Revenge and Odium: university novels as protest
Through farce, or through thinly disguised critique, the university novel genre has been a way for staff, and other social commentators, to highlight the problems of university life. The changing themes, locations, and types of characters in university novels reflect the development of the university sector since the nineteenth century. They offer a window, written through the distance of satire or the passions of protest, on the changing nature of universities. What stands out is how evergreen these stories are. In this Brief, I map out (in an entirely unscientific way and with the occasional personal reflection) how the plots of university novels have developed over time and link them back to key themes in the changing landscape of life in the sector. I conclude that whilst the genre is ever changing, university novels will continue to be an important means through which social meanings are created around university life and staff protest against the excesses of university management.
Prior to the Second World War, Oxbridge naturally dominated the university novel genre as a location, and students tended to be the focus of the plot.
Evelyn Waugh’s Decline and Fall (1928) opens in the fictional Oxford College of Scone, which is about to be ravaged by its students who are holding the annual dinner of the Bollinger Club [Bullingdon Club, surely? Ed.]. The Junior Dean and the Bursar wait in the dark shadows of the hall, showing an eagerness that at first seems strange, ready to observe the carnival that will take place when the undergraduates arrive to the dinner. They recall past events. One year, a fox had been brought into the quad and stoned to death with champagne bottles. Anticipation of what might occur at this year’s Bollinger dinner leads to speculation as to how much money in fines will be accrued.
Rather than the college authorities being concerned at the damage and mayhem, we discover that when the fine fund reaches £50 the founder’s port is brought from the college wine cellar to the Senior Common Room. This year’s dinner is no disappointment. It was, ‘a lovely evening. They broke up Mr. Austen’s grand piano, and stamped Lord Rending’s cigars into his carpet…and threw the Matisse into his lavatory’. The morning after the dinner, the Domestic Bursar reports to the College Council that the amount raised from the previous evening’s rampage was £230 (‘not’, exclaims the Bursar in delight, ‘including the damage!’).
The only person to really lose out in the incident is the hapless Paul Pennyfeather, an undergraduate of, in the Dean’s words, ‘no importance’. Stripped naked by the mob, Pennyfeather is expelled from the College for indecency. With this token, and victim-blaming, gesture to good order made, the college is satisfied, the port is served. We leave Pennyfeather, and Waugh, as they embark on a journey that will ultimately get worse for the hapless former member of Scone. Of some small compensation is the knowledge we have that he arrives back there at the end of the novel.
That Waugh and Pennyfeather’s day has passed might be a shame for the port-loving Dean. But my late friend Steve Dempster, himself a college dean at the University of Lancaster, was researching similar cultures of behaviour in universities ninety years after Decline and Fall. In particular, his work examined the ‘laddish’ cultures surrounding university societies such as football and rugby teams and found that such cultures disrupt not only other learners but also harm the protagonists themselves. Yet ending such cultures remains difficult; Steve’s own college’s football team could have filled an SCR’s wine cellar twice over on some of their Friday night bar crawls.
The fine still exists as the centrepiece of university punishments. But punishments such as expulsion have become extremely rare, even in bona fide cases. Universities now tend to actively collude in not issuing such punishments in order to avoid bad publicity. In one case, Warwick University placed its director of press in charge of a serious disciplinary case, leading to strong speculation by the victims that the institution was more concerned with its reputation than their welfare.
A Changing Sector
Waugh’s description of destructive ‘high-jinks’ seems tame by later standards. And they no doubt ignored or skirted over serious issues at the time. But after the Second World War, alongside the expansion of the university sector, it was not just the undergraduates who were behaving badly. Since the 1950s the red bricks, plate glass, and post-92 institutions have all received fictional treatments. With the expansion of the universities from the 1950s onward, characters have largely been staff. Over time, the donnish characters of Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim (1954), itself set in a new provincial university (most likely a fictionalised Leicester), gave way to Malcolm Bradbury’s Howard Kirk in The History Man.
