The Dean and Shuttlecocks

The Dean’s Diaries

Prof David Purdie

                  St Andrew’s College
Edinburgh EH1 3TD

[The College is a research institution, specialising in the Humanities and the Physical sciences. Known to irreverent staff as MacAll Souls from its similarity to its Oxford twin, it has no undergraduates; only Postgrads and Research Fellows who complement the permanent Academic Staff.
 The Dean is assisted, and betimes thwarted, by the Bursar, the Prebendary and the Bedellus who sit on the ‘ Estaitis ‘, an ancient Scots word for Council, dating back to the Foundation by the Queen in 1562]

With most of the Staff and Fellows on vacation, the College is mercifully quiescent – only the terminally obsessed (and terminally funded) keeping the place active while the world gawps at the Olympics.  However, on that very subject there was a wonderful debate in the SCR (Senior Common Room) yesterday.
It was all about the rustication of a bunch of Chinese and Korean Badminton players who had been sacked and expelled from the Games – for trying to win! Apparently they were playing each other in a match where the Winners would have to face world-class opponents such as Indonesia – while the Losers would only get Ruritania or similar, and a sleigh-ride into the Final. Anyway, enter our Professor of Philosophy plus a gang of his fellow Platonists and Aristotelians attending a Summer Seminar here.  The issue was; given that the Strategy was to get to the Final and hence a chance of Gold, were the Tactics (throwing the game) valid?  Apparently both teams banged their serves consistently into the net, or sent the shuttlecock hurtling wide into the stands, to the evident and noisy irritation of persons who had paid good money to watch. The debate raged on splendidly for ours with the Aristotelian pragmatists saying that the players were quite right to keep ‘Eyes on the Prize’ i.e. the Gold Medal in the Final – while the Platonic idealists said that there was a higher ‘Form’ of Badminton in the ethereal empyrean spaces where throwing the game was strictly uncool.
Our Professor of Greek being present, we then got a blast of Ancient Hellenic rectitude to the effect that, stuff the Platonic ideal, the Olympic ideal was in the motto; Altior ,Citior, Fotrtior ,which sounded more like Latin to me.
‘This,’ boomed  Aeneas, meant ‘Higher, Faster and Stronger’ – and not , as in that notorious Badminton game:  Wider, Slower – and Wilier. The end of the argument was, as usual, a truce in disagreement and that the End may, or may not, have justified the Means. Anyway, the company arose in amity and departed to High Table to dine and sink their differences in industrial quantities of my best College Claret.

Incidentally, this debâcle  or perhaps shuttlecockup , shows clearly the trouble one can get into by having Pools. Eheu! Had only the Olympic Badminton event modelled itself on the Edinburgh University Golf Club’s annual match-play tournament, the McWhammel Trophy for the B——ing of Bogey, this would never have happened. Here, in the oldest academic sports competition of all, there is posted up on the left of a sheet, a list of hackers, grouped in pairs. They meet on the field of honour – usually Bruntsfield or Mortonhall – and it’s literally a knockout, with only one emerging bloodied but unbending, having literally hacked into the next round. Deliberately losing golf matches is unknown because there are no pools;  anyway, the cost of driving into a neighbouring field or, worse, into the rough at Muirfield, would be colossal. I myself was at Muirfield, scene of the 2013 Open Championship, last week. I have never seen such a hayfield as surrounds that magnificent course. It was reported that several members had lost not only their balls, but complete sets of clubs, incautiously set down in the rough – and even that two Members were still unaccounted for, a week after the last Competition.

Meanwhile, the Festival Fringe has burst upon Edinburgh; thousands of spectators attending hundreds of Venues, three of them in this College. Two of the ‘Shows’ being staged here are labelled, ominously, as ‘New Humour.’ I shall attend a performance of each to ensure that no licentious conduct, moral relativism, or grammatical depravity intrudes within upon our ancient walls.
I am also attending two performance mounted by Members of my Staff – and for the same reasons…
The Diary will report, next week, my observations thereon.

