Guest leader: Very silly and deeply serious

For three decades, Laurie Taylor has constantly reminded us of our better and freer intellectual selves, says Peter Scott

November 13, 2008

What finally persuaded Laurie Taylor to accept the invitation to write a weekly column for what was The Times Higher Education Supplement (30 years or approximately 1,400 columns ago), I still believe, was the prospect of having his own Ralph Steadman cartoon - of himself, of course.

Laurie didn't like the first version and he told Ralph so, a risky strategy because Ralph was one of Britain's most famous (and fiercest) cartoonists. Ralph seized his cartoon back, sketched in some bats and put a bolt through Laurie's neck and thrust it back. I thought the cartoon was wonderful before and even more after. I've always been sorry that readers have only ever seen a pocket-sized version of it: the original is enormous.

The bats and the bolt through the neck were just right because they caught the essence of Laurie's columns; surreal, zany, funny but also uncomfortably close to the truth. No one has written a proper history of British higher education but Laurie has provided the next-best thing. Anyone who wants to know what has been happening to universities and colleges over the past 30 years could do a lot worse than start with Laurie Taylor. His weekly columns have illuminated things that would never have occurred to the likes of policy wonks, quangocrats and (yes) vice-chancellors - or that they would have preferred to have kept hidden.

Laurie's 30 years have been momentous ones for higher education. Back in the late 1970s, the tiles still gleamed on the walls at Warwick, the concrete at Sussex still shone, the polytechnics were just getting off the ground, and politicians were treated with donnish condescension by the UGC and the CVCP alike (remember them? Hefce and UUK in today-speak), for which we were all to pay a high price. Today, even the most reluctant and reactionary among us has to accept that we have a mass system, with all its perils and even greater opportunities.

Laurie has been a constant, not just in the sense that, through his wonderful creations (Lapping, Piercemuller, Maureen and the rest), he has dissected our gentle vanities (and paid particular attention to the less-gentle arrogance of the "boss class", which barely existed in the 1970s), but also in that he breathes a freer intellectual air of ideas, silly and deeply serious; of the radical potential of the social sciences; and of life before the research assessment exercise.

He often tells the story of how he moved from being an actor to become a sociology professor, a transit barely imaginable today. But things were different then, and will be again.

Not long after Laurie began his column, Times Newspapers, which owned The THES, was put up for sale after a disastrous clash with the print trade unions. One Monday, as usual, Laurie sent in his column, written in the "Gotcha" style of The Sun - fantasising about the fate of The THES if Rupert Murdoch bought The Times. By Tuesday morning I knew his fantasy was fact; Murdoch was to be the new owner. I still had time to exercise discretion-as-the-better-part-of-valour and ask for a substitute. But then I thought this would not only be an act of cowardice but a betrayal of Laurie. Week in, week out, he entertained us mockingly but also told us important truths; he breathed (and still breathes) that freer intellectual air. I sent Laurie's column to the printers - and I never heard from Murdoch.

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