A Campus Christmas Carol

A Dickensian tale, set in today’s university

十二月 22, 2016
David Parkins Christmas illustration (22 December 2016)
Source: All illustrations by David Parkins

View and/or download this Christmas feature as a PDF e-book

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.

It was Bolognese. It never let you down, but it tasted oddly sharp tonight. He fiddled, clumsily (where had his dexterity gone?), with the television remote. The news was on. Once upon a time, current affairs had mattered so much to him. He had been a war child; he recalled his mother picking him up and waltzing round the room with him, when Alvar Lidell, the BBC newsreader, announced: “Hitler is dead.” He missed her.

But nowadays he didn’t care if the world boiled itself in its own suppurations. What was it Orwell said? “The most immoral thing a man can say is: ‘It will see out my time.’” Perhaps. But the university system would see out Ebenezer’s time and, after that, who cared whatever deluge and exterminations the cosmos came up with. His fourth sherry duly dealt with, Ebenezer nodded off into a deep sleep.

Some interminable time later, he half-woke on the sofa, which had suddenly got very lumpy. It was cold, and dark. A power cut? He remembered those, and the night terrors, from the war. Or had he died and in some Poevian nightmare woken in his coffin?

Then he detected a dim luminosity, and a kind of shuffling noise. He tried to move, but couldn’t. A figure appeared in the doorway, dragging behind him, by a long paper chain, a train of what Ebenezer recognised were learned journals. God, how much those things had once mattered to him.

David Parkins Christmas illustration (22 December 2016)

And that ghostly human figure. It was Max, by God! They had been bosom friends all those years ago. But then there had been that business with Marjorie, the graduate they had both loved, and Ebenezer had done for Max, too.

“You, Ebenezer Scroose, are what has gone wrong with what was once one of the finest things in Britain: its temple of mind,” Max intoned hollowly. “I died, an unloved, lonely sot, many years ago, and I have had a lot of time in the darkness to think about you, Scroose. I see you as a chancre. Do you know what that is? A small unwholesome thing symptomatic of a corporeal disease.”

“What disease, Max?” croaked Ebenezer. Disease was not a word he liked: there were a couple of things going wrong with him that he hadn’t even dared mention to his GP.

“You, along with myriads like you,” replied Max, “let power-brokers with no more interest in universities than in toilet-paper factories rationalise, globalise, marketise and trivialise that glorious discipline you and I once believed in. You came into a profession of gold, and let it turn to dross. You didn’t care.”

“I was just a child of the time,” whinnied Ebenezer. “So were you, Max.”

“My point exactly,” the wraith replied. “We could have done something, however small, to resist the dissolution. And we didn’t. Before you die, Ebenezer Scroose, I shall impose on you three visions: the university of our past, your present and our successors’ future. Remember, as you watch what I am about to show you, Nathan’s words to David: ‘Thou art the man!’”

There was a whoosh and a sense of dizzying reverse movement. And, wonder of wonders, Ebenezer found himself where he and Max had started out. It was the glorious, sunny Sixties. New maps of learning, new universities, new every-bloody-thing. The place hummed with ideas, like a beehive on purple hearts (lovely little things). All those students getting their cost-free higher education. Why not? They were the future: it was rational investment on the state’s part.

This was the era in which his subject mattered so much, too. “Humanities are the very heart of our institution,” the provost had said. He and Max were going to write a book together on late Trollope, or early James, or middle-aged George Eliot. Or something. Both planning to dedicate it to Marjorie.

How different Scroose’s life would have been, he reflected, if Max hadn’t gone on to spirit her away that night in 1969, trading on his better looks (frog, frog, frog), chat-up lines and seduction technique (he could unhook your bra with his lips, one of his other lovers had reported. You could say that kind of thing in the Sixties).

Ebenezer had eaten his revenge cold by manipulating a killer review in the very week that Max was up for the big job that would have opened doors for him. Ebenezer hadn’t written it himself, of course. But he’d arranged it through a cat’s-paw (whom he later likewise dished).

He and Max never spoke again. Max went off to Canada with Marjorie. Above the snow line, Ebenezer had been pleased to learn. University of Reindeer Jaw, was it? Marjorie only stayed one winter. But she never answered any of Scroose’s heartfelt subsequent invitations to the senior common room.

There she was now! Heading to the library with a volume of Dickinson under her arm. Pure Jules et Jim! Ah, it had been good to be alive in 1965.

