Christopher Gray enjoys a fine college meal

Monday of last week was the birthday of the American writer Mark Twain, born 180 years earlier and christened Samuel Clemens.

The event was celebrated in Oxford with a dinner at Magdalen College, hosted by the Mark Twain House and Museum, in Hartford, Connecticut.

This was preceded by a lecture by Twain House executive director Dr Cindy Lovell. This concentrated on Twain’s last visit to England in 1907 prompted by the offer of an Oxford University honorary doctorate.

I met Dr Lovell – she soon became ‘Cindy’ – before the talk and was lucky enough to be seated beside her at dinner.

By the end of the evening she felt like an old friend. I concluded that someone as famously gregarious and good-natured as Twain could scarcely have hoped for a better ambassador.

The tale she told in her lecture was compelling and contained much that was illustrative of Twain’s engaging personality.

The detail was culled from his three-volume autobiography which, in accordance with his wishes, was not published until a century after his death (in 1910). The third volume, in which the Oxford visit is covered, has only just been launched at Mark Twain House.

Twain’s ruthless honesty – the reason for the delayed publication – can be seen in what he has to say about Oxford’s offer to make him a doctor of letters.

“Oxford is healing an old sore of mine,” he wrote, “which has been causing me sharp anguish once a year for many, many years.

“Privately, I am quite well aware that for a generation I have been as widely celebrated a literary person as America has ever produced... and so it has been an annual pain to me to see our universities confer an aggregate of 250 honorary degrees on persons of small and temporary consequence... and never a degree offered to me!”

That his old friend Rudyard Kipling was being honoured at the same time was a source of pleasure to him.

Meeting reporters in England, he said: “Did Kipling ever steal one of my corncob pipes? Never, and if he says so, he’s wrong. He tried to steal one and failed, then he tried to steal another, but I prevented the theft and gave it to him – probably the only pipe Kipling ever got honestly.”

Twain stayed during his visit, which also involved a royal garden party, in Brown’s Hotel, a luxury Mayfair establishment in which I have been privileged to pass a night or two. It was a favourite of Agatha Christie’s who immortalised it in her novel At Bertram’s Hotel.

During his stay, Twain astonished observers by walking across the street to the Bath Club shortly after 8am wearing a blue bathrobe and low slippers.

After his Turkish bath he returned in the same very public manner.

The Times reported: “Mark Twain exhibited himself as an eccentric today, and every staid Londoner who witnessed the exhibition fairly gasped.”

Describing the degree ceremony (on June 26, 1907) Twain wrote of his “surpassingly becoming scarlet robes”.

He continued: “We assembled at All Souls College and marched thence, gowned, mortar-boarded, and in double file down a long street to the Sheldonian Theatre, between solid walls of the populace, rather much hurrrah’d and limitlessly kodacked [a fine coinage that!].”

Later, needing a smoke, Twain asked where this could be done. He learned that there was a risk of a fine, but he and Kipling crossed an unpopulated quadrangle and lit up under one of its exits.

“The photographers soon arrived, but they were courteous and friendly and gave us no trouble, and we gave them none.

“They grouped us in all sorts of ways and photographed us at their diligent leisure, while we smoked and walked.

“We were there more than an hour; then we returned to headquarters, happy, content and greatly refreshed.”

Receiving his degree Twain earned the loudest applause from the 4,000 present, drowning the address that accompanied the ceremony.

The man delivering it was bald, prompting a shout from the gallery: “Couldn’t you spare him some of your hair, Mark?”