There are different ages of man. Transitions between them are celebrated in early age, commemorated in later decades, noted as the senses fail and dreaded as life draws towards its finale. My internet search found only silly prices. A big sign attached to a closed grill at the railway station commanded ‘Use the App’. I don’t have a phone. For the first time, one of my children had to book everything for me. As always, in step, the generations advance across their respective thresholds.
We must mark my second oldest son’s progress with a pandemic-delayed university graduation ceremony. First, we have to get there. Although another son was missing, a niece was in attendance meaning we couldn’t all fit in the car. Thank God. After being nowhere for over two years, a welcome 150 mile trip on the train called, plus a night in a hotel, for a very reasonable app assisted £40 per head.
Above, in no particular order; Branson celebrated the occasion by putting me in seat 007 (more of which later). Change at Warrington. Pass Arpley yard. The very impressive, roomy and comfortable Class 195. The Dingles on manoeuvres, destination Chester. Helsby signal box, all levers and semaphores. Obviously, despite my previous life more interesting and current fulfilling schedule, I’d rather have been a train driver. If it hadn’t been for the goggle glasses and colour blindness, dear Puffin, and the inability to concentrate and the uncontrollable twitches, I would have been.
Arrival in Chester was followed by the compulsory stroll along the banks of the River Dee and around the compact and walkable Harry Potteresque city centre. The weather was kind. The city walls called, as did the world’s second most photographed clock, beaten to silver hour hand place by what Philistines call Big Ben but what Puffins know to be the Palace of Westminster’s Elizabeth Tower clock.
Many of the sights are free. There is a Roman amphitheatre to stroll and nearby the remains of Roman baths. In a park a ten-minute walk away, a rock face reveals the outline of the deity Minerva. Appropriate to our trip, she is the goddess of wisdom.
We adjourned to Grosvenor Park where the younger members could play and the older, pestered by squirrels, could snack al fresco. There is a strong Chester connection to the Grosvenors. A Grosvenor Hotel sits aside the arch beneath the famous clock. An Edwardian mock Tudor Grosvenor shopping centre houses a range of galleries and high-end fashion brands in seventy stores. Thomas Harrison designed Grosvenor Bridge.
Opened by Princess Victoria of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld and her daughter, Princess Alexandrina Victoria of Kent (later Queen Victoria), it spans the Dee between the Roodee racecourse and the exclusive villas of Curzon Park. At the time of the ceremony, October 1832, it was the longest stone arch span bridge in the world.
As for Grosvenor Park, the 20-acre Dee-side gardens were bequeathed by Richard Grosvenor and laid out in 1865 to a design by mid-Victoria landscape architect and author Edward Kemp. But the interest was not totally altruistic. Richard was the whig MP for Chester, albeit in the guise of Viscount Belgrave. Other Chester MPs have included the Hon. Norman Grosvenor, Earl Grosvenor, Lord Robert Grosvenor, Richard Elre-Drax-Grosvenor, Sir Ricard Grosvenor and at least three Thomas Grosvenors.
The family seat is Eaton Hall, a mile from the unprepossessing village of Eccleston in West Cheshire. Country gents, they made their money from the rolling farmland that lies between the fabled Cheshire lanes, augmented by mining minerals beneath the harsher landscape of nearby North Wales. But they made their fortune from investing in property in London’s exclusive Mayfair and Belgravia, from where they are titled the Dukes of Westminster.
The present, and 7th Duke, is Hugh Richard Louis Grosvenor who was elevated in 2016 upon the death of his father Gerald. A good story about the 6th Duke, almost definitely true, and then we shall move on.
A splendid type, Gerald Cavendish Grosvenor KG CB CVO OBE TD CD DL, then the richest man in Britain with an estimated wealth of £3.2 billion, joined the Territorial Army and, being a gentleman, was installed as a Major General. Not quite the alpha male, on his first forced march he struggled, then straggled, then lost sight of everybody else along a rain-drenched country road. Hungry, soaked, dishevelled, muddied and with something of the vagrant about him, a member of the public stopped their car, walked towards him announcing, “I’ve trod your path, brother,” and gave him ten pounds.
As fate would have it, our trip to the Dukedom’s northern outpost was to provide a meeting with someone even grander. Read on.
Our accommodations were a Georgian townhouse’s basement, comfortably within the city’s walls and decorated in the style of a 1960s sex scandal, complete with pictures of Roman statues and too many mirrors. Wary that myself and Mrs AWS have a combined age of 118 and might not survive an intrigue, especially one including moving pictures taken from behind a one-way mirror, I would make myself comfortable on the couch.
