Last week I was privileged to be in the audience when Aung San Suu Kyi received her honorary degree from Oxford in the magnificent setting, full of pomp and ceremony, of the Sheldonian Theatre. Not the least part of the occasion is the celebration of language. The formal proceedings are conducted in Latin, until the Public Orator asks the Chancellor ‘Honoratissime Domine Cancellarie, licetne anglice loqui?’ (‘may one speak English?’) to which the Chancellor gives his Latin permission ‘Licet’. The Orator then continues with a witty and institutionally self-indulgent review of the year in which the world is seen through very Oxford eyes. The Lord Mayor of London is simply ‘Mr Johnson of Balliol’ while the Chancellor of the Exchequer is ‘Mr Osborne of Magdalen’. Even the Queen is just the holder of the offices of ‘Visitor of University College, Oriel and Christ Church’, celebrating sixty years in that role.
Somehow our World Book Capital themes recur throughout the occasion. I’ve already mentioned the joy in words. The Public Orator even addressed literacy when he noted, in a sly dig, that the new head of St John’s College ‘is an expert on reading disability, and St John’s say that she is just what they need’!
The event is a day — at least this year — when the world is in the city to observe the remarkable occasion, and the ceremony is broadcast to the world.
The Orator also said that ‘all honorands of course are equal, but none of them will mind my adding on this occasion that some are more equal than others’. This was of course an acknowledgement of the fact that Aung San Suu Kyi’s slight frame towers over the world in its moral authority; but I also thought back to the Orwellian origins of the phrase, to repression and Aung San Suu Kyi’s struggle for freedom of expression.
I thought there was a slight irony in following Aung San Suu Kyi’s award with an honorary doctorate for Baroness Manningham-Buller, former Director General of the Security Service, who of course do as much as they can to keep information secret; and then by one for John Le Carré, who has, in fiction, done much to expose that world. Le Carré’s archive now sits in the Bodleian, where Aung San Suu Kyi worked in the 1970s. As another Bodleian employee I wish I can say I met her then, but if our paths crossed, alas, I don’t remember it. But if proximity to greatness counts for anything, at least I can truly say that as a teenager in Manchester I delivered bread to Bobby Charlton and mail to Nobby Stiles, and it was soon after that that the England football team won its only major trophy!
‘Encaenia’ means ‘renewal’ and if Oxford becomes World Book Capital we shall use the opportunity to inspire anew delight in reading, in books, and in the freedoms they bring. The decision will come any day now. Fingers crossed!