Saturday, 8 October 2016

A Sleepover at Worcester College, Oxford

I know not why adult sleepovers are not A Thing.
And I daresay that someone will now tell me about all of the sleepovers that I have missed during the last few decades, which would be ironic, but does anyone else think it a shame that we grown-ups do not have sleepovers in interesting places, such as the Egyptology department at The British Museum, (yes I am up for a night next to a mummy), or The London Aquarium, or the dungeons at The Tower of London, (what would I give to chat to the ghost of Anne Boleyn at the witching hour!)

But it seems that such delights are the exclusive preserve of the children. And that is a shame.

Still, I am becoming quite good at finding different places in which to unpack my PJs and toothbrush, not to mention my Worry Bear, bought in California on a business trip who accompanies me whenever I am away from home, and several books, without which I could not leave home, and if I am to spend my nights at the mercy of insomnia, I might as well be somewhere interesting.

Last month I had a sleepover at Worcester College, Oxford.
I was there to attend the Resurgence 50 conference, about which I had known very little beforehand, unusually for me, because it's all about people and the planet and being kind and spiritual, and I've supported Greenpeace and WWF for decades, but I was a newbie to that particular scene and was really there as much to experience the inside of one of those closed-to-the-common-folk-colleges as for the conference.  Two birds with one stone ... 

A last minute panic meant that I missed two of the the really interesting talks, one seemingly about how our genes are not set in stone, as it were, and that environmental factors affect our DNA and thus determine our health as much as do the sequences of amino acids that we inherited from our parents. You may know that I am convinced that my own cancer was caused by the stresses with which I've lived for the last eight years, and so that talk would have been particularly relevant, but I had elected to travel to Oxford by bus and, boy, was the traffic appalling in Abingdon that day, so I arrived late.

I picked up my room key from the Porter. Now if you've been a student at an Oxbridge college, as was The Ex, who left Clare College, Cambridge with a double first in Theoretical Physics, you won't understand how exciting I found that simple experience.

The room itself was located as far from the lodge as, I think, it would have been possible to site it. And had it not been for the helpful signs to The Cafe I, and many other visitors, would still be wandering the college grounds lost now.

A simple, modern room. I have to say that if I were a student it would not do - insufficient book shelving, the shower flooded the bathroom, the nearby fire door slammed shut every time someone walked through it,  no net curtain for privacy - but  for one night it sufficed. And there was a walnut tree outside the window.

I left my monk's cell of  a room and went wandering...

Someone was playing the organ so I wandered in to the chapel for a quiet moment with my god who belongs to no particular religion, and to all religions. If that makes sense.

I did wonder if I could ask the organist to play some Bach but decided that would probably not be the done thing. It wasn't karaoke night at the local pub.

So I simply walked quietly round, admiring the chapel, and especially the carved animals on the ends of the pews.

Too many to post so here's a selection:

There were afternoon sessions in a marquee on the lawn. And during one of them - UPLIFT -  I realised that I am no longer as moved by the notion of spiritual awakening and hippy culture and eastern mysticism as I once was. Indeed, the talks by the orange-robed director of the Divine Shakti Foundation, and that by the founder of UPLIFT failed to inspire me. Worse than that, I felt almost cynical as I sat half-listening to them and half-watching the rest of the audience who were, apparently, spell-bound. And that was, for me, quite a shock because it meant that I have changed a great deal in the last decade and I am not sure how I feel about that. Wasn't I a nicer person when I was more involved in that kind of thing? Or did I just like to think so? 

Cynicism aside, I was, however, deeply moved by the video produced by this guy, Prince EA, who spoke about 'labels', those of age, race, sex, shape and, size, colour etc. I think the practicality and common sense of his message meant more to me than the woman who spoke about sitting by the Ganges and becoming enlightened. 

I find myself taking that approach more and more lately. When people are Tweeting 'solidarity and support and slogans' for people who are suffering I can't help thinking, 'that's all well and good, and it's nice that you care, but is there nothing practical that we can do to stop the suffering in the first place? And does Tweeting and wearing badges and lighting candles make us lazy and complacent?'

Story-telling through dance...


There was dinner in the college dining hall. A grand but companionable affair, all of the attendees at long tables, the conference speakers and guests at the top table, the provost rushing us through grace in Latin with the speed of a bolting horse, speeches between the delicious vegetarian courses, some of the opinions expressed were such that I wanted to stand up and argue, a young woman on my right choosing to ignore me while her friends and I shared stories and experiences and got on wonderfully, a retired school head who kept us all giggling and his wife, a teacher, with whom I discussed genetics and human evolution and who hugged me when we parted company, a handful of people who were pushy and in possession of an over-developed sense of their own importance who were making asses of themselves, candles and portraits of past provosts gazing down on us, lovely servers who did a fantastic job of looking after us, and then wandering in the college gardens, being careful not to stray too close to the lake because the wine had flowed freely, and then to bed.

After breakfast a guided meditative walk, 

And another revelation when two strangers grabbed my hands and we circled a tree and they closed their eyes and communed with nature. I am a frequent talker to trees but I prefer to do it alone and without spoken words and chants, in the same way that I prefer to speak with my god, I suppose.

I have always been somewhat of a loner but I hadn't realised just how much I dislike being in crowds, until I found myself in the company of several hundred enthusiastically sociable people all determined to reach out and touch me.

One amusing incident, a woman sitting next to me turned and asked, "How was your journey?" to which I replied, "I came by bus" and she laughed and said, "No, I meant your spiritual journey," at which I laughed and said, "I think saying I came by bus is pretty accurate, someone else drove me here and I arrived late and a bit cross!"  

At the end of the intense couple of days it was quite a relief to escape. I fled to the anonymity and familiarity of The Ashmolean where, while leaving my bags in a locker I overheard a couple of American visitors discussing their lack of a £1 coin, so offered them a spare one of mine. They tried to give me the 73p they had in change and I declined, "Please, no, no fuss I just want to help," I insisted.

Which pretty much sums up why I didn't buy into all the soul-searching that was going on at Worcester College. A bit more action and a bit less navel-gazing, that's what this world needs.

Goodness, what a miserable old grump I have become! 
It's little wonder I am never invited to sleep-overs!


  1. You can come sleep over at my house anytime. We will get along famously. I promise you no crowds, no people determined to reach out and touch you; just lots of quiet time on the front porch with a glass of wine; drinking in the bird song and horse shuffling through fallen leaves.

    1. Thank you Annette! I shall pack Worry Bear without further delay :) And seriously, if you ever want to come to Brittany for a sleepover, this Brexit nonsense means I need to move back before Article 50 is invoked!


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