Matriculates at Oxford this Michaelmas term should give careful thought to their breakfast garb. Brasenose College – that grove of academe strolled by our prime minister and the Hon Toby Young, who has followed his Open University-founding father Lord Young into the education business – has mired itself in the “pyjamas at breakfast” debate. Not since the early 1930s (when the Oxford Union voted that, on the whole, this house did not much care for the idea of fighting for king and country) has our island nation’s best-loved seat of learning deliberately courted such controversy.
Apparently, undergraduates have taken to attending breakfast in Hall wearing their pyjamas, a sartorial custom that has appalled many of those young students who have led more sheltered lives.
The trouble is that breakfast takes place at a fairly barbaric time of day. Only very seldom do I agree to meet anyone for the meal, except members of my immediate family or people with whom I’ve been friends for more than a generation. It is not that I find the idea of discussing business at breakfast vulgar (I am guilty of too many lapses of good form to condemn others); rather that I find it an intrusion into a time of the day when I am not really at my best. Breakfast is there to fortify me for the labours that lie ahead, not to be a labour in itself.
I also cannot help but feel that a business breakfast is somewhat excessive. I like to think that I work hard, but then most of us tend to believe that of ourselves. However, a breakfast meeting suggests a little too much zeal and is perilously close to showing off. It allows the idea to form that one is so very important that every other opportunity to combine nutritional intake with some form of professional activity – elevenses, lunch, tea, cream tea, high tea, afternoon cigar, cocktails, dinner, postprandial drinks, nipping into Loulou’s for a nightcap, and that delightful intake of pasta between midnight and breakfast known by Italians as the spaghettata (all in ascending order of preference to breakfast) – has been taken, leaving only that wafer of time that clings to a precarious existence between leaving the shower and arriving at one’s place of work.
That is not to say I do not enjoy the occasional breakfast invitation that I do accept. The last one I had was with an old friend, whose assistant had booked a breakfast via my assistant, and the two of us just sat at The Wolseley thoroughly enjoying playing at being what we, with a fondness for 1980s retro, decided to call power breakfasters. We were far too busy acknowledging the presence of other highly important people around the room to actually achieve much in the way of business. But I think we set the tone by having kippers and white-tip (or was it bancha?) tea, which is, of course, antithetical to the whole power breakfast thing. Wolfing down a brace of kippered herrings and a samovar or two of Japanese white or green tea is, all in all, too much like enjoying yourself.
But I also find tea a frightfully good negotiating tool. I recently attended a meeting with a publisher at a West End hotel. He informed me that he would be attending with his art director, publishing director and possibly his executive assistant. I returned the email saying that, unfortunately, my art director was sick, my publishing director was on holiday and I had given my executive assistant the day off. I had an inkling it would be all PowerPoints and iPads, so I spent the first five minutes of the meeting briefing the waiter on exactly how I wanted my genmaicha. It certainly took the gravitas out of things, and the meeting progressed in a very jolly vein thereafter.
The thing about the real power breakfaster is that he or she eschews the breakfast part of things and goes straight for the power – at most, one of those toy-sized croissants might be allowed to sit, untasted, on a plate. I suppose the object is to make a co-breakfaster who eats anything feel like a glutton, or appear insufficiently serious or powerful for caring more about what is on the plate than on the agenda.
And now it seems that the much-cherished, centuries-old right of the British undergraduate to wander around in pyjamas is under threat. I was once a student and I have fond memories of getting into my green paisley dressing gown, straightening my cravat and popping on my cherry-red calfskin Grecian slippers, before sneaking out to the local off-licence for a tin or two of under-strength imported lager to enjoy with my matutinal meal. In fact, I can think of few other aspects of the various courses of learned enquiry I pursued that have been more relevant to the world of work.
So, provided that dressing gowns are worn (and, if desired, you could add an intellectual touch with one of those little black gowns I remember the university authorities stipulating for matriculation and exams), I think it is perfectly permissible for undergraduates to breakfast in their pyjamas. After all, it would be an intolerable burden on the Brasenose staff if they were obliged to serve students breakfast in their rooms.
Indeed, given that the Leveson Inquiry has been told that a pyjama party was part of the media relations strategy of at least one previous prime minister and his wife, perhaps if I want to get on in life I ought to start wearing my pyjamas to more breakfast meetings. Besides, the saffron-coloured wool dressing gown printed with horses’ heads that I bought at Budd some years ago is seen by far too few people. My only worry is that the ends of the sash might get caught in the spokes of my bicycle wheels.