The protagonists of the post-Second World War era were palpably ‘edgy’, reflecting the new spirit of democracy of the era of university expansion. Another feature was that places and events tended to be thinly disguised comment on real universities and people. There has been considerable speculation as to in which university The History Man is set. For my money, it is the University of Lancaster. Bradbury’s description of the university adds weight to this. Opened in 1964, Lancaster was building new colleges onto its campus into the 1990s. Bradbury describes a permanent building site ‘where buildings were constructed of ‘shuttered concrete [The County College, surely? Ed.], steel frame, glass wall’ and where one walked through ‘underpasses, down random slopes, along walkways, beneath roofed arcades’. Anyone familiar with Lancaster’s weather, and in particular the rain on the Bailrigg site, will know the relief the roof over the ‘spine’ offers from the rain.
Bradbury describes halls of residence named after philosophers such as Marx, Hobbes, and Kant, which, in real life, upon its founding in 1970, students at Lancaster’s Fylde College had proposed for their blocks but were prevented from doing so by the college’s SCR. It is also worth noting that the TV series was filmed at Lancaster, largely in Furness College where, outside, we find a quad with a ‘tinkling fountain’ as described in the book. But beyond the resemblance of the physical campus, two events at Lancaster, called the Craig affairs, after English lecturer Dr David Craig, have an incredibly strong, if fictionalised resemblance, to major plot points of The History Man. First, we tackle the second of the Craig affairs (covering political bias) and return later to the first Craig affair (covering sexual liberation and abuse). (For an account of the Craig Affairs, and for the quotations that follow in the next sections, see Lancaster’s Subtext staff-published news sheet.)
Before continuing, it is worth pointing out that whilst I have strong suspicions that Lancaster was an inspiration in the production of The History Man, its central character, Howard Kirk, is no David Craig, who colleagues spoke very well of. Whilst, Craig did not identify himself as a Marxist, as Kirk does in the novel, but he did self-identify as a left-wing socialist. But there are disciplinary differences. Kirk is a sociologist; Craig was a lecturer in English. More crucially, in Bradbury’s novel, Kirk represents an architype Socialist Workers Party intellectual who speaks a good game on freedom but is inherently self-interested. To underscore the point, in the last still of the television adaptation of The History Man we are informed that Kirk voted conservative in the 1979 election — a decision that demonstrates Bradbury’s belief that a dogmatic defence of individualism can lead not to collective left-wing solutions but to Thatcherism (foreshadowing the trajectory of the Revolutionary Communist Party which ultimately led to Spiked). Perhaps confirming this, in its review of the television series, the Daily Mail hailed Kirk, a sexual predator in the novel, as a hero and ‘an endearing chap’. Kirk is far from endearing, but Craig was a much-valued colleague.
Kirk causes a scandal by marking down a right-wing student and marking up left-wing ones. Craig’s experience was somewhat similar and focussed upon biases in student assessment. Craig, and his colleagues, sought to introduce democracy into their academic proceedings and into their teaching. The Head of English Department, fearing that his first year students had been taught nothing but communist propaganda, sent one year’s examination papers to, as Craig himself put it, ‘a dutiful stooge…in educational research’ who agreed that there was an unusually high left-wing bias present in the scripts. Some of Craig’s colleagues were dismissed, others had contracts revoked or were shunted side-ways. Saved by student protests, Craig was nevertheless removed from the English department to the position of Lecturer without Departmental Duties and continued there until retirement.
Both Craig and Kirk’s experiences relate the way in which a left-wing academic was turned upon by a largely speaking conservative university oligarchy because of intellectually revolutionary teaching methods and pedagogical ideas. Both too were defended by popular protest from staff and students at their institutions. (Dr Craig was supported by demonstrations at other universities too). And both Bradbury’s fictitious account, and the experiences of David Craig, shed light on the panic at the time that ‘anti-patriotic’ Marxist lecturers were preaching, and working, against the western capitalist powers.
