Honorary Graduate Wednesday 19th July 2017
Honorary Rector, Graduates, Relatives and Friends,
I am exceedingly grateful for the honour you’ve conferred upon me and absolutely delighted to join you as you celebrate your graduation.
City, University of London is an exceptional place, so congratulations to you all for what you’ve achieved.
I still remember my delight when I first learned that I had a place on the postgraduate journalism course at City in 1989.
I couldn’t quite believe it. Until that moment, my own path had been a rather meandering one. My wonderful Dad, who is here today, once had high hopes that I might have a future in banking, perhaps foreseeing a comfortable retirement.
I was politely but firmly sacked after just three months as an intern at an international bank.
When — instead — I ran away to join a radio station, Dad was not enormously gruntled. It was thanks to my marvellous wicked stepmother Wendy that Dad finally came round to the idea that journalism might just be a career — even if not as comfortable as banking or business, something I often contemplated while shivering in a cold Army tent on a winter’s night in Helmand or Basra.
My Dad in many ways was right. I have indeed ended up much poorer than my contemporaries who went into banking. Yet I’ve been much happier as a journalist than I would have been as anything else.
So if I have any words of advice to you today, it is to listen to your gut instincts. You know yourself better than anyone else, and if something feels right, it probably is. Though the fourth and fifth vodka are pretty much always a mistake. That I have learned with age.
If your path looks as uncertain as mine did during my first graduation, aim to do work that gives your life meaning, or use your spare time to do things that you truly value and believe are worthwhile.
Within the realms of possibility, do what you love, although if you’re planning to be a novelist or a poet rather than an engineer or an entrepreneur, it’s worth keeping the day job, at least for the first few years.
I was very lucky in my time at City to have a tutor, Linda Christmas, who’s also here today, who was both exacting and kind. Her marking was ferocious and her standards exceedingly high. As a journalist at the Times, Guardian and BBC, Linda knew that the world of work had little time for self-indulgence, unchecked facts or lack of effort. It was excellent preparation for real life.
I was equally lucky to graduate in a world where the barriers were tumbling at home and abroad. For women, it was a period when we no longer had to be just like the men in journalism, but could do things our own way, perhaps with a little more empathy, with less need for machismo in the newsroom or when reporting wars.
In politics too, the tectonic plates were shifting. The Berlin Wall fell in 1989, just as I started at City. By the time I began work at the BBC, Germany had been reunited, and eastern Europe was being liberated. It felt as though a divided world was at last coming together again as the stark ideological differences that had taken concrete form after the second world war were broken down.
You graduate in a world that is shifting once again, often in ways unimaginable for the class of 1990. A world in which everyone around the globe can potentially communicate ideas, research or trade, 24 hours a day. Yet also, a world in which we all too often seem to choose to use these miraculous inventions to communicate hate, sow discord and fight over difference.
Yet in the real world, in person rather than on screen, our society sometimes feels like a much kinder place; the money-worshipping yuppies of the 1980s and 90s replaced by a society that is often far more tolerant and more accepting of individual differences.
Be grateful for that, and for living in some of the most exciting times for humanity, in terms of technology, science and health. And above all, be grateful for what you have, for your talents, your friends and family, and your energy and health.
Focus on what you have, and in the work you go on to do, don’t worry if someone else has a bigger car or a better salary or even the best ideas. Let ambition spur you on to do better or work harder, by all means, but don’t let it eat away at your soul.
Success in the world is not measured only in titles or salary or benefits but in the riches of a close family and friends, and of knowing that you are doing the best that you possibly can.
And don’t let ambition get in the way of being a decent human being. Be good to your colleagues and contemporaries on the way up, not just because you’ll meet them again on the way down — although you will — but because it’s the right thing to do.
And most of all, savour each and every day. Life will sometimes throw unpleasant surprises in your path. But they may just prove to be pointers towards a new and different journey, rather than the end of the road.
Speaking as someone who was quite surprised to find myself half a century old this year, I realise now that we don’t actually have terribly long on this earth.
So today, celebrate what you’ve achieved so far, savour it, give thanks for it to your family, friends and teachers, and go on to do amazing things with your lives on this beautiful planet, and if you ever doubt yourself (and we all do), please be reassured that nobody else on this earth knows what they’re doing either.