ONIONS AND ALUMNI
‘pupil or graduate of a school’ (1640s), from Latin alumnus ‘a pupil’, literally ‘foster son’, vestigial present passive participle of alere ‘to suckle, nourish’, from PIE root *al- (2) ‘to grow, nourish’. With ending akin to Greek -omenos. Plural is alumni. The fem. form is alumna (1882), plural alumnae.
I am fourteen years old and visiting the local youth club. It’s billed as a jive evening, but the first LP (a 10-incher) put on begins with the leader of ‘the eight-man mammoth orchestra’, announcing in incongruously cultivated tones: ‘Hello everyone, this is Humphrey Lyttelton here, inviting you to join us at our jazz concert at the Royal Festival Hall in London. The date in November 28 1954 and it’s three o’clock in the afternoon…’ And a whole stream of jivable trad numbers then follows. We dance. Number six is a Sidney Bechet number, ‘Les Oignons’, with a wailing clarinet played here by Wally Fawkes. But here at every pause in the tune the audience is told to shout ‘Onions’, which they do with gusto. So do we.
The author Alan Garner, said the following about writing children’s books:
‘A book must be written for all levels of experience. this means that any given piece of text must work at simple plot level, so that the reader feels compelled to turn the page, if only to find out what happens next: and it must also work for me, and for every stage between. […] An onion can be peeled down through its layers, but it is always, at every layer, an onion, whole in itself. I try to write onions.’
I find music often peels most layers in my onion. But slightly further out lies my alumnus layer, one often exploited by every university I am, apparently still, a member of. They play the ‘Brideshead Revisited’ card, the ‘Et in Arcadia ego’ ace and then ask for a ‘donation’, even misusing first-year students to phone you and twang the memory strings.
I have a gourmet menu of onions: Cambridge, Oxford, Amsterdam, Odense, Lund. In reverse order, perhaps? Even my secondary school claims an onion antipasto. My mind is fully nourished; my purse is empty.