Oxford

[Bodleian Curators Meeting; Belinda's Birthday]

A NOT VERY USUAL SATURDAY

9 November 1985

... began, like quite a few Saturdays lately, with my escorting Sarah Daisy, violin perilously perched at the back of her bike, northwards through suburban back streets to Miss Chandler's expansive residence in Belbroughton Road, arriving around 1040 for a 1030 lesson, as usual. Then I bicycled furiously up Banbury Road to do some frugal Saturday morning shopping: muesli, brown rice, brown bread, brown beans, caffeine-free tea, fresh fruit and a Sunday indulgence, fillet of lamb, extracted from the bone before me by a prodigiously fat butcher with a suspicious expression, as if he could smell a closet vegetarian polluting his premises.

... continued, with my re-escorting Sarah homewards (and the shopping too) by 1120. And then grabbing my gown, for the second time this year and my script, and heading off frantically for the Computing Service. And then bicycling furiously back again having forgotten my bike lock (a heavy duty number weighing rather more than the bike itself). And so to the Lecture Room, where assorted luminaries of the Computing Service, Libraries Board and the Bodleian itself are already fretting about where to put the wineglasses, turning on the equipment, testing the view from the back etc.

For today is the Day of the Visitation, when the Curators of Bodley's library exercise their annual right of inspection, ostensibly to count the books, in practise to listen to a Latin Oration and then Lunch well. Except that this year, as a consequence of, and in spite of, and leaving to one side, all manner of complicated university politics and campaigns and proposals and working parties and parties prises, they are also going to Visit us, in order to see my natty program search the pre-1920 catalogue (S to SHERIDAN) at one million characters a second.

At noon, the few real users of the computer still around are all told to leave, and the machine turned over to us. By now, we have been waiting for Them to arrive for so long, that we've relaxed to the point of seeing whether or not the wine really is cold enough. Consequently it is not until the first begowned dignatory enters that we think of checking that what was working perfectly well at 1145 is still working at 1215. Needless to say, it isn't. Ten minutes of undiluted hell then ensue, during which (a) approximately thirty elderly academics rubber neck their way into the room (b) the monitor on which I am to do the demonstration continues to say COMMENT- A SHORT DELAY WILL OCCUR (c) my Director makes desperate jokes about ICL scoring own goals (d) me and the solitary operator on duty, who's getting paid overtime for the privilege, try to decide what's needed to get the brute moving again. Eight minutes into this, with the notional egg starting to congeal on my face, and even as Bodley's Acting Librarian starts to make his Introductory Remarks, I notice the unnatural quiet in the machine room, and suggest that there really ought to be a printer going, and how about an output scheduler as well? Operator grunts, types some special operators gobbledegook, terminals spring to life, I sprint back to lecture room, elbow my way through assembled subfusc, phew, not a nanosecond too soon, we are go for demo.

As planned, I demonstrate that there are 4 titles in S-SHERIDAN which contain the word "Abysinnia", 5 containing words starting with "Abysinn..", 6 containing words starting "Abxsynn" (where x is a y or an i or even a q), and ever so many more when you search for variations such as Ethiopia, Aethiopica etc. all of which the wonderful CAFS machine duly does. This works a treat. The next one I get wrong, [q3 and q2 or q1 not being at all the same as q3 and (q2 or q1) which is what it says in the script]; fortunately, of the curators present, those who understand this error outnumber those who don't, so that the former derive great pleasure from explaining it to the latter, and a general feeling of bonhomie (spurred on by white wine) takes over from technophobia. The master of Balliol, a force to be reckoned with in this context as in many others, desires hands on access to the system, and starts hunting for entries about John Wycliffe (one was duly found, fortunately). I find the one entry in the catalogue for a book printed in the 17th, 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, as well as a breakdown by century. The Curators, not a body of men to stand and gawp, are by now in a highly satisfactory state of hubbub. The charabanc arrives to waft them away to Lunch at Wolfson, to which, somewhat to our surprise, both myself and my Bodleian conspirators are invited.

