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rectorial address


Alastair Sim after being installed as Lord Rector of Edinburgh University in 1949

Forgive me if I begin this Address on a somewhat nostalgic note.

At this moment I am thinking of happy carefree days - no not here in Edinburgh, but in London, only a few short months ago, when I had nothing to do but play all day, and far into the night.

It is certain that I had no thought of having to do anything at all difficult, least of all of having to make a considerable speech to a gathering of learned and scholarly minds, however tolerant and kindly disposed.

There was I, quietly living my own obscure and sheltered life, doing no one any harm, minding my own business, happily cultivating my own garden (I speak metaphorically). Then suddenly I am lifted up and spirited back into a world of studious concentration from which I thought I had escaped for ever.

I don't pretend to understand it, but somehow I feel that it is all very significant. Certainly in having been gracious to a mere mummer, you have, at one stroke, dispersed the snobbishness of two worlds. By that I do not mean merely that Athens has embraced Bohemia . Between ourselves, I am not a very typical Bohemian. No, you have done more daringly than that. The scholar has honoured the truant. The Cap-and-Gown has exalted the Cap-and-Bells.

I can only hope that your example will be followed, and developed, in other and wider fields. Who knows? Perhaps we may yet hear that Congress has been invited by Moscow to receive the Freedom of the City.




Now I can well imagine that those of you who have been mainly responsible for setting me in this exalted position are sitting now, in ever-growing trepidation, as to the outcome of your action. If it is any comfort to you, I know exactly how you feel. I have walked hand-in-hand with the father and mother of trepidation for the past six months. In fact there is probably no word in the language that I comprehend more fully, or savour the significance of more completely, than this word Trepidation . I might almost have made its analysis the basis of this Rectorial Address, since words have always fascinated me, either by their sound, or by their power, or (at a much later date) by their sense.

But although there are hosts of words that one could talk about, I do not wish to show preference for any particular one, seeing that I have earned my living at the expense of so many - all of them fortunately arranged and ordered by brains far cleverer than mine. I only had to learn them by heart, try to understand them, and then speak them well enough to be allowed to go on speaking more.

No, I am going to talk about words in general. Not the utility words of everyday practical affairs, but those abstract words which so subtly affect and distort human relationship. And I am doing this not so much for anyone else's sake as for my own.

Such words have been an endless source of worry and anxiety to me. I have cared for, tended, and tried to love them as much as any hired nanny has ever cared for other people's wayward children. But, like many a nanny, I have never really understood them. At least, only a few. Those few I have grown to love and trust - but the others I distrust. No doubt they have winning ways and there is a certain amount of good in them, but they are too easily led and they keep getting into bad company.




Before I unburden my troubles upon you I had better tell you something of how I came to be in this pitiable state.

As you know. I have gained some little notoriety in the world of shadow and illusion, and far-too-large-sized photographs. But you also know, as well as I do, that public eminence in any department of communal life is of a very suspect quality, perhaps most of all in the theatrical world, where egocentricity and self-exploitation are not entirely unknown.

Let it be confessed that in varying degrees these qualities can be positive assets to an actor. After all he is unlikely to convince his audience that he is the very devil of a fellow unless he is -well, a quarter convinced himself.

Of course this is only a little trick of self-hypnosis which every actor acquires from the day he first sets out in search of "the bubble reputation," even in the camera's mouth.

Now far be it from me to set myself up as being more self-effacing than the general run of my fellow-artistes. Perhaps the word "artistes" is an euphemism, but I beg you to let it pass. We are all rather partial to that word in our states of self-hypnosis. I admit that even to this day I enjoy being called an artiste, and if anyone likes to qualify it with some such adjective as "great," "incomparable," "superb," then you can rely on me to finish the ritual by reacting with becoming modesty. But I shall know it is all nonsense and just another example of the waywardness of words.

So much for my profession.




Although tempted, I shall spare you any extensive sentimentalising over my early life here in Edinburgh . However highly painted we imagine them to have been, most early lives are pretty dull except to those who are actually living them.

I don't know whether I was a typical young man or not. I certainly thought I was exceptional in some indefinable way, apparently beyond the perception of those who knew me, and I was mostly concerned with planning and replanning my own particular success story. This took only the most nebulous of forms, but I know that my aim was to combine the minimum of work with the maximum of authority. I was just as bold as I dared to be in the company of my fellows and just as bright as their fierce competition allowed. I was naturally much bolder and much brighter in the select company of my own imagining.

Unfortunately, proud as I was of my imagination, I know now that it was lamentably subjective, and so I passed my youth uninspired by any sense of awe. Which was a very great pity. Because without that sense there can be no inspiration.

So much for my wasted youth.




The next phase was climactic and decisive.

