The politics department said he wasn't honours material - Nato Secretary General Lord George Robertson talked to Carol Pope
On Monday he talked to Kofi Annan United Nations Secretary General in New York. On Tuesday it was President Clinton in the White House. On Wednesday he talked to his Nato predecessor Javier Solana in Rome. On Thursday he talked to GC Magazine!
Nato Secretary General and Lord of Port Ellen, the Right Honourable George Robertson is one of the most powerful men in the world. His daunting appointments diary is a roll-call of contemporary war and peacemakers. But it's a mark of the genuine down-to-earth humanity of the man that he cheerfully finds time to talk to his old university from his headquarters in Brussels.
Not many people can say they have kept the Secretary General of Nato waiting for an hour. But when the uncalculated-for time difference has the man in charge of a third of the world sitting by the phone while a blissfully unaware press officer is still sharpening her pencils in another country ready to fulfil the appointment an hour later - he laughs hugely… (I expect to be drafted to the furthest reaches of Chechnya in the near future.) In fact talking to him is as easy, informal and good humoured as chatting to an old friend.
"A right bonny laddy with lovely manners" - remembers a university secretary
"A wily old fox" - comments the commanding officer of one of the Navy's leading warships
"A real grafter who put in 18-20 hour days during the Bosnian crisis - says a House of Commons civil servant who worked closely with him
"A truly decent bloke who cares about people and will phone and enquire after a staff member in hospital or a former constituent with a problem" - sums up a former colleague
Whoever you talk to George Robertson - Lord Robertson as we must now remember to call him - is remembered with warmth and respect. Characteristically perhaps his response to any such suggestion is typically deflationary: "Ah I must have got out before I was rumbled."
Born in Port Ellen Police Station on Islay in 1946 - his family have been police officers for generations - George Islay MacNeill Robertson went to school at Dunoon Grammar - an establishment which has seen more than its fair share of pre-pubescent politicians including John Smith, Brian Wilson and Lord Mackay. He arrived in Queen's College in 1964 and immediately launched himself into student politics, finding a place on the Students Representative Council from his first year and writing a campaigning column for the student newspaper first Aien then Anasach.
"That was my power base" he remembers. "When I read back some of my old columns I'm horrified at the pretentiousness … and occasionally the irresponsibility."
Student landlords and the warden of Westpark Hall were among his chief targets - the latter following an incident which led to him being thrown out of residences. "I'm sure it wasn't for anything terribly great but she ran it in a very draconian way unrecognisable to today's students."
St Andrews was another to bear the brunt of his pen. "I once called it a fifteenth century slum in my column. The following week I wrote: 'a lot of people have taken exception to that description. I wish to apologise. I should have said a fourteenth century slum.'"
It was a time when Dundee was wrenching itself from St Andrews and preparing to go it alone. George Robertson was one of those early graduates who could choose whether to accept their degree from the newly fledged University of Dundee or from the ancient St Andrews. He chose Dundee. "I was very patriotic about Dundee. It was a new university and I wanted it to succeed. It was quite an adventure to break away. It clearly was going to have a difficult time breaking into the respectability market… Others chose St Andrews because it was recognisable and had a nice graduate tie."
A graduate tie for the fledgling Dundee was, he claims, his legacy. The tie sporting a double red line was designed in the bar one day with John Barker "now a high ranker on the civil service selection panel".
But the boy George's vigorous political activities meant that while he was living politics he was not necessarily studying them. "The department of politics said I didn't come up to scratch to do an honours course," he laughs. "I didn't put as much into the academic side as some of my contemporaries." So it was economics he graduated in with a modest 2 (ii). "You know sometimes living politics is a helluva lot better than learning about it."
Certainly he found student politics "second to none" as a training ground for what was to come - "you get a lot of responsibility at a very young age and you have to use that responsibility… sometimes not very well." Dundee student politics at that time was a lively affair with a cast of talent including John Suchet who went on to become an ITN newscaster, Brian Wilson later a Government minister, Alex Neil who went on to become policy vice convener for the SNP, Lewis Moonie later a Labour MP, Malcolm Bruce later a Liberal Democrat MP. The backdrop was the time of the great student revolts across Europe.
Dundee organised its own sit-in to protest against student grants. Lord Robertson recalls: "In Paris they were ripping out desks and rifling files. We were much more organised. We had a work-in in the library. We thought well, if we're going to be in the library all night we might as well use the time. Principal Drever came in at some ungodly hour - 3.30 or 4am and said 'You know Mr Robertson' - he was terribly proper. 'Maybe you could organise one of these every week. I've never seen so many students so hard at work.' If somebody had wanted to undermine my confidence that would have been the way to do it. If he'd raged at me we'd all have felt so proud!"
It was during his Dundee years too that the pattern for Lord Robertson's family life was set. Sandra Wallace was working as a secretary for Professor Blake in the department of economics when George was fulfilling a postgraduate year as research assistant. They are about to celebrate their thirtieth anniversary together. But it might never have happened. An accident over 20 years ago in which a Royal Navy landrover stuffed with explosives and with an inflatable dinghy on the roof was caught by the wind and crashed head-on into his vehicle, should have killed him. He was cut free and spent weeks in hospital recovering. Now, it is said, he continues to carry a snapshot of the crash as an antidote to any stirrings of self pity.
A strong family man, Lord Robertson has two sons in their mid twenties and a daughter aged 19 and studying politics at Edinburgh University. He regrets the amount of time he has to spend away but tries to balance his roles. "There are things I miss but you think you are doing a good job of being a father and a husband as well as everything else."
Relaxation is one of the things he misses. There's still the odd chance to listen to a bit of music but not much more than that. Since a journalist famously described him as a Dolly Parton fan the tag has stuck and even the UN ambassador was recently inclined to enquire whether he might be attending the latest Dolly Parton concert. He points out the Italians have just given him a set of Maria Callas operas on CD which he's looking forward to listening to and while he likes a bit of Country and Western he's also got in front of him a CD of the Glasgow Islay Gaelic Choir singing Runrig. So catholic tastes then. Or political.
He confesses that being made a Lord came as a "bit of a shock". But he says, "If the PM suggests that is what he wants or that is what would help… I suppose I am one of the three top representatives of the country."
Plans to take up a seat in the House of Lords will have to wait until his spell at Nato finishes. "I've only been in the job two months and it feels like two years. It's too early to say what next. I've not lost my thirst or inclination for politics but the future will take care of itself."