by T. C. Smout

Photo-op university

October 28, 2009 | by T. C. Smout

WHAT GOOD IS St Andrews?

The question was put by one of the hatchet ladies of radio, as I recall in a programme about why Prince William wanted to go there. She plainly thought of us as a bunch of red-flannelled fools, professors in their dotage and students in their bloatage: how would this ivory-tower serve the education of a monarch? Wullie was a good student, quiet and well-mannered. He benefited the university by not getting assassinated and by attracting a flood of beautiful American girls paying premium fees for the chance to marry him, or at least to make their fortunes in kiss-and-tell stories, but he was far too wily. As William Wales he got a nice degree in geography, and his dad and gran came to see him receive it. We still have the manholes in North Street sealed up in memory of their visit.

What good is St Andrews? It is a wonderfully Calvinist question. A media St Peter stands at the gates. “What good is Glasgow?” Adam Smith was professor here. Pass. “What good is Strathclyde?” Alexander Fleming was a student here. Pass. “What good is Dundee?” Patrick Geddes was a professor here. Pass. “What good is Aberdeen?” David Gregory was a professor here. Never heard of him. Tom Devine is a professor here. Pass. “What good is Edinburgh?” We have a tower named after David Hume, but he wasn’t a professor here. Um. Charles Darwin was a student here. Iffy. Tom Devine is a professor here as well. Pass. “What good is St Andrews?” Golf! Oh my gawd, just another photo-op for the smile on the face of the Tiger, Fail.

Robert Crawford’s anthology won’t please the media St Peter either, and irritatingly for the hatchet ladies it does not even ask the question, what good is St Andrews? But it goes a way to answer it. Some sixty-five authors have contributed, and two-thirds of the pieces are poetry, but as the prose extracts are usually longer than the poems, the balance is about even. Each piece has a bearing on St Andrews ranging wonderfully widely. Walter Bower’s account of the celebrations at the founding of the university is here: after the papal bull had been read out, the clergy “spent the rest of this day in boundless merry-making and kept large bonfires burning in the streets and open spaces of the city while drinking wine in celebration.” The award of an honorary degree to Benjamin Franklin is here: the citation praised his “Knowledge of the Law, the Rectitude of his Morals and Sweetness of his Life and Conversation” but at last remembered to single out “his ingenious Inventions and successful Experiments”, more especially of “Electricity which heretofore was little known.” John Knox is here, demoralising his friends at the siege of the castle by telling them its walls were but egg-shells and the English will never come to help them. Walter Scott is here, too rheumaticky to climb St Rule’s tower and pondering on his first girl friend. Samuel Johnson is here, praising “a place eminently adapted to study and education,” but “affected with a strong indignation while he beheld the ruins of religious magnificence.” Ian Rankin is here, as a child in a caravan on Kinkell Braes, and Robert Louis Stevenson (briefly), and Homer, even more briefly, quite unwittingly to give St Andrews its motto, always to be the best.

The prose of all these great men, however, is in danger of being upstaged in this collection by two pieces by women. One is Meaghan Delahunt’s tour de force, ‘the grip’, which tells of a middle-aged Australian man coming to St Andrews to scatter his father’s ashes on the Old Course; at Leuchars he nearly gets run over by a foul-mouthed teenager on a bike (“The Scots, so they tell me, the Scots don’t delete an expletive.”), and stays in a bed-and-breakfast with a bunch of pro-golfer Irishmen who can’t understand why a town this size doesn’t have lap dancers. The other piece is a long ghost story – more than 40 pages in a book of about 200 – by the nineteenth-century writer Margaret Oliphant, which hinges on reality and otherwise behind a seemingly-painted window, old false windows being a common architectural deceit in East Fife. Much in the book has an uncanny theme, as if the editor responded especially to the eerie undertones of a city of ruins and ancient violence, and of the vanished youth of 600 years of students.

