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Wednesday, 15 December 2021

The Inter-Varsity Club

It can be hard moving on your own to somewhere you don’t know anyone. Perhaps it’s not so bad when you are young, but I did it in my thirties. Things were fine at work, but home alone in the evenings, well, you don’t expect it to be like that.

I moved to the Midlands. I’d had enough of working in universities – that’s another story – and come to accept I was better on my own – also another story, a long and disagreeable one.

In universities, you think you are solving the world’s problems and work too much, but in this new job, when I went home, the time was mine. I looked around for things to do. I went to a couple of po-faced meetings of Friends of the Earth, but it was too much like work: sub-committees and working-group meetings. Then I saw an ad in the paper: IVC: ‘The Inter-Varsity Club’; it said something about “meeting people with similar interests” and “broadening your social life” with “concerts, meals out and other activities”. It met on Monday evenings in a scruffy room above a dingy pub. We carried our drinks up from the bar and mixed and chatted in small groups. It was full of eccentrics and misfits. I fitted in perfectly. 

The IVC had started in London after the Second World War when a group of Cambridge undergraduates wondered how they might “replicate their busy university social lives through the summer vacations”. Whatever could they have meant? They organised dances for students, graduates, teachers, nurses and almost anyone else with nothing better to do, and soon added other activities such as walks and theatre trips. By the nineteen-eighties there were branches all over the country and the focus had shifted to year-round activities for young people who had moved to unfamiliar places. Some remained members for years, even into their forties and fifties. It was definitely a mixed-age group that I joined.

I have never had such an active social life. Some weeks I went out every night. 

Activities were organised by members, with participation by sign-up. We went to films, plays and classical and pop concerts. We had meals out, days out and evening and weekend walks. Some events were in members’ homes, such as craft activities, coffee evenings, colour slide shows and parties. I went on a couple of long weekends away: walking in Exmoor and the Forest of Dean.

The walks were always popular: you tended to chat naturally with everyone else at some point along the route. I ‘hosted’ several myself, but also dragged people along to things like talks and poetry readings. One of ‘my’ events was a lecture about the Luddites by an almost eighty year-old Michael Foot. He shuffled on, steered by an assistant, wearing a shapeless cardigan buttoned out of alignment with a spare button hole at the top and a spare button at the bottom. Things looked distinctly unpromising until he began to speak, when he proceeded to mesmerize everyone in the theatre with a brilliant talk in the richest, most authoritative voice you could imagine.

Two twice-yearly events were especially well-anticipated: ceilidh dances and the ‘Galloping Gourmet’.   

The Galloping Gourmet, a miracle of organisation, was a five-part meal (sherry, starter, main course, pudding and coffee) with courses in different homes. It worked like this:

To take part, you either (a) host sherry or coffee, (b) provide a course for six people, or (c) are a driver.

Each starter, main course and pudding is served to groups of six in five different homes at a time. Everyone starts in one of two locations for sherry. They move on in threes to somewhere else for starters, joining with three from the other sherry location to make six. The threes are then re-shuffled and move on to somewhere else for main courses, and again for puddings. Everyone ends up at the same place for coffee.
Thus, with 30 participants, there are 3 sherry/coffee hosts, 10 drivers, 15 course providers and 2 organisers who get a free ride. Instructions to drivers are prepared ready to be handed out by the hosts, e.g. “Please take Margaret and Jim to Margaret’s at 1 Sandy Street, Wibbleton, to arrive by 7.30 for your starter”, where the next instruction might be:  “Please take Jim and Sue to Bill’s at 2 Rocky Road, Wobbleton, to arrive by 8.15 for your main course”.

Apart from one or two legendary mess-ups (such as the clueless chap who asked “what do we do now?” when he and five others arrived at his bedsit expecting a starter) it worked brilliantly. 

But you know what happens in clubs like IVC, don’t you? You find that those with similar interests attend the same things, and you make friends, and they ease into your thoughts and you begin to wonder what if you had a special friend. One, with laughing blue eyes and a liking for Bushmills whiskey, looked delighted when the clockwork of the ceilidh brought us together. I began to go to all her events and she to mine. The Galloping Gourmet organiser sent us to the same places most of the way round. One warm evening in peaceful Leicestershire ridge and furrow, where heron rise and kingfisher flash along the Kingston Brook, I offered a hand over a difficult stile. “What are men for,” she wondered, “if not to help you over difficult stiles?” Her hand lingered a little longer than necessary and I went kind of shivery and weak all over.

Herons and kingfishers bring luck, peace and love. After that, Dear Reader, we had a few private events of our own. We’ve been married now for thirty years.

It wasn’t all that long before I had another university job, too.

38 comments:

  1. That's a lovely tribute! And a good story of the club

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    1. It was the right thing for me at the time. Even after all this time the core members still see each other regularly, although not as part of IVC any more. It is starting to become rather geriatric.

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  2. Lovely story of how you and Mrs Dunham came together. Arriving at that special moment in the Leicestershire countryside was worth all the Inter-Varsity shenanigans. I wonder if that stile by the Kingston Brook is still there.

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    1. I imagine it has now been upgraded by some sturdy wooden structure with grab rails a dog gate as part of the Midshires Way footpath. Before you think to ask, the private events of our own, as mentioned at the end, were origami, trainspotting and stamp collecting.

