Concert at King’s College

Went to Cambridge to see a concert. This special event was organised by Sir John Myrig Thomas, the chemist, as a double memorial to his wife Margaret, Lady Thomas and my uncle Andrew O’Neill. Andrew died in 2004. Sir John is fiercely proud of being Welsh, and spoke only in his mother tongue when he met my Aunts and I at the reception. My Welsh is not so good, so I just smiled as they talked. Sir John is one of those men who just command attention. In a circle of people he will usually be the one talking and everyone else is rapt. He is the kind of bloke that could tell a shit joke and you would think it was the funniest thing you have heard all week. He does not just talk, he delivers his thoughts as if he were on stage. Its OK though, because he loves people and conversation so much, the enthusiasm of this 77 year-old man draws you in and makes you smile. While he is talking, he observes the people around him, looking for the person on the outside of the circle, drawing them back in with more eye contact or a special comment.

My hotel room was upgraded because they had no cheapo single rooms left. I got an ensuite triple for the same price as the single room. Felt like a bit of a waste being in that room on my own. One funny thing about it was the bathroom shelf above the sink. The fittings were loose, so this glass shelf was tilted down slightly. I laughed when I noticed it because I had read a review of this hotel online, where a guy complains about the tilted shelf above the sink in room 3b. You don’t realise its tilted until you put your stuff on the shelf. Very slowly your stuff will start to slide, then it will drop in the sink. I proudly set out my American Crew hair wax, nail scissors, shaving apparatus and toothbrush on this shelf. No toothpaste. No toothpaste in the toiletries basket. Why do hotels provide bath foam, moisturiser and shampoo but no toothpaste? I set about brushing my teeth with cold water. I notice my American Crew slipping towards the edge. Into the sink it falls. A? Thats annoying, I think as I put the stuff back on the shelf. Slowly it makes its way back to the sink. I finish the brushing, and put my toothbrush on the glass shelf. It takes half a minute to creep down to the edge of the shelf. I watch the toothbrush fall into the sink as if this is the first time I have observed the phenomenon. Later that night, and the next morning, I go through the whole routine again, forgetting the tilted nature of the shelf, resetting my stuff and saying ‘for fucks sake’ every time an object crashes into the sink.

Queuing outside the Chapel, I realise I that I need a piss. I’ve never been to King’s College Chapel, but I bet there are no bogs inside. I leave the queue and eyeball some stony medieval doorways and dark corners. I consider stepping into the shadows for a piss, but decide that would be too disrespectful, and perhaps I would be arrested. A lady directs me towards a building where I find a toilet. Trotting back I see that most of the audience have entered the Chapel now. A lady holds open the gate for me and we chat as we make our way into the venue. She is Julie Bressor, Director of Development at King’s College. She is from America and has only been here two weeks. She seems genuinely interested in meeting people. Her job is to talk to raise funds for the College. When we speak further at the reception later on, she explains that she meets a lot of very successful people who want to do good things with their money. I explain that I work in a poker club where I meet lots of scumbags, desolates and delusionals who want to win each other’s money. Julie is a historian. She is an extremely intelligent woman and I am interested in her views. I ask her what she thinks about the state of mankind, ‘coz it seems like we’re doomed…’ and straight away she pounces on my negative aspect. Mankind has been through many tougher times than the present. We got through tough times before, we will get through this one. She thinks my opinion of man has been negatively biased by my job and the people I meet. Julie thinks that she has a better opinion of people because she works with well-off men and women who want to donate money to King’s College. Also she socialises with brilliant people because she lives at King’s College.

The champagne helps me feel a little more at ease in a room full of academics, knights, lords, broadcasters and assorted other people more intelligent and more successful than I. Most of them have paid £250 for the privilege of good seats at the concert and a chance to meet the star afterwards. Bryn Terfel mingles with the guests here in the Provost’s Lodge, while waiting staff rotate unending silver platters of nibbles. I munch on oysters wrapped in bacon, kebabs, tuna cakes, salmon sandwiches, cucumber sandwiches and exquisitely presented little desserts, far too numerous for me to sample each one. All the while they keep filling up my flute. Why not? I say. For it is good champagne. I talk for a while longer with Julie about language and people. I am thrilled to hold a conversation with, and have a laugh with, someone so eminent and intelligent.

Bryn is a huge man, and when he shakes my hand he looks at me and says ‘wow’. The last time he saw my sisters and I we were teenagers. Like Sir John, he has that charisma thing where every person he meets goes away smiling, and one can allow oneself to think ‘he really liked me’, ‘I know him’. Also Bryn has this centre-of-gravity effect, where everyone around him turns their attention toward him. At the reception there is always a little crowd around him. Afterwards, at the hotel bar, he is one of a circle of 20 or so people sat. However its not quite a circle because most people are slightly turned towards him. He is the centre. Consequently I suppose he is always being asked to perform, whether he likes it or not.

Terfel trots into King’s College Chapel and tosses off (excerpts from) Elijah, some traditional songs, and Faure’s Requiem. He is relaxed. The performance seems very easy for him. There are more than two hundred in the audience, and more than one hundred performers. I am seated on the front row, directly in front of the double basses. The players of the London Philharmonia are excellent, as are King’s College Choir. The chapel is cold. The wood panelling behind the choir reveals a huge wooden door. When it opens I am reminded of the Houses of Parliament. Above this is the resplendent organ, its scores of gold pipes reaching up to the chapel ceiling. Tonight the stained glass windows are dark. I can however admire the stone sculptures set into the walls. Being ushered to my seat is like being drawn into a fairy tale, timeless place. Its easy to imagine having an experience just like this hundreds of years ago. I close my eyes and let the power of the basses, and Terfel’s baritone, blend with the wonderful strings and the crystal choir.

My family and I are the last to leave the Provost’s Lodge. High on champagne, again we march along the stone paths of the front court. The unlit buildings loom upon the lawn. One cannot help but allow the imagination to stand up and stretch its legs, thinking about what if I had come to Cambridge, or what if I was born in the 18th Century…

My Aunt says Joe with your brain you could have been… Chancellor of the Exchequer! I say thanks then she says no actually maybe that’s a bit unrealistic. Marilyn is excited about her upcoming trip to Alaska. She and her husband have visited every one of the other 49 states, so this year they are completing the set. Marilyn is mad on Presidents, so she is going to write to Bill Clinton to see if he will meet her. ‘Well, he can only say no, can’t he?’ My mother announces her decision to make a film. She has made her mind up that this year will be the year that she records her recipe for Cawl and posts it on Youtube.

Then I remember a 15 year-old bet. In 1995 or 1996 I wagered my school friend that I would be a millionaire before I was 30. Oops. The last time I saw David was when I visisted him at Kings College in 1998 or 1999. I have not kept in touch with him since, and I do not know how he has progressed with his computer studies. However, I hope to see him in October this year. Precisely, I will be waiting for him at 10am on the 10th of October, in Trafalgar Square. For that is when the bet is due to be settled. Fortunately the amount is only £10.

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