Ren approaches the bar at the staff club. The weekly departmental seminar, where visiting guest speakers come to give a talk, has just finished, and as seminar organiser he’s glad to see the back of it. He needs to be poisoned, and the quickest way at present to get the requisite dose into his veins is to dilute the stuff and ingest it orally.
Today’s speaker has been a distinguished philosopher of science called Hedley Beagle from the University of Longford who spoke on the unreality of time, a topic which makes Ren rueful because the problem he currently has with time is its scarcity, not its non-existence. Not that he said anything like this in public, that’s the sort of ho-ho-ho joke you’d expect Beresford Sadler, the boorish Physics Head of Department who turned up to the talk with Douglas and his distinguished colleague Garrett Slade, to make. This sort of joke had almost certainly made the rounds nearly a century ago, Ren thought; no doubt Bertrand Russell himself made a similar joke to McTaggart. Probably around the time Dirty Bertie discovered that he had a knob and started boffing various horse-faced goers, while writing peace-bollocks pamphlets encouraging us to surrender to the Commies (which he was still doing half a century later). ‘If time is an illusion, dear Taggie, then I need to imagine myself up some more, I can’t commit intercourse and advance the cause of international socialism at the same time, can I? Not when I’ve also got to dismantle your damnable British idealism, ho-ho-ho.’ Beresford Sadler actually makes jokes like this at philosophy talks, imagining that it causes the philosophers to think of him an astute observer of philosophical history.
The Head of Physics thinks of himself as Hemingwayesque, both physically, and in terms of his forceful, yet (so he imagines) charismatic personality, but his habit of angrily throwing his ample weight around has resulted in his colleagues calling him ‘Norman Mailer’ behind his back. (Later on the nickname will be changed to ‘Russell Crowe’, once Crowe tubs up and starts throwing telephones at people.) Beresford always turns up, in a bit of a mood, to any Philosophy talk that seems in any way related to physics. He’s well known for his temper, and his general intolerance, but he seems to have a particular chip on his shoulder about philosophers discussing physics. The reason Garrett often comes with him is to try to keep him under control.
Beresford always misunderstands what is being said at these talks, and today was a doozy. The Beagle is an upper-class smoothie, an assured, although sometimes contumelious, Cantabridgian, and Beresford, always sensitive about what he (but no-one else) sees as his humble origins, took an instant dislike to him, which may have injected a little more vapour into the cloud chamber that Beresford thinks of as the philosophical part of his mind.
The Beagle was not, despite the title of his talk, arguing the unreality of time, but was arguing against the existence of what is usually called ‘the moving present’. He was in fact arguing for the ‘spacelike conception’ of time (sometimes called the ‘four-dimensional’ theory of spacetime), a view that is popular with many physicists, and which seems to be what Sadler himself believes, as far as anyone can tell, but Beresford in his usual temerarious fashion decided early on that the Beagle was arguing for a position that everyone else, including Garrett and Douglas, could tell he wasn’t arguing for. So bullfighting Beresford was going to step up and take the Beagle – a mere theoretician, and of the wrong field at that – to task over the Beagle’s presumption to discuss matters that he was manifestly unqualified to discuss. An embarrassed Garrett, no fan of the Beagle himself, tried to steer Beresford off his hapless course, but failed.
The misunderstanding was partly the Beagle’s fault, though, because Hedley, assuming that everyone present was both a philosopher and well-schooled in J. M. E. McTaggart’s original arguments against the reality of time, as well as the subsequent well-known developments in the field (well-known to metaphysicians, that is) had said very little in the way of introductory or scene-setting remarks. Or perhaps the Beagle just assumed that anyone who didn’t have this background knowledge would have the decency to keep their mouth shut. Either way, he was mistaken. A philosopher as experienced as he should not have made such a mistake, for rogue audience members can turn up at any Philosophy talk, not just in the provinces and the wilder extremities of the country, but even at the top places, and these philosophists are hardly ever deterred by a lack of knowledge of the topic under discussion. The more they misunderstand, the more chaotic their intervention will be, so visiting speakers who jump right into the guts of their talk are taking a risk. Not a running-into-a-burning-building-type of risk, of course, but no-one wants to travel hundreds of miles to give a talk on their research and then have fifteen minutes of the discussion wasted by a strange man wearing green glasses.
