Friday, 18 April 2014

The Getting of Wisdom

Yes, it has been a while since I last posted and I do understand that I ought really to have called home or at least left a message explaining that I was all right and wouldn't be away for long. 

But I'm back now, and anyway I couldn't have foreseen that I would be gone for so much time. Thus, while apologising profusely, I feel I must also point out one thing - it wasn't my fault, (yes, you're right, this is a very modern apology, the kind where sorry is never actually said and blame is left unshouldered).

The thing is though, I blame the universities. Well, I blame one university in particular - the one whose graduation ceremony I've been attending ever since I was last here.

Oh yes, I hear you say, but didn't it occur to you that the thing might be a bit lengthy, when you read the instructions? After all, friends and relatives were required to seat themselves nine days in advance.

That was a bad sign, I grant you, and perhaps I should have taken it as a portent - but then it is so easy to be wise after the event.

How those days did drag too, despite - or in the end because of - the incessant playing of Bach pieces by the university's students (whether all of them were actually students of music is a question better left unasked). And if you think the pageant that eventually followed made it all worthwhile, I'm afraid you are very much mistaken.

Watching horde upon horde of Australia's eager young people stumble across a stage to receive degrees in subjects that probably fit them for nothing very much becomes surprisingly uninteresting after the first forty-eight hours or so.

If it was bad for us though, it was clearly taking an even greater toll on the poor woman clad in heavily embroidered robes, (I suspect they'd been designed with the robes of the office bearers of ancient institutions of learning in Britain in mind; if only the brevity of ceremony offered by bastions such as Cambridge University had been equally keenly emulated), who had to greet each graduand, (ooh, I am so glad I have a subscription to the OED), and present them with their pieces of paper.

As I watched her birdlike hand being enveloped in the sturdy grip of yet another hearty young Australian, I found myself thinking about EL Wisty who I think suggested some kind of electronic hand that could wave for the queen as she passed through the streets in coach or car, (and was rewarded for his efforts with a demonstration of a 'nit-poker' - a jam-covered sponge attached to a lengthy piece of stick). Surely some similar device, (to the waving thing, not the nitpoker, [although, come to think of it, it might be amusing to produce the latter for the occasional graduate, just to introduce an antic element and, let's face it, vary the routine]) should be invented for vice-chancellors whose job demands they undergo thousands of handshakes at the end of each year's studies?

Of course, nothing is without positives. Eventually, when I realised we really were in it for the long haul, I turned my mind to trying to conjure up ways to pass the time, given that I had nothing to read or to listen to. As others may one day find themselves in a similar predicament, let me set out here the things that got me through:

1. Counting the things in the room that may have been transported by sea to get here - or whose constituent materials may have. I doubt if there was anything there that hadn't arrived that way - just as it is virtually impossible to find anything in any shop that is actually Australian-made, (which makes all the getting of wisdom we were gathered to honour even more worryingly dubious in its usefulness - will anyone here actually be doing anything apart from shopping before too long?);

2. Counting the things in the room that may not have been made in China, (this activity grew pretty naturally from the one above). Sadly, there was only one thing I could be fairly certain had not arrived from China and that was the piano, as it was a Kawai, (which I think meant it came from Japan, although I stand ready to be corrected);

3. Trying to work out the male to female ratio among the soon-to-be graduates by counting them up on your fingers, (having not brought a pencil or paper). Amazingly, during the ceremony I attended the gender divide seemed almost perfectly even, although I have no idea whether this was thanks to luck or good planning.

4. Trying to imagine what the individual parents of each almost-graduate might look like, based on the odd mix of features combined in the faces of their sons or daughters.

5. Marvelling at how exceptionally rare is the thing we call beauty.

6.Trying to imagine how those sections of the audience that decided to raise great whoops and wolf whistles for certain graduates could be so insensitive as to not recognise that this behaviour made those who didn't receive similar yells and shrieks look - and probably feel - a bit unloved.

7. Trying to imagine what those newly fledged graduates who chose to raise their degrees in the air and execute a pumping motion, as if they'd just won a boxing match, thought they were doing.

8. Wondering whether the girls who had chosen to dress in very revealing low-cut, extremely short-skirted dresses regretted that decision, especially when they went on to strap things onto their feet that made footbinding look like a benign activity. So many of them appeared to think that a visit to a night club and a graduation ceremony were the same thing,(and I bet they all called themselves feminists, despite their compulsion to plaster themselves with make up and spend fortunes on having astounding and probably quite time-consuming things done to their hair - the movie Best in Show kept springing to mind). While they had spent large sums of money and time to get themselves ready, the boys all sauntered out having made no effort whatsoever - in most cases not even bothering to polish their shoes or brush their hair. Inequality is sometimes self-perpetuated, it appears.

9. Learning the new word 'humblebrag' from overheard whispered conversations around me, as the keynote speaker told us how he'd made no effort whatsoever but somehow ended up at Oxford (no, not Brookes, Oxford University, since you ask, [at least, I'm assuming - but then that's what Oxford Brookes graduates always hope is exactly what you'll do, I guess]), and how one of his colleagues had been teaching in an adjacent classroom and asked him at the end of their respective classes, 'How do you manage to make your students laugh so happily and with so much engagement, all the time?' and ... - but you get the gist

10. Finally resorting to the age-old game beloved of all children whose parents, (mine weren't like this, but I have friends who've kindly passed on the information), insisted on weekly churchgoing - no, not pew licking; the one where you get through a dull sermon or speech by trying to spot words beginning with each consecutive letter of the alphabet as they come up, (try it next time you're stuck listening to something long and dull. It really does pass the time more quickly, provided no-one expects you to answers question about what you've heard afterwards)..

11. Trying to translate the speeches into a foreign language - related to this is the game of trying to name objects around you in a room in languages you've tried to learn, (warning, this can be depressing, if you thought until that moment that you were actually reasonably fluent).

12. Wondering if any food or drink would be offered at the end of the almost interminable ritual - none was, on this occasion, which was at least a good result as far as my predictive powers are concerned.

Anyway, it's over now. I'm home. I'm safe, althought I am left wondering what it is in the human psyche that craves these strange ceremonies - or, indeed, ceremonies in general - what odd kind of need for symbolic moments exist in our souls that make these stylised occasions so necessary.

(Warning: exaggeration  may have been used in the preparation of this blog post.)


  1. Point 8: at American universities, one wears an academic gown and mortarboard. Under the gown, male slovenliness and female elegance are alike concealed. I'm not sure that one can even guess at the height of heels.

    At the last commencement we attended, the students received their degrees by department. The head of the Classics department had well-rested hands, some other heads not so.

  2. They wear gowns here, mostly - half a dozen chose not to, and ended up oddly looking more outlandish and silly than those who went with the medieval garb - but the gowns are not very long and hang very open. Here - and in England, from what I've experienced - it seems to be the duty of a vice chancellor. For Lucy's degree, the man who did it whispered, 'Well done' to each individual with such an appearance of delight and empathy that they all came away thinking he really cared particularly about them. Quite a knack