Amadeus: A Tribute to Trinity

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Towards the end of the summer I was invited to Trinity College in Cambridge for one of its regular gatherings. Naturally I wanted to go.
The problem, of course, was Amadeus.
In 1805, when Lord Byron was told to leave his dog at home, he brought a pet bear instead, taking it for a stroll around the grounds every day on a leash.
Amadeus is no longer the puppy I could carry around in an army medic’s pouch. He is now six feet long from his nose to the tip of his magnificent tail and he weighs over a hundred pounds. I considered, briefly, declaring him to be a bear.
He is, unmistakeably, a dog.
But there was an alternative. Some of my old maths pupils may remember me sitting entirely unperturbed through the ear-splitting clangour of a fire alarm, and demanding, as the entire class began abruptly to decamp: “Just where the Devil do you think YOU ARE ALL GOING!” And being told, in a delighted chorus: “SIR, THE SCHOOL’S ON FIRE!”
I explained to Trinity’s accommodation office that Amadeus is my Hearing Dog. I might be burnt to a crisp unless he slept in my room overnight to warn me of a possible fire. This would reflect badly on the College.
Trinity is not just one of the world’s greatest centres of learning, it is also – perhaps even more laudably – astonishingly generous and humane. Amadeus was accepted on just these terms. He would be allowed in my rooms; up to the final bridge leading to the College from the Backs; but not, on pain of being shot, any further into the College itself.
It takes around two hours to drive from Oxford to Cambridge. Late in the evening I was escorted to a beautiful set of modern rooms by the duty porter – carrying the Hearing Dog’s blanket. When he asked me whom I hoped to meet the next day,
I replied, “Apart from some American friends, I only know … “ and named one of Trinity’s most eminent scholars,“… and he will be the only one to know me.”
One can imagine that in Byron’s day this somewhat careless reply would have taken forever to reach all the many corners of the College. But as we walked down to the College in the morning, every porter we passed could be heard muttering into his throat mike: “Here comes the Lord’s guest, and his Hearing Dog.”
No one was surprised. And no one took the shot.
To return its kindness, I wanted to give several copies of ‘Educating Messiahs’ to Trinity’s library. On duty that morning was a charming young man from Malta – whose name, sadly, I promptly lost – who told me that he had just completed his PhD in mathematical logic. He accepted the books very graciously, before asking, as every careful librarian should: “And what – in a sentence – do your books say?
In a sentence? When Richard Feynman was asked this by a journalist concerning the award of his Nobel Prize for Physics, he replied, “Listen, pal. If I could tell you what I did in a sentence it wouldn’t be worth the Nobel Prize.”
Any scholar of mathematical logic would recognize: ‘Only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair can the soul’s habitation be safely built.’ This was by Bertrand Russell in 1903. He was then 31, which may be thought relatively young to be sure of the absolute sterility of all human life. He was already, however, recognised as one of the intellectual giants of his age. Yet his choice of words is also very odd. Why ‘soul’; and where exactly is the ‘firm foundation of its habitation’ to be found?
He doesn’t say.
I have often wished that one of these intellectual giants could have had an experience like mine years ago, to take from me the responsibility of explaining why Russell’s grim summary, for most people, is obviously true.
Perhaps he chose ‘soul’ to mean the spiritual DNA which, as several ancient cultures understand, requires serial ‘habitation’ in repeated lives until pure enough to be given a heaven of its own choosing; and that there is just not enough time for the great majority of people to learn which habits cause their soul to make no progress. Even Muhammad seemed to think this. He predicted that Islam soon would be corrupted after his death, and its followers divided: as happened.
But I responded poorly to the young librarian by declaring, “they say that our imagination must be free to receive communications from God, for only the imagination can accept the inexplicable as real, and can find explanations for it.”
Oof! This is far too long to be scribbled in book margins or scratched on prison walls. I should have said that they say, “God has yet to be discovered.”
[Within a minute of writing this, as I was checking the date of Russell’s gloomy apophthegm – an appropriately Gothic expression – I found it connected with the comment of the 16th century Renaissance philosopher, Michel de Montaigne: ‘Beautiful souls are universal, open, and ready for all things.’ To this Homer Simpson might exclaim: “Doh!” I gave silent thanks to my old friend Spinoza.]
But, hang on, where was I? Oh, yes. Leaving the library. [A few weeks later I received a charming letter from the Librarian, thanking me for my gift.]
Well, I enjoyed my lunch, being seated beside a delightful lady ambassador recently returned from representing Denmark’s national interests in Nepal. I also saw my Washington friends. But I saw very little of the fascinating presentations afterwards because I had repeatedly to visit the Hearing Dog in the car park beyond the great iron gates which mark the western boundary of Trinity’s immaculate lawns.
This boundary is also marked by a deep ditch, which runs across the Backs from St John’s College, past Trinity College, to King’s College. It is bridged, at intervals, for vehicles and pedestrians. But to have written ‘runs’, in the sense of ‘flows’, is incorrect. It may not have moved an inch sideways since the Magna Carta was signed: 800 years ago this week! It contains a depth of coal-black bacterial sewage in which are floating still identifiable bits of decaying fish and birds. God alone must know, and I write here respectfully, what is underneath.
And, of course, you will know what happened next. Slipping the knot in the rope I had tied to his chain, and as if it were his own Manifest Destiny to get himself repeatedly into nasty situations from which withdrawal is always infinitely more difficult, Amadeus jumped in.
There followed an almost exact reprise of our earlier adventure. At first the same delighted total immersion; then the snapping at the filthy feathers and fragments of fish; then the first attempts to leave; then the discovery that the bank is far too soft; followed by the pitiful whoops and yelps and the beginning of despair. “I am ALONE, ALONE, OOH-OOH! A-L-O-N-E!! OOH-OWW!”