At this point, I made the mistake of stopping in rather than wandering the streets looking at nicely lit old buildings. Others were dispatched to McDonald’s to bring back an evening meal. I set the table and coffee table and fought with what I thought was one of those flame effect electric fires (to take the chill of a late April evening) but what might have been a TV.
The McDonald’s party returned empty-handed and demanded cash as the app hadn’t worked.
Eventually, we got fed. It was disgusting. I smothered it in salt to bring out some flavour and then drowned it in ketchup (which I don’t like) to disguise the flavour. Mistakenly, I passed a second chance to walk Chester with the others, gave up on the TV/fire and snuggled down with my tablet’s iPlayer to watch an Alan Yentob and Miriam Margolyes leftie lovefest on the BBC’s puke-inducing Imagine series.
Margolyes is a competent supporting actress and a talented mimic (what these days we’re supposed to call a ‘voice artist’) but should she have an episode of what is supposed to be a marque arts series devoted to her? Not really. Qualification for such should sit well north of already being in Yentob’s address book.
I switched it off and gazed at the ceiling pondering my own rites of passage. Before you ask, yes I have, more than once, and no I didn’t but yes I did. My first degree was a Third so I couldn’t do a second degree, therefore, my second degree was another first but at the end of it all, I was awarded a First. Got that? As for graduation day, for the obvious reason, I didn’t turn up for my Third and was better occupied at an establishment at one end of the magnificent crescent beach of Tangiers, decades before the attached North African coastline was covered in concrete and packed with cars.
Every morning I was woken by a nearby minaret’s call to prayer. Throughout the day, tanned and grimy, I explored the narrow streets disguised in dark glasses, fez and kaftan to deflect the hustling local spivs. Flatteringly mistaking me for a native (who really are called Tangerines) tourists would stop me and ask for directions in slow, yelled English. Just before bedtime, the sleeper train to Casablanca would reverse along sunken rails in the city’s main boulevard for a dockside rendezvous with the last ferry of the day from Algeciras on the other side of the Strait of Gibraltar.
I have told this tale before. My landlady kept sending girls to my room. I kept sending them back. Finding the constant interruptions tiresome, I finally submitted and paid a poor thing 12 Dirham to sit up all night washing my clothes in the bidet while I slept. If, during a Barbary Coast vacation, you overhear a now respectable local lady of a certain age shaking her head and sighing while telling the same story, give her my regards.
Also for the obvious reason, I did turn up for my First but it being a business degree from international business school, the ceremony, if it could be called that, was somewhat functional and took place in the big shed of a municipal sports centre.
Back in our accommodations, I was disturbed by strange noises coming from ground level during the night. To my relief, a rhythmic stroking sound was followed by a motorbike starting.
Next morning, suited and booted, summer frocked and gowned, three of us struck out for Chester Cathedral while the others packed and cleaned. The weather was kindly; dry and bright. Admittance was by app. You’ll recall I don’t have a phone. Other parents had printed out what I’m told is a ‘QR code’. Myself and Mrs AWS stood about until somebody half our age rescued us. A name and address checked against a steward’s app would suffice. We were in! We pushed our way to the front and sat just behind the gowned and mortar boarded graduants.
Something I’ve become accustomed to is that the tinged tend to be drawn to me. Perhaps I have the look of a world-weary but rather pleasant deputy district commissioner? The type who does the best he can to entertain an excellent distant tribe who inhabit a unique territory, which, since I became involved with Going-Postal, I suppose am.
Anyway, they gathered around as they always do; an elderly chap who looked like Bin Laden and accompanied by a gaggle of wives and daughters, a short girl with a frighteningly expensive phone, a five-year-old boy with a full moustache. You know the kind of company. Later, a chap in a colourful skirt, proud father of a mononymal offspring (as if Jordon or Devina) who was obliged to ‘hoop’ when the name was called.
The ceremony began with a procession. To organ music, six beefeater trumpeters were followed down the aisle by the high and mighty (which these days means ‘representatives of the university executive team’) and the lady Sheriff of Chester. One must observe, a little behind the times compared with this humble author’s north county Debatable Lands county. With a black population not far north of half a dozen, my own shire boasts not only a lady lord-lieutenant but an ‘of colour’ one at that.
At the end of the cavalcade, the highest and mightiest of them all, the Chancellor himself. My wife nudged me. Beyond the gold braid and silly hat, he did look vaguely familiar. Dying organ music was replaced by a trumpet fanfare. A lady chaplain welcomed the congregation, mentioned God a few times and led the prayers. For the University of Chester began life in the mid-nineteenth century as a Church of England teacher training college.