As I was approaching the ripe age of twenty-five, and looking a little older than I do now I came to the amazing conclusion that my true vocation was teaching I had already been ensnared by the bright ring of words. I thought I understood a message in them, and I wished that all should hear. You will note that I meant well. You may also note a total absence of any sense of the ludicrous. So I taught, I Judged, I assessed - with passion and enthusiasm - and indulged to the full my fancied flair for helpful and constructive criticism

Mark you, I did no great harm. I may even have done some good, since I know now what I did not know then - that a bad example is sometimes more informative than a good one. I can only trust that I unwittingly served my erstwhile students as a warning rather than as a model.

I continued in this blithe folly for some years, but at last the gods relented, and, moving in their mysterious ways, proceeded to instruct me through a series of rude shocks.

The first happened when a student came to me with a slight hesitancy in his speech. Nothing at all to worry about. In fact it was rather attractive.

But he wanted to get rid of it, and as it was scarcely noticeable I had no doubt at all that I knew the cause and could cure him.

First I taught him how to breathe. Yes, I taught him how to breathe.

He had been breathing quite happily and without apparent effort for twenty odd years, but I put a stop to all that. Next I outlined the principles of voice production, with the help of a pig's larynx which I kept by me, pickled in alcohol, presumably to add excitement to the subject.

We certainly got excited. We loosened our collars. I went on to demonstrate the mechanism of enunciation. I showed him exactly what his tongue and his soft palate ought to be doing when he articulated correctly, and the awful things they were liable to do if he didn't. We stood making horrible faces at each other, and exchanging short fusilades of weird-sounding vocal noises.

The strain became considerable and the atmosphere electric. So we removed our coats and rested. As I was remarking that it was "am-m-mazingly m-m-mild for the time of year," I became conscious that I had somehow acquired my pupil's impediment, while he-well, he, apparently, was unable to utter a sound. From then on he only nodded or shook his head to anything I said. At any rate he went away without a trace of a stammer-just breathing-a little irregularly.

I am relieved to say that the gentleman in question soon recovered the charming hesitancy in his talk, and has no intention of parting with it ever again.

This was the first shock to my confidence, and it left me with the beginnings of a conscience, the beginnings of doubt. I was at last formally introduced to humility.




Alastair Sim giving Rectorial AddressBut I was a slow learner, and I can well believe that I diverted a lot of talent, and perhaps nipped an odd genius or two well and truly in the bud, before my confidence was blessedly shattered.

Fittingly enough my greatest humiliation came at the hands of little children.

I was very fond of children. I still am fond of children-in a way. A sort of non-committal way. For instance, I like to wave to them-from a suitable distance. I also imagined that I understood the child mind, and that I knew what would please it. So I tried my hand at a children's theatre, here, in Edinburgh .

What a field of constructive work was here, I thought! The unformed, the uninhibited minds of children would prove to be rewarding soil for my enthusiasm.

I was determined that it should be no namby-pamby affair, this children's theatre of mine, nor too goody-goody either, or wishy-washy, or airy-fairy. Please don't suppose that I was out to demonstrate that "might is right," or that "crime always pays," or anything of that sort. I simply wanted to eschew aphoristic moralising. It was to be a grand, rollicking, rumbustious, and thrilling entertainment. Excellent! I see no reason to alter these views of what a children's theatre ought to provide.

Everything went smoothly and gaily and according to plan, until I myself made an appearance on the stage. I think it was as the Erl King, but I may have been an ogre; I have tried to forget. I know I expected gales of laughter, possibly swelling to a cheer. Instead, there was a sudden deathly hush. Then thin, isolated wails of misery came from the body of the hall. These grew, and spread, and I was aware of a stampede of mothers leaving the hall with their unhappy offspring, between angry mutterings and reproachful backward looks.

This incident was a revelation to me. It revealed with conclusive certainty that I was a fool, and that I had always been a fool and was likely to remain a fool, and I went home and prayed that I might know it and never forget it.

I felt then what I imagine to be the ineffable relief of graduation. I was a qualified fool.




Since then I have been as happy as any man has a right to be.

But when you are happy your greatest need is that others should be happy too. And it occurred to me that there might possibly be a sufficiency of others with afflictions similar to my own whom I might help. (Even in my new-found humility I hardly dared to think I was unique.). Also there might easily be untold numbers who, while rejoicing in their clear-sightedness, may have failed to find laughter through the inward eye.

Here, then, was a life work and a pleasant one. Could I play the fool and know that I was one? Could I wring laughter even from throats unused to laugh? That is the fool's peak of achievement. In fact, if he can do this more or less consistently he may, without any great loss of self-respect, allow himself to be supported by the community. But, above all, he must see the folly in himself before lie holds up the mirror to his fellows.