It is, however, especially in the fifty or so poems that this book becomes most luminescent. Again, the range of the authors is great in time and type, from William Dunbar to Seamus Heaney and Edwin Morgan, by way of Robert Fergusson, Andrew Lang and Rudyard Kipling. What is also impressive is the number of the very best who are living St Andrews poets – Crawford himself, Douglas Dunn, director of the highly successful M.Litt in creative writing, John Burnside and four or five others. It is almost criminal to select from such a delectable box of treats, but just to take the modern poets, what could be better than Liz Lochhead on the old croquet lawn about to become a building site for a new library? Unless, Crawford’s own poem on Sir David Brewster’s invention of the kaleidoscope? And to cherry-pick just one metaphor, take Kathleen Jamie’s curlews feeding on a flooded playing field that “insert like thermometers their elegant bills.”

So here is one clue to the goodness of St Andrews – as a home over the centuries to brilliant poetic innovation. William Dunbar and Gavin Douglas were students here: if Robert Henryson, another Fifer, had not Whyte launched The Modern Scot, the prime literary journal of the Scottish Renaissance from the Abbey Book Shop in No. 3 South Street. MacDairmid called it “a focus for all the active intellectual interest in Scotland – an ideal forum of all the vital tendencies in Internationalism and Scottish Nationalism alike.” The bookshop, like the Muirs, was regarded with grave suspicion by the locals. Especially, the poets were cold-shouldered by the English Department.

And St Andrews is again today a centre of poetic innovation, but with the critical difference that now the English Department, under the leadership of Douglas Dunn, Robert Craw-ford and their colleagues, is the innovator. It created the Poetry House in the University, invited a stream of established poets from Scotland, Ireland, America and Australia, and helped local people to run StAnza, the Scottish poetry festival which brings together the familiar and the new. Faculty, students and citizens alike write poetry in St Andrews now. No wonder this collection is good.

But at the end of the day I can see that none of this will wash with the hatchet ladies and the media St Peter: poetry! Worse than golf. So there is nothing for it but to list the great and the good, the bad and the ugly, who went to St Andrews and changed the world. Let us start with John Major – no, not that one, but he whom a colleague refers to as the real John Major – one of the greatest humanist minds of sixteenth-century Europe, theologian, philosopher, historian, seeker after religious peace, and head of St Salvator’s College. Some of our students are sent to punish us, and he had among his most brilliant, John Knox and George Buchanan, two of the three most gifted and hating Ayatollahs of the age, Andrew Melville who also came to the university to “reform” it, being the third. So if you have a daughter or a son who really wants to understand the modern world in the Middle East and America, send them to read about sixteenth-century fundamentalism and insurgency at St Andrews.

Fast-forward to the eighteenth century. The university, when not entertaining Benjamin Franklin and Samuel Johnson, or being lampooned by its own stinking fairy, educated Adam Ferguson, pioneer of comparative ethnography, theorist of structural social change, first theorist of alienation, inventor of conflict sociology, as the New DNB succinctly puts it. Or if you don’t think that counts for much in the real world, how about another bolshie former student, James Wil-son, who not only signed the Declaration of Independence but along with Madison drafted the American Constitution, and made it so Scottish, liberal, enlightened and deistical that even now the religious right find it hard to unpick. But my favourite of this age is Hugh Cleghorn, professor of civil history, who got bored with the job, went to Switzerland and persuaded the mercenary captain employed by the Dutch East India company in guarding Columbo to change sides, went with him to Ceylon, or Sri Lanka, and the two of them secured the colony for the British Crown with hardly a shot fired. The Senate waited patiently for him to return, but he didn’t and they declared the chair vacant. These days, bored professors merely become media personalities.

The nineteenth century and the twentieth century bristled with characters of genius, like principal Sir David Brewster, who not only invented the kaleidoscope but with Fox Talbot, Hill and Adamson did amazing things at the birth of photography, and principal Sir D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson, great bearded polymath, author of On Growth and Form. I could talk about the neo-liberal economists of the 1970s educated at St Andrews, recovering for better or worse the moral economy of another great Victorian professor, Thomas Chalmers. Or about the things my modern colleagues with international reputations do with lasers, ornithology, sea mammal science, cancer research, terrorism studies, psychology. But Professor Trevor Roper said that if you followed the horse of history too closely, it kicks you in the teeth, and he certainly had no teeth left by the end. Perhaps I have not answered the question, but it is a silly one. I rest my case.

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