Sunday 11 March 2018

Runcie and Palin

Crossing the Line - part 18

I have always loved practical jokes.  Obviously, I like them more when playing them on others, but I even enjoy being the target!

At school there was a tradition of making the most of April Fool’s Day.  It was the one day in the year when the tight cords of discipline seemed to be loosened for a while.  One year our class started small by sitting in the wrong seats, confusing our teachers a little, but when we saw that this was all too easily rectified, we swapped everyone’s desks around instead.  This was more disruptive as our desks contained our books, pens, pencils etc.  After the next teacher made us rearrange them back, we went one step further, co-operating with the class next door to swap over about half our desks between the two classrooms.  This was satisfyingly successful in interrupting the teaching schedule of the day.

As we got older, we became more ambitious. 

The staff room was a prime target.

One year I persuaded the dinner ladies to turn their backs for a moment while transporting the tea urn up to the staff room at lunch time.  I added around 1,000 sweeteners to the urn, making it undrinkable and resulting in a few teachers spraying tea across the room when they took their first mouthful.

A couple of my friends managed to put a chain and padlock around the door handles to the staff room during morning break when they were all there having their 15 minutes of peace.  At the end of break, when they tried to return to their classes they found that they couldn’t get out and the whole school was blissfully bereft of teachers for about 30 minutes while the maintenance staff found bolt-cutters big enough to set them free.

Then there was a school governors meeting on one April 1st.  Our governors arrived in their posh cars and parked them in the quad.  Daimlers, Jaguars, even a Rolls Royce.  I couldn’t resist it. I raided the art room for large sheets of paper and covered their windscreens with huge price tags. Finding a portable blackboard, I put a sign out by the road which said “Luxury Car Sale – Today Only – Come inside!”  There were several enquiries at the school office before it was removed.

My most ambitious plan came to nothing however.  We had a Great Hall with 800 wood and wicker chairs to seat the whole school for assembly.  They weren’t that comfortable, but they were quite old and of some value.  Wouldn’t it be great if one day we all arrived for assembly to find them gone?  It’s not that I wanted to steal them – just store them in a room nearby and lock them in with a chain.  I left a window slightly ajar in one of the corridors and sneaked in at night to case the joint, only to be disappointed.  The only unlocked room available to was so far away that it would have taken all night (and a great deal of hard work) to transport them that far. 

In my part time job as a waiter, I succeeded in tricking my manager with an exploding cigar.  John was very astute, so the only way he would fall for it, was if he was convinced that the cigar was a genuine gift from a customer.   He loved smoking and this was a genuine, quality cigar which I had doctored by inserting 3 explosive caps in the end.  I gave one of our customers the cigar to give back to me as a tip, at the end of the meal. He played his part wonderfully, waiting until John was watching, and then making a fuss of giving me the cigar despite my protestations that I didn’t smoke.    Knowing that John saw this, I waited until he asked me about it, replying, “You know I don’t smoke John – do you want it?”   The plan worked like a dream and a group of us were hiding around the corner outside when John went out to enjoy this unexpected treat.  As it exploded, we jumped out to compound the effect.  That was a night which went with a bang!

University was a target rich environment for such fun.  As we got to know each other, we discovered who was fair game. After arriving at Brasenose, I discovered that among its famous past students were Robert Runcie, who was the Archbishop of Canterbury at the time, and Michael Palin of Monty Python fame.  What a combination to aspire to!  The faith of an Archbishop and the humour of Monty Python!

At one small party, a group of us took the furniture out of our host’s room when he went to get more drinks. There was a flat roof above his room and we arranged it all on the roof, in the same pattern as it had been in the room.  In our final year student house, hiding several of our alarm clocks in Andy’s bedroom was fun, set to go off at half hour intervals during the night.  Andy did very well to keep his sense of humour, although I do remember being woken up to the sound of an alarm clock being thrown down the stairs with some force!  Being forced into a cold bath, fully clothed, by a group of friends was always a favourite, and I suffered this at the hands of my friends more than once.

One of my favourites pranks was on Jonathan who led the Christian Union in college with me.  Jonathan was always (and still is) very well presented.  Well dressed, close shaved and respectable.  He could also come across as quite serious sometimes, so he was an ideal target.

Using the same window trick as I used at school, I gained access to his room while he was rowing early one morning.  I took his comb and gave it to another friend with the instruction, “Hide this and don’t tell me where.”  When I saw Jonathan later that day, he looked frustrated and told me that he couldn’t find his comb.

The next time he was rowing, I sneaked in again, took his toothbrush and gave it to the same friend to hide.  This time he was more frustrated and was getting suspicious.  When he asked me if I knew where it was, I could reply in total honesty that I had no idea.  A few days later, I took his razor on the morning of a tutorial.  Jonathan was furious at having to turn up to see his tutor unshaved.  Again I could assure him that I didn’t know where they were.   He was confused.  On the one hand, he suspected me but on the other, surely I wouldn’t lie to him.

