One day, many years ago now, when I was a child, my mother stood up from her seat in a crowded cinema and cried out, “West Sands! Oh, West Sands!” The cinema was the Dendy Brighton, in Brighton Bay, Australia, and the film was Chariots of Fire, which became famous for its soaring music by Vangelis and its scenes of ecstatic, athletic young men racing along the beach. To the people around who hushed her, she said, “but it’s St Andrews!” My sister and I were embarrassed, and our fellow cinema-goers bewildered. But to my mother the ghost of St Andrews on the screen before us was reason enough to get on her feet and cry out among strangers on the other side of the world.
After my mother’s death a few years ago, my father brought me boxes of her books. I picked one off the shelf a month ago, and out of it fell her St Andrews Class Card. “Civis Universitatis Sancti Andrea ab Octobri MCMLXI ad Octobrem MCMLXII” reads its front, and inside, it tells me that my mother chose English, French, and Moral Philosophy as her subjects of study, and that she paid £35 as her fee (just £662 in today’s money). There’s a long list of subjects on the card, and even now my eye gravitates to the languages: Latin, Greek, English, French, German, Spanish, Arabic, Semitic Languages, and Russian Intro./Adv. The list goes on, and while there’s no sign, of course, of Computer Science, International Relations, Neuroscience, or Management, I’m assured by a friend who teaches at St Andrews that it is much the same as the subjects on offer today. What the card doesn’t tell me is that my mother met my father at St Andrews. He was a student of English and Spanish, and his raisin receipt still hangs on the wall of his study today.
St Andrews was the place that flattened out the differences between the grammar-school boy and the convent girl. It’s simultaneously far too reductive and far too grandiose a statement, but in the spirit of the genre, I will risk it anyway and hope that all my ghostly caveats are just about visible as I whisper that I exist because of St Andrews.