The Dean and New College

The Dean’s Diaries: 


 Prof. D.W.R. Purdie    

Office of the Dean:
St Andrew’s College,
                                                            King George IV Bridge,
Edinburgh EH1 3TD

    THE COLLEGE remains officially on vacation till the commencement of Martinmas Term on Monday 1st October but the Dons and the Research Fellows are now beginning to straggle back to Edinburgh. I went to a most interesting meeting, actually a book launch, at New College last night. This College, just down the road from us, is at the head of The Mound – properly The EarthenMound – a colossal ramp carrying a road from Princes Street up to the ridge on which the Old Town of Edinburgh stands. It was created in the early 19th century with several million tons of earth dug out in laying the foundation of the buildings of the New Town. Anyway, New College   is effectively the University’s Faculty of Divinity, its entry court featuring a gigantic statue of John Knox in bronze. Bible in hand and arm raised in declamation, the general impression as one arrives there is one of unrelieved menace. Heaven alone knows what he’s have made of the graffito recently discovered on a wall behind the College. Probably the work of a divinity undergraduate blessed, or rather cursed, with an heretical sense of humour, it featured that most intriguing of the Beatitudes from the New Testament;
Blessed are the Meek, for they shall inherit the Earth

Sprayed on the wall, in a very neat hand, was the Message:

We will inherit the Earth, so we will Right ”
                                  Signed: The Meek
(If it’s all right with you…)

New College was where the Scottish Parliament first met in 1999   after its 300 year recess, when Sheena Wellington memorably sang, at the late Donald Dewar’s request, A Man’s a Man, for a’ That, Burns’s great anthem for the Common Man. And it was a most uncommon man who gave the main speech at the book-launch there last night; Alex Salmond no less. Kim Jong Eck to the Unionist press, Alex is the latter-day Moses who will lead the Children of Caledonia out of bondage to Westminster and into the sunlit, or rather oil-lit, uplands of Independence. The book being launched is by the late SNP theoretician Stephen Maxwell and is entitled Arguing for Independence . It will, to quote Eck, raise the level of the independence debate to ‘a new intellectual level.’ It had better, for Eck’s own intellectual level last night was in serious need of elevation.  For example we were told, again, that the Battle of Culloden was a disaster for Scotland and, mirabile dictu, on a par with the closure of the Ravenscraig steelworks! Culloden was indeed a disaster, but for Prince Charlie; and it brought a closure all right; the military and indeed political closure of the Jacobite campaign to re-establish the Stuarts. It thus cleared the ground for the emerging Scottish Enlightenment and vindicated the majority of Scots present – who fought for the British Army that day.

Thinking of our revived Parliament meeting at New College, reminds me that it did so because the new Parliament House at Holyrood was yet unfinished, while going spectacularly over budget. This caused considerable amusement south of Hadrian’s Wall where they were used to tales of our canniness with the currency; e.g. accidentally dropping a 50p piece from a 12th floor flat; going down to retrieve; and being hit on the head by it, etc etc.

Anyway, during the Holyrood furore over its cost, I happened to be visiting All Souls, Oxford, our sister College. In their senior common room a newspaper was lowered to reveal one of their oldest and most aristocratic Fellows. In tones which made Prince Charles sound like a welder, he said,
“It says here in theTelegraph that you Jocks, on a budget of forty million, have gone through four hundred & fifty million, building this Parliament of yours in Edinburgh. That’s a cost overrun of 1,000 %! I say, isn’t that somewhat un-Jock-like?”   I said,
“Charles, you’re right; there’s no denying it. And what’s more, I can tell you, in strict confidence mind, that it’s even worse than you think…”
“Oh really?”
” Yes, it’s your money ! ”

Anyway, that’s quite enough of politics for now. I have to be careful here, being the Dean of a college whose Dons and Fellows represent the most extraordinary spectrum of political opinion. This ranges from the Ultraviolet of our Roosevelt Fellow, the American philosopher Dr Sam Yancey who is a doyen of the Tea Party back home. Yancey is still pondering why his Party seems to be known in Edinburgh as the ‘You’ll have had your Tea Party.’ One day I’ll tell him.
At the other end of the spectrum, deep in the Infrared, is Prof. Angus McKittrick who fascinates me by combining great personal charm with being a resolutely doctrinaire anarchist. Angus does not recognise the existence of myself as Dean, or the College, or the University, or indeed the United Kingdom. Thankfully, he appears to accept the existence of the Universe, but only on the grounds that it is essentially anarchic and has been, well, just there forever. To the bemusement of our astrophysicists, he rejects the Big Bang on the grounds that it is clearly a fiendish crypto-theist device to conceal a Creator. Last year he gave a memorable and (to me) hilarious Lecture entitled, Exploding the Big Bang in which the Bang came in for some pretty rough handling for its ‘presumption’ and its ‘scientific insolence.’

Well, it takes all types to make the world, and thank God I’m not one of them. Tomorrow sees the pre-term meeting of College Council (the Supreme Soviet to Angus) There I’ll be joined by the Bursar, Warden and the Bedellus and we’ll then be blessed by our Prebendary, the Rev. Dr Hector Stuart, DD. Hector will enjoin us to seek guidance from the Almighty, before going down to New College to wipe out the Meek…

The Dean and the Decalogue

The Dean’s Diaries:  

                                      by  Prof. D.W.R. Purdie  MD   FRCP Edin.