In Hedley’s defence it could be pointed out that dozens of peripatetic philosophers make such a mistake every week across the country. There are possibly three, maybe even four or five, Travelling Wilburforces, as Ren calls them, making the same mistake this very afternoon, possibly even at Oxford or Cambridge where visiting speakers can be lulled into a false sense of security, thinking that here, surely, in these blessed groves there cannot be any Alan Pettigrews present, but sometimes there are, even in such hallowed halls.
These three, or four, or five, philosophers, it should be noted, will not frame this thought using the term ‘Alan Pettigrews’. Only Grayvington philosophers invoke the Pettigrew name, as we shall discover. (Alan, mercifully, was not present today for the Beagle’s talk.) One such philosopher, Toby Smalls, is at this very moment at UCL, about to give an evening talk, thinking – despite his many years of experience which, were he to examine that resource, would reveal the weakness of such an optimistic conjecture – that surely there cannot be any Maurice Dabneys present here. This belief is situated in what philosophers call an opaque linguistic context, meaning that one cannot replace the term ‘Maurice Dabneys’ with a co-referential term such as ‘Alan Pettigrews’, because while Smalls believes that there cannot be any Maurice Dabneys here, he does not believe that there cannot be any Alan Pettigrews here. Nevertheless, both terms, ‘Maurice Dabneys’ and ‘Alan Pettigrews’, refer to the same thing, namely the class of time-wasters who have acquired the delusive belief that they are philosophically adroit, and who turn up regularly to advanced academic philosophy talks and engage the speaker and various unfortunate audience members in confusing and unhelpful dialogue. (It should be noted that our genarch of Physics, Beresford Sadler, does not qualify as an Alan Pettigrew, at least not a full-blown Pettigrew; perhaps we should call his type a ‘Beresford Sadler’)
There is one Grayvington philosopher who never makes this sort of mistake about his audience, and that is Tristram York, who, incidentally, made rather a good comment today in the Beagle’s talk. But he is unusually sensitive to the presence of Pettigrews, and has been known, at his own talks, to ask the chairperson, at the point that the chairperson brings in his carafe of water and empty glass (just before people start drifting in and generally milling about), whether any such audience members can be expected at his talk. Such a question is considered to be slightly bad form, but understandable, and usually raises some shared, guilty, laughter of recognition.
The time-waster who will shortly be getting on Toby Smalls’ wick has no name that anybody in the London audience knows – generally people avoid socialising with Alan Pettigrews, and so the name of any particular Alan Pettigrew will only become known should that Pettigrew be the type to volunteer it – but this particular London-based Pettigrew is generally referred to in the common room after talks as ‘the eccentric chap with the green glasses’ by the more polite academics, and ‘the loony with green glasses’ by the more blunt.
Anyway, all this, or rather none of it, is going through Ren’s head as he approaches the staff club bar. What’s in his head is the intent to purchase a beer. Which beer he should get is a complex decision which involves weighing up various factors, such as the beer’s alcoholic strength, its price, the awfulness of the taste – most beers taste bad to Ren, but especially ales, bitters and wheat beers – and the embarrassment quotient of buying a lager, whose blander taste he can more easily tolerate, but which will elicit scorn and mockery from those of his colleagues who hold that the only beers worth drinking are obscure ones which have sticks and ambergris and bits of beak floating in them, and which smell to him like they contain a mould that has evolved to be resistant to alcohol. Also to be factored in are how many of his lager-deriding colleagues are here tonight, and what mood they are in. And also how much of a s**t he currently gives about the venting of their opinions on lager drinking.
He eventually decides that tonight his preference is to avoid another tedious round of lager-bashing, because he wants to get the conversation quickly onto TITE before Hedley drags everyone into a conversation about his views, so he orders a pint of something awful called – as far as he can remember three seconds later – Mildewmarch, an ale which the beardies from the Campaign for Right Proper Gravy, Whippets and Brews have given the seal of approval to. And, of course, a packet of pork scratchings.