I have told you that I found happiness, and no doubt you will be justified in thinking I found it in a fool's paradise.

That may well be. Also it may well not be. For here we are back again among the wayward words that are always slipping off into different meanings for different people -words that in the wrong company become little better than verbal gangsters. It is possible that unqualified fools live in a paradise of their own making, but the true fool knows only a benign purgatory.

Come now for a moment into this fool's purgatory and see what we see and hear what we hear. It is pre-eminently a bedlam of words. Words are our obsession. The eternal struggle to make sense of them, to force them to communicate truth. The counter-struggle to understand their meaning, and the meaning of the meaning, and finally to explain it. The result of all this is increasingly pathetic, and increasingly funny.

When we pause for breath we vaguely sense the true meaning of a few simple words like "kindness," "pity," "affection," "friendship," "trust," words which we believe mean approximately the same things to all people; and it is a strange and significant fact that as we ponder on these words our sense of humour returns, and we long to indulge our greatest gift, the gift of laughter, happy laughter, without any trace of hysteria.

So we laugh. We laugh at our own folly, at the folly of each other, and at the folly of absent friends. We laugh at our seriousness, our rights and our wrongs, our airs and graces, our piety, our wickedness. We come near to laughing at our fears.

But not quite. For whichever way we look at it we come to the regretful conclusion that fear is just not a laughing matter. So we fools decide to ostracise fear, ignore it, pretend it isn't there, and get back to the laughter that had such a right note to it - that united us all in tolerance and sympathy. And we determine to enjoy the simple life, and leave complications to those who have a mind for them.

But our resolve is short-lived. The simple-seeming words, which pointed the way to our communal happiness, begin to make demands of us. Of us, mark you - not of other people! And such demands! First they invite us to meet their poor relations, and present to our notice their unhappy opposites. Painful, embarrassing, fear-haunted words. And we had decided to blackball fear. Life, in accordance with the simple words, is not proving quite so easy-going as we thought. They begin to teach us more than we wish to be taught, and we begin to be nervous of comprehending too much. They point out, reasonably enough, that it is not for us to blackball anything, that if we would praise life we must praise all of it, the light and the dark. They explain patiently, but with insistence, that we cannot even begin to appreciate the light until we journey through the dark - and when they say "dark " they don't mean the romantic gloaming or the sentimental dusk. They mean the dark.

Soon, to our dismay, these naively tyrannical words are calmly asking for a degree of courage, sacrifice, altruism, and faith that would leave us no time at all for pleasure, offering instead a purely hypothetical and rarified happiness.

Small wonder, then, that we cut short "the initiatory spasm " and rush to take refuge again with the crowd, neglect friends for acquaintances, think again with a group mind, and quickly seek the company of inferiors in order to feel superior .

Soon we are revelling as before, in various degrees of hysteria, in an avalanche of fine-sounding but misused and misdirected words! Slave words; but slaves decked out to look important in grand uniforms and tall hats. Words coined originally by sages and seers, to serve and help our understanding of the simple ones such as I have mentioned. But the servants have somehow broken loose, and have been hailed as masters and dictators on their own account. Words like "freedom," "duty," "patriotism," "success," "failure." and all the rest, to name but a few mildly inflammatory specimens. Words which elude all efforts at exact analysis, which may mean anything, everything, or nothing according to whether they serve with discretion or rule in chaos.

But for the most part they rule - and with an emotional tyranny almost beyond belief. We hear daily expressions of honest opinion among small groups of sensible people, which if voiced publicly or quoted in headlines, or so much as hinted at in the schoolroom, would let loose a torrent of vituperation and trouble out of all proportion to the face value of the words used; or, for that matter, out of all proportion to the face value of any individual's opinion not backed by a lengthy and reasoned justification. Yet all the righteous fury of umbrage and outrage would unite to persuade us that a sanctified taboo had been desecrated, some neurotic little idol would be mortally offended, and would scream its silly head off for sacrificial appeasement.

Now we fools are not concerned with the rights and wrongs of a case, but we are appalled at the enormous power words seem to have for creating harm, without anything like a corresponding power for creating good. And that in spite of the fact that the great writers, poets, thinkers, and philosophers of all ages have laboured magnificently to make words ring for honesty and truth. But how few have listened! And how many find words easily palatable if presented with resounding power but little meaning, or with persuasion and charm but no intellectual conviction - like quack lozenges to stimulate or alleviate fear, as expediency dictates.




Now it may sound ridiculous to some of you to hear a confessed fool talking glibly about thinkers and philosophers and intellectual conviction as if he knew the first thing about any of them. But it might not be as ridiculous as it sounds.

