social poise of these people who had shared with me the good fortune to be one of the privileged few.

I doubt, these days, that I'd even qualify. The competition for places at the great universities, Cambridge included, is intense. I'm not that smart. But it does feel good to have spent three years of my life at an institution that has been a major force in the academic world for the past 800 years, and I am profoundly grateful to have been granted that opportunity.

So Happy Birthday, Cambridge! I wish you many more--and that billion-pound sterling shot in the arm should give you something to be working on.

1 comment:

mandt said...

Indeed, Happy Birthday....and quite aside from the privilege of attending, is the long term consequences of the advantage, which for your readers is often a delight and always interesting...