Bradbury’s novel captures the feeling some people had at the time that there was potential for ‘dangerous subversives’ to be working away in British universities. No doubt, the origin of the panic about universities can be traced back to the defection of the ‘Cambridge Five’ in the 1950s. Bradbury was not the only author to pick up on this. Mary McCarthy’s The Groves of Academe sees its central character attacked by some, and supported by others, because of his membership of the Communist Party (a membership which he has, for esoteric reasons, made-up, however). Bradbury’s novel was written only four years before the election of the Thatcher government in 1979. Thatcher really did believe that universities were hiding dangerous subversives, closing many Soviet studies departments and launching an attack on sociology that led to a mass exile of Marxists into, counter-intuitively, management schools.
Government interference in the academic curriculum remains, and which should be one of the principle battlegrounds for discussions of academic freedom. The latest cash-for-STEM degrees policy linked to the COVID-19 bailout is as much about reshaping the thoughts of young people as was the closure of Soviet Studies departments by moving people away from the humanities and social science to the hard sciences. And the idea that universities may be the home to dangerous people lingers on in the broad agenda around Prevent. As long ago as 2009, a government consultation paper released by the Minister for Higher Education claimed that FE colleges were facing a serious, if not widespread, ‘threat from Al-Qaeda-influenced terrorism’. And the effects of counter-terrorism legislation of this had already alarmed UUK, whose then head James Drummond Bone, issued a warning that anti-terrorism legislation affecting universities might prevent the undertaking of certain experiments in chemistry, force university librarians to consider whether or not their collections contained material which condoned extremism, and cast departments that study the Middle East into a sinister light. In 2018’s Return to Odium, to which we return later, a politics doctoral student is arrested for printing out, for research purposes, a terrorist handbook which is spotted at the department’s central printer by a member of staff. The narrative chimes very strongly with the arrest of a student under the Terrorism Act 2000 at the University of Nottingham in 2008 for doing the same. It also underscores that universities increasingly see themselves as extensions of the state and of law enforcement apparatus. Compare the affair at Nottingham to the time when Lancaster’s Vice-Chancellor personally escorted MI5 agents off campus who had been discovered tossing David Craig’s office (and that despite the institution’s misgivings of the second Craig affair).
Sexual Politics and Sexual Violence
In the years after universities were no-longer acting in loco parentis, debates over sexual liberation and regulation on campuses became heated [Ooo, err. Ed.]. Returning to David Craig, in 1967, the first Craig Affair was sparked by Craig’s proposals for living arrangements in Lancaster’s newest college, Cartmel, of which he was elected its founding Dean. Craig proposed that the college should allow unmarried couples of the opposite sex to share double rooms. He also proposed that there should be sexual freedom in the college (one commentator picked up on the fact that this might mean homosexual relations). A national scandal was occasioned when Craig’s views were reported in the press. Members of the public sent angry letters to the college’s Principal, with letters coming from as far away at the USA. One wrote that ‘the social unrest, broken marriages, over-populated prisons, borstals and approved schools, the increase in drug-taking and VD is chiefly the responsibility of intellectuals like Dr Craig’. Another asked, ‘what is Dr Craig a doctor of? A doctor of the devil, no less’. The views of Craig, and his wife, on sex, abortion and contraception were published widely through the national newspapers. It is, perhaps, no coincidence that Howard Kirk’s wife in The History Man often engages students on the subject of what contraceptive methods they use.
Sexuality and sexual (mis)conduct, hinted at above, have been staples of university novels. Much as Decline and Fall presents us with a university where bullying is presented as ‘high-jinks’, Porterhouse Blue portrays upper-class views on homosexuality, for the purposes of the narrative, as being quirky or amusing. Porterhouse’s alumnus General Cathcart D’Eath recalls with pleasure dunking homosexual students in the college fountain. Sharpe’s very thinly veiled satire of Peterhouse, Cambridge hits close to the mark with such references. When Tony Benn visited the college in 1991, he was told “this is the queers’ college”. Repelled by snobbery and bigoted views, Benn characterised Peterhouse by drawing upon a university novel illustration and likening it to ‘Brideshead Revisited…a place where the Sun is translated into Latin’ (Winston, 1991: 62–65). In the first Craig affair one correspondent wrote that David Craig was encouraging ‘the practises that brought down Greece and Rome’.
