Radio 2, Eggheads and election-night graphics would be lost without him – as would have been Palatinate in Epiphany Term, 1986. Three decades on from his editorship, Jeremy Vine offers some heartfelt advice to the University’s present undergrads…
I think my face must have fallen.
Sitting opposite Professor Tim Burt, the popular and long-serving Master of Hatfield, I checked to see whether he had noticed. He was meeting me at a pizza parlour in London to talk about an honorary degree in Civil Law. Apparently, that is the way the University recognises any graduate who has spent more than a decade playing records by Thin Lizzy.
At first, I was chuffed. Getting an honorary degree from the University I love (the one that knocks Oxford and Cambridge into two cocked hats, as if that even needs saying) was a true moment of personal pride. The excitement was only dented a little when Prof Burt said that having a degree in Civil Law did not mean I could go around arresting people at will.
But that was not when my face fell. As I accepted the news with a butterfly-thrill in my stomach, already thinking of the joyful moment the train crawls into position opposite the cathedral, the Master added: “And of course the great thing, Jeremy, is that you will not have to make a speech.”
“No speech at all?”
“Nothing. You just sit there in the Cathedral and accept the degree.”
Oh. At that point, my smile definitely dropped. My sister is an actress, my brother is a comedian. The three of us are drawn to any raised surface because (for reasons I do not understand) we think a stage means people want to hear us speak or act or tell a joke. Surely, if you are in a vast, vaulted space with two thousand graduates and four thousand mums and dads, and someone calls your name, you want to say something? Just one thing?
Of course, I could not express the thought to the charming Professor. If my crest had fallen he did not see. An objection would make me look like an ego-tripping muppet. The person who says “I will come if you let me address the multitudes and show off a bit” would be seen as a hideous bighead.
But quietly it gnawed at me as the ceremony approached. If I were to speak ― suddenly jump the shark and say something, not a proper speech but just something ― what would the something be? What single sentence sums it all up?
The journey from gorgeous Durham (1983-86, the same three years The Smiths existed, the quintessential student band) to the fatal rockface of the BBC? What single phrase would explain it ― help a student keen on the same things to make the same journey, avoid the same mistakes? If the speech could not be twenty minutes or even twenty seconds, but just a word or two, what would those two words be?
When well-known people are asked to address schools and colleges, they unconsciously echo each other. Every single time. In Philip Larkin’s phrase, they do not mean to but they do. They always say:
- I’m jolly successful
- You can be too
- You just have to follow your dreams
They usually take twenty-five minutes to say it when they have been asked to speak for ten. And I used to think #followyourdreams was good advice until a friend told me he kept having dreams about being a serial killer. Anyway, I am convinced that a person whose dream has died is in a far worse state than one who accepts early on that accountancy may be a more practical option than lion-taming. No, I reckoned there was something better to be said.
Around me, over the years, I have noticed a tragedy. It unfolds in the lives of those people, male and female, who focus on what they do in their working hours to the exclusion of all else (for a long time I was one of them).
They meet the person they love when they are twenty-two but decide he or she must give way to the extra night at the law firm or the business trip to Madrid. “Love will have to wait,” they tell themselves. Love is less useful than money. Love will not pay a gas bill. Love is always there, ready to be re-activated. Love is just a Tinder-swipe away.
In their late thirties, the wings of tragedy flutter. They are successful now, these people, but find there is still no time for the candlelit dinner. They left their true love a decade before. Now the two meet in a London café.
One says, “You are so successful, running your own company, honorary degree, the whole thing.”
The other replies: “And you’re married.”
“Two kids. Really happy. You should see them.”
“I’d love to.”
And they fall into silence, the steam from their Americanos briefly misting the window as the office workers troop past in step, the army no one can ever leave.
So I knew what the speech had to be. It only needed two words. I would accept my honorary degree and say into the cold cathedral air – “Seize love.”
The moment came. Professor Burt called my name, the parents and students clapped politely. I heard someone make polite remarks about Radio 2 and Newsnight. Then I stood, heavily, those two words on the tip of my tongue.
There was a moment of confusion, a jiggered move of the left heel for which Bruno Tonioli would certainly have deducted a point. Instead of turning to the audience and speaking, I swallowed and turned. Someone shook my hand and smiled, my shoulders dropped and the moment was gone. I never said the two words.
I have said them now.
Jeremy Vine is a presenter, broadcaster and journalist, best known for hosting his own show on BBC Radio 2 and renowned for his exclusive reporting from war-torn areas across Africa. He has also presented such programmes as Eggheads, Crimewatch and Newsnight.
Photographs: Jeremy Vine