When confronted at 9 o’clock on a Friday morning with a seminar of bright-faced students, happy, full of life, I tell them a story. A man is falling from the top of the Empire State Building. As he passes an open window, someone shouts: “How is it going?”
“All right so far!” he replies.
I feel much the same, I explain, and indeed, that is the answer I give when people, unaccountably, ask me that question, no more wanting an answer than Americans really want you to have a nice day.
As for the students, I point out to them that if the building had been much higher, stretching up towards space, the falling person would have had time, perhaps, to read some books, attend a seminar, get a degree, meet someone and, if by chance a minister was falling at the same rate, get married. Then, as the ground approaches, the minister would say: “Don’t worry. The ground is not solid. You will come out on the other side, in paradise.” Then, splat!
You imagine, I say to the students, that I will go splat before you, but can you be sure? Then I quote from Hemingway who, in Death in the Afternoon, has a character say: “If two people love one another, there can be no happy end to it.”
I thus feel that I have done my duty. If I feel depressed, there is no good reason why other people shouldn’t, too, especially those who have several decades on me and therefore a chance of being cured of the many illnesses and diseases to which I will surely succumb.
Academics live in an alternative universe. Their year does not begin in January and end in December. Their Christmas and Easter breaks last several weeks rather than several days. Theoretically, they can be dismissed only for gross moral turpitude (though how gross is gross, you ask, and is not our idea of turpitude relative? they ask in philosophy seminars designed to ask questions to which there are no answers). But in truth no one is safe. We all edge out on the thin ice of life, as they would say on Thought for the Day, a programme that shares my own interest in implausible analogies.
When I was a child, my mother would take me into a shoe shop and while she talked endlessly to the assistant about size and width and arches, I would climb on to a machine that X-rayed feet. You could see all the bones in a green glow. I would stay on it for 10 minutes. Fifteen. Today, you are allowed a fraction of a second of exposure to such X-rays. As a result I await the moment when my feet will drop off.
Dentists, meanwhile, are ever eager to submit you to X-rays. They make you hold the film on with your finger and then they are off, running down the corridor with their assistants to distance themselves from danger. It is only a matter of time before I lose my fingers, let alone my teeth.
Then there are the luminous watches. I wear mine on the inside of my wrist. Their glow is a result of radiation. So there goes my hand. When my wife read of the dangers of luminous clocks, she moved our alarm clock from her side of the bed to mine. We all live on borrowed time. I don’t so much have a life as a half-life.
And as I grow older, so I am mocked by technology. Today, every device insists on telling me the time. I watch the red figures on a microwave count down the remaining seconds of my life. “Cook for three minutes,” it says. So I cook it for two and save a minute of my life. I take a similar approach to the National Lottery. I don’t play. That saves me £50 a year. This year, what with the recession, I decided not to buy two tickets, so I am saving £100. If they continue to freeze salaries, I may not buy three.
What does this have to do with universities? They exist to ask where we have come from, where we are going, why we are doing what we are doing and how we are doing it. And all this for a mere £9,000 a year. There are people in universities who contemplate a Universe in which our galaxy has a hundred billion stars, in a Universe of a hundred billion such, even as there are others who contemplate the sex life of bacteria. The government, meanwhile, insists that we should educate students for the marketplace, not, presumably, that on Alpha Centauri or that prevailing among micro-organisms, but a world consisting of investment bankers, public relations experts, lobbyists - people who really contribute to the common good. That same government, meanwhile, removes 100 per cent of the funding for the teaching of the arts and humanities, despite the fact that our artists, actors, directors, writers and historians are better known and respected around the globe than a minister of higher education with an aberrant number of brains.
So what used to be a secure life is so no longer. Our teaching is inspected for its effectiveness, our research explored for its “quality”, awarded stars like children in primary schools rewarded for not wetting themselves. Our students are asked if they love us. We are required to explain our relevance, recruit students with higher qualifications, students with lower qualifications, produce more first-class degrees, explain why we give so many first-class degrees, recruit overseas students while the government turns them away at immigration.
You ask me how it is going? The answer is simple. All right so far. Splat.