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Saturday, December 24, 2016

A Campus Christmas Carol | Times Higher Education (THE)

John Sutherland, emeritus Lord Northcliffe professor of modern English literature at University College London summarizes "A Dickensian tale, set in today’s university"

Photo: All illustrations by David Parkins

Ebenezer Scroose walked the street home in a state of low-energised rage: his usual feeling tone nowadays. It was the first day of Christmas. The senior common room would be closed until New Year.

He was not merry. No, Ebenezer Scroose most certainly was not merry.

Where, for 10 dreary days, would he “hang out” (wasn’t that how those students put it, when they were speaking English rather than Klingon)? He’d have to buy his own papers and magazines, pay for his electricity, cook his own lunch. Bah!

And he would not have the sustaining feeling, when eavesdropping on their inane chatter, that he was so much cleverer than his “peers” (why hadn’t they given him a knighthood for services to literary criticism? Whose nose had he put out of joint? Bastards).

Ebenezer Scroose was, in career terms, well beyond senior: 15 years retired. Emeritus. He knew the weary jokes: references to the living dead; claims that emeritus was Latin for without merit. Enough. He really must stop reading Schopenhauer – put someone cheerful, like Alain de Whatever His Name Was, alongside the toilet paper. Where it belonged, really.

Grumbling, ill-ordered, misanthropic thoughts of this kind brought him to his block of flats. “Luxury apartments” they laughably called these pits nowadays. He’d got his when the asking price was only twice a starting lecturer’s salary. God, he’d thought it a millstone when that man from the bank told him he’d be paying £23 a month for 25 years.

Straight to the bathroom. Damned prostate. Back to the sherry bottle. He liked the speed with which the fortified wine worked. And, unlike beer, it didn’t overburden his bladder. Nocturesis: a word you didn’t learn until you also learned the distinction between final salary pensions and the median income kind. He had been one of the last to clamber into the golden pension lifeboat. God bless the Universities Superannuation Scheme.

But there was no one to share his dividend with. Ebenezer was alone in the world. Utterly. Yes, there had been women – in his heavy drinking years, even a guy or two. But somehow, when they’d hung around with him a bit, they realised there was something about him they really didn’t like. To be honest, Ebenezer didn’t like it himself. How did Grahame Greene put it? An ice splinter in the heart?

And what did it all add up to? Those 40 years that brought him to his full pension and pre-2011 mandatory retirement? Achievement of a very low kind. A master of the sharp elbow school of academic life, Ebenezer had realised, early on, that collegiality was a Newmanesque fallacy. The idea of the modern university – for those clear-headed enough to see through the sales-pitch – was Hobbesian. Malcolm Bradbury had put it best in The History Man – Ebenezer’s manual.

His own mind, Ebenezer knew, was a couple of stars short of brilliant. But it was like a nothing-special hand in poker: it was all about how you played it. How you fixed the reviews, got the right people in your corner, flattered, sabotaged. You had to play selfish, play nasty and play long.

He recalled sitting in the dons’ toilets (before they were “democratised” and opened up to the students) and overhearing a couple of smart young colleagues talking about him. “You know that story about the frog that gives the scorpion a lift across the river?” one of them asked.

“Yes,” the other one replied. “The scorpion stings the frog midstream and explains that it’s because—”

“‘It’s my nature,’” they said together.

“But you know what?” resumed the first, “Scroose is the frog that stings.” They chortled, zipped up and left.

It was true, if he was honest, that his face was a trifle on the flabby side. Worse now that he had jowls like a basset hound. The frog that stings. Well, they found out what his sting was.
He did for both of them. Doomed them to lecturerhood (“career grade”) for their entire 40 years with a couple of apparently well-meaning sentences in his letters of reference. For example: “It could be argued that his mind is a notch lower than a starred first, but he makes up for it by diligent service in the department’s posts of responsibility, most recently as assistant admissions tutor.” Tie that can to the dog’s tail and hear it clang, via common room gossip, for life.

Ebenezer enjoyed the recollection of that cold, efficient revenge so much that he poured himself another sherry. His fourth, he realised with a jolt. But, what the hell, it was Christmas. Bah!
The doorbell rang. Supper. The delivery guy stood for a moment waiting for a tip. Sod that.

Source:Times Higher Education (THE)