Finem respice! Poppleton’s undying spirit

Laurie Taylor’s campus creation was loved because it mirrored academics’ own experiences. Although it’s closed, it will live on

August 23, 2018
Source: David Parkins

It had to happen on someone’s watch. This week, it happens on mine – and that of the portly vice-chancellor, who has grown fat on Poppleton Pork Products, his inflated salary and the labours of Mrs Dilworth.

This week you will find the most shocking news to have been reported in my decade with Times Higher Education: Laurie Taylor’s cast of characters are sailing into the sunset.

In other circumstances, there might be rejoicing that marketisation has claimed the most marketised university in the land – that the talked-up threat of market failure has come for the very embodiment of the thrusting, industry-partnering, jargon-spouting university that the market itself promotes.

But whatever the emotions, the demise of Poppleton University is a watershed moment.

Poppleton is, of course, much more than the subject of a much-loved magazine column, although it is certainly that (surely among the longest-running ever to have appeared continuously in one publication).

It is also an undeniable icon of British higher education, used widely as shorthand for a certain approach to academia, including by the ministers, managers and quango-dwellers it lampooned.

What else? It is half a lifetime’s work for Laurie (aged 82 and a half – I always wondered if that age-check given to The Poppletonian’s intrepid reporter Keith Ponting (30) was a reference to me, but I expect I flatter myself). Laurie has over four decades been the great chronicler of UK higher education’s constant revolution.

Poppleton, it’s worth remembering, is also a real place. I didn’t realise this until, a few months into the job as an intrepid reporter for THE 10 years or so ago, I was sent to York to write a story on the university where Laurie worked for many years.

As the train trundled along, I looked out the window and found myself rolling through a deserted Poppleton station. It gave me quite a shock, and I scanned the surrounding countryside for the pork factory that I felt must be lurking somewhere.

Most importantly of all, The Poppletonian is a satirical opus, with a longer Wikipedia entry than the magazine in which it has appeared (600 words versus 463 – I counted myself).

To readers who have followed its fortunes, and those of its cast of characters – Professor Lapping, Jamie Targett, Dr Piercemüller and the rest – it has no doubt been a source both of humour and succour, over the years, to see pomposities pricked and policies picked apart.

Laurie tells a story that illustrates how real his university has become for its followers: a particular contact who regularly phones to pass on titbits from the front line always addresses Laurie not by his first name, or even as Mr Taylor.

“Vice-chancellor,” the caller always begins, “I have something to tell you…” If Laurie’s partner answers the phone, this mole asks with all sincerity: “Is the vice-chancellor at home?”

The good news is that although Poppleton University has gone bust, after a summer break Laurie will return with a new monthly column, debuting in our opinion pages in September.

As for the cast of characters who have graced the pages of this publication week in, week out for the past four and a bit decades, the closure of Poppleton may disperse a few to the wind – I fear the vice-chancellor will struggle to find a sufficiently gilded perch – but others will no doubt find it easy enough to be assimilated into universities elsewhere. That, after all, was what has made The Poppletonian such a highlight of our readers’ week: the trials, tribulations, foibles and fiascos weren’t so very far removed from the truth. That’s satire, and Laurie’s brilliance.

Poppleton University is dead – long live all the other Poppletons.

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