Congratulations! Our Girl’s great day is the last of our graduations

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IT IS my last graduation day, writes JULIAN COLE. And I’ve  been to a few of these affairs since my own, so long ago . . .

LONDON, Preston, Salford and now Newcastle-upon-Tyne. The first, as I say, was my own long ago in the Royal Albert Hall, of all the unlikely places. The train from Manchester was delayed and we arrived just in time. I don’t recall much else, although dim memory has me stepping across the famous stage where Dylan went electric!

Photographic proof does not exist: the family camera failed and we didn’t arrange for an official photograph of a young, gowned me with mortar board perched on long-gone curls, and at this distance in time I have no idea why.

So this time Our Girl, urged to smile by the efficient snapper, was swiftly photographed on her big day,. When her pictures arrive we promise to have them framed, as once we did with the photographs of her brothers which have languished unseen in a cupboard for such a shamefully long time.

We arrived in Newcastle a day early, a whole day in which to wander through that splendid, steep city with me pulling up and down those hills a family suitcase heavier than might have been thought humanly possible for the one-night stay in a Travelodge.

Newcastle really is a great city with all those bridges and countless fine streets, including Grey Street, conceived in the 1830s by Richard Grainger and John Dobson. This fine sweep of a thoroughfare was recently voted Britain’s third most picturesque street, the top award going to the Shambles in York. Such comparisons are a little silly, but there you go.

We had a celebratory meal in a restaurant with a view along Grey Street and its monument, happily clear of the right-wing numbskulls who occasionally use it as a rallying point for sullen protest. For us it was happy and busy, with only taxis jostling for attention.

After three years of visiting Our Girl we have got to know Newcastle and love the centre, so grand and impressive even with a few tatty corners, and stunning down by the river where the streets tip away affording a glimpse of the arches of the Tyne Bridge in the gaps between tall buildings. Across the water, the silvery curves of the Sage building wink and twinkle when the sun shines.

Grey's Monument: focal point of one of the most elegant streets in Britain
Grey’s Monument: focal point of one of the most elegant streets in Britain

We stayed in a quayside hotel behind the Law Courts. After exploring the riverside market we ate cheese and coleslaw sandwiches brought from home with a slight sense of disappointment: those market food stalls looked really appetising! We made up for our food oversight with coffee and cake, followed later by a drinks in a Brew Dog pub and then a pizza for me and salad for the girls. The following morning, we fuelled ourselves for the day with a ‘proper’ breakfast.

Northumbria University rather grandly calls its graduation ‘an academic congregation’. Everything went smoothly and it was fun to see all those young people in their gowns, and a touch teary to see Our Girl in her new frock, looking lovely and nervous and excited beneath her mortar board. Being a girl, every last detail had been planned weeks ahead; with one of the boys we had a last-minute dash to buy a smarter shirt just before the ceremony!

A small brass band opened the occasion, the academics trooping onto the stage in their gowns and comical caps. Following speeches, we waited for Our Girl’s turn, her name one among many. Eventually we saw her stand in the distance (funny how you can spot your own children, even from a long way off). Five or ten minutes later, she queued on the stage beneath one of the two big screens that showed each graduate shaking hands with the university’s chancellor, Tanni Grey-Thompson, wheelchair athlete-turned-baroness.

Our Girl had her moment. As her name flashed up onto those screens I fired off a series of doomed phone shots that were blurred beyond usefulness. And then Our Girl was gone from the stage.

Tanni Grey-Thompson gave an inspirational speech, human and funny – an atonement, perhaps, for an earlier official speech which had dutifully listed the university’s academic achievements.

Outside was all popping corks and photographs, , smiles and hugs with friends. The sun moved in and out of a darkening sky, but the rain stayed away. It seemed not that long ago that we had marked Our Girl’s last day at primary school then her last in the sixth form. Now here she was, all grown up and graduated, the last of three and no more ceremonies to come.
After everything was done, we went for that meal with a view. Our Girl had booked the table ages ago, asking for a window seat.

Then it was time for home, with that heavy suitcase bumping behind me all the way back to York.

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