Sexuality has also been part of the pantheon of university novel storylines. Andrew Davies’ A Very Peculiar Practice, not strictly speaking a university novel [We’ll indulge you. Ed.] but rather a screenplay turned into a television serial by the BBC, portrays the efforts of the University of Lowland’s medical practice to bring under control an outbreak of venereal disease on campus. Their attempts reveal a high level of staff-student sexual relationships that have assisted in the spread of the epidemic. But when the problem cannot be controlled, the doctors postulate that the only explanation left is that there is one carrier, as yet undetected, who is having sexual relations with a number of the staff and students. The unlucky hero of the series, Dr Stephen Daker, realises (to his horror) that the carrier is none other than the improbably named Vice-Chancellor, Ernest Hemmingway (played brilliantly by John Bird). Out of duty, Daker tells the Vice-Chancellor the bad news only to find (not unexpectedly) that the result is to put his own career at Lowlands in jeopardy.
That condoms could have prevented discomfort of the physical and professional variety is a given. It is also an issue thrown into sharp relief by David Lodge’s The British Museum is Falling Down in which the 25 year old, Catholic, PhD student-hero of the story worries that his wife might be pregnant with what would be their fourth child. And Porterhouse Blue spends much time sniffing at the suggestion of the Master’s wife to introduce a contraceptive machine to the college. Upon hearing of the plan Sir Cathcart d’Eath, whom we have already met above, exclaims ‘good God, the man’s insane! Can’t have one of those damned things in the College. When I was an undergraduate you got sent down if you were caught riveting a dolly!”. As if to prove the point, a large part of the college is destroyed when scores of gas filled condoms explode in the chimney of PhD student Zipser who is attempting to hide them from his cleaner. Compared to the provision of free, and freely available, condoms by students’ unions for well over three decades, at least some progress has been made.
But if attitudes to contraception and sexual health have changed, the disreputable behaviour of Vice-Chancellor Hemmingway reminds us of the continued need for campaign groups such as 1752 (so named after the small amount of finance offered to the Sexual Harassment in Higher Education Conference held at Goldsmiths in 2015). In Nice Work, by David Lodge, we meet Marion Russell who, as student, has to support herself through her undergraduate studies by working as a kiss-o-gram. Lodge’s character fore-shadows student poverty after the abolition of grants and introduction of tuition fees. As far back as the early 2000s, news outlets were highlighting sex work in UK universities. Nearly twenty years later, the problem is worse. University novels tend not to discuss sexual abuse and violence. In universities we are discussing and campaigning on these issues, though clearly there is a long way to go.
By the 1980s, university novels had changed to reflect life on university campuses, especially for the staff. Lodge’s Nice Work sees Robyn Penrose, somewhat a symbol of 1980s feminism, come to the University of Rummidge (a place, according to Lodge, that is fictional but which can be located in the Birmingham area of the country [Not to mention the arts building with a paternoster. Ed.]). Like some of her generation she eschewed Oxford (where her father, a historian, is a fellow) for Sussex. But unlike so many characters that feature in university novels before the 1980s, Penrose faces the struggles of one-year contracts, declining university budgets, and increased competition for jobs. It’s worth remembering that in the 1980s, a fairly typical history department such as the one at Lancaster made only one appointment. Penrose, herself a victim of Thatcherism, is also a victim of her position within the institution. When the Dean of the Faculty, Philip Swallow — a character familiar to those who have read other works by Lodge — forgets that he is supposed to be sending an academic on an industry shadow, he is left with no option but to find someone quick. At the bottom of the food-chain it is Penrose who is selected, begrudgingly, to venture out into the industrial midlands.
