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Saturday, 28 June 2014

St Salvator's Quad, St Andrews
   I was persuaded of the need to stay longer than originally intended in St Andrews, partly because my knee wasn’t giving me encouraging vibes, but also because I’d seen advertisements for two interesting-looking and free public lectures that were due to take place on the next day (Wednesday) – an inaugural lecture in St Salvator’s Quad by Professor Richard English of the International Relations dept, entitled ‘Does Terrorism Work?’ in the early evening, and then a talk at the Catholic chaplaincy by well-known Scottish composer Dr James MacMillan. In a different pub that Tuesday evening, where I had a vivid memory from my student days of a scene from a certain dire-but-celebrated 1990s film being reproduced in unnerving detail, I was spoilt for choice on the televised football front, with both Dortmund vs Malaga and Galatasaray (featuring Ivorian striker Didier Drogba) vs Real Madrid visible from my table.

   On Wednesday 10th April, having spent a much better night at the bottom of a stairwell, I managed belatedly to get my old passport, with a replacement application form and photos, into the post; it lacked sufficient blank pages for the various visas I was hoping to get in Africa. Then the first of the two public lectures was a crash course in the politics of Northern Ireland’s Troubles, delivered, as Professor English mentioned, 15 years to the day after the Good Friday Agreement. It contained one outstanding quote, from Irish civil servant I.T. Whitaker, speaking in the 1960s; 

“Force will get us nowhere.” 

There was no opportunity to ask anything in the immediate aftermath, so I went through to a little drinks reception in a posh hall where exams are sometimes held. Eventually I took my opportunity to press Prof. English on this question – wasn’t Whitaker proved right, especially when you look at the stark contrast between terrorists’ actual gains and, for instance, the accomplishments of the entirely peaceful Solidarity movement in Poland? He was surprisingly receptive and friendly, agreed with my basic premise, and gave me a card so that we might continue the discussion online. Then I had some tasty fish and chips for supper, before going to Canmore[1], where Dr MacMillan’s talk was no less absorbing, about the way faith has been expressed in the work of various writers and composers of the last century, and into our own day. I asked him a question relating to a couple of things he’d said about Professor Eamonn Duffy, and the faith of Edward Elgar. In the pub afterwards (where Canmore’s Wednesday evenings traditionally end up), he packed a kilo of gelignite underneath whatever vestige remained of the stereotype about Scottish tight-fistedness, by writing down the order for perhaps ten people, and buying us all drinks[2]. Half the students were from the United States, by whom I was enlightened as to the exceptionally high standing of the Detroit Redwings; more or less to US ice hockey what Bayern Munich is to German football. I also chatted to an (English) second year student who knew a contemporary of mine at St Andrews who is now a priest. She was studying French but also Russian, one of my subjects, and it turned out that she was due to spend her third year in Tours, holding out the prospect, no less important to her than to me, of visiting the tomb of St Martin.       

   After another, less successful night in the stairwell, on the morning of Thursday 11th April I checked into St Andrews tourist hostel, because it just wasn’t very expensive, and I fancied it might be possible to start walking again on the next day. One of the employees there was especially helpful, putting me in email contact with a friend of his who had written books about pilgrimage in Scotland. It was then interesting to hear a guy from Edinburgh describe his home-town to some continental visitors as “the most beautiful city in the world”. After they’d left, I felt bound to point out that there is some extremely stiff competition for that accolade. Edinburgh may well be comfortably the most beautiful city in Britain, but that isn’t quite the same thing, and without much conspicuous foreign endorsement, Edinburgh-donians would do well not to get ahead of themselves.

   I did some laundry, and spent part of the afternoon on a computer in the library again. Then in early evening, in the street I recognised and greeted Professor Roger Scruton, the distinguished philosopher, saying rather lamely that I regretted not as yet having got around to reading his books – forgetting that in my undergraduate days, I did in fact read a short book he wrote on Immanuel Kant. Later there was US Masters golf on TV in the hostel, which I sat down and watched for a while, alongside a young man who was working as a caddy on the Old Course. Jack Nicklaus was one of the commentators. When asked by his colleague, ‘If you could play one course before you die, what would it be?’ he answered ‘St Andrews.’ Now that’s what I call an endorsement. It was also nice to have brief conversations there with some Chinese people who were visiting for an Anthropology conference.

   On Friday 12th April, I tried in vain to get the show on the road again. It had been almost 20 years since I’d last walked out to David Russell Hall, where I lived as a first year undergraduate. Scarcely had I made it past there however when I received a memo from my disaffected knee, protesting in blunt terms that it was still out of sorts. After returning by bus to the town centre, I bumped into one of the folks from the hostel, on whose face I could have sworn there was just the tiniest hint of schadenfreude, when I explained why I’d had to come back. Not long afterwards, the fleeting sense of irritation, which sprang from learning that Tottenham had been ejected on penalties from the Europa League by FC Basel on the previous evening, was the straw that broke the camel’s back, tipping me in favour of making a hasty tactical retreat back to Berwick, via Edinburgh.

[1] St Andrews University Catholic chaplaincy building, named after Malcolm Canmore (d. 1093), King of Scots and husband of St Margaret of Scotland.
[2] ‘Thriftiness’ is very different from ‘meanness’.

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