Last Friday was the last graduation of the season here at St Andrews in Fife, Scotland. The students perambulated along the streets and on the Scores in their black robes and coloured hoods, accompanied by proud family members, like the figures on the promenade outside the Grand Hotel at Balbec, described by Marcel Proust in his epic novel À la recherche du temps perdu. This literary allusion is not an affectation by the writer: I recall reading in the University’s Special Collection some years ago a volume of verse by students of over a century ago, recording their distress as they wandered among the dunes on the West Sands at having to leave what Andrew Lang called affectionately ‘the Auld Grey Toun’ by the North Sea.
The new female graduates were in white blouses and black skirts, some of the men in kilts. The concert of sacred music by the University Choir in St Salvator’s Chapel (founded 1450) was packed. The marquee on the lower lawn of St Salvator’s College vibrated to the graduation balls. Next morning it was time to leave St Andrews, to take a powder for the hangover, and pile into the family vehicle four years of accumulated possessions. One student showed me a plastic box containing superseded mobile phones. How many texts had he tapped out on them to female students he was infatuated with, but who rejected him with a two word expletive? The new graduates returned their robes and hoods to the hirers, having sold their famous red gowns and put into charity shops the clothes they had no room for in the car, or which were out of fashion. I saw a stunning blonde, with the tattoo of a heart on her left ankle, licking a last chocolate-flavoured cone from Luvians in Market Street. Restaurants and hotels were offering graduation lunches, and in one establishment, where I was consuming a modest sandwich, I observed a champagne bottle frothing into a cluster of celebration glasses. This week there will be skips on the pavements outside the flats of departed graduates. Carpets matted with pizzas will have to be ripped up, and fittings damaged in too riotous parties replaced.
It wasn’t the weather that marred slightly the glamour of the graduations: it was the announcement that a German princess had been fined one thousand pounds for disorderly conduct at a student party in the environs of St Andrews in March. Evidently Her Serene Highness, who arrived at court in a brown wig, tried to climb a fence before shedding some of her garments. The former student of International Relations was accused of making racist remarks before attacking a security guard and a first aider, and had to be restrained in handcuffs. But she wasn’t the first royal to study at St Andrews. My dear wife Mary, emerging from a wynd one evening several years ago, was almost knocked down by Prince William with his Tesco shopping bag of organic produce recommended by his father. As potatoes scattered on the cobbles Mary was terrified that the plain clothes detective behind the Prince would take it as a terrorist attack and whip out a firearm, asking questions later over her riddled corpse. His Highness was full of apologies and helped Mary regain her balance. She was so dazed, not by the collision, but by the royal encounter, that she forgot to ask for his autograph. I recall that when the future occupant of the British throne entered a particular hostelry on the Scores for a modest shandy, a female student would text all her friends, and they would come running, because at that stage Kate Middleton, a fellow student at the university, was not yet the chosen one. At that time the manholes of St Andrews were sealed by Special Branch in case an assassin – or a female student in a wetsuit, determined to date the Prince - came crawling underground.