Graduation address: Professor Verity J Brown

Monday 1 December 2014

Chancellor, esteemed colleagues, ladies and gentlemen and graduates, I would like to add my ‘congratulations’.

This year, 2014, was designated as the year of ‘Homecoming Scotland’. The tag line of the year-long celebrations is ‘a year of brilliant moments’. For those of you graduating today, this is surely a brilliant moment. For you, of course, it has also been one of the more busy – perhaps even stressful – years of your lives. You could therefore be forgiven if you missed some of the key brilliant moments of the year to date. So, I will briefly recap the summer highlights in case you were not paying attention.

First of all, we had a beautiful summer – weeks of warmth and sunshine through June, July and August. Even those of you writing a thesis probably noticed: perhaps you had to close the blinds to avoid the glare on the computer screen, or maybe as you waited for inspiration, you watched the motes in the sunbeams, and a stray thought may have crept in: ‘there’s a sunbeam – it’s not raining!’

And the beautiful weather gave the perfect backdrop for some brilliant sporting moments.

Although Andy Murray did not retain his Wimbledon title, he did make it to the quarter final without dropping a set. Apart from the last three: he dropped all of those.

The Ryder Cup team did very well and we all liked being part of ‘Team Europe’. The competition was played in Scotland for the first time in 40 years, and Team Europe defeated the USA for a third consecutive title.

At the end of July, Glasgow, the UK’s heart disease capital, hosted the Commonwealth Games. Obviously, the Glasgow Games needed to represent more than just fitness, sport and athletic achievement. The opening ceremony duly featured giant dancing Tunnock’s teacakes. They were not really dancing – one cannot exactly dance while dressed as a foil-wrapped chocolate-coated marshmallow-topped biscuit cake. Nevertheless, the moving cakes piqued the curiosity of the rest of the nation: Waitrose told the BBC that sales of the snack rose 65% in the following 24 hours. A spokesman was quoted as saying that they had not anticipated that: he said ‘We usually expect to see people marking major sporting events with a barbecue’.

And of course there was The Vote. On 18 September, 260 years of separation ended, as a convincing majority of the membership voted for women to be admitted to the Royal & Ancient Golf Club.

I thought that this would be a good moment to tell a golf joke. So I did a Google search “jokes about golf”. Apparently, the game is taken very seriously and I could not find many jokes (none that I understood). Mostly, they were about taking golf very seriously. They are not funny. For example: ‘If you find that you do not mind playing golf in the rain, the snow, even during a hurricane, here’s a valuable tip: your life is in trouble.’ It is not funny, is it?

It is not funny because it is true. Of course, a great deal of humour depends upon this device: it is precisely because we recognise something as true that it makes us laugh. But this statement is not even surprisingly true – it’s just obvious.

What this so-called joke is implying is that some activities seem worse than pointless – practically self-destructive – to another person. Why would someone spend several hours knocking a ball into a series of very small and very widely spaced holes? Why would they do that when the weather is fair, let alone in bad weather?

And that made me think that doing a degree is a bit like a game of golf played in unpredictable weather. You will have experienced a moment when you wondered whether you should pack it in… but you continued… and then the weather took a turn for the worse… it started to rain… and you pulled your collar up, put your head down and took another putt… And then the post-doc ran off with the umbrella… but it was windy, so that showed her.

And all the time, you did not stop playing. Perhaps there were more Bogeys than Birdies, but you stuck with it. And now you are here: your certificate is in your hand; your proud fans are in the gallery; your day of celebration has begun and there is only me between you and the champagne.

With the benefit of a relatively advanced age, I could tell you a thing or two that perhaps I wished I had listened to when I was where you are today. In the UK, the average person lives 27,365 days, which may sound like a lot, but they reduce at a seemingly accelerating rate. Alarmingly, the vast majority of these days will not be remembered. Of course today is not one of those days. You may not remember everything – perhaps anything – I say to you, but you will remember the gushing expressions of swelling pride from your guests; the slight anxiety as you carefully knelt and then rose, trying not to step on the hem of your gown; the excited butterflies as you contemplate the next phase of your life, perhaps tinged with a sadness if this involves leaving ‘The Bubble’.

I hope that today is just one of many brilliant moments you have had throughout your time in St Andrews. I hope that your memories of this place and the friends you made here remain rich and in vibrant colour. As you move ahead, do stop and take stock occasionally and ask yourself whether enough of your days contain brilliant moments. If you find they do not, then do something about it. There is a reason that high performance racing cars do not have cruise control. If you find your life is on cruise control, put your foot on the accelerator and keep it there – metaphorically speaking.

Drive safely.

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