Office of the Dean:
St Andrew’s College,
                                                                         King George IV Bridge,
Edinburgh EH1 3TD


THE COLLEGE remains relatively peaceful as we move through our Vacation while hosting, as every Summer, a parade of lucrative Conferences and Seminars, to the financial delight of the Bursar. We are most fortunate to be just a few hundred yards from the Royal Mile at the heart of what is now one of Europe’s most popular cities for academic meetings.

However, the College’s Martinmas Term, which begins the Academic Year, starts on 1st October, when we all get back to work; that is, except my friend the deeply intellectual Prof Abraham Rabbinowitz, my Head of Semitic Studies who, as you may already have surmised, is Jewish. Abe was in this morning to tell me that 1st Oct may be the Feast of Martinmas and the first day of Term for goyim like me, but it is also the first day of Sukkot for orthodox Jews like him. Work is apparently forbidden as he and the family celebrate the first day of this ‘Feast of Tabernacles.’ These were apparently the flimsy dwellings occupied by his ancestors during the forty years when they wandered around the Sinai desert before getting fed up and heading for Tel Aviv.
Now, I’m a huge fan of Jewish humour and couldn’t resist telling him about the alternative version of Exodus. This has Moses descending, from Mt. Sinai very slowly, weighed down by two giant Tablets of granite. On these, the Decalogue, (the 10 Commandments) had been incised, presumably in Hebrew, by YHWH the tetragrammaton (from Greek τετραγράμματον, ‘four letters’), Jehovah to you.
“Hear me, O my people,” says Moses, “I bring some good news & some bad news already. Which first do you want?”
“ Oy vey, Moses! ” cries his brother Aaron, “We’ve been forty years in this sodden desert! Go on man, give us the good news…”
“Right” says Moses, looking down at the Tablets, “I’ve got him down to ten….”

Thinking of The Decalogue, antecedents for which exist in Hittite literature by the way, it features in a present I received from my opposite number at All Souls College, our academic ‘twin’. This gem is The Oxford book of Oxford, edited by the extraordinary Jan (formerly James) Morris, author of the trilogy Pax Britannica and a terrific writer. Anyway, an Oxford undergraduate is undergoing an oral theology exam:

Examiner: “ Now, how should we regard The Decalogue? ”
Undergraduate: (not at all sure what the decalogue was)   “Er…With reverence, Sir , not unmixed with awe.”
Examiner: Excellent. I quite agree.”

As is well known, there are twelve tribes of Judah which comprise the Jewish people. Legend has it, however, that there was once a thirteenth tribe, now lost. It was once thought that it might be the Falashas, a tribe in the Semien Mountains of northern Ethiopia who had been observed to be observing Jewish observances and practices. This caused considerable excitement in Tel Aviv; the Falashas were airlifted to Israel and feted as returning members of the original diaspora. Alas, when their DNA, specifically their Y chromosome polymorphic markers, were checked, it turned out that they were an African people. At some point in their remote past they had adopted circumcision, observance of Shabbat etc., possibly through contact with some wandering ancient Hebrews. Mind you, they had also clearly adopted a facility in business, their removal to   Eretz Yisrael taking them from poverty to relative affluence in a modern state.

Then there was Arthur Koestler. Back in the 70s he sensationally alleged, in The Thirteenth Tribe that the Ashkenazim (European Jews) are not descended from the Israelites of antiquity. No, they were Khazars, a Turkic people originating between the Black Sea and the Caspian. Koestler’s hypothesis was that the Khazars converted to Judaism in the 8th century and migrated westwards into Eastern Europe. This brought down on Koestler a storm of abuse from the ivory towers; anthropologists, ethnologists, philologists and several other academologists combining to rubbish the very thought that the most successful branch of Jewry might actually be…Turks!
The book, hoever, met with support here at home from Sir Fitzroy MacLean that remarkable Highland chieftain, soldier, diplomat and author of Eastern Approaches. Fitzroy thought that Koestler was right, but the irony is that Fitzroy was wrong. Wrong because, I suggest, that he himself was one of the actual thirteenth tribe – the Scots!

Scotland is one of the very few countries in Europe that never had a pogrom, England certainly did; five million Scots are in Scotland with 15 million in the diaspora; five million Jews are in Israel and 15 million elsewhere; we have the same passion for business, innovation, finance and education; only the US competes with Scotland and Israel in the number of graduates produced per head of population – and all three countries head the premier division for academic papers published. On the literary front was the national bard of Scotland not Rabbi Burns?  My own yarmulke or skull cap, a present from my friend Dr David Shapiro, has ה-13 שבט יהודה * embroidered on the margin. It all fits, as does the yarmulke, which caps it all.

