What The Porter Saw

SWYN HAF has a word with the omniscient porter.

Arse chapel Drunk duty face git King's liberal pompous Porter room Trinity College

The life of a Porter…  Most of us have a sneaking suspicion that there’s more to it than keys and lost uni cards.  What do the bulldogs at Trinity keep under their bowler hats?  Surely these burly men and bubbly women must have a code for “drunk git in white tie” and “pompous arse in gown”?  Is there anywhere in college they don’t have access to? 


On the subject of the bowler hats, I can only add fuel to the fire of your curiosity.  The Trinity porters don’t speak to the press, apparently.  This was the message delivered from the “back room”, whence the porter on duty had disappeared at the sight of my notebook, to consult with “the boss”.  I risked the cheeky “how do you feel about your hat?” before leaving, but was ultimately stared down.  I can only say, that when in turn asked about the bowler hat, the Peterhouse porters assured me it was “not necessary” in their line of work.  Suggesting it’s a different line from the Trinity crew’s, I thought.  They further added that the bowler could become part of the uniform “should they become necessary.”  Intriguing, but I leave it to the imagination of the conspiracy theorists. 



The porters are, however, a tough nut to crack. They would describe the most important quality for their profession as “discretion” (although at Peterhouse, the psychic ability to guess who post belongs to comes in at a close second).  The best example of this discretion policy comes from those porters at Kings, who happily reminisced to me about their experiences of fishing drunken Fellows out of the Cam and being ordered to dive in for their glasses before tucking them into bed.  And we thought we gave them bother! 

By the sounds of it, we give them entertainment.  Without exception, the response to being asked about the strange costumes we don (formal dress, gown and cycling helmet, for example) was a warm chuckle.  Imagining Kings students would be most prone to alternative dressing (Kings being supposedly the most liberal college), I pressed the issue there.  But the bearded veteran I was talking to assured me that he himself was an alternative and liberal soul.  When asked about any secret codes or secrets generally, he replied gravely that he could tell me, but would have to shoot me.


Does this porter’s description of himself as ‘alternative and liberal’ really match all those other grouchy porters around town? After having interviewed such a variety of porters, and nosed into their second choice occupations, which range from retirement, to work in construction, to counselling (the bearded veteran again), I have to say it’s difficult to disagree with his self-assessment.  Counselling seems to form part of the daily duties of a porter, especially during exam term.  And they were all bracing themselves (especially at Johns for some reason) for Suicide Sunday.  Which is a comforting thought. 


A heart-warming addition is that the Peterhouse porters state that seeing students graduate or visiting as alumni are among their happiest professional memories.  It would be nice to think, though, that they also have fond memories of some inter-collegiate social events: a porters’ picnic perhaps.  Or paintballing, culminating with a Trinity and Johns face off.  Sadly, no such fun (or rivalry).  But I can see why; spending your entire working week being friendly to the masses, spending your weekend being friendly to each other might be a bit draining.


So, leaving porterly friendliness in its proper place behind the main gate, I returned to probing porterly discretion.  Which stretches to the revelation that they have keys to everything.  The most expensive things you care to imagine a college might own, yes, they have access, from paintings to port.  Secret chambers under those manicured lawns?  Yes.  Under chapel?  Yes.  It really is access all areas.  Very glamorous for shift work, even if the buttons on the Kings uniform “leave a lot to be desired”, which is maybe less glamorous.  Although a bespoke uniform would be a bit of a poor investment if it’s going to be dipped in the Cam regularly.  Which is, I suppose, the downside to having to access all areas. 


But it seems they are compensated – my interviewees admitted a certain relish in telling people to keep off the grass.  They go everywhere; we go where they let us.


So that’s the life of a porter – a very Cambridge mix of drunkenness (exposure to), drama (related to) and weird dress (taking it in your stride).  Banal, but with its own sprinkling of glamour and generous dash of the bizarre.  We should appreciate our porters whilst we have them.  I’m sure at some point in our future lives everyone of us will find ourselves locked out of our own homes, or too drunk to remember where our own home is, or with an undesirable inside said home, and wishing there was a magic number we could ring to summon a locksmith cum counsellor cum bouncer.  Hats off, guys!