This time, I resolved, I was damned if I was going to get into that ditch with him. I was still hoping to return to my pretty neighbour at lunch. She would not find me so delightful if dripping black slime from the waist down.
But by now Amadeus’s whooping and wailing had attracted a flock of foreign tourists who had just debussed from what my Northern primary school headmaster would have called their ‘charabang’. Clearly ready to believe that everything in Cambridge is provided for them to be photographed in front of, they were soon snapping shots of a British dog committing a peculiar form of ritual suicide.
Ignoring them, but not without a disdainful glance at this callous audience, two valiant local ladies put down their shopping to haul on one end of the rope whilst I anchored the other, and together we pulled the sodden, stinking, but entirely unremorseful Amadeus out of his horrible ditch.
More tourists arrived. Twittering still more excitedly en masse, they crowded closer. Those in the front rank were holding their cameras near to the ground, whilst those in the second and third had to hold theirs above their heads. Their lenses reflected the scene like so many dark and eager eyes.
I opened my mouth to warn them. Too late! Amadeus was already lowering his head and setting his legs. Once firmly set, and as all dogs do, he commenced to rid his coat of its excess moisture by throwing a perfect penumbra of stinking black ooze, once, twice, three, four times, all over his admirers, their clothes, their spectacles, and their cameras.
Spontaneous cries of joy arose from those in the rear, cries of horror from those in front. “I really don’t think you need wait here any longer, love,” one of my helpers told me, as they both scooped up their shopping and left. I never learnt their names. Thinking this also wise, I made a tactical withdrawal to a position well within Trinity’s gate, where I paused beside a silent but clearly sympathetic porter to assess this new situation.
A two-hour drive back to Oxford? Even in the open air, the stink rising from Amadeus was appalling. In the car it would be unbearable. The car itself would have to be written off. What to do?
Obviously, put him back – no, not into the ditch: into the gentle Cam, into the clean and gentle Cam, flowing across the Backs, beneath so many pretty clean bridges, carrying so many beautiful clean young people.
But how? Arriving at the bank, just before the bridge into the College I was not allowed to cross with him, my heart sank. As you will see, the bank had been revetted to a height of two feet. I could get him in, but to lift him out?dog
“Can I help?” said an angel, a beautiful young lady, in black and white uniform clothes, clearly of great compassion, generosity, and virtue, who suddenly appeared beside me. Later I realized that she had also been summoned – wirelessly – by my guardians in their bowler hats.
“I’m Jess,” she told me. “And isn’t he,” referring now to the reeking lump of sodden fur that I had tied to a tree at our feet, “s-o-o beautiful!” Amadeus blinked at her as if his present state of squalor was a mystery to him. “I shall get Mr Shanahan,” breathed the angel. “He will know just what to do.”
In the employ of P. G. Wodehouse’s creation, Lord Emsworth, Beach, his magnificent butler, is frequently reported to have the ability, very much like that of the famous Indian guru Sai Baba, of being able to materialise out of empty air; and even of bi-location, of appearing in two places at once.
I now learnt that Mr Cornelius Shanahan, the Catering Manager of Trinity College, Cambridge, is able to do this too: possibly while still supervising his staff back in the splendid surroundings of the Wren Library and Neville’s Court.
“Good afternoon, Sir,” said Mr Cornelius, as Jess always called him, materialising beside me out of the empty air. “Allow me to suggest that we take your dog to the punt slipway to wash him clean there with a borrowed hose.”
“But,” I responded feebly, hardly recovered from the shock of his sudden appearance, “I can’t go over there.”
“Then I”, Mr Shanahan majestically declared, “shall escort you myself!”woman and dog
And he did. Led by brave Jessica, careless of her shiny black pumps, her immaculate skirt and her crisp white blouse, all already showing multiple signs of the Hearing Dog’s affection, and followed by your humble servant, we proceeded to the punt slipway, at the corner of the College grounds, where a crowd of happy tourists were being slotted into place in punts, like sardines.
Our appearance created a stir. Mr Cornelius explained his desires to the young men in charge. They began at once to move their punts out of the way. When I looked again to where he had been, not a shadow of Cornelius Shanahan remained.
But there was no time to lose. The walkway beside the basin being too narrow for all three of us, Jess passed Amadeus to me, who immediately displayed the fat-headed misconception common to celebrities everywhere that his idiot antics were being applauded by right-thinking people.
He stopped at the edge of the dock to wag his tail in response to the cheers of his audience in the punts in midstream. With something approaching the emotion of one called upon to betray a simple-minded but still trusting friend, I applied my right foot to his bum and pushed him, very briskly, into the Cam. There was a still greater cheer from his audience as he broke surface, puffing in the midst of a great spreading black stain, as much of the filth from the ditch washed off him at once. By the time he swam back to the slip, he was clean. Everyone, this time, stood clear of the deluge.
I never got to thank Jess properly, if at all. She disappeared too. Perhaps one day I hope that she – and Mr Shanahan – will see this and receive my heartfelt thanks; as I hope the nearly invisible but highly efficient troop of bowler-hatted gentlemen who brought them to my – that is, to our – aid will also. Thank you all.
And of course, by the time I returned to the luncheon, it was over.
I tried afterwards to find my Washington friends in the college where they usually stay, but they had also disappeared.
In the end, therefore, this is:

The End

First a British army soldier, then a teacher of school mathematics, Colin Hannaford has been an admirer for many years of Rabbi Lerner and believes that the Network of Spiritual Progressive is our best hope to reduce religious tension and conflicts everywhere in the world. This article was edited by DED.