Some years ago I arrived in Jerusalem to give a lecture at the Hebrew University’s Ein Kerem campus. I was met by Prof. Avi Rahamimov, then the Dean of the Medical School.
Shalom!” said he, “Come to my office at once for coffee and an argument.”
“What about?”
“Who cares! The best arguments on earth are between Scots like you – and Sabras like me. Get on with it. Say anything and I’ll profoundly disagree!”
“ Ok, you asked for it. Right; I say that Jews are smart…! ”

We have to be related; but mark you, no-one is getting a sight of, let alone getting their hands on, my Y chromosome…

* Tribe of Judah (No13) 


The Dean’s Diary

Dean’s Office:                                              St Andrews College
King Geoge IV Bridge
Edinburgh EH1 4PT      

The College  is superintended by myself as Dean, assisted by the Bursar, the Prebendary and the Bedellus, all of whom sit on the ‘Estaitis’, an ancient Scots word for Council, dating back to our Foundation in 1762. College is mercifully quiet at present, thanks to the Summer break when most of the eccentrics who teach or research here are away on leave or disrupting Conferences. That is, except those weirdest of our physicists, they of the AGL (the Anti-Gravity Lab). They have refused to leave, telling me yet again that they’re on the verge of a breakthrough… if they’d break through into a Parallel Universe I’d be frankly delighted, given the mayhem here last week.

What happened it seems, is that some idiot accidentally disarmed the lead shielding around the extremely powerful 15 Tesla Magnetic Field they use. The Field, released from the building, was now suddenly operating outside in King George IV Bridge which runs past the College. Confusingly, the Bridge is actually a major Edinburgh street. Anyway, before they tumbled to what was happening, the gigantic invisible Field, fifteen times the strength of the Earth’s own magnetic Field, ensnared an approaching Number 42 Stockbridge bus.  I happened to be looking out from my Study windows when I saw to my astonishment the bus suddenly execute a swerving left turn, crash through the front door of the College and charge into the atrium. There it demolished the Mammoth skeleton before heading determinedly in the direction of the AGL. Thank God it was a single-decker…

The highly magnetised bus passed through the canteen where it was joined by hundreds of flying knives, forks, blenders etc., also equally magnetised. Looking now like a giant porcupine, the thing finally came to rest in the women’s restroom, scattering the occupants, while powerfully attracting those wearing metallic underwear or surgical appliances. Before the Field could be switched off, it had also attracted or rather tractored into our Entrance, a garbage truck, several automobiles and the ATM machine (with contents) from the Bank across the street.

I had to explain all this to an extremely grumpy Principal &Vice-Chancellor who was staring at a bill from Lothian Buses for a new vehicle, while the Bank considers whether the abduction of its ATM – and £25,000 in notes – constitutes armed robbery. The V-C has always regarded St Andrew’s with the deepest suspicion since the Anti-Matter explosion last year, despite the fact that we are the greatest revenue-earner on the vast Edinburgh campus. He’ll get over it.

For newcomers to the Diary, I had better explain that St Andrew’s College is the only external College of Edinburgh University which is, in contrast to Oxford or Cambridge, non-collegiate in character. That said, we are often described as the ‘Northern All Souls’ because, like that splendid Oxford College, we have no undergraduates. We have only the academic staff plus Postgraduates and Research Fellows from home and abroad, to the number of about 60. I’m actually never sure of the exact number since they pop in and out of existence in a relativistic and indeed quantum mechanical way.

Right, that’s all for today. I have now to attend a meeting with the Chinese Legation here – who are apparently incensed at an article in the British Journal of Sport Archaeology by our historian Dr David Wilkie, Ph.D. According to the Chinese, their game of Chui Wan, (‘Hit ball – with Stick’ in Mandarin) is the progenitor of Golf and dates from the Ming Dynasty, long before Golf appeared at St Andrews – or anywhere else…

According to Wilkie, however, it’s the other way round. The game, says he, was actually brought to the Middle Kingdom from Scotland in 1421 by a Chinese junk squadron commanded by Admiral Zheng He. Apparently he, or rather He, came ashore at North Berwick, interrupted a   competition and made off to his Flagship with a clutch of balls, clubs and other golfing impedimenta, pursued into the surf by the furious locals.

The fact that the 10th hole at the ancient North Berwick Golf Club is actually called ‘Eastward Ho’ seems pretty conclusive – but we’ll see….