Resident social critic Alexander lays down his tomes and half-devoured pint of real ale to illuminate the shrouded crevices of the St Andrean bubble and beyond.
A Bit of Common Scents
Myriad are the ways to a human heart: food is one, poetry another, and open-heart surgery perhaps the most direct. Little did I know, however, that smell is just as potent an approach. Given the cascades of Paco Rabanne and Dior relied upon by those who adhere to the ‘shower-in-a-can’ method of washing, it would be sensible to suggest that my nose should have become desensitised to the bells and smells of St Andrews by now. Fortunately for my sniffer, a multiplicity of novel odours keeps it on its toes.
How about, for example, the Atomic Blueberry vape in- and exhaled directly across from me in the library? There I sat, tentatively digesting Plato’s Symposium, in a state of ignorance that would have had the world’s greatest dramaturges salivating; opposite me, the soft mutterings I had heard up to now (in the silent section, naturally) suddenly stopped. Their replacement – a gentle, artificially-aided sucking sound – struck into me the same paralysing fear felt by the man who, post-breakup, swiftly realises that she has the Netflix password. Within seconds, I was plunged into an exhaust cloud of such density that, were the totality of Europe’s nuclear power plants to go into meltdown and the subsequent refuse to radiate immediately to north-east Fife, not only would the latter be more survivable, it would probably smell better too.
Were that the height of it, I should be rejoicing. Alas. This week, a friend of mine came to visit. Dandering along the singular coastline, I recounted to her the equally singular history of this institution. Mentioned were Benjamin Franklin – “Yes, the founding father!” – Sir Clement Freud – “Genuinely, a relative of Sigmund!” – and James Gregory – “I don’t know what a meridian line is, but he found one!”. Such great impression abounded that, like yin-and-yang, the contrary underbelly had to make itself known soon. Arriving upon Castle Sands, my friend and I discovered that, although Scotland has not been formally invaded for centuries, the smell of marijuana is making a mighty effort to invade the beaches.
Whilst thankful for the total abolition of the last few years’ restrictions, I can’t help but thinking that maybe a gas mask would be money well spent.
The Rahs and the Yahs
Of more provincial roots, I have predominantly rubbed shoulders with the British upper classes only through the joys of the BBC: Antiques Roadshow, Prime Minister’s Questions, Escape to the Country, and so forth. That’s not to say that I saw them as mythical creatures, not at all; the upper classes are profoundly human. It just so happens that they are often humans who possess 19 names (read: titles) and who cook their food in the real-life equivalent of a Minecraft Furnace, also known as an ‘AGA’.
Such minor lifestyle differences fail to explain, nevertheless, how (and why?) the richer-than-thou bohemians of Britain have created and maintained an accent that sounds always, unfailingly, and indubitably artificial. Not only do Amadeus and Gertrude refuse to say “yes”, they seem unable to accomplish a casual “yeah”, even. For the hundreds of elocution lessons they’ve churned through, the return – the inability to bring to a close this gnawing guttural “yaaawhhhhhh—”, asymptotic insofar as the longer it goes, the clearer its ceaseless nature becomes – is awfully underwhelming.
Nor can I find anything to explicate the deranged upper-class fetish of asking where one went to school. Nowhere in this question can I find the implication that the socio-economic history of your family, from the present day back to the ancient Greeks, is necessary, and yet such is the landed gentry’s response du jour. When I think back to my school days, the memories that spring to mind are those of a sealed bag of excessively liquid brownie being jumped upon at the top of a (now muddied) staircase; my noble counterparts’, on the other hand, harp back to trading cigarettes on Sundays and going on morning raids to the boarders’ pantry. Albeit surmountable, this cultural divide partially explains the self-selecting and self-maintaining cliques formed at university and in later life, distinguishable exclusively by their propensity to bellow down your eardrums that they have indeed listened to Pachbel’s Canon in D.
To reappropriate the witty and guileful writings of my much more celebrated namesake, Samuel Beckett – at least, the writings of his that make sense – is a guilty pleasure of mine. As Knowlson records in his impressively comprehensive biography (p.78), when Beckett received backlash for failing to appreciate the chance he had to educate the “cream of Ulster” at Campbell College, Belfast, the renowned Modernist responded “Yes, I know: rich and thick”. The aptest remarks require no expansion.
Illustration: Sarah Knight