I will never forget my first dinner. I had arrived early to soak up the atmosphere, and, as I walked into South Square, I stood for a few moments gazing up in wonder at the Georgian façades, behind which I pictured learned counsel poring over grave and weighty opinions as they prepared for their next High Court appearance. This was the stuff of which dreams were made, and I was soon to be a part of it.

As the Hall doors were open, I made my way inside and was intercepted by the Under Butler who, judging from the expression on his face, took me for a tourist.

‘May I help you, sir?’

‘I’m here to dine,’ I replied, feeling rather grand.

‘Not without a gown, sir.’ His manner was dismissive.

Following his directions, I made my way to the cloakroom, grabbed the first gown that came to hand and returned, chastened but unbowed, to join the queue that had formed in my absence. As I waited, the Head Butler, resplendent in a purple frockcoat trimmed with gold braid and important enough to be addressed in Capital Letters, caught my eye and walked smartly over.

‘Kindly follow me, sir,’ he said, plucking me from relative obscurity as he began to escort me to the top table. Flattered as I was by his attentions, I had a mounting sense of foreboding as all eyes followed my progress the length of the Hall, or so it seemed to me.

‘May I enquire when you were called, sir?’ he asked as we reached the top table. I felt the blood rushing to my cheeks.

‘I think there’s been some mistake,’ I stammered foolishly, ‘I’m a student member.’

‘A student member?’ he repeated, doing a passable impression of Lady Bracknell. ‘Then pray tell me why you are wearing a barrister’s gown?’

I was escorted back the length of Hall like some common criminal, hoping the ground would open and swallow me up. The cloakroom attendant, too little too late, helped me select an inferior student’s gown, and I was eventually seated on the bottom table near the door where the Head Butler could keep an eye on me. I had already been branded a troublemaker, but there was worse to come.

I had barely recovered my composure when three loud bangs of the gavel brought us all to our feet. A pair of ancient doors swung open behind the top table, and a parade of octogenarians filed slowly into Hall.

‘Who are they?’ I whispered in a spirit of enquiry.

‘Benchers,’ replied the know-all to my right. ‘Retired judges and barristers who’ve long since passed their sell-by-date and who sit around all day drinking port and waiting to die.’

After grace – in Latin, nimirum – everybody sat back down again and the meal was served. As ill luck would have it, I found myself seated as head of my Mess. Each Mess consisted of four students, and in front of me was placed a sheet of paper. On this I was required to list the names of the other three students who formed my Mess, as well as the names of the four students above me forming the Upper Mess, and the names of the four students below me who formed the Lower Mess. At an appropriate moment, somewhere between the brown Windsor soup and the lamb cutlet, I had to ask permission of the Head of the Upper Mess to toast their Mess, each and everyone by name, but not before each and everyone had toasted each and everyone else in my Mess, and then repeat the performance with the Lower Mess. The Upper and Lower Messes would then toast each other and then my Mess in return. In this way, we all drank a lot of wine and ate precious little of the rapidly congealing cutlet.

After dinner, there was to be a debate in Hall and, once the octogenarians had shuffled out to their decanters of port, I sat back exhausted to await the evening’s entertainment. The President of the Debating Society introduced the speakers and then turned to the motion.

‘The motion for tonight’s debate,’ he announced over the hubbub of conversation, ‘is that this House deplores sexual discrimination at the Bar, and I now call upon Clarissa McCarthy to speak in favour of the motion.’

A big girl with pursed lips and hair in a tight bun rose heavily to her feet.

‘Gerr ’em off!’ bellowed some lout at the back, to roars of approval from his male companions.

‘Male chauvinist pigs!’ McCarthy bellowed back. ‘And you know the one thing pigs are good for? Woffal!’

There were roars of approval from the females present, and as insults were traded across the floor the debate rapidly degenerated into farce. So much for the cut and thrust of rapier-like wit. I stuck it out to the bitter end and then, just before ten, the Under Butler mercifully brought the evening to an end by turning off the lights. It was a memorable introduction to the arcane ceremony of dining in Hall.

The gavel shook me out of my reverie as we rose noisily to our feet.

‘Members of Hall,’ intoned the Master Treasurer, ‘the toast is Domus.’

This was the first of many toasts that had us up and down like a pair of tart’s knickers. We toasted each other, Gray’s Inn and Good Queen Bess, got drunk on port, sang songs and did various silly things as we rang down the curtain on our student years.

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David is an English barrister, writer, public performer and keynote speaker. His full profile can be found on his website.

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