The grand finale came the next morning.  As Jonathan went to the shower in the next building, wearing only a dressing gown, I sneaked into his room again, this time removing all his clothes and toiletries, putting them into my trunk.  I had also asked my other friend to give me back Jonathan’s comb, razor and toothbrush and I put them in too.  After Jonathan had returned from his shower, I quietly placed the trunk directly outside his door and hid nearby, listening.  He was humming a tune until he opened one of his drawers.  Then the humming stopped and the sound changed to that of each drawer being opened & closed quickly and wardrobe doors being opened and then slammed shut.  There was a strange noise somewhere between a roar and a scream.  After another few of seconds, I heard Jonathan wrench open his door, followed by a clattering noise as he practically fell over the trunk as he stormed out.

By then of course, he knew it was me.  He recognised my trunk and waited for me to ask for it back.  As always, he was gracious, even good humoured by the time I plucked up the courage!

Some of the most Pythonesque moments of college life were in fact, the college traditions.

There were Ale Verses on Shrove Tuesday each year, when formal dinner descended into a food fight with the pieces of lemon that came with the pancakes.  Students would stand on the ancient tables drinking old English ale and singing hastily composed satirical lyrics to well-known tunes, poking fun at the college and its senior staff.  During this melee, the High Table (which seated the college principle and other teaching fellows) would sit there impassively eating their pancakes pretending nothing unusual was happening!

Then there was Ascension Day.  In my first year, when I lived in college, I remember being woken at about 10am by the sound of clattering sticks and children laughing.  When I looked out of the window, I saw 20 or more choristers in their choir robes, each with a long cane pole hitting the wall underneath my room.  This was repeated several times during the morning as groups of rampaging choir boys from Oxford churches descended on the college to ‘beat the bounds’ – an ancient tradition of checking that the parish boundary markers had not be moved, demolished or hidden. 

But the day got even more bizarre.  At lunchtime, a ‘secret’ door was opened between Brasenose and its neighbour Lincoln College.  Students at Brasenose were invited to pass through the door and given Ivy Beer as recompense for Lincoln refusing to allow entry to a Brasenose student who was being chased by a town mob.  The student was killed and Lincoln College were ordered to provide Ivy Beer to Brasenose students on Ascension Day every year in perpetuity, as a way of redeeming themselves.  When we got to Lincoln quad with our Ivy Beer we then witnessed another strange sight.  There were students on the roof heating coins in boiling water, and then throwing them down onto the grass, where children from the town were running round collecting them with handkerchiefs to protect their hands from being burned.  With the rising alcohol level from the Ivy Beer, hot coins raining down from the roof, and children rushing around to collect them, it increasingly felt like a scene reminiscent of Apocalypse Now.  Totally surreal.  I am sure that Health & Safety must have put a stop to that one by now.

The other regular event on the Oxford calendar which can cause amusement or disdain are the celebrations at the end of university exams.  It is now a well-established tradition that you are met out of your last exam by friends who will spray you with Champagne, shaving foam and silly string.  It was actually Pomagne for ordinary students like us – any Champagne was strictly for drinking, not getting wasted on the pavement!    

Apparently, it is now known as ‘Trashing’ and is much more organised that in the 1980s, but the aim is the same.  It is a way of breaking the tension that the exams bring;  of celebrating the end of them, rather than sloping off in a depressed whimper!  I remember being ambushed in college after Mods (1st year exams) by an enthusiastic group of friends and being completely soaked after Finals as I left the Examinations building.

All in all, there was lots of humour, life and fun at Oxford when you didn’t take it too seriously.  My final year was made even more fun by moving into a house just off the Cowley Road with five friends.  We ate together, we laughed together, and watched American Football together every week on Channel 4, which is where my love for the sport came from. 

Soon after we moved in, Andy answered the phone with the greeting “Oxford home for wicked women” only to find my father (a vicar) at the other end of the line!  Nick’s bed was held off the floor on piles of bricks which was fine until they collapsed in the night.  Natalie and Rob were great cooks, which always made their meals very popular, and we held regular dinner parties for friends with several courses of delicious food – a million miles away from student beans on toast.  Anne and I continued to work out how to get a Maths degree.  Anne was much more successful than me, but I scraped through in the end, despite my other full time job with the Christian Union which only came to an end in my final term!   

Dressed up for Finals
When it came to Finals, we each chose songs to play at full volume early in the mornings of our exams, to psyche ourselves up.  Given the formal clothes we had to wear for exams, I chose Smart Dressed Man by ZZ Top on the first day, followed by Back in Black by AC/DC on the second.

These were good days.  They made up for the stress I felt in the often intellectually sectarian Christian world, not to mention the demands of both studying for a degree and spending 45 hours a week in Christian ministry.

They were, I hope, very much in the footsteps of Runcie and Palin.  Thank you both for your inspiration!


  1. Dear Fr Benny, I laughed with tears, while reading your article. The life in seminary in Transylvania, as I knew it in the 1990s, was very similar to what you describe, with a few exceptions: we didn't beat the bounds, but we used to wash people's breasts with snow; we threw buckets of water on each other on St George's day; we threw empty wine bottles by the window (and they wouldn't burst on arrival on the grass). We also used to switch the principal's and the choirmaster's cars between themselves in the parking lot. But on the whole, the experiences were mostly the same.

    1. Hi Georges. I love the idea of throwing buckets of water over people on St George's Day! I did this to one of my friends once but she didn't speak to me for several days afterwards!

      I'm also glad you were in a seminary with a sense of humour. Humour is so important alongside faith. Without it, faith dries up and becomes mere religiosity.

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