Tuesday, 22 September 2015

The Poisoned Chalice: How I Failed my Oxford Initiation Ceremony

British Prime Minister David Cameron is in trouble for things he is supposed to have done as a student at Oxford, notably for sticking his cock in a dead  pig's mouth - though only as part of an all-male Fraternity Club (that's American I know) initiation ceremony. So we have #piggate. There are other allegations in an unauthorised biography ( by former ally Lord Ashcroft ) which are rather more important, but still this is the Press and Twitter's favourite one.

I was reminded of my only encounter with Frat Club initiation ceremonies.

In the autumn of 1967, as an undergraduate student at Oxford, I sat two examinations - traditional sit-downs with unseen papers and invigilators. But they weren't ordinary exams. You volunteered yourself for them (though you had to have a tutor's support) because they led to the award of Prizes with prize money attached. In one exam, you had three hours to answer just one question. I chose "Is Economic Growth a Good Thing?" which was a hot topic then and had been the subject of a recent (1966) book, Is Economic Growth a Good Thing? by E J Mishan. I had read it.

Anyway, I ended up  the winner of the Junior George Webb Medley Prize in Economics and the Gibbs Prize in Politics. To win one Prize was regarded as a distinction (it was recorded on your Degree certificate); but winning both was almost unprecedented. Especially for a Pleb attending a plebeian Oxford college, St Peter's.

Shortly thereafter I received an invitation to a Frat Club meeting. Not one devoted to sex, drugs and smashing windows (the sort you need to belong to if you want to become Prime Minister) but one devoted to elevated intellectual pursuits - a club where members met and listened to a paper and ate a meal. I guess it was Oxford's answer to the Cambridge Apostles. I can't remember the club's name and Googling has not solved the problem.

The Club did meet in the same college as hosts most of the more boisterous fraternities, Christ Church - Oxford's answer to Sodom and Gomorrah. I went along, recognised a few people but not many, listened to the paper. Then we ate.

And then the Chalice was passed round. Everyone sipped from it and uttered the words "Church and Queen". The chalice arrived in my hands (nice bit of silverware) and all eyes were on me. I passed the Chalice to the person next to me.

I didn't do Church [of England] and I didn't do Queen. I still don't. I never heard from the Frat Club again.

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