On Saturday the 7th December 1839, the Bolton Chronicle carried an advertisement for an INSTITUTION for the TRAINING of MASTERS for NATIONAL and COMMERCIAL SCHOOLS. It was to be opened on, or as soon as possible after, the 13th January 1840. Exhibitions, to the value of £13 10s would be given after examination to the ten most deserving would-be scholars. The Rev Arthur Rigg, 28 Great George Square, Liverpool, awaited applications and expected them to be accompanied by a requisite form of testimonial. Additionally, an Assistant Master was wanted. Spoiling the potential academic, the Rev Rigg offered free board and lodging and, in a sign of different times in the higher education sector, a salary of 100 shillings (five pounds) per annum.
It wasn’t until 1961 that the first women studied at Chester. Thirteen years later, the college expanded beyond teaching certificates to offer Bachelor of Science and Bachelor of Arts degrees. Rocket fuel was added to the expansion of the institution by New Labour’s commitment to put 50% of young people through higher education. In 2005, the college became the University of Chester. In the present day there are 10,000 students with the pandemic delayed graduations requiring nine somewhat Rhuritanian ceremonies jammed into three and a half days. I whispered to Mrs AWS, “Rather than a stem cell scientist or Doctor of Letters, they could do with an old hoofer as Chancellor.” To my puzzlement, she nodded as if aware of something I wasn’t.
Organ music came and went after which the proceedings continued in Latin with the Chancellor, as Presiding Officer, being modest enough to disguise the worst of his awful pronunciation with polite coughs. “Obviously not a native speaker,” observed a wag, somewhere about the North Quire, in a cruel stage whisper. Beyond the sniggering, there was something about the Chancellor’s diction, even with the coughing and mangled datives, that sounded familiar. I rubbed my chin in puzzlement. No matter, I should read the programme, most of which was a list of those to be conferred.
One’s eye was caught the Cheshire Ahmeds, Akbars, Akpans, Akulas and Alabattis. Do the Al-Barraks and Al-Qubtans hail from neighbouring Shropshire? One assumes the Kopecs, Karakehayovas and Malvattaths are from further afield, the North Riding perhaps? Incidentally, in this modern age that has left me behind, is Vaselina really a girl’s name? As for the Sanijas, Saqibs, Singhs and Sisodiyas; Denbighshire is but a brisk thirty-minute drive along the A494.
I was distracted from speculating of the shire origins of the Asaduzzmans, Anwars and Athamnahs by that voice again. The Chancellor was giving his speech. Or rather, dropping a long list of more familiar names; good old fashioned celebs, politicians and royalty. As he started to mention his books the penny descended vertically as if a B list celebrity’s name was being dropped by a C list television presenter.
Good God. Was I the last white man in the congregation to realise? The Chancellor was non-other than a certain Gyles Daubeney Brandreth, late of the parishes of Countdown and Gogglebox. During the latter, a friend informs, he is filmed for the entertainment of the popoli reacting to a thing called Naked Attraction (whatever that is) alongside un-funny Hullovian bore Dame Maureen of Lipmann.
The incorrigible name-dropper and shameless self-publicist was on a roll. As if we needed to be told, he’d known every Prime Minister since so-and-so and all the James Bonds. He’d been a particular friend of the second James Bond, Roger Moore. Hmm.
As MP for Chester (generations of Grosvenors were merely a prelude), Gyles had a junior ministerial position as Lord of the Treasury. He’d been responsible for big cheques, one for £126 billion. Protocol required the Queen have an audience with La Brandreth while he signed them. Yes, the doddery nonagenarian old queen had shaken Elizabeth II’s hand.
Gyles reminded those to be presented to him that, as they shook his hand and picked up their degrees, they were themselves but one degree of separation from all the names he’d just dropped. Dear God. “A service available from no other seat of learning,” he quipped to a smartly turned out Chinaman to his right, who one suspects might own the university and possibly the cathedral too.
With that, some poor soul still clutching a short straw had to read out all of those names, as graduates were individually introduced to Chancellor Gyles.
Towards the end, the announcer’s mouth had dried out, his tongue had not only split in five places but had tied itself into a knot. Even the few and most straightforward of English names became mangled. By the time the final of a long list of Wu’s was reached, was there blood dripping from the corners of his lips? Incidentally, the Thirds had a particular look to them and a uniquely out of place role in the proceedings. Four decades ago I had made a wise choice.
