Many years ago I ‘took’, i.e. formally received, my Oxford MA. For those who aren’t in the know, I’d better explain that Oxbridge MAs aren’t real degrees. Up till now – though the tradition is under threat – they have been awarded automatically a certain number of years after the BA, on payment of a small sum of money. The money, deposited with your college when you matriculate (i.e. are officially enrolled) is known – in Oxford at least – as ‘caution money’, the idea being that the college holds it on condition of your good behaviour. I’m sure that somewhere there is a list of caution-money-forfeiting misdemeanours equal in length and scope to the regulations displayed on the board outside the University Botanic Garden (sic) which forbade, among other things, the presence of ‘ragged and disorderly persons’.
Like the matriculation ceremony, the degree ceremony was conducted in Latin and took place in the Sheldonian Theatre, a building designed by Wren and as impressive as you would expect. For such an important event it wasn’t sufficient to wear cap and gown (soft cap for women, mortarboard for men); subfusc clothing was also required. For women, a black skirt or trousers, white blouse with a black ribbon; for men, a dark suit and white tie. Unlike Cambridge, Oxford also requires its students to wear subfusc for exams, presumably to mark the solemnity of the occasion. Interpretations of subfusc have always been liberal. I particularly remember a long-haired and bearded young man in an emerald velvet suit – this was the Seventies – and an Indian friend in an immaculate white sari.
All of this adds up to a considerable amount of pomp and splendour, especially if you include the changing of hoods from BA (trimmed with white fur) to MA (trimmed with red cloth) and being – I think I remember – tapped on the head with a Bible when the MA was awarded. It was certainly An Occasion, at any rate. Someone said to me, when I was deciding whether to do it, “So then you’ll get your public marmalade” – a wonderful conflation of ‘MA’ and ‘public accolade’. The phrase stuck, and when I did go through the ceremony a friend presented me with a jar that she had labelled accordingly. Lime, I think it was, and rather good. By extension the phrase ‘public marmalade’ came to mean any sort of public honour and/or honorific garb, and the ceremonial that goes with them. I once watched the Encaenia (pronounced ‘enseenia’) ceremony where honorary degrees are awarded – again at the Sheldonian. It was public marmalade from start to finish, the Chancellor in his gold-braid-encrusted gown absolutely dripping with the stuff. And all in Latin too.
Considerably later in life I managed to get a real MA – a psychotherapy qualification with a certificate that I could, if I wished, hang on my wall, though I never have. There was a ceremony at Middlesex University that I could have gone to, but as all the university had done was validate the degree taught by the training institute, I didn’t feel I had any connection with it. And, to be honest, I couldn’t imagine a degree ceremony at Middlesex would have the same public marmalade factor as the Oxford one. In my case the MA was a later add-on to my original diploma, mainly by ‘accredited prior learning’. It was the diploma that was the real achievement – all the persistence and suffering and sheer hard work. I would have liked to receive the certificate in person from the institute, but unfortunately I was left off the invitation list and didn’t find out until too late. Though there wouldn’t have been much public marmalade, it was definitely something to celebrate.
Last week a few of us from the MA in Creative Writing – mainly the older ones, I have to say – got togged up in our gowns and mortarboards for the graduation ceremony at Bath Spa University. Bath Spa doesn’t exclude women from wearing the mortarboard, but I was a little bit disappointed that the BAs and MAs all had the same hood – albeit a stylish one with silver satin surrounded by light blue cloth. It looked rather elegant against the dark blue gown. Keeping it on the shoulders was a problem, though, as was making sure the mortaboard’s tassel didn’t fall over one eye. There was no Latin and no subfusc and the ceremony was held in a marquee, but we didn’t do too badly in the public marmalade department. We had a brass ensemble and a solo harpist playing for us; the academic staff processed in in their assortment of gowns and headgear, the Oxbridge MAs among the plainest, the most spectacular a doctoral gown that looked like a Union Jack, from a newly-established university; the City of Bath was represented by a man in a fur hat holding upright a truly terrifying sword, with two civic officials in three-cornered hats and lots of gold braid who waved their maces ceremonially.
It was heartening to see all the eager, relieved, confident young faces getting their BAs and to hear the cheering from their friends and families. There were a lot of them, though – this was the whole School of Humanities and Cultural Industries (yes, it does say industries) – so that by the time it got to us few MAs applause fatigue had begun to set in. Never mind; it was worth it to walk across the platform, shake someone’s hand (I’m not sure whose) and be given a smart blue folder containing a dummy certificate which told me my certificate had already been issued. I’m tempted to put it up side by side with the real one, which bears the magic words: ‘with Distinction’. I didn’t get a First at Oxford, though I managed one in the Part I exams, and the psychotherapy MA was a Pass as opposed to a Fail, so to do well in this one was doubly special. I had at last achieved academic success, and in something I really cared about.
At the end we all processed out, the band still playing, past the rows of mums and dads who had proudly seen their offspring undergo this rite of passage. Some of us had to be proud for ourselves, and I was. Of my three MAs, one bought, two earned, this is the one that has mattered to me most. It has helped me do what I’ve always wanted to do, and has told me I can do it. I had to celebrate it with the full public marmalade, even if I didn’t get a jarful this time.