Varsity                                                                                                                                                                          Posted 30th November 2013

MORE years ago than I care to remember, I did a degree in English at Glasgow University. At that time such a degree involved the compulsory study of Anglo Saxon for, I think, a minimum of three papers in the finals. One minor aspect of this study was called Anglo Saxon Sound Changes.

In my Junior Honours year, I attended my first lecture on this strange-sounding and arcane branch of learning. It also turned out to be my last lecture on the subject. Understandably, therefore, I don't remember much about it. All I can clearly recall from that occasion is an almost instant and profound sense of disorientation. It was a feeling characterised, I suppose, by a series of nebulous questions that seemed to hover in the air around my head. Questions like: "What is this supposed to be about?" and "Are you kidding?" and "Who put the lights out? It's dark in here."

Before us stood a very personable young man talking solemnly about his chosen specialisation. He began by citing the names of various forerunners in his field and then telling us of the amazing linguistic discoveries they had made. Obviously I don't remember exactly what he said, but it was of this order: "Professor Finkelstein of Chicago has discovered that in the 9th century euh became eh." "Professor Villerbro of Copenhagen has demonstrated convincingly that by the 10th century what had been aw had now turned into oo." I'm afraid I did what I have tended to do since boyhood when faced with solemnity applied to what I think is a ludicrous context. I corpsed. No amount of knuckle-biting, no amount of hankies stuffed in the mouth could save me. I went hysterical.

It was a moment reminiscent of the time when my uncle came into our house after a visit to the hospital, where his brother was recovering from a serious accident. I would be maybe 10 at the time. My mother asked reverentially, "So how is he, Airchie?" My uncle, an ex-miner, was a man who loved the graphic. Consequently, he liked not merely to describe what had happened, he liked to enact it.

"How is he?" he said, tears starting in his eyes.

He proceeded not only to enumerate his brother's injuries but to depict them physically. So it was that I was obliged to witness one of the most bizarre mimes I've ever seen.

My uncle finished up with his right arm bent behind his head, his left arm stuck straight out from his body, and standing on one leg, his right leg pointing up in the air. I collapsed helplessly and was banished from the room for that most terrible of working-class crimes: mocking the afflicted.

Much the same fate befell me in that lecture room. The lecturer was a nice man. He came over to me to discuss my problem. He didn't have much choice, right enough, since my heaving body and my whimpering mouth were disturbing proceedings somewhat. We talked, while I wept copiously and nodded, and we agreed that my alienation from proceedings was more or less incurable. I was, as it were, invalided out of the room and excused his lectures, rather in the manner of someone who is shell-shocked being removed from the front line.

I diagnosed myself as suffering from a rare but virulent condition: Hysterical Philistinism. This ailment can lie dormant for long stretches of time and then re-activate when you least expect it. The symptoms are inane, uncontrollable laughter and a tendency to repeat to yourself the same phrases over and over again: "But how the hell can they know that?" And "What's this got to do with the price of fish?"

I mention this in order to establish my credentials as someone who has never been seduced by the self-importance of uselessly esoteric learning. I'm sceptical enough to laugh with the loudest of them at obscure scholarly discoveries I think aren't worth the trouble it took to make them. To me it's as if Columbus were to set out from Europe with his ships and discover Rockall.

You wouldn't expect the crews' celebrations to be too lavish. I've always found such exotic data to be hothouse blooms, falsely nourished in an unnatural atmosphere. Transplanted to the real world, they would curl up and die in a moment.

But I still think university was one of the important experiences of my life. It was for me what the first sight of the Pacific was for Cortez. It showed me fresh horizons. I was taught by some impressive people, who gave me new ways to be myself, new ways to see the world.

It follows that I believe profoundly in the importance of universities. It also follows that the more effectively they connect with the lives people have to live outside their walls, no matter how tangentially, the more I see the point of them. But the terms in which that connection are made are crucial. Whatever you think universities are for, one thing's for sure. They are about the rigorous application of intelligence. They are not there merely to reinforce the ramshackle opinions of contemporary culture or to legitimise the vapid sentimentality of the times.

It's healthy that universities should open up their formerly closed borders to the shifting attitudes and the dominant issues of the society in which they find themselves. But I would have thought the point of doing so is to submit our society's sense of itself to stringent examination, not simply to rubber-stamp its validity.

That's why I'm glad the Oxford Union welcomed Michael Jackson to speak there. It's also why I'm disappointed that the event turned into just another superstar gig, its banality obscured in dubious hype like stage-mist. Even the two men who accompanied the singer to Oxford like cultural minders exuded a strong whiff of snake oil. Uri Geller has successfully surrounded himself for years with an aura of paranormal powers yet seems to have done little with them that is more constructive than spoiling the cutlery. Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, who converted Jackson to Judaism, never uses one word when he can get away with 22. He's enough to give fluency a bad name.

No attempt whatever was made here to undercut the hype. I don't imagine there was even a question time or, if there was, it was probably restricted to how the monkey's getting on. All was mindless adulation. The faces of the students emerging from the hall glowed like candles at a Barry Manilow concert.

That was fine until some of the things he had been saying filtered out through the press and you realised what had put the shine on their faces. There was nothing you could disagree with, unless perhaps you are a devout believer in cruelty to children. But then he didn't say much of any substance at all. He struck a series of compassionate poses and everybody took him at face value. In his case that's an interesting thing to do since, whatever his face is, it isn't his own. And then, of course, he cried.

I know Thatcherism has obliged universities to sell themselves in the marketplace. But does that mean one of the oldest universities in the world should offer itself as a venue for unexamined cultural pap? Maybe we can look forward to Bologna bidding for the Eurovision Song Contest and Salamanca hosting It's A Knockout.

Michael Jackson's tears? I'd rather have Anglo Saxon Sound Changes.

(First printed SoS - 11th March 2001)