Monday, 12 May 2008


On Saturday I went to my grandsons graduation ceremony at Cambridge. This is the second time I have had the privilege of being invited to a graduation ceremony there and I find that words are inadequate to explain the experience.

First, let me declare my love of the City of Cambridge itself. I love the youth, exhuberance, leafiness and quirkiness of the place. On a guided walking tour of the City our guide pointed out an insignificant looking three story terraced building down a side street and told us that she had worked there alongside 3 Nobel Prize winners who had unraveled the mysteries of DNA. That seems to sum up the craziness of the place to me. WOW WITH BELLS ON!!

She also told us that the University of Cambridge, founded in 1209, was unique in the way that it worked. There is no such thing as a “university” building, it is actually a collection of independent colleges. I am not good at retaining information, and I’m sure DogLover will put me straight, but I seem to remember her saying that each college has students from all disciplines so an economics student will be living alongside an engineering student, a medical student etc. This makes for a very broad educational experience.

I believe that the only “universal” building is the Senate-House where graduation ceremonies have been held for over 800 years and which, as you would expect, are steeped in tradition. Each college has it’s own ceremony starting after lunch with King’s, Trinity, St .John’s, Peterhouse and finishing at about 2000 with Homerton.

After the formal lunch with visitors at their colleges the granuands are walked in all their regalia through the city to the Senate-House. Our ceremony was scheduled for 1700 and started bang on time as the bell chimed. Impressive when you consider that each college will have upward of 100 students graduating. The lady in front of us put it very well, "after all, they have had 800 years to get this right”.

Visitors are seated on tiered benches either in the Gallery or on the floor of the Senate-House and cannot leave until a “break in the proceedings” i.e. the end. We were fortunate enough to be seated on the floor immediately beside where the ceremony was to take place.

The ceremony commences when the Vice-Chancellor enters the Senate-House in procession, led by the Esquire Bedells bearing maces. All the big-wig participants then have little rituals to perform and there is much bowing and scraping and taking off of hats. Apart from a short welcome in English the entire proceedings take place entirely in Latin.

The graduands are led forward four at a time and the person presenting them holds out his hand for each graduand to hold one finger. He then says in Latin “Most worthy Vice-Chancellor and the whole University, I present to you this man (woman) whom I know to be suitable as much by character as by learning to proceed to the degree of (name of degree); for which I pledge my faith to you and to the whole University”. The graduand then kneels and after enclosing the graduand’s hands between his own, the Vice-Chancellor says in Latin “by the authority committed to me I admit you to the degree of (name of degree) in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”.

As this was taking place one poor lady started to have a fit. My grandson said afterwards that he was a bit surprised that they hadn’t stopped the proceedings until she had been carried from the building. I said that I was surprised that they had even allowed her to be carried from the building, bearing in mind they said we couldn’t leave until a “break in the proceedings”! As my husband once said “I suppose that’s what makes England great" (he is Scottish and was being extremely ironic in a similar circumstance).

My grandson studied for his MA at Edinburgh University but he said that graduating from Cambridge as a Master of Philosophy was a whole different ball game. Like I said in the beginning, hard to put into words, but he said that the level of intellect and excellence increases by a factor of 10. He hadn’t realised how spending the year in this rarefied atmosphere would add so much to his confidence. And it's tangible, you can see it. He walks tall and is an exceedingly fine and proud young man.
Originally uploaded by anninfotel


Maggie May said...

You must be SO proud of your grand son. I expect you had a really enjoyable day. Pity about the lady having a fit. I was sitting on a bus not so long ago & a young girl had a fit on the seat in front of me. No one wanted to get involved, so I had to stop the bus & sit with her while all the passengers left the bus. She was on the floor by now. Stayed with her till she came round & an ambulance had been called by then.

Grit said...

congratulations on what must have been a very happy day!

(apart from the fitting, obviously.)

Flagmaker said...

I agree that intelligence comes from the female side of the family. What an honor for you to attend the graduation of your son from Cambridge. I wish him much success in his endeavors. I, too, have enjoyed every visit to Cambridge that I've made. We have a university town in Eugene that reminds me of the town of Cambridge. I'm afraid to go back as I have these specific memories and I'm afraid that they have changed with time. Congratulations to your grandson on his achievements, after all they did come from his grandmother's genes.

Dusty Spider said...

It sounds wonderful. You must be very proud. Intelligence coming from the female side? That explains why I have such a clever granddaughter!
Sorry I haven't commented lately I mistook the picture at the top of your blog for an old post and have only just scrolled down to check. Flick xx

girl with the mask said...

Gosh, how brilliant for him. To be surrounded my so much history and academia must be so inspiring. To infinity and beyond, now!

Retiredandcrazy said...

Maggie, you are one of life's saints.

Retiredandcrazy said...

Yes, grit, it was a pretty perfect day, apart from the fit and having to leave OG at home. I kept ringing him to see if he was OK, until he got heartily sick of me and told me to stop ringing!

Retiredandcrazy said...