Penrose’s venture out into the industrial heartlands of the West Midlands represents a switch in priorities in education. Whereas in Tom Sharpe’s Wilt, Henry Wilt is a bedraggled assistant lecturer trying to teach English to apprentice tradesmen on day release from industry; in Nice Work, the university goes into industry, a path that would lead eventually to the Knowledge Exchange Framework. Wilt’s career ends as head of department at a new university. We leave Penrose at Brummidge, working temporary contracts and hoping that one day she will be made permanent.
Precarity has been addressed in university novels. But it is usually a plot device. In Nice Work, precarity exposes town and gown relations but in the end, Penrose is saved by an inheritance from a rich uncle. Likewise, in Ian McGuire’s Incredible Bodies, the protagonist, Morris Gutman, goes from precarious to full time employment on the back of plagiarism, only to give up academic life by the end of the novel. That the lived experience of precarity has not been treated in any great depth in the university novel genre probably has something to do with the experience of precarious workers as being part of, yet set aside from, the institutions in which they work. In this way, life limits art.
The Sick University
The 1980s and 1990s saw the introduction of the ‘rotten poly’ novel of which Wilt was a forebearer. By contrast to the shiny monuments erected by today’s Vice-Chancellors, new universities suffered from estates that were crumbling. The new campuses of The History Man and Lodge’s Changing Places had, by the 1980s, given way to Andrew Davies’s University of Lowlands. ‘They call it a new university, but it’s twenty years old now…Concrete’s crumbling, all those bloody silly flat roofs leak…we’ve got a repair budget four times the total salary bill’. The contrast to today is stark, many academics will lose their jobs in the COVID crisis not because their campuses are dilapidated but because their new buildings have over-leveraged institutions who now have no other option but to cut staff costs. The focus on the ‘plant’ means that the activities of what goes on within it are less important. At the end of A Very Peculiar Practice, the university is sold off to become a police training college.
If crumbling campuses seem old hat now, A Very Peculiar Practice was more prescient on the effects of living and working in universities upon the health of staff and students. Jock McCallon, Lowland’s alcoholic medical practice lead doctor, is writing, but never quite manages to finish, a great opus entitled ‘The Sick University’. McCallon intends to chart the moral and intellectual decline of contemporary higher education, a theme he expounds on when given a chance. At a social function, McCallon, drunk, of course, accuses Vice-Chancellor Hemmingway of deliberately following a policy of recruiting overseas students, regardless of whether or not they can speak or write English, simply to rake in the higher fees [A shocking accusation that is surely baseless? Ed.]. McCallon later misdiagnoses a student with a burst appendix as having severe stress and anxiety caused by her inability to study or communicate with others at the university.
That the university is sick seems undeniable. Workplace stress has increased as university managements force staff to do more with less. At Lancaster in the mid-2000s, Vice Chancellor Paul Wellings set upon a campaign to reduce protections for staff against redundancy. Behind this was a belief that the university’s percentage of staff costs to turnover, around 67%, had to come down to 63% to maximise efficiencies. Recently, Wellings has faced staff at Wollongong, where he is now Vice Chancellor, with mass redundancies, despite having reduced staff costs to 40% of turnover. In fifteen years, the screws have been turned ever harder. And whilst pressure on staff has increased, universities struggle to manage change well or to communicate effectively with their staff. In 2005, the University of Lancaster’s staff survey found that only 50% of respondents felt that the university communicated well with staff. Only 45% of staff thought that the organisation of the institution was effective. (These figures are taken from my notes at the time, the surveys are no longer available.) At my present institution, we were instructed not to share the results of the 2018 staff survey externally. Suffice it to say that it is astonishing how little things have improved across the sector. There has not been a full survey since.
