It was a five-fold surprise. And the first of the surprises was that I was invited to dinner. I am rarely invited to dinner. And I even more rarely accept. It would be nice to imagine that that last sentence explains the one before it but it would be wrong. That I am rarely invited to dinner is merely a fact, as indisputable but inexplicable as life on earth.
The second surprise was that the person doing the inviting was a professor. I have had little to do with professors. Of the two whom I could claim to have known at all well, one was timid, the other arrogant, but that is far too small a sample size for me to generalise about the species.
One thing I would like to know about professors, however, is whether they keep the title for life. Does a professor remain a professor even when he is beyond professing anything apart from a desire to pee? It is so for priests, I believe - unless they commit one of the more egregious indiscretions with a higher-pitched member of the choir - but for professors? Perhaps someone will enlighten me.
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The third surprise was that the professor doing the inviting belonged to the university college I attended back at the dawn of time. I was there between the ages of 19 and 22, and naturally enough at that time of life, things were vivid. I laughed, made friends, played games, moped in love, got into and out of trouble, enjoyed intoxicants and did a little studying when time permitted, but I would have done those things wherever I had been. None of it was, as Larkin so pithily put it, the place's fault. It never is.
When I left the college I didn't miss it. Nor did it miss me. It has mailed me its annual magazine for 40 years but that hardly qualifies as intimacy. Yet here it was, in the form of this professor, inviting me to dinner out of that famously unpredictable colour the blue, and making it clear that it, the college, was willing to pay.
The fourth surprise was that the professor doing the inviting was a professor of mathematics. Mathematics and I parted ways before I ever got to college, though things had actually started well between us. At primary school I enjoyed doing sums and at secondary school I became partial to algebra. I liked it when Dim Jim would set us to solve a series of algebraic equations of increasing difficulty from the pages of Hall's Algebra, a book even older than he was. I liked the remorseless iron logic of it. I liked learning the patterns.
But I noticed that the more advanced the algebra became the less it seemed applicable to life as lived outside the maths class. I once challenged Dim Jim on the matter. 'Sir,' I said, 'what's a quadratic equation actually for?' Dim Jim's eyebrows, which were the size of mice, climbed up his forehead in surprise. "Get on with your work, Bennett," he said. I got on with my work.
The fifth form saw the end of my mathematical road and the block that stood in my way was calculus. I could not see what it meant. I couldn't grasp its ideas. I could learn to parrot - and indeed can still parrot - the formula for differentiating a quotient, but what a quotient was and what the virtue was in differentiating it, I did not know. At the same time I could see classmates very clearly knowing, so I did the sensible thing and ran. I ran from maths, physics, chemistry, and all hard human knowledge, and I took refuge in the softer cradle of the arts and the imprecisions of language. I have stayed there since.
The fifth and final surprise was perhaps the most telling: the professor of mathematics was a woman. Now, I do not expect a professor of mathematics, or, for that matter, of physics to be a woman. Chemistry, perhaps; any other subject, most definitely; but maths and physics no. Why this should be so I cannot tell you. Presumably something in my upbringing suggested that the language of mathematics at its highest levels is accessible only to the male mind. And clearly that is wrong. Good to get that learnt.
And how did the dinner go? Oh, no surprise there. After some thought I turned the invitation down. It seemed to me too much of a coincidence that the college had found an interest in me only as I reach the age when wills get written.