Paul’s Column: the Duchess of Kent and my faux pas

27 March 2019

This is a Brexit-free column.  Not because the issue is unimportant and not because it isn’t topical, but rather because I have to write this column by Monday morning ready for publication on Wednesday.  As we now all know 36 hours is a very long time in Brexit-land these days and anything written on Monday would certainly be hopelessly out of date by Wednesday. Much safer to turn to the past.

In my last year at Leeds University I was President of the Students’ Union.  My duties included dressing up in a gown, hood and cap and carrying the university mace at the front of the grand procession that brought the Vice-Chancellor into the Victorian splendour of the Great Hall to present graduating students with their degrees in front of their proud family and friends, all accompanied by the sound of organ music and a large dose of pomp.

I’d undertaken several such processions without any hitches when a message arrived from the Registrar’s Office to say that the next degree ceremony would involve, on one of her occasional visits, the Chancellor of the University Her Royal Highness Katharine the Duchess of Kent.  What the Registrar’s communication did not indicate was if the presence of royalty in any way changed how the proceedings were conducted.  Deciding that it would be prudent to check, I despatched a letter of enquiry into the internal post system (no emails in those days) and a few days later received the reply that the only difference was that Her Royal Highness presented the degrees rather than the Vice-Chancellor and otherwise everything stayed the same.

On the day of the degree ceremony itself I first had to attend the weekly lunchtime General Meeting of the Students’ Union before dashing across to the Great Hall.  Judging that I would be the subject of derision if I were to attend our regular political gathering made up of assorted socialists, Trotskyites and communists (such was student politics in the 1980s) wearing full academic regalia I had to build in a quick sartorial change as well as a building change.

As a consequence I was up against the clock as I took the stairs three at a time at full speed up to the anteroom of the Great Hall where the degree procession assembled. I therefore had a bit of velocity behind me as I opened the door and shot into the room.  A room that if previous experience was anything to go by would be full of the university top brass and associated acolytes all in a bit of a hullabaloo as they readied themselves to escort the Vice-Chancellor into the Great Hall.

Not today. 

The room was empty save for one solitary woman, a woman with her right leg on a chair as she rolled on a white stocking.

I’d never met a member of the royal family before so I wasn’t entirely sure how to proceed.  Shaking hands seemed appropriate however so I advanced upon the startled Duchess.

To her credit, after she had adjusted her dress and composed herself, she was completely relaxed about my faux pas.  I took the opportunity to drop the Registrar in it by explaining to her that he had told me her presence made no difference to how the proceedings were conducted. “Ah”, said the Duchess, “I think when I’m here you all get changed in the basement”. 

Later, after the ceremony, the Vice Chancellor introduced me to the Duchess.  “This is Paul Brannen this year’s President of the Student’s Union”.

“I know”, smiled the Duchess, “Paul popped in to introduce himself when I was getting changed for the ceremony”.

The Vice Chancellor flinched.  

Later, over drinks, accompanied by the Bursar, he tracked me down.

“You didn’t, did you?  Tell me you didn’t?”

“I’m afraid so”, I grinned, “But don’t worry, she wasn’t naked”.

Sometimes things turn out to be not what was expected and it is a useful lesson to learn. A bit like Brexit I suppose.  Oh! I’m so sorry, I said this was going to be a Brexit-free column. Well please forgive me - it very nearly was.

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