Where there's a Will...

The rents have soared, the police are on special duty and the students are sworn to silence. In just a few weeks' time a small Scottish university town will be home to the country's most famous son. Prince William may be ready for St Andrews, but is St Andrews ready for him? Euan Ferguson investigates

'Don't fancy him,' says Kerry, rearranging her make-up in the pub on a Friday evening. She gives an exaggerated moue as the lippie goes back on. 'Way too English. And way too snobby. But good luck to him, I don't really mind him coming here. It's all the rest of the shite that comes with it. Someone was saying we've now got a couple of prostitutes in St Andrews. And not just that - there's a rumour that some flats have been bought by journalists .'

We must, being realistic, suppose that the place has, in its time, coped with worse. Long long ago, when the world's most famous golfing green was heavy with forest, the cries and snorts were coming from those hunting armies of wild boars; the fat windswept bluff was a welter of slaughter. Later, there were several bloodied ping-pongs over the castle as it was taken and retaken by Bruce and various English generals and then by Henry VIII. Then there were the Protestant martyrdoms and the sea-towers where heretics were imprisoned before being flung off the cliffs, and the town-walls wherein plague victims were buried alive...

And in the meantime, St Andrews managed to establish itself as Scotland's first university (around 1411), a huge powerhouse for ideas and religious discussion, until the Reformation, after which it fast became a festering, cold, dangerous dunghill of a place; in 1781, when the grandson of the Bishop of Cloyne came to study, he 'wept to think that he was to remain, if God spared his life, three long years in it' - although, he added, 'a maudlin consolation is administered to its sorrows by no fewer than two-and-forty alehouses'. Then Victorian tourism came along to save it, and the colleges thrived once more, and then came golf. And now, of course, comes Prince William.

Hardly to save it. The town copes very well indeed as it is . He has probably done wonders for the university itself - since his decision to come up next month to read history of art, undergraduate applications have gone up by 45 per cent, and the colleges are for the first time full without 'clearing' - and estate-agents are rubbing their hands at a 10 to 20 per cent hike in private rents; but his arrival is hardly going to send the town into paroxysms of self-importance. The locals (kindly, phlegmatic, utterly middle-class, in a way you'd never find in other Scottish towns of similar size) are used to seeing their population - 16,000, about a third of them students - double for the Open; they're hardly bedazzled by the presence of TV cameras. No, the question is not what Prince William can do for St Andrews; it's what St Andrews will do for Prince William.

It can give him, most obviously, geographical privacy. Not that it's impossible to get to, as a steady succession of hacks has found over the past year; train to Leuchars and a five-minute taxi and you're there. But once you're there you're there; this is not a passing-through place, this is not a busy place, and locals and students alike are already wary of the press; any mob-handed team hoping to blend in will stand out like aliens, or working-class people.

There are mutterings about increased security - CCTV cameras and the like - but the Special Branch, thought to be moving next door to William's digs in the oldest hall, St Salvator's, are understood to want to keep it low-key. And some tabloids are already making righteous noises about respecting his privacy for the duration - particularly The Sun and Mirror. So, there will be paparazzi and there will be little stories, month after month, for people who enjoy reading on the front page of their paper the shocking news that a 19-year-old boy has been drinking alcohol or become friendly with a girl. But the suspicion is that, once the initial frenzy passes and we've had photos of him dressed in a red robe or doing silly things with shaving foam, he will be left, by and large, to go about his business. If the situation becomes intolerable, if he becomes the new Diana, then he has told friends he will leave.

What, then, will he do with his time: what will he take from this place?

He will have a different start to that of his father, who spent his first term at Trinity College Cambridge, in that mad old hippie year of 1967, inviting people in to drink madeira, eat seedcake and listen to Mantovani. William is different already: he actually earned his place here, thanks to his ABC A-levels - even if Alan Ryan, Warden of New College Oxford, pointed out rather snottily recently that this wouldn't have been enough for his establishment: 'The further away from us people like that are, the clearer it is that we are a serious university rather than a finishing-school for toffs.'

It's generally accepted that St Andrews is, indeed, a 'serious' university, but the toff factor is often cast at it in pejorative fashion. Fewer than 60 per cent of its students come from state schools, making it more exclusive than Oxbridge. It possesses, naturally enough, a bobsleigh society.

'Yes, there a lot of Yahs, an awful lot of Yahs,' says Caroline Dean, a 'normal' - she laughs - undergrad from London, hugging herself against the slicing North Sea wind as she sits on the broad curving beach, watching medic chums play football. 'More than any other Scottish university - more English people, and certainly more English people with money. The money bit can be annoying. You think what this is costing - and then remember, for some boys here, they've had years of boarding at about £10,000 a year: their parents are actually saving money! But, in a way, so what - the Yahs keep themselves to themselves, by and large, and seem to want to keep it that way, and that suits the rest of us, and everybody's happy.

'I think he'll have a great time. I don't want to speak about the whole PW thing - yes, we've all been warned that we can be flung out for speaking to the press - but it's not really that, it's just that it's all so boring now. He'll come, and do his history of art, and some girls will fancy him, and he'll drink beer... and, um, the rest of the place will get on with its life. I really don't think it'll intrude too much. Not very much intrudes here, which is why it's great. We didn't notice foot-and-mouth; we didn't notice the train problems, because we don't have a train service. It's that kind of place.'

So William can, post-Eton, find his own kind without trouble, and stay with them. He might even marry one of them; more graduates from St A's marry each other than do those from any other British university; remaining inside this hermetic, unchanging bubble for months at a time, ensconcing himself inside whatever aspects of the town take his fancy, becoming St Andrews Man.

