Being a girl, and well, not a complete arsehole, I missed out on many of the established and much-discussed idiosyncrasies of Oxford University traditions. Not for me the delights of The Bullingdon, or the pleasures of Merton's Time ceremony, where students walk backwards around the Fellow's Quad on the last Sunday in October, drinking port, in order to maintain the space-time continuum during the change from British Summer Time to Greenwich Meantime.
Despite my abstention from Corpus Christi's annual tortoise race, I had such a splendid time at my own college's Burns Night dinner that I returned annually, long after I had graduated.
A Burns Night supper purports to be a celebration of the life and work of Robert Burns, the Scottish poet most famous for composing 'Auld Lang Syne', and a man often considered to be Scotland's national poet. In actual fact, Burns Night is an incredibly confusing, drunken, life-affirming shambles; a whiskey-drenched celebration of friendship, and often inedible food, and incomprehensible toasts.
At Balliol College, we supposedly celebrated Burns Night because of 'our Scottish ancestry'. In reality, we celebrated Burns Night because of my English tutor, a charming raconteur with a penchant for interesting dinner parties and wistful poetry recitation, who enjoyed to its fullest extent Burns Night's potential to increase his undergraduates whiskey allowance.
My memories of Oxford Burns Nights are varied, hazy and treasured. We began by getting ferociously dressed up, and drinking Tesco-own brand vodka in our rooms, dashing in and out of each other's bedrooms in a bid to find 'something Scottish'. (After we graduated, we simply moved this tradition to the London-Oxford train). We were then invited to have drinks with our tutors, whilst we were still reasonably coherent. One Burns Night, a friend of mine was fluish and clearly unwell, but dosed herself up in order to join, unwilling to miss out on what was always such a jolly occasion. By the time we left for tutor drinks she was wobbling, and a much-better friend than myself put her to bed before the address to the haggis. 'What a shame she missed out,' someone remarked later. 'Yes,' I began, distracted by a stumbling apparition who had just entered the hall. 'Although it seems she didn't miss out on much.' 'Perfect,' my friend announced as her whiskey glass was refilled once again. 'Just in time for pudding.'
Burns Night begins with a welcoming speech, which in our case was naturally delivered by the English tutor who organized the event. It was not until I went to a Burns Night organized by anyone else that I realized that it was perfectly acceptable for this speech to be a few minutes long, having grown accustomed to a winding elegy on Burns, national identity, the role of alcohol and the true meaning of legacy. To give my former tutor his due, once this speech was over, he made no further addresses. Rather, the unlucky (and only) Scottish undergrad had the dubious honour of reciting first the Selkirk Grace and then the 7 verse-long 'Address to the Haggis' in an 'enhanced for the occasion' Scottish accent. The haggis, which for all the fuss made over it tastes very like someone has stripped a good sausage from its skin, is treated as the guest of honour, and like all VIPs, a great deal of the evening is spent whispering about it.
The evening carouses late into the night, with endless toasts, singing and poor recitations of Robert Burns poems. It was, and remains, one of the best nights of the year. This year, my invite from my former college oddly missing, I will be attending Burns Night at the Truscott Arms in London. Hardeep Singh Kohli, the host, has promised 'Hardeep, haggis and harmony.' I can't wait.