And so, dear readers, to my alma mater, the University of St Andrews (actually the University of St Andrew among the Scots, if you want to read the papal bull). It is now more than 20 years since I first matriculated as a student here – my adventures at Oxford must wait for another day – and 12 years since I ceased to live here full-time. The occasion of my return is twofold; to re-establish contact with my old colleagues at the excellent Reformation Studies Institute (http://www.st-andrews.ac.uk/reformation/) at a seminar tomorrow on the Reformation in Bohemia; and to attend a debate on Thursday on the motion that “This House believes Israel is a force for good in the Middle East”. As an occasional blogger for the Times of Israel, I couldn’t miss this one.
Going back to your university town is always, I suppose, a bouquet of mixed emotions. All the more so, I think, in St Andrews, which is a tiny town of 18,500 people, a huge number of them students and academics. This really is a place which exists on golf and academia. (I suppose my Catholic friends would also point to the bones of St Andrew, brought here by St Regulus in the mid-8th century AD.) The university – Scotland’s oldest, and the third-oldest in the English-speaking world – really does dominate the town, at least in term time, and in my eight years here I experienced virtually no town-gown tension, because the town realised how much it needed the gown.
Students are everywhere. Like a lot of old universities, we speak in code. First-years are bejants (or bejantines – we began admitting women very late in the 19th century); second-years are semi-bejants; third-years are tertians; and final-year students (we have the civilisation of a four-year degree course) are magistrands. Speaking from the venerable age of 39, they all seem very young now, though I’m sure that magistrands look down in a benevolently patronising way on bejants. I certainly did, and I was probably more insufferable still as a postgraduate, swishing around town in my black gown.
Ah, yes. Gowns. They’re a big thing here. St Andrews is (I think) the only one of the ancient Scottish universities to preserve in any meaningful way the tradition of undergraduate gowns, which are bright red, and – code again – worn according to your year. Bejants wear the gowns as one would expect. Semi-bejants wear them slightly pushed back off the shoulders. Tertiands wear them off the left or the right shoulder, according to whether they are arts or science students. Magistrands wear them halfway down the back, which feels weird at first but you get used to it. (I haven’t touched on St Mary’s College, the divinity school, where students wear black gowns with a purple saltire on the chest.) Anyway, gowns are worn frequently in St Andrews, more or less according to your taste. The opportunities are endless: debates, formal hall dinners, chapel services. None of this is compulsory, unlike at Oxford and Cambridge, but it is one of the quirks of the place which some (many) St Andrews students enjoy. Some wear them recreationally; when I was an undergrad, there was a man called Richard Urquhart who wore his red gown pretty much all the time, and was known as “Gown Man” as a result. I am not immune. Once I had graduated and got my beloved black Master of Arts’ gown, I often used to slip it on and parade around town, because I could.
I touched earlier on debating. St Andrews has a strong debating tradition, and, these days, are doing very well in national and international competitions. There are claims that some kind of forerunner of the Debating Society (http://www.stadebates.org) was founded in the late 18th century, and it likes to claim that it is “the oldest and, some say, the finest of its kind in the world”. Oxford and Trinity College, Dublin, might have something to say about that. But it was, for eight years, my spiritual home, redolent with tradition and formality. I enjoyed debating; the thrust and parry of intellectual argument, but also the cheap gag and the roar of the crowd. It was also a weekly opportunity to throw on black tie and gown, and stroll through the balmy seaside air. And it was a community. The Debating Society technically includes every matriculated student, which I think is a very good thing, but in reality there was a small coterie of regular attenders who were of similar tastes and similar mindsets.
I suspect that at times we were too cliquey. There could be too many in-jokes, too much self-reference, too much flummery that outsiders would have found baffling. I never headed the Society – I tried three times but was defeated each time, as I have previously written; I’m not bitter (yes I am) – but I held positions of authority, and I hope I always tried my best to widen the audience and encourage those who would not otherwise have come in to a debate to give it a try. The baby was not thrown out with the bathwater; when I was in charge of publicity, the phrase “Gowns encouraged” appeared on our posters, and I almost always wore black tie to attend debates. And I daresay I was as savage in howling down weak arguments as any backbencher at PMQs. Attendance could be sparse, or we could be full to the rafters. One of the best-attended debates I can remember was on the motion “This House would undress”, the proposition fronted (if I can use that word) by a man called Vincent Bethell, a militant nudist and head of the “Freedom to be Yourself” campaign (I’m not making this up, check Wikipedia). The local police insisted that we black out the windows of the debating chamber, lest passing burghers see something untoward. And the room was full. Several students supported by the motion by taking off their clothes. None of the attractive ones was near me, unfortunately. I was too close for comfort to a lanky, long-haired Old Etonian who decided to shed his scruffy garb.
