by M. Davies (College Porter)
His chalked up notices had a talent for student humor often featuring celestial subjects such as Uranus’s rings. The Provost (Sir Derek) never deviated from calling him Nigel though nearly everybody else called him Alf, and it was only after working with him a couple of years that I got to know that Alf (which I knew was not his real name) actually stood for Alien life form.
Widely read, with an impressive almost encyclopedic knowledge of plants, heraldry, space and above all perhaps Oriel, he was the Lodge’s go-to guide in the days before J. Catto’s “A History of Oriel”. But Alf’s knowledge was also practical. For example, seemingly instinctively, he knew every fire hydrant, stop tap or fuse box. (No mean feat in this college – in fact, I would even be concerned if the current student can find their fuse box in 10 – 1 for example!)
He sang in the college choir before starting his career in the civil service, finally serving in Oriel lodge under 3 Provosts.
Of all of my colleagues past and present, he was surely the most impressive at being able to calm an emotionally breaking down student (or worse – suicidal) and change them back to an assured, competent, capable, motivated human being again, all within five minutes – an act I witnessed personally on a number of occasions over a number of years. A rolled up cigarette (‘After all we are the college of Sir Walter,’ he would say) and a stroll down Oriel Lane. He had a well-practiced patter which was even more effective on a cloudless night. In Oriel Square, he would pick out a named star, and by the time the cigarette was actually lit, (around the area of the Provost’s Lodgings) the insignificance of even our very planet would be the question at hand. By the time they’d reach the High Street, the student would be smiling, tears or anger having been long lost into the night and they’d still have the return journey to the Lodge to go.
Oriel’s Wikipedia pages became award-winning thanks to his contributions. For a time he was groomed as Jeff’s (Head Porter of the day) successor but though Head Porters continued to come and go it was never a promotion he actually achieved (disgraceful was a widespread view, particularly in the Lodge). When “Dickie Bird” (the most respected and liked Head Porter I have ever worked with at any college – present company accepted of course!) heard that Alf had left, I recall his words: “Now there was one who’d I always assumed would only leave here if carried out in a coffin. I despair at Oriel all that knowledge just walking out the doors but good luck to him.” A view I precisely shared.
As a Porter, colleague, or a single-handed Oriel first response force, Alf would be all that would ever be needed, and I maintain this institution owes him a debt of gratitude for his care of many, many intakes of students. His contribution and relationship to Oriel was as deep as any Don or Alumni and our college is the poorer for him moving on to pastures new.
It is important I think to end Alf’s story happily, and in this case it happens to be true. He found that special someone, fell in love and really will live happily ever after or so I wish… so who knows there could still be some hope for me yet!?