Which means living, for four years, with the classic Scots dichotomy of two facets of life coexisting; of Jekyll and Hyde; of being, as they still like to say about Stevenson's home town of Edinburgh, an hour to the south, 'all fur coat and nae knickers'. The two types in St Andrews are normally referred to as town and gown; but it might be more accurate to dub them church and pub, or scones and beer. There might be fewer than the two-and-forty pubs of before but there's still a huge number to serve - around 6,000 students.

So, on the one hand, there is this all-pervasive tweeness from a land still caught somewhere in Dr Finlay's 50s. This is a town whose cafés still advertise 'luncheon'. Ladies who walk small dogs wearing tartan blankets. There is, in fact, a wilful preponderance of tartan, in all the golf shops and shortbread shops and B&Bs; golf and tartan, tartan and golf, and church. And with it all, that certain terribly careful Scottish politeness that will serve William so well. We talk to the locals in one busy Saturday-morning tearoom, conversations laced with the quiet little precisions - they opened the doors at seven minutes to 10, we're told in passing, because it was cold; 96 scones had gone within the first half-hour - that serve to cloak small kindnesses and small bitchings. We talk to them in the evening, at a churchy ecumenical pot-luck dinner, raising our glasses of something foul which advertises itself as 'sparkling red grape juice drink'. And they are united in their distrust of the press - even the posh ones like us - and in their seeming determination to ignore the fact that the heir to the throne will be among them from now. Good luck to him, they say, but it won't affect us. Or: St Andrews lets you keep yourself to yourself. Or: as long as he drinks in the right pubs, doesn't get in with a bad crowd.

Which is the other side of life here. Is there a bad crowd in with which to get?

Not as we'd normally think of the term. There is minimal crime here. The worst he could do is join the Kate Kennedy society, the ancient club for posh boys. Officially, the KKs raise money for charity, organise annual balls and co-ordinate the Kate Kennedy procession. Unofficially, it means they get to dress posh rather a lot and occasionally dress up as women for a giggle; and keep the oiks and the ladies out. Their numbers are limited to 50 and no women members are allowed, which is a source of much contention; the main 'political' argument in fact, we're told, in student life at St Andrews. William will almost certainly be offered membership; whether he accepts, with all the implications, will probably be a question referred to Palace advisers (T Blair).

Even if he doesn't join, he'll get plenty of chances to dress up: to dress up in his robes and walk to the end of the storm-lashed pier after church on a Sunday, in order to get cold and wet and commemorate something no one in the town can agree on; to dress up on KK day or Raisin Sunday and do silly things with shaving foam, to commemorate the ancient tradition of students thinking that silly equates to funny. And he gets to wear his robe differently each year - conventionally this year, off the right shoulder in the second, off the left in the third, off both shoulders in the last year - and gets to... oh, look, you're going to be reading about this arcane stuff for the next four years, I'm not going to bore you now.

But mostly they go to the pub. Both Caroline's non-Yah lot and William's lot; they go to the pub, the same pubs, for they're all students together, and there's nowhere else to go. MaBells, on the seafront, would probably suit. Everyone is good-looking, in a friendly enough way. We chat, to solid chaps and chapesses with nicknames such as Evil and Jugs, and we listen. 'I remember I lined up seven shots on my birthday, yeah... I wasn't sick, no - fuck you, Jugs, I wasn't - but I did pass out.' 'Woke up in a damp patch to my horror, ghastly, then remembered I'd had a couple of champagne glasses in my pocket!' 'Anyway, what's the dress code for tomorrow?' 'So are you still friends with Nick? I mean Floppy Nick?' You get the picture.

The student rag, The Saint, helpfully recounts the past week's events in its gossip column, peppered with references to 'crazy medics' and 'hiding the salami'. One page reads: 'Birthday boys Andrew the Kirkinator and Chipper the Grumpy Bastard celebrated in style this week - even Piers pulled! Wowzers!' More usefully, it provides a handy guide on 'where to pull hot totty'.

Ogston's in South Street, for instance, is described as a 'veritable slut hut'. This is where William could go if he wants to dance with a pretty girl while his bodyguards sit at the bar sipping Kaliber and dropping their guns, and doubtless someone will go tattling and claim there was a snog. Or he could try Broons, if he fancies a slice of 'sleazy Scando Eurotrash.' Female chums are pointed towards MaBells on a Thursday night - 'If you want to nab yourself a beast of a rugby boy while enjoying pints of pinky p.'

And this will be, in the main, it. Four years of scones and slut huts and Dada. He could, of course, take up golf: it's the easiest way to enjoy the beauty of the long-forgotten boar forest by the sea, despite the weather (at one stage we caught Will Newborn from North Carolina coming off the 18th green, eyes streaming from the cold, beaming delightedly and announcing, through nearly blue lips, 'It doesn't get any better than that, my friend!) But, mostly, that will be it.

And there is, you have to suppose, much to admire about it. About William's decision to break with tradition and to study something that requires brains. Much to admire about St Andrews itself: it's probably a great way to spend one's student years. And it will be good if he is not intruded on overmuch, protected partly by geography but mainly through the sense of privacy and protectiveness towards St Andrews, felt by both students and locals. But here is the rub: nor will he be intruded on by much poverty, or many black faces, or many people from a significantly lower social class, or politics, or republicanism, or misery, or modern Britain. If that was part of the plan, it's been a brilliant choice. Wowzers, Wills.


Euan Ferguson

The GuardianTramp

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