Hi Flagmaker, we were with you when we did the guided walk. Do you remember how fascinating the guide was? She gave us so much information that I immediately forgot. Drat!

Retiredandcrazy said...

Welcome back Flick. I wanted the picture to be small, but don't know how to reduce it. That's how intelligent I am!

Retiredandcrazy said...

Girl in the Mask, you are my re-incarnation. You think like me! I am your future, be very afraid!

Anonymous said...

well done to your granson,I remebr the pride when my girls graduated and even more when I had my first Masters, and my young er daughter had hers too.
There is something very comfortable in the tradition and oldiness
Its part of what I love about the UK

aims said...

Wow! Wow! Wow!

david mcmahon said...

Thanks for that wonderful description. We share your pride!

Momma said...

Sounds like an absolutely wonderful day! I know you must be proud of your grandson!

Peace - D

(David sent me)

mrsnesbitt said...

Good old David sent me here and as I read your post the pride you felt oozed through your writing!
Well Done that boy!
It is a quality not all youth share...the want to make our family proud, I tried to make my parents proud, it was my decision. Congratulations again. I have never been to Cambridge but I have visited Oxford. Myself, I went to that is, not the prison! LOL!

Retiredandcrazy said...

I agree with you Valleys Mam, I believe that we have a totally unique country here and should embrace it with pride.

Retiredandcrazy said...

Aims, you have it, in a nutshell.

Retiredandcrazy said...

Welcome David and thanks for your valued comment.

Retiredandcrazy said...

Welcome to you too momma and mrsnesbitt, that David is a good bloke isn't he?

Jeni said...

Thanks to David, I stopped by and very much enjoyed your post. The pride that comes from receiving a college degree is immense -for the recipient, as well as the family too. I know how excited and proud I was when I got my degree (at age 50) and my daughters were up in the balcony cheering for me! The ceremony here sounds so dignified though, full of pomp and circumstance, which really is how it should be.

Anonymous said...

I loved your description of the Cambridge graduation and read it aloud to my wife; our son (at Fitzwilliam graduates on 28th June) but I must correct what the guide said ("told us that she had worked there alongside 3 Nobel Prize winners") as only Watson/Crick worked there on DNA, while Wilkins worked at King's College, London..sorry! Martin P.

Retiredandcrazy said...

Jeni, the thought of family cheering from the balcony makes me smile. Cambridge is to stuffy for such rowdy behaviour!

Retiredandcrazy said...

Thanks for you comments anonymous. You are quite right and your comments jogged my failing memory further. What she had actually said was two were on the DNA team and then there had been another (I can't remember who or why he received the prize) who she had also worked with in the same unpretentious building with. How amazing is that?

Retiredandcrazy said...

By the way anonymous, enjoy the ceremony on 28th June and congratulations to your son.

Anonymous said...

"Retired and Crazy", I only wish you could have given me the 'old' guide's name as she might have been useful for Professor Robert Olby's new biography of the late Francis Crick [which is going to press for December publication]! Could your guide have been the ghost of Rosalind Franklin (who died in 1958) I wonder? The other 1962 Nobel Prize winners from the Cavendish were John Kendrew and Max Perutz. We are looking forward to the 28th June and I have sent your blog to Professor Olby in US & Robin.Best wishes,Martin P.

Anonymous said...

ps Dear "Retired and Crazy",
I forgot to say that judging by the image at the top of your blog page, your grandson was obviously at Fitzwilliam, the same as my son?
To paraphrase something the Master of Clare (Tony Badger) recently said 'Cambridge is not about the historic buildings, it is about the people who study there'. Sorry to sound rather critical but your description of the University's odd structure (quoting that 'ancient' female guide) is incorrect - but it is a bit complicated! So your grandson is also a 'Fitzbilly'? Kind regards, Martin P./anonymous.[Birmingham]

Retiredandcrazy said...

Hello again Martin P from Birmingham (anonymous). Ah! you have rumbled that I shoot from the lips. What is it they say - a little knowledge is dangerous?

Well the guide was certainly NOT the poor abused Rosalind Franklin because our guided walk was in the 1990's!.

This lady guide worked out of the TI office in Cambridge. Maybe they would have helpful information? I would guess that all guides would be accredited?

You jogged my memory again. I seem to remember that she stood in front of the unassuming building and said something like "That humble building was the workplace of 4(5?) Nobel Prize winners. I know, because I worked for 3 of them".

And again from memory I don't recall that she was anyone important herself, probably a typist.

I knew when I was struggling to descibe the structure of the university that I hadn't quite got it right, but hey, why let accuracy get in the way of a good story! What I was trying to convey was that it was unique.

Is there anywhere that I can read up on this? And when I say "read up on this" I mean don't mean dry as old ditchwater stuff, but honest to goodness anecdotal, blood, guts and thunder stories!

Or maybe you could do a short piece on it yourself? Things like the students getting run out of Oxford and finally settling in Cambridge and the fact that at one time you could walk from Oxford to Cambridge on university land?

