Office of the Dean: St Andrew’s College, King George IV Bridge, Edinburgh EH1 3TD
THE COLLEGE is now fully back in action for our Martinmas Term which ends in 10 weeks with a break in late December for Yule. In accordance with our Constitution of 1561, we do not recognise, let alone observe, Christmas, a Victorian institution thatuntil recently had no place in the Scottish psyche. But more of our Yuletide Festival anon.
One of the pleasures of the Deanship is the Deanery on the top floor of College. Here I can work in peace, interview candidates, dismiss malefactors and generally run the show. Neither the Bursar, nor the Rector or even the Prebendary comes in here without an invitation. The Deanery is my private domain and comprises my Study, ensuite Bedroom cum dressing room and Executive Office, all of these lying behind and hence protected by outer offices housing the Secretariat. The latter is my anti-tank ditch and rampart, or rather my Siegfried Line, across which none may pass without the approval of my splendid German secretary / PA. The three-headed dog Cerberus, gate-guardian of Hades was a pussycat compared to this lady. Named by her parents after the Queen of the Gibichungs in Wagner’s Ring, Grimhilde, (full title The Baroness Grimhilde Erika von Reichenau-Strelitz) handles all my arrangements. Without her, my life would be frankly a shambles. However, thanks to her imposition of a strict regimen of Teutonic discipline, I somehow manage to keep myself and the College going.
However, I’m allowed out from time to time to represent College, one of the extra-curricular events this week being the extraordinary Saints & Sinners luncheon over in Glasgow. The S&S comprises one hundred individuals from all areas of industry, the arts and show-business who raise a phenomenal amount of money for Good Causes, while having a hilarious time doing so. The Scottish Club is the only offspring of the London parent S&S, itself the daughter of a now defunct New York institution.
These lunches are not for the faint-hearted. Grimhilde knows from experience to put absolutely nothing in the Diary until the day after a S&S occasion and that my telephone and email facilities in the Deanery are to be disabled until after I have had my Bertie Wooster (a Restorative) and two aspirin the following morning.
The London S&S Club is a gem. Full of the great & good of the entertainment world, they asked me, years ago, to partner Robert Runcie in the speeches at their 50th Anniversary Dinner at the Savoy. Unmissable! Down to London I went and the first astonishment - one of many that evening - came on meeting the great man. Runcie was then Archbishop of Canterbury, a classical scholar, a war hero with an MC from the battlefields of Normandy to prove it, and a great wit. He gave a splendid speech on the subject of sainthood, while proudly sporting a red carnation. I should perhaps point out that on entering the River Room that evening, one was offered the choice of red or white carnation as a buttonhole , the choice to reflect whether one saw oneself as a Saint (white) - or not….
“I see your Grace wears the Red.”
“It is not my duty to show solidarity with poor miserable sinners such as myself?”
To my great surprise it transpired that the head of the Church of England was a Scot and, like your humble servant, from Ayrshire. I told him that his mellifluous, sibilant High Church tones were not exactly those of the Ayrshire recalled from a Prestwick childhood.
“Ah, but you see, my father - an engineer with Glenfield & Kennedy in Kilmarnock - was posted to Liverpool before my birth. And so, like the exiled Israelites, I was born by the Water of Babylon - in my case the Mersey!”
Well, well. Back home I looked up ‘Runcie’ in Black’s Dictionary of Scottish Surnames and right enough, there it was; the origin of the surname lay in Aberdeenshire. He certainly had an old Scots persistence, not least when our table was visited by J.A.K., John Jackson, the celebrated cartoonist of the Evening Standard and another wag.
“Ah, Jack,” says the Archbishop, “Now tell me; how does this Club determine whether a new member is a Saint or a Sinner? We at the C of E have been wondering how to do it for five hundred years.”
“Easy,” says Jackson, “we have a question which we put to the new Member.”
“And what is that crucial question?”
“We ask him; would you make love to a consenting 16 year-old?”
“But how does that distinguish them?”
“Well, a Saint will say ‘No! ’- while a Sinner will say, ‘Er… a 16 year-old what…?’ ”
The London Saints & Sinners Christmas Lunch, also at the Savoy, is one of the hottest tickets of the Yuletide. Carols are sung - but with the words altered by Sir Tim Rice to reflect the political issues of the day e.g.;
“Hark, the herald Angels sing, Gordon Brown! Give us a ring…!”
It was at that lunch in 2003, just a few months before his death, that I heard Peter Ustinov in person for the first - and last time. He was, simply, the best after-lunch or after-dinner speaker the country has produced.
He had four languages, all the accents for his mimicry, that rare combination of brevity of language with breadth of expression.
He spoke of the summer of 1940 and of the famous pillbox, a concrete emplacement with a firing slit, on the south coast of England in which Private Ustinov waited, nervously, for the German invasion.
He shared that pillbox with, of all people, another private, Goldstein, who was a Polish and a Jewish bespoke tailor from Warsaw. They were ready for the Wehrmacht; they had a rifle, they had several rounds of ammunition, but they had a communications problem.
Goldstein could only speak Polish, Yiddish and German; while Ustinov was fluent in Russian, French, German & English. This meant that the only common language among these two British Army warriors was…. but that’s another story.