Every year famous people are invited to serve up life-lessons to a new crop of American graduates to fortify them as they enter the big world. The Americans are known for their ‘commencement speeches’.
Steve Jobs’ most famous reflections on life came from his address to Stanford in 2005. Other examples are broadcast on YouTube and published in newspapers.
Oxford University doesn’t go in for that sort of thing. But, I recently attended a Gaudy and it occurred to me that these speeches deserve more attention.
Gaudy is the posh name Oxford gives to year reunions. They take place every seven years.
College principals face a dilemma. Their first impulse is to talk fundraising. But since this audience experienced the pre-en-suite student room era, we’re not easily persuaded to support luxurious new buildings.
The second impulse is to list the incredible achievements of contemporary students. All credit to our Principal who livened it up. He suggested many of us would not get in today – as the competition is a lot tougher!
Anniversary speeches need to indulge in some nostalgia. Our Principal did some archive research. He might have mentioned that in 0th week of October 1986 Madonna was No 1 with True Blue.
Or he could have reminded the class of 1987 of the Great Storm – it hit a few weeks into our first term. But instead he picked on some obscure athletics results and got us to clap them. Then he asked all who got Thirds to put up their hands.
10 years after leaving college, I became a speechwriter. The Principal did not intend to make his audience feel uncomfortable, but he could have included more of, what we call in the trade, ‘American uplift’.
The centerpiece of the Gaudy is a speech made by one of our number – on this occasion an English graduate. She was more gentle. She read from letters that she’d written to friends while at college and made some amusing comments on how things were.
Toby Young has written in The Spectator on a couple of occasions about his Gaudy experiences. It seems that Principals look down the list of people who have signed up and pick a hapless candidate to do the speech. He went for the gag structure, telling jokes about how David Cameron had come up to him at an event and told him he’d become an Honorary Fellow.
Young also picked up on how the mood can be sombre at these occasions, because promise has, to a large extent, been fulfilled and unfulfilled by the time we all get to 50. Going back provokes maudlin thoughts like the ones Philip Larkin articulated in Dockery & Son.
That makes it even more important for the speaker to judge the mood.
At our dinner, the Principal lamented how difficult it still was to get black students to apply to Oxford. I could think of someone from our year, who wasn’t at the dinner, who could have shared her experiences in the 1980s. That would have involved a more pro-active search for a speaker, but it would have provided useful knowledge.
Given that the colleges need to fill alumni magazines, maybe republished Gaudy speeches could become a feature.
I could only find one example online – an audio of one delivered by Vivienne Faull, the Bishop of Bristol, at St Hilda’s in 2014. It’s a good one.
But take heart, I asked a colleague how it works in Cambridge. He said they have Matriculation dinners and the speeches are ‘brief and embarrassingly poor’.