The pleasure and the privilege is mine
It was way back in November 2005 that the University of Northampton (formerly Nene College when I went there to do my one-year Foundation art course in 1983-84) contacted me with these formal words: “The Governing Council and Senate are minded to confer on you an Honorary Fellowship at a Graduation Ceremony taking place in July 2006.” And today, it all finally came together at Park Campus in Northampton, held under glorious blue skies, and with due pomp and circumstance, amid the actual graduation of about 200 degree students from the School of the Arts. It was on this site, in 1981, that I saw my first rock gig – U2 on their Boy tour, supported by Altered Images – in the refectory. An historic day then, an historic day today.
With Mum, Dad and Julie as my guests, we arrived at the University’s Sunley Management Centre at midday, there to be greeted by Melva Duley, Senior Administrative Officer, who introduced us to the Chairman of the Governing Council, John Castle, the Vice Chancellor, Ann Tate, and Dean of the School of the Arts, Dave Keskeys (whom I have already met and had lunch with). The Mayor and Mayoress of Wellingborough were also there (I mention this not because I am impressed by chains of office, quite the reverse, but because I once drew a caricature of the Mayoress, when she was just an ordinary dance teacher and friend of my Mum’s, and so I met her on equal terms). There is, of course, an air of formality about the occasion, but at the same time, the people involved – university types, after all – are very nice and normal, and the lunch was peppered with lively conversation about subjects as diverse as Craig Charles, 24-hour news and the complaints procedure at the BBC and the University, with head-of-the-table Professor Peter Bush, the Pro Vice Chancellor (as opposed, one assumes, to the Amateur Vice Chancellor). Pretty good buffet too, and they had peppermint tea!
Then I was whisked away for robing. I was dressed in the electric pale blue and fluorescent sea green cape pictured, and fitted with a blue cap that was half mortar board, half Shakespearian actor. Official photographs were duly taken, holding what I took to be a fake scroll in a blue crested tube, such as those often employed at graduations for photographic purposes. I left the tube on the table, kept my raiments on, and went to be interviewed by the education correspondent of the Chronicle & Echo. Then it was procession time! While the guests were minibused to the marquee, I was called upon to march there as part of a formal, robed parade through the university grounds, led by men with sceptres.
This is us arriving at the podium:
(The man in front of me is Nick, whose entire job it was to tell me when to sit and stand, and when to remove and replace my silly hat. I liked him.) The marquee was packed with mums and dads, and art students self-conscious but secretly rather proud of themselves in gowns. It was hot in there, with much wafting of programmes to keep cool. You should try wearing a suit and a cloak and an Elizabethan hat! The Vice Chancellor made her address first, very serious, very formal, but important, as she basically bigged up the University and the studes. It was their day too, not just mine. But before they could troop up, have their name read out and shake the Vice Chancellor’s hand, they had to sit through Dave Keskeys’ citation ie. him talking about me for quite a long time, by way of explanation to those who haven’t seen The 100 Greatest Pop Videos as to why I was being made an Honorary Anything. As guided by Nick, I had to get up, put my hat on and stand about three feet away from the lecturn and look formal while Dave read out my life story. it was like drowning and your whole life flashing before you.
Then it was my turn at the mic. With an audience of art students and a sea of parents either side, I opted for a sincere but lighthearted speech, planned in my head rather than on notes, with a few disparaging remarks about art students and a heartfelt vote of thanks for the Fellowship, which I got out of the way early, for fear of leaving it out in the heat of rushing to the end of my alloted five minutes. I read three entries from my 1977 diary from the time when I attended Saturday morning art classes at Nene College, to capture the wonder of a 12-year-old boy entering the art school’s hallowed halls.
Saturday, September 24
This morning I went to a special art class at Nene College. Angus went and so did 60 others. There will be a test to see who is good enough to pass. We had to sketch a load of old junk today. Mine was good. We will do painting next week.
Saturday, November 5
As I’ve passed the admission test I now go to Nene College art classes. Simon Brown also goes. Today we did pencil sketches about tone and shade.
Saturday, November 12
Went to Nene College as usual.
(How quickly the magic fades!)
Saturday, November 19
Got the new double ELO LP. It is fab. In it there is a brill poster of ELO.
I also told the James Bolam story that will form the prologue of my book, so I’m not telling it here. It was an exclusive for the graduates of the School of the Arts, and anyone else I tell it to in the meantime. Either way, it allowed me to use the word “bollocks”, triumphantly, at the climax, which actually got a round of applause. I told them they were pathetic for clapping a swear word, but was secretly very pleased. Then I shook the hand of the Chairman, pictured below, and sat back down, my shirt stuck to me beneath the robes.
After all 200 or so students had filed onto the stage and back to their seats, each one duly applauded (this is only one of nine ceremonies this week, processing over 2,000 graduates), we stood for the National Anthem – luckily we weren’t expected to sing this irrelevent dirge – and filed out. One quick procession later and we were back at the Management Centre for disrobing, at which point I was given back my blue tube, which turned out not to be a prop, but a container with my Fellowship in it.
It was a grand day out. I remain flattered and honoured to have had this rolled-up piece of paper conferred upon me by the college I will always know as Nene. (It’s pronounced “Nenn”, out-of-towners, not “Neen.”) It was good fun to say one swear word in front of hundreds of people, and I know Mum and Dad were proud (of the Fellowship, not the swear word). There was an article in the Guardian last week asking, “What’s the point of honorary degrees?”, having a cheap dig at the likes of Billy Connolly for accepting so many, and for Hull University, for giving one to Pierluigi Collina, the famous Nosferatu-faced ref. Firstly, what’s the harm in it? Secondly, what’s Billy Connolly going to do? Turn them down? How rude would that be? And anyway, mine’s not an honorary degree. I’ve already got a degree (not that anyone’s ever asked to see it in my 19 year career). It’s a Fellowship. And since I’m not famous enough to bring the University much publicity (outside of the Chronicle & Echo), I believe their reasons for giving me it are genuine. As are mine for accepting it.
Oh, by the way, the following other people have received, or are receiving, honorary Doctorates and Fellowships this week: Ben De Lisi (a fashion designer), Sir Malcolm Arnold (composer), Jonathan Ollivier (ballet dancer), Elizabeth Cracknell (something to do with occupational therapy), Chelly Halsey (sociologist), Sir Patrick Walker (MI5) and Lord Bernard Donohue (Downing Street Policy Unit). I expect their families are also proud.
I must mention the Griffin Inn restaurant at Pitsford, where Mum and Dad took us for dinner. A lovely old-fashioned pub setting, tremendous food and friendly service. They also served peppermint tea. Today, as Ice Cube once observed, was a good day.
I’m not saying it’s a slow news day in Northampton, but I made the cover of the Chronicle & Echo!