I am the Queen’s College bugleer. It is not an official title (nor is bugleer even a word), but it is one I have claimed for myself and refuse to give up. My principal job is to play the same 4 second fanfare three times every evening at ten past seven to announce that the second dinner sitting is being served. I consider my role an extremely important one, having taken on the huge and largely thankless responsibility to ensure that everybody in college doesn’t go hungry. Lord knows what would happen if I stopped.
Last year, I did this six nights a week despite the fact that the second sitting happens at the same time every night, and 90 percent of college has already eaten at the first sitting. Most people at Queen’s probably don’t know that there is a bugleer, and the sound of a trumpet fanfare ringing around the crumbling quads probably blends into all the other daily occurrences which Oxford makes you forget aren’t normal. While I am immensely proud to be a bugleer, the pointlessness of the job makes me self-conscious and I tend to do my bugling quite surreptitiously.
The sound of a trumpet fanfare ringing around the crumbling quads probably blends into all the other daily occurrences which Oxford makes you forget aren’t normal.
Tradition is strange. It is a one-size-fits-all justification for doing weird things and a widely accepted opportunity to suspend common sense. People in Oxford do this more than most. At 6am on the morning of 1st May, thousands gather on Magdalen Bridge to hear the Magdalen College choir sing from the tower, a once profound event where now people who have been drinking for twelve straight hours throw up on each other’s feet. At Christmas time, members of Queen’s sing Latin songs at a boar’s head, and when the clocks go back, those at Merton College walk around backwards for an hour in the middle of the night to maintain the space-time continuum. ‘Squidge in the pidge’, a rite of passage at the Queen’s Football Club ‘Santa Dinner’, sees 60-80 people, all dressed as Father Christmas, fit inside the 4x3x3m post room, a Houdini-esque feat of which the daredevil himself would have been proud. Unsurprisingly, it seems that this practice may not survive the pandemic, though it will be fondly remembered.
These things celebrate past and present simultaneously, and, forever at risk of being swallowed up by the passing of time, they are lovingly, nay, viciously protected. Increasingly in Oxford, the conversations are beginning to be had about why we support the continued existence of relics, the origins of which we know very little about, and many of which represent values that should not be perpetuated. Oxford traditions, whilst often fun, have the oppressive capacity to make one feel like a tiny part of something huge, identical to the part next to you, stretching out in space and time, and those who would like to ask the question feel not only the modern day majority urging them to be silent, but also the weight of hundreds of history-laden years pressing down on them. Vector-like, we unquestioningly pass things on and exist to serve tradition far more than it us.
So when I arrived at the Stiftung Maximilianeum, a foundation for gifted Bavarian students where I was welcomed as an exchange student two months ago, I expected more of the same. Founded in 1852 and housed in the Maximilianeum, a pale stone leviathan standing bullishly atop raised ground on the banks of the River Isar, the ‘Stiftung’ (foundation) states in its constitution that scholars should receive free accommodation for the duration of their degree, three free meals per day (including a semi-formal lunch hosted by the ‘Vorstand’, the head of the Stiftung), and a litre of beer to go with it. It shares the building with the state parliament and accepts applicants from all over Bavaria, not using today’s state boundaries but those from the 19th century.
Perplexed, I settled back into the same rhythms as when I was an Oxford fresher and quietly watched and listened, trying to make sense of the madness around me without going against the grain, all the while sheepish about my ovine involvement.
But traditions are different everywhere, and so too is their importance. One evening, all of the seven exchange students at the Stiftung were invited to the Vorstand’s apartment for an event aptly named ‘Wine and Talking about the Stiftung’. On reflection, I find that I am a big fan of social occasions where the topic of conversation is specified multiple weeks in advance, and besides, I was looking forward to getting an explanation of the singularity of this undeniably strange institution.
In truth, the Stiftung has been under existential threat since before it was established. It was initially funded out of the pocket of its founder, King Maximilian II, after it was refused state funding, and after the abolition of the monarchy in the early 20th century, its link with kingship caused the public to question its right to exist. The Nazis vowed to shut it down, naming it as one of the tasks it would carry out after the ‘final victory’, and today, it is viewed by many with condemnation due to its ostensibly exclusionary and elitist raison d’être. It has remained alive through financial independence from the state, as well as by staying quiet and staying together.
In the words of Gustav Mahler, ‘tradition is not the worship of ashes, but the preservation of fire’; the answer to the question of ‘why’ must always be that we are preserving a fire that deserves preservation.
Every year, the current and past members of the Stiftung get together to eat, drink and catch up with one another. The event, also aptly named, is called the ‘Beer Evening’. The tables were decked with steins and pretzels and covered with blue-and-white tablecloths; it looked like the easiest ‘Geo-Guesser’ attempt imaginable, and I geared up for the most Bavarian evening of my life. But the tablecloths could have been any colour and we could have been eating crepes or drinking English breakfast tea. What was important was the evidence that the community was still populated, still breathing, and as it happened, still thriving.
For this reason, there has to be an element of the nonsensical or pointless about traditions. Why do we stand on Magdalen Bridge at 6am or squeeze 60 Santas into a tiny room? Why does my trumpet remain a convoluted alternative to a watch? These questions are crucial, and traditions are not worthwhile if they are not asked. In the words of Gustav Mahler, ‘tradition is not the worship of ashes, but the preservation of fire’; the answer to the question of ‘why’ must always be that we are preserving a fire that deserves preservation.
Writing this, and my previous columns, has made me realise that I know very little about anything, but I have had fun. A suitably abrupt ending to a suitably random project; tschüss, meine Schätze, auf Wiedersehen.
Image credit: Yii-Jen Deng.
Image description: A cartoon of a traditional Bavarian hat with legs walking across an outline of the Munich skyline.