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Although it is widely felt that the primary purpose of an Oxford education is the obtaining of a degree, there is an enlightened minority who realise that seen in the light of the vast compass of human aspirations, this represents woefully poor return on investment. Such persons are (or were) the Oxford Byron Society. Realising that the hothouse environment of Oxford was better harnessed for nurturing creativity in a world already bored to numbness by pedantry, the founding fathers, Richard Schulze and Danny Henrey made the composition of Byronic verse a requirement for attendees of the inaugural dinner in June 1985. What they might not have anticipated was that this noble quest was soon to lead to scribblings whose scurrilousness would have made even the society’s patron quail, and whose only saving grace was that sometimes they rhymed. The fifth stanza of Raymond Paretzky’s Childe Danny’s Pilgrimage, about the MCR rowing eight that summer, demonstrates some of the essential features:
The horror! The horror! The river cried out in pain
As yet once more Childe Danny’s crew set out;
The chemist took his seat; down poured the rain;
Vain Astbury opined, "Let’s head for ‘The Trout’!",
But Cross disagreed, Cross did use her clout—
She steered towards the bridge, she climbed atop;
"No talk of beer," she yelled, "no ale or stout;
No lager, my boys, but row ’til you drop!"
So urged the cox, then spied the bank, "Stop!" she screamed, "STOP!"
The words "The horror! The horror!" are evocative of Colonel Kurtz’s (Marlon Brando’s) message in Coppola’s cult film, Apocalypse Now!, another story based on a river journey, and there is a clear analogue between the guilty suffering of the deranged soldier in this and the pain that the river god Isis experiences each time our inept rowers take to the water. Or is there? Who cares, anyway?
To understand the character of the Byron Society, it is necessary to understand one of the founders, Richard Schulze. Handsome, proud, moody and defiant, women know that they are just helpless putty in the hands of this debonnair seducer. Like Byron himself, Richard places strong emphasis on style. The modern equivalent of Byron’s antique travelling carriage, for example, would surely be Richard’s 1935 Aston Martin, which he would race in vintage car rallies while he was a student at Oxford and even survived his (rather unbyronic) stuffing into a wall at one of these events. It was Richard who promulgated the basic elements of the Byronic creed, which were companionship, creativity and style. His displeasure was then quite evident when the Society began its long obsession with sheep abuse. Although scholars cannot agree on when exactly this started, my personal view is that it can be traced to February 1987. The invitation to the dinner the following month (composed by Danny) contains the sentence:
Danny "Don Juan" Henrey once ravished eighteen sheep in his rooms in Trinity in one night without the "authorities" finding out, though literary scholarship has recently discovered that both Junior Deans were in fact present, disguised as sheep.
Danny has been evasive in regard to whether this is was put in for poetical/humorous "effect" or whether it is actually true, but of the ten pieces presented at the following dinner, three contain ovine references, including one of mine ("Dan Juan") which explores the scenario of Danny finding redemption through the love of a beautiful sheep. This ratio was to worsen.
The society suffered the fate of most Oxford dining societies in that when the original protagonists left, it was not carried on within Oxford. However, unlike most dining societies, and despite the fact that the members are widely dispersed, it has continued nonetheless, and when I created an internet page for us, which you can find at http://www.cgoakley.org/byrsoc/ if you are interested, it took me a whole month to get all the stuff together (and, by the way, I am still missing the invitation for the March 1988 dinner, so if one of you out there has it, then please be in touch — it begins with the sublime epithet, "it is not noon"). The core is now of just three of us, namely Danny, who by the time you read this may well be in Hong Kong or Australia doing we know not what, but he has assured me that it is not just an extended holiday; Steve Hoey, whose copiousness is a legend, and not just in poetry, currently the star music composition student at California Institute of Arts (an institution which prefers to abbreviate itself as "Cal Arts" rather than using its initials, for some reason), and myself, living in Hertfordshire, writing software for music composition (I am hoping that Steve will be a customer). With these geographical dispositions, we will be able to say that the Byron Society is an empire upon which the sun never sets, although given the effort involved, it may not have been worth it. I will leave you with a few lines from Danny’s The Newstead Games, a piece of eighty-five heroic couplets, presented at one of our weekends in the Cotswolds, which is an account of games held to celebrate Lord Byron’s twenty-first birthday, and where there were just three events, namely Wenching, Quaffing and Poetry (NB: I hope that you realise that the choice of venue, the Cotswolds, has nothing to do with the abundance/quality of the sheep in this area). One of the sparse elements of truth upon which the fantasy is based is that, after leaving Trinity, Richard went on to study medicine, and now has his own eye practise in Savannah, Georgia, U.S.:
The first event, which Wenching was, begins,
And those most practis’d in the fleshly sins
Step forth: th’audacious Schulze is first in line,
Who on fresh virgins every eve did dine,
And thought well how he quite the biscuit took
In knowing when, and where, and how to hook
The gentlest maiden, soft in look and voice.
With urbane eye, he peers and makes his choice,
Adjusts his codpiece, fiddles with a glove,
And quoth, ‘You are my one and only true love.’
Alas, alack! The girl for which he longs
Hath he but the week past most sorely wrong’d:
Within this nurse’s heart there burns a fire
Far hotter yet than longing or desire.
Into his arms she canters swift along
And crimps his goolies with her steely tongs!
The following event involves much imbibation of George Hector’s homebrew ale ("Northmoor Brown & Pale") with largely predictable results, but the dramatic climax is when Steve Hoey reads his poetry in the final event, wherein the pact he made with the devil to improve his eloquence brings disaster upon the whole party.