Niall Griffiths in a gown and a sash? Are you serious?
They gave me a long black gown and a golden sash. The gown was all swishy and cloak-like, Dracula-ish, and exactly the same as my old headmaster used to wear. The sash attached to the top button of my shirt and hung down the back like a scapula yet it reminded me, uncomfortably, of the Orange Lodge parades I would try to disrupt as a kid, to snot-nosedly breach the symbolic Walls of Derry with their red-faced roaring guards and their booming drums and twirling batons, trying, unsuccessfully, to repel me and my mates. We’d always cross, often with sore ears and skulls, true, but cross we always would.
I joined the other gown-wearers in the foyer. My position as honorary professor was declared by the colour of my sash but the other gowns were coloured corresponding to institution of graduation, and by God
some of them were grand affairs, all frilled and tasselled and of variegated hue, scalloped and ruched and as bright as a bird of paradise. The American ones, especially, were highly elaborate, like the robes of a secret sect, bulky and padded, quite cosy-looking, really; I imagined hunkering down in one on a wet and stormy night. They had hoods, and zipped up to the neck. Us be-gowned ones milled and chatted and dithered and after a while a stern man in a black suit appeared, carrying a battering ram of a mace. It was truly weapon-like, a sturdy black staff topped with a spiky brass ball, the kind of thing that knights in armour once bashed each other about the helmeted head with. He held the mace up, above his head, and we all fell into line behind him and followed him out into the city.
And what a peculiar carry-on it was, really. I hadn’t attended my own graduation, so had little experience or knowledge of this but, God, what a strange, and public, palaver: the mace-man marched ahead, swinging his club, stopping the traffic, leading his cowled and gowned and monkish procession through the streets. People in cars mostly grinned but some looked perplexed and others even angry; they had to be somewhere and here they were being held up by this preposterous parade. Some horns were honked. A few words were yelled. I waved in a general way and tried to project an air of sympathetic solidarity: yes, I know it’s ridiculous, and all it is is tradition, but it’s in my contract and I have to do it. Sorry about that.
We filed into the theatre and headed towards the stage. The students were in their seats already and I recognised some familiar faces, nudging each other, pointing and laughing. If I see this up on Twitter, I whispered to one, you’re getting an F. She laughed again and took another photo on her phone. I took my seat on the stage. The lights dimmed. A hush fell. With a vastly exaggerated solemnity the head honcho donned his toggled titfer and approached the podium and it began. And went on, and on, and on, and on. The endless speeches. The slideshows. The hundreds of names and the interminable clapping, each student invited up onto the stage and awarded their diploma and photographed. Lovely to see the happy students, of course, and pleasing, too, to witness the myriad nationalities, nearly all countries of the world represented: the university is one of the most ethnically diverse in the country and is proof of the joys and successes possible in multi-culturality. But how it went on. I became hot, in my gown. Overhead the lights burned. My bones began to ache. I needed a wee. I needed liquid, and food. I heard tummies rumbling. And then with a flourish the ceremony ended and the second one began.
Impossible not to feel... what? Well, kind of like an impostor. Sort of naughty. My gown was exactly like the one my headmaster would swan self-importantly around in yet, wearing it, I felt no closeness to his authority, no sense of familiarity with him, or the memory of him; rather, and just the opposite in fact, I remembered, clearly, the occasions when I was summoned to see him, to be punished for some misdemeanour. I had crossed no border, no evolution had been made between mischievous and badly-behaved boy and reasonably successful adult: all I’d done was nick a gown. That’s what it felt like. I expected a hand on the shoulder at any moment, and to hear an imperious voice above me: “Caught you, Griffiths. Headmaster’s office, boy, NOW.” ‘Business attire’, the directives had said, but if I had’ve been wearing a tie I would’ve knotted it around my head.
There was a break between the second and third ceremonies. Outside, the sky had started to darken and the streets were heaving with early rush-hour traffic. A quick stiffener, I thought, to get me through the third ceremony; a whiskey or two, just to put a faint amber glow on it all. A nearby pub had big windows through which I’d be able to see the street; there’d be plenty of warning if I was going to be found out and I’d be able to scarper out of the back door. I checked that the coast was clear and went in and there they all were, at the bar, lined up in their robes, the professors, all the naughty boys and girls with their grey hair and beards and bald patches. Pints and chasers were ordered and a huddle was formed at the end of the bar and we stayed there, like that, until someone rushed in to tell us that the vice-chancellor was looking for us at which point we downed the drinks and left the pub giggling, ageing and titled, naughty and illustrious, back to ceremony number three which, in the approaching dusk, started to feel more and more, with every passing second, like detention.
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