Oh dear, I had optimistically envisioned a running commentary on my extended tour of the old country but with one thing and another it didn't happen...Too much writing, too much beer, too much time waiting for the number 3 bus (Crystal Palace to Oxford Circus via Brixham), lengthy visits to places with dubious internet access all contributed to what ultimately became a period of silence. Now I am back and intent on making amends; but of course it is possible my three readers have deserted me.
While the arts constitute endangered species in many areas of modern education, given the need for “relevance,” fiscal restraint and vocational training (the needs of the community etc. etc.), Alleyn’s theatrical heritage ensures their ongoing importance at Dulwich College. Through my sister’s official, albeit unpaid, role as the college photographer (a duty she discharges with commendable diligence, though perhaps the ultra-high-tech Nikon that goes with it provides some small compensation), I was privileged to sample the flowering of this artistic tradition on a number of occasions: I accompanied the Dulwich choir when it sang evensong with their hosts at Trinity College, Cambridge; I witnessed performances of the theatre team at the Globe theatre; I attended a recital given by the “Barbershop” chorus in the Dulwich College library. All this in little more than a week mind you.
I was struck, more than anything, not by the exceeding quality of all performances, or the attention to detail, or the dedication of staff and students, or the commitment to excellence – no none of those things as impressive as they all were – but by the unifying theme of the wine that flowed like a social lubricant through each event. At Trinity, the choir master had no sooner completed conducting a moving and complex choral work than he transformed into wine waiter, serving visitors and choir alike; for the theatre event I was recruited to man the drinks table, an apparently essential part of Dulwich’s dramatic experience, that was open before, during and after the performance; drinks dominated the interval at the Barbershop recital, and I distinctly recall one of the soloists clutching a glass of Sauvignon Blanc before her performance…
To a visitor from American education, it will appear all the more improbable given that Dulwich College is a high school. The image of the principal of Naperville North High School extending his hand in invitation to partake of a Chilean cabernet is so unthinkable as to be preposterous. So why is drink (even the word has negative connotations) regarded as an acceptable, civilizing part of the culture at an English high school, while the practices I observed in Dulwich would elicit howls of moral outrage at the American equivalent? Is the old country descending into a mire of decadence and louche behaviour? Is American youth better prepared for adulthood and responsibility by its rigorously enforced segregation from the demon alcohol? Is American youth more susceptible to the dangers of alcohol thereby requiring greater protection? Negative on all counts I think. Granted, there is wailing aplenty on both sides of the Atlantic about the prevalence of binge drinking among the nations’ youth, and perhaps some of that is merited and genuine problems exist; but I humble submit that these troubling excesses have nothing to do with the generally civilizing practice of a glass of wine with one’s school theatre, even in the company of students.
I have yet to comprehend completely the rampant opposition to drink that pervades American educational institutions. I am reminded of a line from Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis that chronicles the adventures of a young lecturer at a decidedly white tile (not even red brick) university. At one point he is presented with “the smallest glass of sherry he has ever been seriously offered.” Sadly, I anticipate that tiny thimbleful will exceed by some considerable margin the drink that will be offered me at all events in my COD career. Am I the only one that recoils in disgust at the proffering of a plastic cup of “fruit punch?” Must we endure this kindergartenesque treatment at adult events forever?
My Dulwich sojourn concluded with the staff wine tasting, an event made even more improbable (to American eyes) by the fact it was conducted by a clergyman, who seemed as well informed about the affairs of the vine as he was with those of the soul, though in truth the latter were not strongly tested that night. He chortled about an impending visit to Germany which would mean his deserting his flock over Easter. The penance imposed by his bishop, he purred, was to serve on a committee promoting tourism. Not quite sure how that has anything to do with the matters of the spirit.
We often lament the absence of community at the beloved college, unless one classifies that noisy sterile rectangle in the cafeteria as such. Methinks the conviviality of the Dulwich College Common Room, enhanced as it was by the ready availability of alcohol, could translate successfully to the COD environment. Why should it not be so? I really want to know.