The world looks better through the inverted end of a sherry glass with the knowledge that there's a lot more of that sort of stuff to come, even better when you haven't got to do more than sound like a human being (as opposed to one of those computer people) while you get through said stuff. I am seated in a place reserved for the Senior Proctor (he couldn't make it, I assume) next to the Public Orator himself, who hasn't been to my Oration, just as I haven't been to his, which makes conversation a lot easier. Chablis succeeds sherry, claret succeeds chablis, to the accompaniment of an unpretentious lunch (one cannot trust the Wolfson chef not to experiment, I am told) of avocado salad, roast chicken, fresh potatoes and beans, orange syllabub. The head Curator makes a short speech; the Acting Librarian makes a longer one; I admire the view over the river.

The charabanc deposits me back at the computing service, somewhat dazed, where I regain my trusty bicycle, and speed home through the sunshine, realising as I approach that it is already close to teatime in the real Saturday world which hasof course been ticking on all this time as a background activity. For example, Mr and Mrs Triggs are here to take away the spare bed (as arranged yesterday): Belinda fortunately is at hand to tell them to wait till Thursday (as re-arranged today). As consolation, I ply them (and myself) with duty-free Calvados and enjoy the sensation of being reunited with the rest of the massed Burnards, knowing that all things which should have been done, have been, and not by me. And that it would not be entirely inappropriate for me to go and lie down for a few hours. Which I duly do.

The dark falls on Southmoor Road. The smell of grilling sausages wafts slowly up the stairs, indicative of imminent supper for lodgers and left-behinds. Did you, dear reader, think I had forgotten the date? Of course not! Tomorrow is the tenth of November, as surely as today is the ninth, which can only mean that Belinda has to be taken out tonight and treated like the Real Woman she increasingly resembles. This year, it has been decided, she and four of her peers are to be treated to an Italian dinner out, rather than a disco. As far as I can tell, the trouble with discos is that Boys don't always come, even when you invite them. More fools them, I can only think, as hair is brushed and re-brushed and the genuine Fiorucci hairgrip fixed and refixed in place. The four chosen peers (whose names are Gilly, Izzy, Maggie and Claire) arrive, promptly at 6.15 for pre-dinner sparklers, which occur in the garden with much whooping, after, as is only proper, the giving of gifts. Downstairs, Tata Pam, Sarah Daisy, Elizabeth Rose and the only lodger in residence stoically munch their way through sausage risotto, while we wait for the first of two taxis to waft us all away to the far North, at least as far as the Pizzeria in South Parade.

We have been placed at a large round and a small square table, labelled RESERVED, near the door, so that, although we can't easily see the man in the kitchen bouncing the dough off the ceiling, we can see passers-by studying the menu and pull faces at them. Only Gilly and Belinda dare tackle a whole pizza each; Claire and Lilette have different flavours of spaghetti; Maggie and Izzy share what turns out to be a somewhat miserly portion of lasagne; I content myself with a plate of penne. Everyone drinks coke, naturally, except for the iredeemably adult who stick to the house rosso with acqua minerale. This Pizzeria serves decent and unobjectionable primi; where it excells is in the dolci department. Its banana splits have to be seen to be believed, while la coppa mamma mia (anglice, knickerbocker glory) is altogether out of the run of the mill. It is therefore not surprising that a paltry five girls account between them for five coppas, two cassatas and a banana split. Another good thing about this Pizzeria is that (being an Italian establishment, albeit in alien territory) it is noisy and cheerful and girls who stick paper umbrellas in their hair and go to the lavatory en masse do not have to suffer the icy stares they might encounter at other establishments. That's all there is to tell about this somewhat unusual Saturday really. All five girls, somewhat to my surprise, were delighted to be offered the chance of walking home (we can sing drunk songs, said Gilly, and later managed quite a few lines of "Tipperary", from who knows what atavistic sense of the appropriate) rather than waiting for a taxi again. The walk home was rowdy and rapid, if cold. Then a few card games until the appointed hour for Other Daddies to turn up and retrieve their offspring. (Izzie's was disgracefully late,. and got ticked off by his daughter). Then Bed for some, a nightcap for others, and (unless memory deceives me) a lengthy dissertation on the clinical manipulation of people's emotions from Tata Pam, before I gave up trying to maintain the vertical, and went to bed myself.

An unusual sort of a Saturday; and therefore one I decided, as you see, to preserve on floppy disk. Doing so has occupied me for about an hour and a half this Sunday: I haven't written anything but Visit Reports and Manuals and User Guides for so long I've had a lot of trouble with the style. Can you tell, dear reader/user?