The long and short of it was that I adored, and adore, the Debating Society. My ambitions were thwarted, and I never wrested control of it, but I did chair many a debate, and I loved it. I loved the formality, I loved the exaggerated courtesy, I loved the conviviality, and I loved the social side of things. I missed a golden age; it was not long before I arrived in 1996 that the Society had been banned from many restaurants in St Andrews either for unruly behaviour or for unpaid debts. We were not quite as Bullingdon in my time. We observed the usual traditions, of course: port before debates; a dinner afterwards (often a curry in the great Balaka, https://www.balaka.com) and the hallowed after-dinner debate, on the motion “This House believes the sun will never set on the British Empire”.
It was an odd custom, this after-dinner debate. Sometimes, it could seem jingoistic, especially when carried out in a Bangladeshi curry house, but it was meant in a spirit of affection and usually, I would say, self-mockery. Occasionally, it was pompous; occasionally, its pomposity was punctured, as brilliantly by Andrew Neil, Rector of the University, who stood up, declared “The British Empire has ended, as has this dinner”, threw down his napkin and left.
So that was (some of) how I spent my time. It was a blast. But for me, university was about the people. I was married in the University Chapel (lightning didn’t strike), and I remember looking around at my fellow St Andreans and thinking just how lucky I was to have met and befriended so many interesting and quirky people, who had in the most part come back to St Andrews from all points south to celebrate the day. If the marriage didn’t last, the memories have. Don’t get me wrong, many, if not most, of my friends are mad as ship’s cat, but I am still in touch with them after all these years. Often we need not communicate for days, weeks, months, years. But the bonds forged in this strange little coastal town in Fife run strong and deep as the cables of the Forth Bridge.
It is invidious to choose individuals, but I will do so anyway.
Barry Joss (now Tobias Joss, after his conversion to Judaism). He was already a St Andrews legend when I arrived, a magistrand (fourth-year, remember) and a slightly vulpine figure who was well known in the student community; Treasurer of the Debating Society and later of the Students’ Association; later still Rector’s Assessor for Andrew Neil; always seen in a waistcoat and tie, and connected, it seemed to me, to everyone in town. I discovered later that he didn’t like me at first (well, I was a little odd), but we later fell into a great friendship and spent a madly licentious year sharing a flat together. He then decided that 10 years in St Andrews was enough, and moved to Glasgow, his hometown, where he has remained since, though he is returning to St Andrews on Thursday and we shall sit like Statler and Waldorf in the debate and reassure ourselves that it was much better in our day. (It was.)
Hugh Martin. Hugh was a postgraduate when I met him, having pursued his undergraduacy at New College, Oxford, before a stint working for WH Smith before he returned to academia. He and Tobias were great friends, having been in hall together, and it was in that connection that I met him. I had been warned that he was an irascible old bugger who rarely socialised, but for whatever reason he took to my company, sharing a taste for air hockey, garlic and the odd ale or two. He is now madly successful in university governance, but we see each other regularly and the years fall away. Later on at night we will tend to sing.
And, finally, the man and the mystery which is Peter Murray. I first met him entirely coincidentally, as he was then sharing a flat with a girl in whom I had an interest, and he was on crutches. He answered the door cursing me under his breath as I had roused him from his sick bed, but the casual offer of a can of lager proved the starting point for a friendship which has lasted 18 years and is still going. He is a very senior PR guru now but I can occasionally remind him that I know where the bodies are buried. He was an avid debater too, in charge of the schools debating competition for two years, and if I may be permitted one recollection it would be this: we were sitting in the chamber, all in black tie and gowns, and he looked down contemplatively, then looked up in consternation and mouthed at me “These aren’t my trousers!”