THE issue of honorary degrees sits uneasily with me.
The opportunities for manipulation bordering on usury seem much too great, universities and colleges often emerging from their bestowal of letters to figures with little experience of what it takes to earn a degree into a fug of obsequity, servility and desperation. The conferral of one such honour this week, however, merits special attention and no little approval.
Melanie Reid will be known to longstanding readers of The Herald as a formidably eloquent former columnist and assistant editor; she jumped ship about six years ago for The Times in what she described to me as her "Beckham moment", her "last big transfer".
During her tenure as assistant editor - a post requiring equal parts resilience, conviction and pragmatism - Melanie had a big hand in my ascent of the professional ladder, offering me a choice of positions during a reshuffle. It was immensely encouraging, and I'll be forever grateful to her. We all need a hug from time to time, and that was mine. She hugged plenty round here, metaphorically speaking, so when The Times came calling, none of us begrudged her for answering.
Then fate dealt Melanie a blow that exposed precisely how thin is the thread that holds each of our lives together. A passionate equestrian, in 2010 she broke her neck and back in a horse-riding accident, leaving her tetraplegic. She uses one finger to type the exquisite weekly columns she writes for The Times magazine, yet channels through that solitary digit fathomless levels of humour, brio and candour. Then last month came the Scottish premiere of Spinal Chords, a musical work for which Melanie wrote the words and Sally Beamish the music. So raw is the pain that fuels the composition, she told Phil Miller, she can't bring herself to hear or see it.
Through her writing and Spinal Chords, Melanie trains a torch on disability, to which most people are blind until it strikes close to them. Pain, depression, malfunction after malfunction, anger, delirium, boredom, powerlessness, suicidal thoughts: there are precious few positives, yet Melanie finds them and cradles them as if they were orphans in need of a mother's love.
On Thursday, Stirling University gave Melanie an honorary degree, its principal, Professor Gerry McCormac, saying it was in recognition of her "outstanding contribution to journalism, to disability rights and awareness, and for being an inspirational example of human resilience and dignity". Well said.
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