The birds outside my house are incredibly noisy at this time of year. There are feathers along the path and pigeon dung down the windows and all over my car. But it’s not only birds that are obsessed with feathering their nests and throwing guano around: this is the time when we are exhorted to let the university know what our accommodation needs are going to be for next autumn, and few things enrage academics more than discussions about space management.
Every year we are spied on by “accommodation-needs observers”, whose techniques would have put the Stasi to shame. They come bursting in to your seminars with a lame excuse, scanning the room to check the number of bums on seats. One weaselly individual interrupted one of my sessions the other day, so I shot out after him and gave him an earful. Just doing my job, he muttered, as I tried to wrestle the ring binder out of his hand to see what he had put down about me. Half my class were absent on that afternoon and we were taking a short sandwich break, so it won’t look good.
Wee Tommie, the wild-haired, wall-eyed registrar, is masterminding this latest campaign. It’s part of his cost-saving exercise; he won’t come out and say so publicly, but what he keeps hinting at is a restructuring of office needs, which means that he’s trying to get us out of our individual offices and stick us into some open-plan scheme. I know this is his game, because I keep hearing rumours, and since I stepped up into the corridors of power, I hear all kinds of things that never came my way before.
I decided to have a word with my boss, Brian the Eternally Anxious. You can barely get a sensible sentence out of him these days – his anxiety is making him twitch and stammer and dribble coffee into his increasingly sparse beard, but I pinned him to the wall by the cafeteria with my handbag and got him to open up a little.
Well, yes, he muttered, he had heard something about the open-plan idea, but then maybe it wasn’t such a bad idea, was it, since we would all be guaranteed a hot desk and an up-to-the-minute computer.
Right, I said, and what if ten of us want to use the state-of-the-art computer and the hot desk at the same time? Brian hadn’t thought about that. Surprising he hadn’t actually, since at least half our department only ever show up two days a week. They turn up at lunchtime on Tuesdays and are off by lunchtime on Thursdays. The excuse, as ever, is “research time”. Which is why we had such an abysmal performance in the research assessment exercise, obviously. I bet most of that research time is spent in Tesco (researching contemporary consumerism) or watching The Jeremy Kyle Show (researching the interface between popular cultural forms and the realities of post-modern society) or simply having a lie-in (researching the cognitive processes of penumbral thought patterns).
Since Brian was a waste of space, I decided to raise the hot-desk matter at the staff meeting. I am now deputy head, so I put this on the agenda. The result was fascinating. Some of the more torpid of our colleagues actually became animated. One trotted out anecdotes about the diversity of entitlements that had, to his regret, been overridden by a managerialist culture. When he had been appointed, presumably in the early 19th century, professors were entitled to carpets, hatstands and curtains, while more lowly readers were entitled only to venetian blinds. Everyone else had had to withstand the ghastly glare of the northern sunlight. There was universal abhorrence of the idea of hot-desking as an infringement of academic freedom, confidentiality and, that old chestnut, collegiality, a word only ever trotted out by the bolshiest, most uncooperative and unpleasant people around as some sort of justification for their nastiness.
But, I asked, how could this possibly happen anyway? How could our ancient building be reconfigured to do away with individual offices, since we were always told by the estates office that nothing could ever be done to change the features of the building because of the supporting walls? Well, this is what I have always heard every time I’ve tried to ask for even the slightest alteration, such as knocking two small rooms together to make a sensible seminar space, for instance.
I knew I was on to a winner here. And then one of our hoary oldies, Aussie Rik, spoke up. He joined us centuries ago from some godforsaken college in the Outback, and has never lost his accent, his dress sense, his fondness for beer or his inbuilt misogyny. Aussie Rik told us about the case of the disappearing window. Apparently, when he was young (he must have been once, although it’s hard to believe) he had been in an office in a breeze-block building with two little windows. Came the vacation, he went away, and when he returned one of the windows had gone. Turns out the prof had noticed that a junior had two windows, while he had only one, so he had instructed the builders to do a bit of reconstruction to put the lad in his proper place. Aussie (One-Window) Rik was still bitter about it 40 years later.
I decided to use Aussie Rik as my secret weapon. He was only too willing to write a detailed and passionate statement about building regulations, wall removals, planning permissions and the detrimental effects of adulterated space usage. He had been waiting for this revenge opportunity for half a lifetime. His hour had come.
I went home secure in the knowledge that with Aussie Rik on our side, our offices are safe for the moment. Must ask him tomorrow about how they deal with pigeon shit in the Outback. Bet he has some interesting, creative solutions.