As you can tell, an academic I am not, but an old lady thirsting for knowledge I am.

You are correct in your deduction, my Grandson is a Fitzbilly. He took his MA at Edinburgh and then went to the Fitzwilliam for a year for his MPhil.

Once again, have a great day on the 28th. Nice to talk to you oh hallowed one!

And don't apologise for the critisim, I love it. I'm too thick to take offence. My friend DogLover is an ex Rugbarian, went to Cambridge, and then became an "Establishment" man, so you can tell I am used to it. My idiosincratic writing, spelling and mis-information drive him nuts!

Anonymous said...

Hi "Retired and Crazy", thank you for such a long reply! Apart from the expensive multi-volume History of the University of Cambridge, I did notice that CUP have published a more modest single 'softback' book for the 800th anniversary next year. I have satisfied my own thirst for scientific knowledge over the past few years by trying to assist Professor Olby and you might like to see my web page: for more?

My son has just completed his penultimate exam. for his M.Sci and has another one tomorrow - to say that my wife and I are proud of his academic achievement is an understatement, but I am sure there is life - after Cambridge university. I was only joking about your guide being the "ghost of Rosalind Franklin", but am not sure about her being 'poor abused'(sic), see Brenda Maddox's biography of her, it's a good read, as hopefully will be the new (second) biography of Francis Crick! Finally the only other comment I would make is that the academic staff of the University's Departments are one and the same as Fellows of the Colleges, so university and colleges do overlap. Martin P/anonymous Birmingham.

Retiredandcrazy said...

Martin, we are in danger of becoming old and trusted friends, but I should warn you that I do abuse friendship. You website is very impressive and I will enjoy reading it but find the need to point out that the 2007 marathone has past. Touche?

Seriously though, I am greatly honoured by your interest in my 'umble blog.

Anonymous said...

Dear "Retired and Crazy", I know as a gentleman I should let the lady (of mature years) have the last word, but did your grandson give you a 'Fitz' Billygoat before he graduated? My son had reluctantly bought THREE: one for his Mum, and one each for his old grandmothers! [Unfortunately the Porter's Lodge were running out of them and did not intend to re-order new stock.]

I appreciated your comments on my awful "Francis Crick" webpage by the way (the new biography is even better fortunately) but don't confuse the 'style' of Cambridge with its 'substance': as James D. Watson said (quote) "..if the university had not been so immersed in its history that its institutions were always more important to it than its inhabitants" and in the case of Francis Crick "Something had to move and it was not Cambridge".

I do appreciate that you were most impressed with the (old) Cavendish Laboratory, but in real scientific terms the events of 1953 and DNA etc are already ancient history of course, and most of the original participants in the 'story' are already dead, but my son had the pleasure of dining with Sydney Brenner last year (at my expense) at the CUBS annual dinner and I only wish I had been there too!

There is another good quote about Cambridge which I will try to find for you, but until recently I always felt much stronger about OXFORD - as a fan of E. Morse - and the fact that my late father once waited on table for Lord Nuffield (William Morris) in Oxford; but as a long-time ex-'Austin' employee, it has to be Cambridge first for the simple reason that Lord [Herbert] Austin endowed the then new Austin wing of the Cavendish, where DNA's structure was first discovered! All for now, Martin P./anonymous

Anonymous said...

Dear "Retired & Crazy",
My son [Robin] got a 2/1 MSci (Cantab) in Nat Sci yesterday!

I DO agree with your 'grammmar school' comment as both of mine benefited from a King Edwards grammar school in Birmingham: he = 7 years (Cambridge), she = 2 years (Bristol); "onwards and upwards"?

Anonymous said...

"Retired and Crazy" in East Midlands

ps My daughter has just accepted a conditional offer of a PhD at the Royal Veterinary College, not bad for 21! She did two years in the sixth form at a grammar school by the way. What is your "Fitzbilly" MPhil. grandson doing these days -my MSci. 'Fitzbilly' son works in Swansea.

Retiredandcrazy said...

Congratulations to your daughter. These youngsters are so bright aren't they? My grandson went on to accept a graduate trainee job with RSB! Not the best timing, but he is doing great. He works in the city and although his division is being axed he has been offered another post. I think he will do well.

Anonymous said...

"Retired & Crazy", Incidentally we had a FANTASTIC day at Cambridge last year for our son's 'MSci.' graduation: the weather was perfect, we had front row seats in the Senate-House and his sister turned up from Bristol. The buffet at Fitzwilliam in the afternoon was good as well, despite lack of chairs. A memorable day, thanks to Robin's four years hard work! MP

ps Do you mean "RBS", not 'RSB'?

Retiredandcrazy said...

Yes, they certainly know how to put on a ceremony don't they? Centuries of practice I suppose! And as you rightly point out Morgan works for RBS. It actually gives me hope that young, highly ethical men like my grandson can change the banking world.

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Lee Shin said...

congratulations! and good luck to your grandson's career as he enters the real world.

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