David Parkins Christmas illustration (22 December 2016)

But it hadn’t only been his love life that was headed for the iceberg. The warning signs had been there too about the future of the academy. Those French “events” – and all the Americans who’d come over to dodge the draft, bringing with them frightening direct action. Look over there! There was a great gaggle of them, marching across the courtyard with Maoist placards, en route to “occupy” some dean’s office, or to interrupt some poor sod’s lectures. Or perhaps just to record them (were those microphones poking out of their bags?). Foucault, of all people, had started that nonsense by telling listeners to record him, and, like apostles, spread the tapes to all and sundry. Little had anyone realised that such technology was the very serpent in the cradle, soon to chill everyone with its dehumanising touch.

Yes, too much had been let loose even in 1965. Centres weren’t holding. But Ebenezer had just gone with the flow. It would see out his time. Wouldn’t it?

“No more, Max, I’ve seen enough,” Ebenezer whimpered. “We didn’t fight for what was best. I repent.”

“You may repent, Ebb,” Max replied. “But you have not fully understood.” He paused for a dry cough, accompanied by what Ebb recognized as the whiff of decomposition. “Now,” he instructed, “regard the present.”

In a twinkling, Ebenezer found himself in a crush in the precincts he knew so well. Students – dressed, many of them, in designer clothes, carrying Tumi and Hermès bags – barged him as if he weren’t there. Which, in a sense, he wasn’t.

He knew vaguely how they paid for their finery. With plastic, which they’d still be paying off at 50. While also still paying the interest on their £50,000 student loans. And for what? “Contact”, they called those nine hours a week, 28 weeks a year, sitting with 100 others in a lecture-room designed for 50. Essays marked by robotic teaching assistants, all programmed to grade-inflate lest the “customer” get litigious.

Ebenezer suddenly felt an urgent need and went to a large communal urinal. There was a man alongside him dressed so shabbily that Ebenezer thought he was one of the growing army of street people. But then he saw he was reading Gawain. “Are you in the English department?” Ebenezer asked, while fumbling (damned dexterity) with his flies.

David Parkins Christmas illustration (22 December 2016)

“No, on the edge of it,” the tramp responded. “I’m a teaching assistant. On a zero hours contract. ‘Freeway Flyers’, they call us in America, but I can’t afford a car. God, I can barely afford the bus. Excuse me, I have to run to one of my other jobs. You know, I was once going to write a book on late Trollope?”

“What’s your name?” asked Ebenezer, as he hurried to the door.

“Cratchit,” the other man replied. “But don’t bother remembering it. You’ll never see it in print.”

How had we got here? Ebenezer wondered. Governments – both parties – had come to the view that universities were dangerous (all those ideas). Purse strings had been pulled. Throttlingly. And then had come differential funding, based on external inspection. In just a couple of decades, universities had been brought to heel.

They had also discovered that science and technology was where the real money was. Solve the viscosity problems of tomato ketchup or find a cure for male pattern baldness and it’s El Dorado. Humanities? Going the way of divinity and theology. They gave a little enrichment to students, but were no more than cream on the cake. And so unprofitable.

Factories of the mind. There was a certain hard grandeur in the concept. But what did factories always want? Low-paid workers, overpaid managers and profit. These were things Ebenezer would rather not know.

Another whoosh – this time forwards. “You are now”, announced Max, “in the world created by the doctrine of STEM. Humanities have been left to Moocs, YouTube and self-help reading groups. Every top UK university is a wannabe Caltech or MIT. But they don’t have the money. Brexit – which you and your generation voted for – has shrivelled them. There are no EU funds, no cross-border collaborations, so all the cleverest scientists and techies have gone west, to the US, where the Ivory Tower has become Trump Tower in a mortar board, in hock to big business.”

Ebenezer wandered to where “his” university had been. But there was now a shopping mall there instead. Called Varsity Place. He turned to Max, who had been following him like a grey Virgil tracking Dante through the infernal regions.

“Marjorie?” groaned Ebenezer.

“She’s in another place,” answered Max. “Where we, the damned, can’t go. Nor you, Ebenezer, when you join us.”

“Is there no hope, then?”

“The same hope there’s always been: those young people who still come, despite everything. Sooner or later they’re going to build something on the ruins of what we have left them. Rubble has its uses. What was it Brecht said? Revolution requires demolition? Christ, what a bore that Kraut is down here, always claiming it was he who pulled down that damn wall. But enough of this. You are a bore too, Frogface. I’ll see you soon. I could tell you precisely when – but I won’t.”