The University Novel as Catharsis and Revenge
Should we include novels such as Colin Dexter’s Morse series, or Dorothy Sayers’ Gaudy Night, in the genre of university novels? Probably not. Despite the dangers of Dexter’s fictional Oxford, you’re highly unlikely to be killed in your workplace (indeed, you’re more likely to be killed by it as a number of high-profile suicides in universities have demonstrated). So, J. D. Clockman’s The University of Odium appears to venture out of the realms of realistic critique when, at the story’s culmination, the Vice-Chancellor is murdered. Vice Chancellor Covet is conducting an affair with a woman, Jane, whose actions led to ex-CIA agent Buckrack’s son taking his own life. Buckrack is out to murder Jane and gains access to her through posing as an English professor at Odium. In the book’s climax, Buckrack decides that, after two months of witnessing the casual cruelty with which university management hands out to its staff, he will kill not only Jane but also Covet as a service to the university community.
The University of Odium and its sequel, Return to Odium, is a new frontier in university novels. It is a cathartic act of literary revenge upon an institution. We can only suppose that Odium is Nottingham. That the author’s description of the institution as being in a ‘crappy provincial town’ mocks Nottingham’s ‘a global university’ branding. The renaming of the senate house as the ‘Trump building’ after a sizable donation, and one of the character’s coruscating lecture about corruption in China campuses, hints at a wider belief that universities are falling over themselves to gain cash without thinking of the moral implications of their donors. The Odium novels are extreme revenge fantasies about careless and immoral managers getting their comeuppance which, along the way, exposes the most rotten parts of universities. The details are so on the nose, that one can only suppose the pseudonymous author is known to university management but thinly enough disguised to prevent disciplinary or legal action. It is a mockery; and it is delicious for it.
There have been considerable developments in universities since the nineteenth century and in particular since the 1950s. University novels have given voice to members of the university community, providing amusement, sympathy, solidarity, and catharsis. They have exposed wrongs and celebrated the better parts of the university community. Yet, they could do more. Female lead characters are unusual. Rainforest by Jenny Diski provides a rare example, likewise Nice Work whose protagonist we met above. And, the long history of gender discrimination in universities is reflected in the authorship of university novels which are predominantly written by men. They tend also to ignore race (though Return to Odium does deal with this issue). And they are largely about English universities, with only a handful of books about Wales, Scotland, or Norther Irish institutions.
Odium will not be the last word in the development of mediums in which to criticise the ills of university life. For a start, other forums such as Twitter are providing fast ways of making anonymous protest to a large audience. Sometimes these are protests at the sector level, such as ‘University Wankings’ @UWankings or the local level such @LesterProf. And other forms of more traditional mediums of protest remain popular, reflected in the title of Gareth Brown’s new album ‘Sector Norm’, and other cultural artifacts such as newsletters, stickers (such as those issued at Leicester in protest of redundancies in 2018), satirical news sheets and pantomime.
With the workload pressures upon university staff, it would seem that for the moment that university novels will be written by those who have left the sector, rather than (as has been the case until now) those in it. Nevertheless, university novels are likely to continue as a form of critique and catharsis for those in the sector. Given the firestorm that is the contemporary university sector, protest is likely to characterise university novels for some time to come.
Amis, K. Lucky Jim. (Gollancz, 1954).
Bradbury, M. The History Man. (Harvill Secker, 1975).
Clockman, J. D. Return to Odium. (Jetstone, 2018).
Clockman, J. D. The University of Odium. (Jetstone, 2017.
Diski, J. Rainforest. (Penguin, 1988.
Lodge, D. Nice Work. (Harvill Secker, 1988).
Lodge, D. The British Museum is Falling Down. (Hart-Davis, 1965).
McCarthy, M. The Groves of Academe. (Harcourt, 1952).
McGuire, I. Incredible Bodies. (Bloomsbury, 2006)
Sharpe, T. Porterhouse Blue. (Harvill Secker, 1974).
Sharpe, T. Wilt. (Secker and Warburg, 1976)
Waugh, E. Decline and Fall. (Chapman and Hall, 1928).
Winston, R (ed.) The Benn Diaries. (Hutchinson, 2002).
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