Allow me, as one with inside information on the subject, to help clarify the picture of an average, qualified, and fairly competent fool.

I say qualified advisedly, to distinguish him from the unqualified variety, the ones who are not yet aware that they are fools. Alas! they are ubiquitous, and though their case may not be serious while they are young they become increasingly dangerous as they grow older. They become drugged with the wrong words, the false analogy, the quotation out of context, until bemused and often passionately vehement, they serve as the dupes and stepping-stones of personal ambition and misguided mission.

Unhappy in himself, the unqualified fool is infuriated by the capacity for happiness in his qualified brother, whom naturally he has a word for - " irresponsibility." But let him not lose heart. So long as he is basically a fool, and does not acquire isolated cleverness on his own account, he is not beyond redemption. He may yet know happiness. He may yet love and be loved. Anyway, his despised kinsman will joyfully assist in any stratagem to turn his gaze towards the magic mirror.

Now the authentic qualified fool is simply one who has recognised the inadequacy of verbal communication among human beings on any but the simplest terms, and the fact that words, for the most part, are used as an anodyne for the pain of thinking .

For do not suppose for a moment that a genuine fool never thinks. Oh dear yes. He suffers agonies of thinking. Thinking is his vice. His intellect has been impaired through thinking. It is concentration which he lacks. His thinking is centrifugal - it flies off at tangents as it discovers ever new joys and enchantments in the simple things which have the simple names. And so he never gets beyond the simple things. Later he is glad he never tried to get beyond them. And when he learns that certain famous fools of old were actually pounded to death in giant mortars merely for saying something that was a bit too witty - a bit too simple - he becomes aware of unsuspected dangers all around him. Is it words that are the danger? Or is it men? Or is it the simple truth? Or is it fear? Fear of the simple truth? The fear that stirs up the illusory frenzy of self-defence. If the fool thinks long enough and hard enough he arrives at a somewhat involved postulation which, I imagine, might be something like this: That in simple things lies everything that amounts to anything, notwithstanding the fact that all around the simple things there is a complicated something, amounting to little or nothing, but very, very dangerous.

From which he concludes that it is fine to be clever, better to be good, and to be both is asking for trouble.

At this point he remembers, perhaps with relief, that he is only an average competent fool, that greatness or martyrdom are not for him, so he settles down to earn his living as honestly and happily as he knows how. He continues to mock at much that is impressive and seemingly important, but never at honesty, or pain, or fear, or kindly love. In this way he serves as the crossing sweeper for the sage, the philosopher, and the exceptionally sensible person. He clears away a little of the debris in their path. Very, very little, I am afraid, for I should have mentioned that the true fool never makes the mistake of mocking anything he does not quite understand, and as that is practically everything his contribution to progress is slight. And because it is so slight he is accepted even by the enemies of wisdom in a spirit of amused tolerance, and hardly ever does he have to be murdered.




Now there is something rather incongruous and foolish about my having to use so many untrustworthy words in order to express my anxiety over their untrustworthiness.

If only we had been living in a telepathic age there would have been no need for a wordy Address. I should simply have stood here and sent out a succession of thought-waves loaded with gratitude, affection, and wishes for your happiness which, while they might have excited your sympathetic concern for my mental limitations, would not, I think, have displeased you because of their clear intensity. I should have sent no wishes for "prosperity" or " success" as, in a telepathic age, these would long have been spurned as containing no thought-content whatsoever.

We should then have conversed for a while by "thought-transference" or whatever the new communicative method might be called, and I have little doubt that instead of delivering an Address I should have been the receiver of a most instructive one from your multiloquent transmissions. No word need have been spoken, though the occasion would not necessarily have been silent. In fact I think it would have been blessed with a rewarding hilarity which I, being a fool, would in no way have discouraged.

Attracted as I am by sportive speculation on the coming of a telepathic age, I am still more attracted by the evolutionary prospects implied.

In the transitionary period it would be highly interesting to compare what a public speaker was saying with what we knew he was thinking. Words constantly subjected to such a test would soon find honest masters, would soon serve mutual understanding.

Meanwhile in the absence of any Paranormal Faculty at this or at any of our Universities, I can only haver and hope. I hope that your futures will be endowed with all that a qualified fool most envies, admires, and sadly lacks in the way of scholarship and learning. But I would like you to grow in wisdom as in knowledge, and I would like to feel you shared with me a degree of doubt over much that is accepted, a tendency to question, even when you are told the answer.

Students of Edinburgh, you have made me extraordinarily happy. I have addressed a profusion of words to you, and whether they have made sense or nonsense I am not at all sure one way or the other, but they were the best I had to offer. However that may be, my happiness is the greater for being sure of this: that there is one gift which we do share, and shall always share - the gift of laughter.