My predecessor as Rector of the University of Dundee, Sir Clement Freud MP, has died. I very much doubt many of today’s students had ever heard of him. For the last two decades he had disappeared from public view, and it is difficult to recall just how very famous he was back in the 1970s.
He had the intelligence to see that a great salon and dinner party wit could be turned to wider use, and he pioneered the roles of media personality and celebrity chef, as well as being long associated with Private Eye and with all of those Radio 4 comedy programmes. His hangdog looks and completely deadpan delivery contrasted with a wit that was razor sharp.
But he was also deadly serious about his Liberal politics, which had a strong radical and libertarian streak that found a home in Cromwell’s old hometown of Ely, at a time when towns still felt a link to their history that was based in a continuation of traditions of thought and of local institutions.
He led the campaign against the compulsory wearing of seat belts, arguing that there were now so many intrusions on our liberty in this life, that at least we might be left to choose how we leave it. I recall at the Saffron Walden by-election of 1977, where we were both campaigning for the Liberals, he made a speech on the subject that was among the funniest I have ever heard. He improvised a sketch between a policeman and a motorist stopped for not wearing a seatbelt. Freud made fun out of the many exceptions in the legislation, including the one that said you did not have to wear it while stationary. He queried how a policeman could ever really prove you were not wearing it while moving, and feared accidents as officers craned their necks at speed to look into other vehicles.
I didn’t actually agree with him, but it was a comic tour de force. I wish he had still been more active to take on New Labour’s comprehensive dismissal of the very notion of individual liberty.
A few weeks after Saffron Walden, I was at Dundee University as a student listening to his Rectorial address as he was installed for his second term. He urged students to think radically. He told the tale of an engineering student who was set an exam question asking how he would measure the height of a tall building using a barometer. He gave this as the student’s reply. Where I put some dots, Freud was able just to rattle off the appropriate formulae without using notes, and sounding like he actually understood them:
“I could use four different methods. First, I could measure the air pressure at the bottom of the building, then go up to the roof and measure the air pressure at the top of the building, and using the formula…… I could calculate the height of the building.
Second, I could drop the barometer from the roof, time how long it took to rach the ground, and using the formula ….. I could calculate the height of the building.
Third, I could measure the height of the barometer, go up to the roof, lower it on a piece of string, measure the length of string needed for it to touch the ground, add the height of the barometer, and I could calculate the height of the building.
But I think I would use the fourth method. I would enter the building and find the janitor. Then I would say to the janitor “If you tell me the height of this building, I will give you this barometer.”
I was more than once the beneficiary of Freud’s largesse as he took groups of apparently random students out for boozy meals. Fot the student charities’ campaign he produced The Rector’s Cookbook, a collection of recipes that could be cooked in one pan on a single gas ring – in those days a not unusual sole cooking facility for a Dundee student.
He did a promotional piece for STV in a student flat in Springfield, equipped with a fold-away gas ring that swung out from the wall. Halfway through his cooking demonstration the cooking ring collapsed, the pan clashed to the floor, spraying everyone with chilli, and a jet of yellow flame shot across the room, setting fire to the bedclothes. Freud turned to the camera and said, in the slowest and most deadpan voice imaginable as the room blazed around him: “And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the perfect demonstration of the conditions which students have beed reduced to under the Labour government.”
I did not say so at the time, but my own Rectorial address in 2007 was in parts a deliberate hommage to Freud. The speech was imagined in his voice.