The Infamous Oxford Toast Thief

Oxford, it seems, is purpose-built to befuddle me.

I was there at a research methodology conference for two days (there will be a Serious blog later full of stuff about ethics and visualization of data and things; give me a few days to get the Serious hat back on). As I arrived on the first day my train was late, it was raining, and there was a tiny drama with my conference booking, the result of which was me flapping breathless and sodden into the front of a lecture hall (no stealthy slinking into the back row for me) and receiving pointed looks for being That Idiot. Oh also: one of the signs on the way had fallen down, leaving just a giant arrow with no building name to tell you where you would actually end up at the end of the arrow. It was all rather existential.

It so happens, by the way, that the lecture hall in the Bernard Sunley building at St Catherine’s College primarily consists of seats that have their writing desk on the left-hand side. Someone once told me this was a deliberate thumb in the eye to the rest of the world from left-handed designer Arne Jacobsen. I have absolutely no idea if he really was left-handed, but in any case I hope he’s still laughing as all us right-handers swivel uncomfortably around in our chairs, balancing notebooks and iPads precariously at odd angles on a variety of surfaces.

Later, after escaping Jacobsen’s Shrine to the Gloriously Left-Handed, I checked into Wadham college where I would be spending the night and became confused by a door lock. You see, most door locks are fairly intuitive: you turn the lock in the direction of the wall to lock (bolt slides into wall–locked!), and away from the wall (bolt slides out of wall into door–unlocked!) to achieve the opposite effect. Alas, this was not one of those locks. I managed to turn the key in the only direction that would completely prevent it from locking, a possibility that until that point had not yet come before me in my long history of negotiating doors and the locks therein. I felt like Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator–I didn’t even know there were other ways it could go. (This, by the way, was still pre-pints. During Pint Time I hit my head on a chandelier. Really. There are–sigh–witnesses.)

But none of that compares even slightly with the Toast Incident.

A friend of mine was also staying in Wadham. In this college breakfast takes place in the very striking 400 year old Hall, replete with stained glass windows and a hammer beam roof to start your day, to which we repaired in the morning. Breakfast, I hear you thinking, is something that surely most people can grasp without too much difficulty.

We were doing fairly well. Both of us had attained plates from the buffet, and had put food on these plates. We had returned to our seats. Coffee and tea had been ordered. Genteel conversation was taking place around the silver candlestick/table lamp thingies. I then casually reached over to a toast rack on one end of the table and removed a slice for myself. I realized rather rapidly that in fact, this was not toast for our end of the table. This was toast specifically for the consumption of the woman sitting opposite us.

What words can there possibly be for the embarrassment I felt at that moment? Suffice to say that they could have brought plain bread and toasted it from my cheeks to replace my purloined slice. The woman was very gracious about it, but nothing could eradicate my toast shame. In fact, the very walls conspired to drive home what an uncouth peasant-mannered hick I was.

We were seated facing a mid-18th century painting of a severe-faced, bewigged Lord Chancellor. Until the Toast Incident, we’d been speculating about why said Lord Chancellor was pointing reprovingly out of the frame. It was now, now that the Toast Incident had occurred, that we realized he was saying “Stop! Toast thief!”