It all started several months ago when, out of the blue, I received a letter from a university inviting me to become one of its honorary fellows. There was to be a graduation ceremony later in the year and the presentation would be tagged on at the end of it. There would be others receiving honorary awards, and I was assured that the process was simple. The gown would be provided, complimentary words would be spoken, photographs taken, and a meal would be on offer afterwards. And that would be that.
In the back of my mind I wondered if this was an elaborate fund-raising ruse but was reassured otherwise. That being so, and though the idea did not particularly appeal – I dislike pomp and abhor the dressing up malarkey – I accepted the invitation and arrived on the allotted morning, besuited and in good time.
After the usual introductions and the ‘gowning up’ (my costume was a relatively modest little number compared to the reds, yellows and golds of some of my colleagues) the fellows-to-be, presiding grandees and other local dignitaries were carefully arranged in two lines ready to march into the hall where the ceremony would take place. A string quartet struck up in the auditorium. This was our signal to stand up and ‘process’ (their word not mine) down the aisles and up onto the platform, where we sat in rows according to our rank. A uniformed flunky, who I think was wearing white gloves and black gaiters, sanctified the meeting by placing a sliver mace on a stand at the front of the stage.
Now the business proper could begin. A conveyor belt of hundreds of newly graduated doctors and scientists dressed in their gowns and mortar boards were announced by name. They walked awkwardly across the stage, shook hands with the chancellor – some hugged him, much to his surprise – and then returned to their seats to the sound of applause.
After perhaps two hours of new graduation it was our turn. In all, five of us were receiving honorary awards. Our procedure was rather more ornate than for the students. Standing at the podium, a university dignitary explained who each of us was, and why we deserved our special award. With some ceremony, a senior administrator handed the chancellor a scroll tied with a red ribbon and finally, with a flourish, the awardee was presented with the said scroll, then returned to his or her chair.
Within no time this last bit of the proceedings was over. We processed off the platform to the changing room with the musicians at full throttle. There, I took off my robes and made as to leave but was hauled back for photos, first alone and then with the other awardees. We were asked to hold our scrolls high so that they could be clearly seen and, as is customary, each photo had to be taken two or three times to ensure that the spirit of the moment was captured in the best light. Eventually I managed to leave, receiving a brown envelope as I went.
On the train home I undid the red ribbon to read my scroll. It was completely blank, not a word, nothing on either side! I had been caught up in a charade designed for sound bites and photo-opportunities. It had been a sham. Yes, there was a certificate in the brown envelope but that was not the point. I and hundreds in the audience had been duped, and to me this was a con and an affront. Why had the university bothered? It would have been just as simple, and so much more wholesome, to give us the real thing, as they would have done in the old days.
But more worrying, if that’s how this university behaves in public, who knows what it gets up to in private!