As more bad Latin tailed the ceremony. A final fanfare began in anticipation of the national anthem. A very poor rendition followed. Do they not teach it in Cheshire, Denbighshire, the North Riding and Shropshire? In the, shall we say, ‘country’ section of the North Quire myself and Mrs AWS were the only ones singing.
Proud parents, we rendezvoused with our newly graduated son outside and walked through the cathedral grounds to a marquee for a glass of prosecco (yes, we had all been issued with classy self-adhesive light blue event-entry wrist bands) and a University of Chester memento which I ate rather than kept.
Despite trying the best we could to hide in a corner, we were spotted and surprise, surprise, hailed by Gyles who towed a morose looking Sub-Vice-Chancellor in his considerable wake. Despite 10,000 conferred in nearly a dozen congregations, Mr Brandreth addressed my son by name, no doubt memorised in case one day it might be worth dropping. Very pleasant company Gyles was too, in a grin and grip and move on kind of way. Not all of them are. I slipped into the conversation that he was about to be sued by George Lazonby.
“Oh, I knew George,” he replied, “and he was the second James Bond? Oh dear.”
“And that’s just in the films. You’ll remember Bob Holness?”
“Oh, lovely Bob, a darling, friend of mine, no longer with us.”
“Previously, he was Bond in the radio plays.”
“My, you do pretend to be an expert on the secret world.”
I tapped my nose. The Sub-Vice-Chancellor smiled and winked. Is he a Puffin? Speaking of whom, while myself and La Brandreth had been cackling away like a pair of old lesbians, the Sub-Vice-Chancellor, can’t remember his name, confided to Mrs AWS that nobody takes any notice of him and everything revolves around Gyles. Surely not?
With that, the pair of high panjandrums turned on their heels and circulated. Thank God. I lifted a flap of the marquee and we made our escape. Hurrying through bluebells we climbed over railings and onto an adjacent city wall. Did I, from the corner of my eye, see Mrs Brandreth selling her husband’s books from a stall at the official exit beside the clock tower? I think I might have.
Chester attracts a certain clientele. Six of her restaurants are listed in the prestigious Michelin Guide, more than Hull, Bradford, Slough and Croydon combined. So what?
We rendezvoused with the others in Spoons. They had thoughtfully pulled three tables together in the outsized council house downstairs that is the eatery of the Bull and Stirrup in George Street, opposite Bishop Stratford’s A.D.1700 Blue Coat Hospital.
Not a big eater, I ordered a reasonably priced all-day small breakfast with alcoholic drink. Despite more trouble with an app, the food arrived promptly. My breakfast was spot-on but the lager was vile. One’s pallet has become used to fine ales from Oxfordshire’s renowned Hook Norton brewery. Is there a university nearby? I tipped most of it into Mrs AWS’s glass as soon as she’d finished her cola. Continuing the home from home theme, none of the plates matched and all of the cutlery was of different designs.
We approached peak Spoons as I unfolded a house tabloid across my empty greasy plate and headed for the back page while the others finished their pizzas. For the missing son had a more pressing appointment. One with the gee-gees at Gosforth Park, Newcastle. He had been promised some tips.
My daughter was on hand with a new-fangled long-range tic-tac known as the Instant Message Family Dot Org Tube Group App that fathers, despite the use of the word ‘family’, are banned from. I have my own secret horsey formula, no need for an app. Some of the races were maiden stakes which doesn’t help my finely tuned money for nothing Feng Shui. I made some selections all the same and spelt them out to my daughter while checking the screen as she typed, concerned she might lapse into womanese and cost us money.
We set off for the train. Not that one.
Grosvenor Park enjoys a 7 1/2″ gauge miniature railway, opened in 1966 to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Duke of Westminster’s very own private railway at Eaton Hall. Stretching to about four and a half miles of track, the Duke’s 15″ gauge line connected the estate with the Great Western’s Shrewsbury to Chester line. Functional, it delivered fuel to Eaton Hall and serviced the estate’s own brickwork.
But it didn’t have its own Union Pacific General Electric AC 4400CW number 6602.
Crossing a wooden trestle bridge beside a duck pond, while waving vigorously at coots and moorhens silhouetted against the remains of the day, I realised our outing to be a giant metaphor for modern Britain. I must pen an article. Something deadly serious. Multi-cultural Global Britain’s educational soft power influence in an interconnected world, that kind of thing. I was interrupted.
Sat behind me, my daughter distracted me from the glittering prizes and dreaming spires of academe. Tapping me on the shoulder as we rattled past a picnic table, she completed this proud parent’s perfect day. A text message had arrived from Gosforth Park.
“Dad’s just won me £400.”
© Always Worth Saying 2022