Sitting at the High Table in one of Oxford’s Colleges… The picture and the atmosphere about me are overwhelming. In the seat to my right is Ms. Dene Newman, organiser of the International Britain Conference at Oriel College, and we chat about the achievements of the Romanian Branch of ESU… Ms. Valerie Mitchell will sit here tomorrow, for the Closing Conference Dinner, but I simply cannot help to remember that Lord Watson occupied the same seat just a couple of days ago–and yes, I could never forget his tie! I stop for a second from carving my cod, imagining all styles of ties, and the great men wearing those ties, seating at this same High Table–statesman Cecil Rhodes, cardinal John Henry Newman, architect James Wyatt, to name just a few of those whose pictures are hanging on the walls of the Dining Hall.
My head is spinning, and words are rolling on my tongue in a seemingly senseless mish-mash of ideas: People at the High Table discuss about the arms race in Sierra Leone, human rights in China, economic problems in Argentina, desert beauties in Namibia, rugby in Australia, corruption in Romania, beaches in Brazil, hand-over in Hong-Kong, potatoes in Poland, pyramids in Egypt, stocks in Italy, sexual experiences in Morocco, Euro-scepticism in Denmark… You name it! I sip my wine, and clear my throat–apart from a delicious pie, I still have to tackle drug consumption in Thailand, visa requirements for Bulgarians, traditional customs in Mauritius, teaching public speaking in the Czech Republic, information technology in India, and devolution of government in the UK. Unfortunately, no more time to talk about NATO expansion in the Baltic States, the white nights of Durham, and the fundamentalists in Kashmir–we simply have to leave that for another dinner…
Bought myself a tie with the three goose feathers of the Oriel coat of arms: The feathers stand for the academic skills nurtured in these buildings since 1324, while the three lions stand for the Royal foundation laid in 1326 through King Edward II’s Letters Patent. No longer at the High Table, the tie reminds me of the King that may have stayed there, overseeing his student subjects in their quest to make sense of the continuous changes in the world. The perspective is shocking–the High Table has always been a crossroad, where ambassadors and advocates of various countries or causes have exchanged their views on pressing matters of the day with potent figures of their own times. The original import and prestige of Theology and Philosophy transgressed to Economics, Business Administration and Political Science, the world expanded from the Isles and the Continent to the New World, to the Cape, to New South Wales, but the High Table witnesses the same discussions, and always in English!
We were more than 50 participants from more than 30 countries crossing our roads in the Dining Hall of The House of the Blessed Mary the Virgin in Oxford, taking turns at the High Table, speaking our minds and picking our brains in our quest for promoting mutually beneficial understanding and cooperation. We have our own High Table now, virtual as it were, exchanging email messages through a discussion group that keeps us together in spirit, even though continents apart in physicality. We keep debating the same topics–pressing matters of the day, using the same language for communication–English. I assume that each of the participants in the International Britain 2001 imagines a different person occupying the central seat at our virtual High Table, but Shakespeare is said to have dined there once. What is important to me, however, is that the compass mirrors the Union Jack, and you can find a cosmopolitan group with a life of its own–heart tuned to the beat of ESU, mind adjusted to the tick of GMT, and attire matched to the colours of the Oriel tie.
This text dates back to Oxford, UK, July 2001, when I participated in the traditional summer conference in international relations organized by the English-Speaking Union–I retreived the text from my personal archive simply because it’s summer again, and I just remembered this episode last night, over a pint of beer, looking at someone’s tie.