After 43 years at Trinity, the Manciple, Maria Liston, is retiring.
If you haven’t come across Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, you’d be forgiven for not having heard of a manciple. According to one definition, a manciple is ‘a person in charge of buying provisions for a college, an Inn of Court or a monastery.’
True, Trinity’s Manciple, Mrs Maria Liston, buys fruit for High Table each week from Cambridge’s market, personally selecting the best seasonal produce.
Of course, her role encompasses far more than that. Diminutive, impeccably dressed and no-nonsense, Mrs Liston leads a team of nine including the Assistant Manciple Mark Samson; Combination Room Assistants Ascension Berral Almeda, Ewa Drobna and Gosia Machaj; High Table waiters Vincent McKenzie, Merouane Kharbeche, Donna Andrew and Nicola D’Anna; and Cleaning Supervisor Kim Welch.
They are responsible for serving lunch and dinner each evening at High Table in Trinity’s imposing Hall, and any after-dinner refreshments in the Combination Room. The team also ensures that the Fellows’ Parlour is stocked with newspapers and magazines, not to mention coffee. With 180 Fellows at Trinity, footfall across the Parlour is high, if softly trod. ‘Teamwork is very important,’ says Mrs Liston. ‘Without it we could not possibly meet deadlines or provide a good service.’
Originally from north-west Spain, Mrs Liston came to Britain in 1972. She remembers the economic hardships of the 1970s and the cultural changes through the decades. As well as ensuring the efficient operation of ‘ordinary’ meals at High Table and refreshments in the Parlour, Mrs Liston also manages special functions, such as College feasts.
Hers is not a job for the faint-hearted. Mrs Liston works unusual hours: she arrives each morning at 7.30am, working until 2.15pm, when she returns home for a break. By 6pm she is back, ready for High Table. Most nights she is lucky to leave before 10pm. Head of Catering at Trinity, Ian Reinhardt, paid tribute to Mrs Liston’s attention to detail and hard work.
In some ways being a Manciple isn’t just a job, it is a vocation. Alongside the practicalities, there is the ceremony. For example, banging the gong each evening before dinner at High Table. Even after decades of service, none of the sense of occasion is lost on Mrs Liston.
At the recent Midsummer Feast, the Master of Trinity, Sir Gregory Winter, paid tribute to her long and dedicated years of service. He said:
Maria is a Trinity Institution. She has worked here for 43 years, and has survived seven Masters of the College. She has three daughters, and each has worked for the College at some time in their lives. On behalf of us all, thank you for your total commitment to the College, for looking after us individually and collectively, and for doing such a wonderful job.
While part of her will be sorry to leave, especially after so many years, Mrs Liston brightens when asked about her plans for retirement. She is looking forward to spending time reading, gardening and seeing more of her children.
Asked what advice she would offer her successor, the current Assistant Manciple, Mr Samson, she said:
We have worked together for a number of years and he knows how passionate I am about Trinity. I think my advice is: be discreet, be seen and not heard.
This time next year, Mrs Liston will return to Trinity – to dine, rather than serve, at High Table. As Sir Gregory concluded in his speech:
Finally, if you don’t think it improper, I hope you will accept my invitation to come as my guest to next year’s Midsummer Dinner.
Images © Graham CopeKoga