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    2. As a cultured gentleman, this is exactly what I had presumed. After all, you were not married at that point.

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  3. Oh, I do enjoy a romantic love story.

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  4. What a great way to make friends! Glad you found your match there!

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    1. We are still in touch, although don't see them often because we moved some distance away.

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  5. Social groups like that are wonderful and kudos to everyone who takes the time to help organize them! And what a lovely way to meet your spouse!

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    1. It still exists: http://www.ivc.org.uk/ There are also similar groups such as Rotaract and various Young Professionals clubs.

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  6. A historical romance. With a happy ending. Love it. :)
    Congratulations on 30 years together.

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    1. Thank you. Sorry for slow response - comment was in spam folder. I didn't know I had such a folder until I read today's post on Steve Reeds blog just now.

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    2. I wondered why it hadn't shown up and then I saw your post on Steve's blog this morning and figured it was mine. Not sure how I feel about sent off with rAtanA and her ilk. :)

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    3. It was indeed. No idea why as this last one is fine. Unfortunately R- and her ilk seem to always get straight through to the blog.

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  7. That is one of the most romantic true love stories I have read in a very long time - thank you very much for sharing it!

    The Galloping Gourmet sounds really complex - I guess I would have constantly been at the wrong place at the wrong time, and the person to ask "What do we do now?" would have been me.

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    1. Enjoyed writing it. If I was organising a GG I would put you down as main course host. It's up to you what you serve. I'd be a driver. I'd be at Thelma's for starters where I'd receive the instruction "Please take Yorkshire Pudding and Graham Edwards to Meike's in Germany for your main course." We would have a good appetite by the time we got there. Then it would be "Please take Meike and Britta to Bob Brague's in Georgia for your pudding."

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  8. What a romantic beginning leading to a lifetime love, all without Tinder.

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    1. As replied to Debra, these clubs still exist. They weren't intended primarily as matchmaking groups, although such things did of course happen from time to time. There were also some joined as couples, and others who stayed single for years and joined for the friendship. I think one does tend to go out a lot more when you live on your own.

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  9. How romantic! Although I would add removing spiders as well.

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    1. And lovingly setting them free in the garden.

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  10. That is a wonderful start and going on of your relationship, Tasker!
    The club-idea sounds interesting - I will look around if my Bavarian place offers something similar.
    Though I easily meet people - even here :-) - and moving in my life 15 times (once during childhood, then for the university, then for my federal agency job to go up the ladder 4 times - and sometimes 3 moves to better flats in the same city as in Hamburg - and now surprise, surprise splitting between Berlin an Bavaria) - all that keeps me in practice.

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    1. Thank you, Britta. In England, for the more experienced of us, there are things like 'Over 60s' clubs. I went along to one for a while but didn't fit in because it was full of old people.

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  11. Aaaah.
    But the movable feast, no thanks, I prefer a big table, a long, lingering meal with friends and lots of laughter and that lovely feeling of not wanting to move from your seat.

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    1. It could be a bit hectic but the two have different purposes. The Galloping Gourmet helped people to meet others and get known. And it fed 30 people (or some other number) without one person having to do everything.

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  12. Lovely story, and nice that you met your other half when I presume you weren't even looking for her. That's probably the best way to meet someone special.

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    1. Thank you. Sometimes one can be deliberately not looking.

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  13. That is one thing missing from the age of the internet: No lingering handtouch to make one go all weak and shivery inside. I loved your little story, Tasker.

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    1. Thank you. A virtual handtouch will have to suffice.

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    2. LOL. I meant, I wonder if you and Mrs. D would have fallen head over heels without that handtouch that set your heart to racing.

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    3. The fairer sex can be very persistent and forceful.

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    4. ...when pursuing our hapless prey

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  14. Well, as much as everyone likes friendship and meeting new people, eventual happy matrimony is the jackpot win of any club membership!

    I think I'd have liked that Luddite lecture. If I were to describe a Luddite from my own imagination, he would resemble the guy you've described here.

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    1. Possibly for some, but there were others who really did seem to be happy on their own and joined IVC and other clubs to be sociable. Strangely, the genius who organised the Galloping Gourmet was also in Friends of the Earth.
      It's worth looking up Michael Foot if you haven't come across him. Labour Party Leader of the 1980s and a kind of Jeremy Corbyn Mk I, but much more intellectual. A fine brain in fact.

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  15. "...it said something about “meeting people with similar interests” and “broadening your social life” with “concerts, meals out and other activities”. It met on Monday evenings in a scruffy room above a dingy pub." I was thinking you'd mistakenly become a Freemason!

    I moved from the Midlands, and then in my 30's also, out on my own. This too in time may prove to be a disagreeable story, but for now I'm quite comfortable, with me, my cat, and my small host of imaginary companions.

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    1. Don't know about Freemasons except I thought you had to be invited.
      It's good to be self-contained, but for me the disagreeable story was what had happened before, and it had left me in a bad place, so I needed something like IVC. However, one issue with IVC and similar groups is that branches form almost entirely in large places as the press cuttings show, so where you are would involve travelling a very long way if you wanted to participate.

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