THE runaway success of St Andrews in the first round of University Challenge made nostalgic viewing. As they trounced Darwin College, Cambridge, with a score of 255-90, I was not just impressed by their knowledge, but realised that when I was a student I knew nobody remotely in their cerebral league.

Rarely have I seen so mannerly and understated a captain as Martin Khemsar on a show that increasingly acclaims flamboyance and chutzpah. The whole panel, in fact, was a model of studious concentration and teamwork. I might be wrong, but they also looked as though coming under interrogatory fire was fun.

Since this was the first round in an unforgiving competition, it is far too early to predict the team’s chances of success. All one can say is that this formidable foursome give old alumni reason to hope. The last time my alma mater won University Challenge was in 1982.

I am embarrassed to admit that not only was I an undergraduate at the time, but the news failed to reach me. That probably says all you need to know about the circles I moved in. We hardly ever watched television and, other than following the progress of the Falklands War, we rarely – and this is truly shameful – read newspapers.

I’d like to say this was because history and economics took up all my time, but the truth is that then, as now, I lived in a world of my own, reading almost as many novels as textbooks. By the time I graduated, a lot of catching up on current affairs was required.

In my time in the East Neuk, shortly before the Aids epidemic took hold, and at the height of punk rock and Thatcherism, you would barely have known the 20th century was hurtling towards its close. We could have been in the era of Brideshead Revisited rather than in the early days of the internet.

From the pier beneath the ruined cathedral, the eagle-eyed could have spied the tower blocks of Leith but, as the miserable milieu that would give birth to Trainspotting was heating up, St Andrews remained aloof. It was less concerned about deprivation and addiction than with what to wear to the end of term ball. If class-A drugs were being consumed, they – like so much else – passed me by.

Huddled on the edge of the wild North Sea, St Andrews offered a first-class education but a third-rate preparation for later life. By the end of a couple of years I was itching to escape. With cobbled streets, olde-worlde buildings and a hallowed golf course, over which my attic room looked, it was a claustrophobically enclosed society.

Its members existed in a parallel universe from the ordinary citizens of the town. It didn’t take me long to jettison the red flannel gown in which some paraded on their way to lectures or on the after-Chapel walk along the pier on Sundays. For this ritual, not only did you need a head for heights but, when the wind blew from the north, the balance of Philippe Petit as he crossed between the Twin Towers on a rope. Along with many others who wondered why they’d had to cough up for this archaic item, I used it as an extra blanket.

The brain power of the victorious quiz contestants suggests that academic standards are as high today as then. With a few exceptions, I certainly couldn’t have asked for better teaching. Most lecturers and tutors were rigorous, kind, and sometimes, such as T C Smout and David Corner, intellectually brilliant. There was no need to step into a game show studio to have your mind set alight.

What was glaringly obvious, however, was the social gulf, not simply between town and gown, as it was glossed, but between students from public school, and those like me who had gone to a comprehensive. It was not a wholly unbridgeable divide. Many of my friends had been to boarding school and, other than being starved of male company and eager to make up for lost time, were no different from those of us whose family trees were filled with domestic servants and crofters. But, as in Evelyn Waugh’s portrayal of an Oxford college in the 1920s, there was a stratum of student life to which hoi polloi rarely gained admittance.

Accent was one obvious demarcator, conspicuous cash another. A couple of the halls of residence were enclaves of the upper orders, a set who, after failing to get into Oxford or Cambridge, settled for what they viewed as second best. As soon as possible this clique decamped to cottages and flats, either in the atmospheric backstreets of town, or down coast in the bijou fishing ports of Anstruther and Crail. They would arrive at lectures with a squeal of car brakes, and whizz off immediately after, as if life were a perpetual jaunt.

Years later, the arrival of Prince William exacerbated the snobbery to which St Andrews had always been prone. In this respect, the recent scandal in which it has been engulfed echoes this pernicious tendency. Some members of the St Andrews branch or “chapter” of the all-male frat society, Alpha Epsilon Pi, which originated in New York, have been accused online of rape and sexual abuse. Although the fraternity is not part of the university, these allegations inevitably tarnish its reputation. They also highlight the dangers of exclusive clubs.

In her account of the years she and her husband Edwin lived there, Willa Muir was scathing about the town’s small-mindedness. Yet my biggest regret, apart from choosing such a cramped and conservative place to study, is not the all-pervasive culture of us and them, but that I allowed myself to be intimidated by the braying voices and boundless confidence of the Sebastian Flytes and Charlotte Ryders. Education is meant to broaden your mind but in this respect it was decades before I learned that class is irrelevant, as is the shape and volume of your vowels.

Apart from the conspicuous absence of women, the University Challenge team seems to embody the democratic intellect to which all universities should aspire. Even if they go no further than the next round, they have already shown St Andrews in a laudable and, for me, decidedly rose-tinted light.

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