Morning light. Ebenezer woke and turned on his radio. Thought for the Day was on. Ebenezer had a thought or two of his own on this second day of Christmas.

Of course, Max had put the darkest construction on things. It was all spin and payback. But the one thing he’d said that rung true was that as long as the young people kept coming, there was hope. So Ebenezer made a Christmas vow. He would leave his worldly wealth to endow a postdoctoral fellowship. He could never atone for what he’d done (or failed to do) but, in the little time left to him, he would be a better man.

And an alternative vision for the University of the Future – he’d think it through and write it up now. Who was that contact he had at Oxford University Press? Bright young chap.

John Sutherland is emeritus Lord Northcliffe professor of modern English literature at University College London.


Print headline: A Campus Christmas Carol, AD 2016



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Reader's comments (6)

Quite funny and thoughtful (and thought provoking) but marred by the snobbery about science. Science should get back below stairs where it belongs; the good old days when humanities were at the centre. In my University they remain the absolute centre, the surplus they generate on the £9K fees mean they, not the sciences are the earners. With the anniversary of the two cultures, one might have hoped we had moved beyond such point scoring.
I believe it would have been better if Ebenezer had reconnected with Cratchit at the end, or some other person he knew, although there was a hint of that in the mention of his OUP contact, who may well in the future have returned to university and been the recipient of his postdoc fellowship. Nevertheless, this is assuredly an imaginatively interwoven story of love and sex, and of health, aging, work, money, and hope, with a bit of politics thrown in, would surely . But what of the comment, "as long as the young people kept coming, there was hope." Did Max mean hope for universities, for without young people there wouldn't be any and lecturers would be redundant, or hope for our world - our different societies and ways of life, and our technologies and sense of humanity? Away from the campus, I have concocted another interpretation of the life of Ebenezer Scrooge, actually a response to Professor Levin's own 'In Defense of Scrooge.' But aren't most of these about aging in general, retirement, and the meaning of life, in some form or another? See 'Life story of Ebenezer Scrooge' http://www.diversityinretirement.net/BeingSingle/EScrooge.html
I really enjoyed this. Very astute. The pity is everyone knows it's true. But like a Tom Sharpe farce it will play out to end. "Going forward" - >the Ghost of Universities to come is indeed the end of the (let's use corporate claptrap accordingly) "estate". The online university that sells online degrees for $200 a year from a top university brand to millions of punters world-wide will mark the end of those institutions that are £$millions in red after expanding their debt-fuelled"estate".
The Research Excellence Framework (REF) imposed by the government in cahoots with bean counting metric obsessed academics now determines what academics are allowed to do in "university time" by their "line-managers' . As Kuhn explained, there is often fierce pseudo-scholarly resistance to paradigm changing discoveries - leading to initial platform and publication blocking by the academic "establishment" . In the past, brave and brilliant scholars would press-on regardless - with years on no establishment reward and even on the receiving end of being "crankified" and mocked by their peers and press. But such scholarly bravery is now discouraged because Ulrich Beck's risk-averse society prevails in the new "corporate university". As said, it's a farce that will play out. As you imply, Government and unimaginative scholars have acted in dumb cahoots to create a spiraling circle of academic decline and uncounted - many unknowable - thwarted knowledge breakthroughs. Incidentally, I am currently reading Bradbury's "The History Man" - I find it rather insightful.
John Sutherland's Ebenezer writes here that the problems originated from outside the universities, that the government was at fault. But in the story Ebenezer does acknowledge, too, that he did nothing throughout his career to stop these kinds of changes. How close to reality is this? Did the government start it, and did academics and the powers that be simply fall in line? How much of the problem is actually to do with the academics themselves, unwilling to take a chance on new research, to do anything that would threaten their own continuing career moving upwards and onwards? When the main aim of universities is self-preservation (both at the individual level, and the socioeconomic), to maintain class distinctions - the elitism of the ivory tower, with the occasional addition of 'fresh blood' to enhance their reputation as fair and open to all, how can this system possibly expect to continue? The world is changing - society is changing, and universities must change also.
This is the quote I was referring to in the comment I made above, beginning "John Sutherland's Ebenezer": "How had we got here? Ebenezer wondered. Governments – both parties – had come to the view that universities were dangerous (all those ideas). Purse strings had been pulled. Throttlingly. And then had come differential funding, based on external inspection. In just a couple of decades, universities had been brought to heel. They had also discovered that science and technology was where the real money was." Merry Christmas. And Happy Holidays!