My York Hon Doc (January 21st)

When I was young and had left home for a day, or even longer, my mother would enthusiastically ask me for a full account of what I had done. Her first question was almost invariably:

“So you got on the train…??”

Being a slightly bolshie teenager I was always determined to thwart her thirst for knowledge with a polite, but firm, put-down. Then her wide-eyed enthusiasm would always be too much for me, and I invariably ended-up by giving her a full account – albeit omitting my worst excesses of drink, and inept attempts to attract girlfriends.

So to answer my mother’s question: we got onto a very crowded train at March station, and by chance bumped into our old friend, Jeremy Purseglove, who was also heading north to York. Some may remember Jeremy’s documentary series on BBC-2, Taming the Flood, and the excellent book (published 1988), which inspired it. Well, he has written a much-revised second edition, which I can heartily recommend. It’s already on our shelves. Most of Jeremy’s predictions about flooding have been proved to be only too real, and at last planners and developers are starting to realise that paved-over front gardens and huge car parks lead to rapid drainage and a greater flood-risk. Farmers are now being urged to encourage streams to flow more slowly through wet areas. Better forty years too late than never, I suppose. Jeremy was also very gloomy about the prospects for the landscape after Brexit. And I have to agree with him, although I have been trying not to think about it. Trump is more than enough gloom and despondency than I can cope with for now. Brexit and Trump. Trump and Brexit: reactionary populism for dim-wits. I thought Jeremy remained remarkably cheerful as we discussed a probable future of factory-farming and abandoned conservation schemes. We arrived at York Station in high spirits.

The University looked after Maisie and me handsomely. We were met by Richard, the University’s driver, in a large, smart Mercedes-Benz and were whisked to our hotel, the Hotel du Vin, where we were staying, along with the other Hon Doc graduates and their partners. I don’t think I’ve ever stayed in a hotel before that was so full of Dames and Professors.

To my complete and utter amazement, I remembered how to knot my black tie and got it right, first attempt!!!! Then it was time for all of us to be chauffeur-driven, this time in a swanky Mercedes mini-bus, to the university campus for a wonderful dinner. The food and wine were superb – as was the service. We had a great time.

The following morning, I put on my suit, the one I used to wear twenty years ago, on my only trips down the corridors of power, when I served on the Ancient Monuments Advisory Committee for English Heritage. I remember once sitting opposite Virginia Bottomley in First Class. She was with two Civil Servants and was deeply enmeshed in Cabinet Papers. I wanted to introduce myself, as she was then the Minister in charge of National Heritage, but I didn’t have the guts to push myself forward. And anyhow, I’m not sure what I’d have said, except that I knew her husband Peter quite well at Cambridge and that, perhaps predictably, and behind his back, the non-Tories among us sometimes called him Bumley. In actual fact, he was, and is, a very nice chap, without the vast ego of some politicians. He also has an excellent mind, which should come in useful in the near future. But I digress.

We slept quite well, because before we left for the dinner, Maisie had discovered the room’s thermostat and had turned the heating a few notches below what it would have taken to bake a potato. The following morning, and after an excellent Full English at the hotel, we arrived back at the university. The other Hon Docs had received their degrees at ceremonies on the previous day and earlier that morning. So ours was the last session of the January degree conferrals. My co-Hon Doc was Annamarie Phelps CBE, the distinguished oarswoman and Chairman of English Rowing. I felt a bit lumpy and scruffy alongside her statuesque figure.

Now, and as a matter of very minor interest, I very rarely write out any speech or talk in full, because there’s then a danger I might just read it out, verbatim – which can be disastrous as it rules out any spontaneous responses to the audience. On this occasion I had been asked to keep my talk quite short – no more than three minutes – and I knew it had to be uplifting and congratulatory. So I decided to start on an anthropological note (was that wise, I still ask myself?), with a short mention of Rites of Passage. I named five of them: Birth, Marriage, Graduation, Retirement and finally, Death. I pointed out, and of course in hindsight it seems blindingly obvious, that the students seated before me in their smart gowns were going through the third one, Graduation. I could see from their faces lined up before me, that they agreed with me, but were not quite sure why I was telling them. Then as an afterthought to cover my slight confusion, which I immediately regretted, I suggested that I was now looking forward to Number Five: Death. To my huge relief, and complete surprise, that got a huge laugh! From then on, the speech was straightforward and seemed to go down quite well.

I’ll close with two pictures taken by my old friend, the Director of the CBA (Council for British Archaeology), Dr. Mike Heyworth, who was sitting near the front of the auditorium. I think they capture the atmosphere of the occasion splendidly. The first, is a general view of the audience, with the graduates-to-be sitting in a block at the centre. The second, is of yours truly holding forth from the podium. I’m so relieved Mike didn’t have a video camera with him!

york-the-audience

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