Life in the City of High Intent

March 30, 2007

Best-selling novelist Fay Weldon talks to a sceptical friend about why her post at Brunel University has turned her into Pollyanna.

" Oh, fancy, you a professor! What of? " "Creative writing."

" Where? " "Brunel University." A pause. " Oh. Where's that? " "Uxbridge." A pause. " Oh. Where's that? "

"Where" is the periphery. The periphery, according to novelist J. G.

Ballard, is a noble place to be: it is where the future forms. That most peripheral of roads, the M25, all but cuts through the campus. Every 30 seconds a flight takes off from Heathrow down the road; every 30 seconds another lands. Knowledge in, knowledge out.

" The M25! But that's the end of the Earth, even worse than north of Watford ."

"Depends where you believe the centre to be. Personally, I am persuaded by Ballard. The peripheral closes in and, lo, the future is formed."

" That's just because you work there ."

"Yes, probably, but you kind of feel it. It has an energy. The Queen came lately. Tony Blair too. They know where it is. Or, at any rate, they looked eventually out of darkened windows and, lo, there it was. A research university. Small but perfectly formed."

Students from overseas who enrol here - and they come from 120 different nations, this being the most international of universities - sight unseen, are in for a shock. If this is London, as claimed, where is the London Eye, where is Buckingham Palace? But soon enough its peripheral merits appear.

It is a small city in itself. "I like this landscape of the M25 and Heathrow," as Ballard claims. "I like airfreight offices and rent-a-car bureaus. I like dual carriageways. When I see a CCTV camera, I know I'm safe. What I hate is what I call heritage London. This is a new hate of mine. Heritage London is not just Bloomsbury, Whitehall, the Tower of London. It's really middle-class London - Hampstead, Notting Hill, wherever you find these areas held together by a dinner-party culture." What's more, as the students soon discover, as well as nothing poncy the periphery is cheaper than the centre.

" Cheap! You poor thing! Stuck away in the sticks. No more dinner parties for you ."

"Not at all. The vice-chancellor gives excellent dinner parties, in situ . The food's fine, so's the wine: conversation runs wild and free. The accidie normal in older academic venues has not had time to develop. Perhaps it never will."

" God, you're cheerful. What has this place done to you? "

"Turned me into Pollyanna. Dystopia is reborn as Utopia, to quote Ballard again, mixed with The Pilgrim's Progress . This is the City of High Intent."

Bad news, for some reason, is required by the media when it comes to our universities. Sure, they are bowed down by bureaucracy. Sure, student loans are a monstrosity, undermining the relationship between the teacher and the taught: class mobility is suffering: the dead hand of political correctness creeps down the corridors like the disembodied hand in The Mummy . Sure, the e-mail clogs up with lectures on diversity training, equal opportunities, how to write recruitment ads when age is an issue. (No more "mature" students allowed, but how else to describe them? We scratch our heads.) Sure, it seems to need an unnaturally large infrastructure just to keep 14,000 students and 2,000 staff in business - but in business they are. And, by and large, the right people are in the right place at the right time, research papers pour rather than trickle out, and students progress and three years into their courses show themselves far, far more competent than they were when they arrived.

" You mean they can spell? "

"That is unfair. Over in mathematical physics they can spell orthogonal polynomial pretty well."

" Yes, but that's serious. That's science. But creative writing! What sort of subject is that? Tolstoy never went to classes, nor did Evelyn Waugh ."

"True. But an awful lot of books get published that are not 'great'. One would like a higher proportion of them just to be 'good'." That said, such of my students who are truly hot on the Eng. Lit. Canon and have survived Derrida will keep trying to write great novels. I tell them not to try so hard, just to get to write "the end". This is achievement enough. Just get it done, then worry about "good". They won't get it done unless it is good, or approximately good, nothing will tie up. I try to stop them taking notes, and listen. Notes are about analysis: we are talking synthesis. They can deal with unreliable narrators, now they must deal with an unreliable tutor. I offer them no rules, other than if you can get away with it, do it. They have to come to their own decisions. A single paragraph of fiction is the accumulation of a thousand, thousand minor decisions: writing is very good for the character, a crash course in making up your mind.

