Goodbye to all that
Michael Bywater misses his ivory tower
The temporary don is a man in some sort of shifty, disgruntled bliss, like a man in bed with an expensive whore. He knows he can't keep her. He knows he can't even have her. What he's getting is a simulacrum, but the minute he lets himself go, whether in bliss or eye-contact, he's had it.
And so it is with the temporary don. In my case, writer-in-residence at Magdalene College, Cambridge. An honour. A sinecure, more or less: a few supervisions, a couple of workshops, a couple of seminars, and, otherwise, the writer-in-residence's duties are to write, and to reside. Nobody quite tells you what else to do. "Your primary duty," said the President of the College, "is to be vivid." And vivid I tried to be. I played the marvellous, idiosyncratic, pre-Baroque-style organ late at night (snuggled up on the Platonic bench with the former keyboard player from punk band The Fall, now an anaesthetist and pain specialist, obliquely apposite) to, as it turned out, the generous appreciation of the Master. (The experience demonstrated, unfortunately, the cruel gulf between performer and audience: when both are moderately hosed, the listener thinks he's having a hell of a good time, while the performer knows he's cocking up badly.)
In the further pursuit of vividity, I played the Master's piano for a late-night sing-song fuelled by whisky; "The perfect College evening," said one (permanent) don, but how tired the Master must have become of my crapulous keyboarding. I dined, vividly, in my gown and dark suit; after dinner we Combined, sitting at small tables in a horseshoe, nobody to sit next to their dinner companions, the conversation as pleasant as might be. It was truly a Conversible World and the grunting, roaring imbecilities of Endemol and In-ger-land, the forced idiot gags of testosterone-high media idiots, the brain-flattening hiss and thud of the iPod all seemed inconceivably distant.
But it was, of course, an illusion. I may have felt part of it, but I was not part of it. I was the hired jester, the amusing interloper, soon to be gone; and how terribly, and proleptically, I regretted my going. I wanted to stay for ever, but not as me. Rather as another me whom I might have been. One who had always been there and always would be. I wanted my gown to be greenish with age; I wanted to sit in chapel wondering to myself how many Commemorations of Benefactors I had sat through over the years; I wanted to be Senior Fellow at High Table just once, to recite grace (Benedic Domine nobis et donis tuis...). I wanted to believe in God again. I began to believe in God again.
And just as the man lying with the whore feels for a moment that he belongs, so I felt I belonged, while simultaneously realising that I did not, that this wonderfully hospitable, commensal world would soon close off to me again. I would be cast out; apostasised. There would be no more gown; no more conversation. Like the Emperor Hadrian, I found myself in some curious way, eight hours ago when I left, saying again, proleptically goodbye to something very like my soul: animula uagula blandula. Hadrian wondered where it would go without him; would it be cold and lonely? Would there be jokes?
And outside, Mr Blair wants to be shot of the whole thing. One Master not Magdalene's described his job in Cambridge as making sure the death was not too unpleasant because (he said) in ten years' time, to hell with jokes; there would be no more colleges, just halls of residence, scrabbling for funds.
The AUT dispute was running while I was at Magdalene: payback time for the tremendous expansion of universities having been got on the cheap. Permanent dons are caught in the professional cleft stick as much as the governmental forked tongue. Teaching counts for nothing in career advancement, only research, whether specious or not; and research, too, supervised and quantified (words on the page, papers published) and subject to metrics and targets and all the other apparatus of a polity which loathes and distrusts professionals of any sort, perhaps reactively, because professionals whether teachers, doctors, scientists, academics loathe the infantilised and infantilising intellectual neoteny of the repugnant political class (knowing nothing else but politics, and the exigencies of politics) which has taken over the government of Britain.
The undergraduates know what sort of world awaits them. Too many of them are diligent, sombre, intolerably relativist. They yearn for security rather than adventure; some of them find a peculiar succour in the more grotesque manifestations of religious belief witches, demonic possession or of that corporeal exaltation which masquerades as mortification or refined sensibility (allergies, intolerances, 'dietary requirements'). Far from being John Donne's "Paradise" of "unsearchable Counsells", the University has now become the base-line. Fail to go, and you are set to fail in life. As to what is taught: anything, anything so long as dear God no it does not involve thinking.
At my back I seem to hear mutterings of elitism. To hell with it. The worst elitism is the political: an apparatchik class which believes the only paradigm of human enterprise is the economic, and the only economic paradigm is business. They speak of 'thinking the unthinkable' (what a truly stupid remark that is) but the true unthinkable is this: that, even for the temporary don, there is a beauty, a civility, a long-term utility in this conversible world where courtesy masks the enquiring mind, where intellectual rigour needs no justification, where the arts of civilisation are practised without reference to the News of the World and where, above all, what is done is to think the thinkable.
Expelled from thence into an egalitarian world of striving and making-do, I wish I could vow, on whatever it is a temporary don can vow (Benedic Domine nobis... ), to carry something of that far-from-eremitic elegance into what cheapjack supermarket chains and blowhard grandstanding politicos like to call 'the real world'. Discuss.