The scene was, necessarily, amusing. The setting—the dining room of New College, Oxford, shadows flickering across wooden panels and stained glass from the candles upon the table, which was set for a three-course dinner. We had by this point moved on to the port and chocolates portion of the feast, a few lingering half-filled glasses of red and white wine, together with the lubricious amiability of satiated gluttony the only visible remnants of meal. The gentlemen had shifted seats for the dessert—as though it were a curious Oxford custom to move seats without reason,1 and with this new arrangement, I had the opportunity to overhear the conversation of an American professor of early Christian thought (who has taught at a highly reputable research institution for the last thirty-five years, who bears a disconcerting physical resemblance to John D. Rockefeller) weigh the relative merits of English and American universities with an Oxford don (who teaches Roman and Greek religion), a quizzical man, very like a sparrow in appearance.
The result, as could be expected, was very silly. Rockefeller was very earnest, spoke blandly about the disunity of the English university; ‘we, as you know, are all in one faculty.’ He spoke, too, of the quality of food at his university, the exquisiteness of the Institute, which has a small library, but choice—and can call upon the Firestone to fulfill all of the scholars’ more obscure academical desires. The Sparrow deflated all of these comments quietly, nodding, murmuring, not joining in the praises, not violently dissenting. ‘We are very civilized, at the Institute,’ said Rockefeller with a prim smile, a smile which might almost have been desperate, a hungry, anxious smile, which encompassed not only the don, but also the surrounding graduate students from the various Oxford faculties. ‘Yes, well, I’m sure I wouldn’t know,’ said the Sparrow, excusing himself quietly from the table.
- “ ‘I want a clean cup,’ interrupted the Hatter: ‘let’s all move one place on.’ ” – Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, ch. 7: a Mad Tea-Party. [↩]