" Yes, but they're not going to get anything published, are they? "

"They might."

And forget actual novels, the writing of which is clearly a high-risk occupation - battalions of Brunel students leave the School of Arts and go into the workplace able to handle language, to write more lucid and persuasive company reports, government leaflets and political speeches than they otherwise would; should they end up in radio, think up alternatives to enthusiastic adjectives other than gobsmacked, fantastic, magical; in publishing, understand the torments of the novelist as they try to reconcile art with commerce; in arts administration, to send funding off in the right direction. They get taught how to compose and order their thoughts, to contain complex ideas in simple prose, and how not to burden others with self-expression. Creative writing is not a soft option: we can be very cruel to them, but they learn.

" Yes, but it's a science university, right? I don't suppose you arts people mix much. Don't they despise you? "

Yes. And we pity them. But there is a move afoot to end the old science-arts divide, the C. P. Snow two-culture tradition. The emergence of quantum physics is a help: cosmologists are all poetry. And they need a race of truly persuasive science writers to explain the obscure to the unwilling, or they'll never get the funding. Chris Jenks is a whirling dervish of a new vice-chancellor, out of sociology into management: old habits and antagonisms won't stand a chance. We'll mix. We can write science fiction: they can construct cyborgs, creatures of the post-gender world, with ersatz passions. We'll create the new world.

" All these writers being taken on board: now it's Martin Amis gone to Manchester. Is he actually going to go? Teach? Won't he make them cry? "

Probably, and very good for them too. Smarten them up no end. I'm much too nice. Brunel, like Manchester, is a special breed, a research university, its function not just to teach, but to learn. At the moment all universities are obsessed by their RAEs - the once-every-five years research assessment exercise. All forms in by the end of this month, please. The higher your RAE score the higher your funding: the money goes directly to the department involved. RAEs have been extended to include the humanities departments. A novel becomes a research product if it can be seen to be "research-active".

That is, spark literary interest, create debate, move the field along. Thus practising writers can become assets to the research universities: and indeed their students, as creative writing departments deal more with the realities of the world outside academia, not lands of wishful thinking as in the past.

" Yes, but what makes you think the students' progress is anything to do with you? Isn't it just the passage of time? They grow up ."

I asked a group of students the other day if they knew more at the end of a three-hour session than they did at the beginning, and they were kind enough to say yes. But I suppose they had to, really. One of them did give me a bar of chocolate.

" I thought they spent their time drinking, taking drugs and going to parties ."

Mine don't seem to. True, you see more of them at the end of term than you do at the beginning. They tend to put things off until the last minute and then panic, but who doesn't? True, some of them stare out of the window when you wish they would pay attention, but you can always require them to turn their fantasies into written fictions, if printable, a ruse available only to teachers of creative writing. And true, a scatter of bare-midriffed, bare-shouldered long-legged girls can be seen lurching round campus in the biting wind after nightfall, as in any other city. But perhaps they're doing it in an ironic postmodern sort of way? Perhaps they come from the psychology department and are doing on-the-ground research into the manners and habits of the young? I like to think so. The modest headscarved girls from 110 different countries were safely in their rooms and among friends hours ago. For the most part, my students - many of them postgraduates - are juggling jobs and babies, and the needs of partners and elderly parents, to get their studies done. Their capacity for work is phenomenal, and the sacrifices they make to come on the course extreme. Few of them are frivolous. I went to St Andrews decades back and I assure you we were all frivolous.

" That campus: it's not exactly an aesthetic-looking place, is it? Not like Oxford or Cambridge. An M25 sort of landscape ."

Back where we began. True. But they're working on it. Architects have been summonsed. And true, the background landscape Brunel offers is rather like the one in computer games: neutral but serviceable - but at least the student body will feel "at last I've come home".

" Can I join your class? "

Probably better not. Your comments are reasonable but faith is required.

You might depress us all.

How about this? If a free wind-up radio were to be given to every new student on campus, and a campus radio station set up, daily events could be broadcast, my students could learn radio journalism, the drama departments write and perform radio plays - and all learn how to command an audience.

They say there's a problem of scale in setting such a project up. We have only 14,000 students. Manchester has 40,000.

Over now to Martin in Manchester...

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