He notices even before the barlady returns that something isn’t right. The delicious home-made pork scratchings in a clear packet that the staff club used to serve have been replaced by a commercial variety in a brightly-covered tinfoil pack, bearing the name ‘Oinkers’, which he knows from previous empirical research to be an inferior product in every way, unless you prefer your scratchings to taste and feel like popcorn mixed with puffed-up honeycomb. Ren reflects that if the bearded campaigners were really serious about keeping British pubs the way they should be then they should be complaining loudly about the replacement of wholesome, nutritious dead pig skin and fat with this tasteless cavity insulation. Perhaps he would write to them. But he would have to resist the temptation to start the letter, ‘Dear beardies…’, otherwise they wouldn’t take him seriously, and that would take all the fun out of it.
‘I’ve only been at this University for a few months and already it’s going to the dogs,’ Ren says, indicating the Oinkers, as he avoids sitting next to Hedley and Sadler and instead pulls up a chair to sit next to his friend and fellow Philosophy lecturer Compton Hart, a smartly-dressed thirty-something with curly, sandy-coloured hair, and a liking for cigarettes, which are becoming forbidden fruit at Universities. ‘The fatty esculants are not what they were.’
‘I think you’re the only person who comes here who eats pork scratchings,’ says Compton. ‘Those ones you’ve been eating recently had been on the shelves for ten years before you turned up and started eating them. Now you’ve eaten them all the manager finally had to buy some new ones.’
‘Not true,’ says Ren. ‘I’ve seen no less a personage than the Professor and Head of the Art History Department, Harold Furter, eating packeted pork rind.’
‘You mean old Frank?’ says Compton. ‘You’re really going to use him as an example?’
‘What, just because he’s the fattest man in Western academia?’
‘He’s the fattest man in the whole galaxy. He was eating deep-fried bits of Jabba the Hut, not pork scratchings. Why do you think they have a double door here for an entrance? That was put in a couple of years ago just so Frank could fit through. He got a grant for it. They’ll be rolling him around on his sides soon. Harold the Barrel.’
‘I expect he has a glandular imbalance. Or he’s big-boned.’
‘He has big dinosaur bones stuck in his throat if that’s what you mean,’ says Compton. ‘They keep his oesophagus wide so he can pour down beer direct from the barrel.’
‘No, no, no’, interrupts Derek Lucas. ‘Frank considers himself a cultured man. He might drink from the barrel, but it’s always good wine. He only eats pork scratchings when he thinks no-one’s looking.’
‘Why must my brethren be so ashamed of themselves?’ says Ren.
‘Are you not aware’, says Derek, ‘that pork scratchings were developed in the thirteenth century by medieval monks as a way to prevent young men from masturbating? That’s why masturbating really took off in the seventies, when the salt levels were changed.’
‘Never change the salt levels, I say,’ says Ren. ‘That’s like my motto for life. Never change the salt levels.’
‘Someone’s changed the salt levels for this department recently,’ says Compton.
‘A more pertinent fact,’ says Ren, ‘which you gentlemen may be unaware of, is that pork scratchings have more vitamin K in them than the equivalent number of melons in the University’s girls’ volleyball team.’
‘That one’s definitely a lie,’ says Compton.
‘Made-up, yes,’ says Ren, ‘but not a lie, because I don’t know it to be false. And it’s not obviously false. It could possibly be true, if melons have no vitamin K whatsoever, and the scratchings have a trace amount. And my knowledge of the vitamin K levels in melons is, shall we say… scratchy?’
‘Do pork scratchings have any vitamins whatsoever in them?’ says Derek. ‘That seems doubtful.’
‘How do I know, I’m a philosopher,’ says Ren. ‘Ask a biochemist. Bound to be one in here somewhere. Ask the bar to page a biochemist.’
‘A biochemist wouldn’t necessarily know anyway,’ says Derek. ‘The vitamin levels of assorted bar snacks and citrus fruits might not be the sort of information they make sure to always have at their command. It may be information they have, in fact, never possessed, it being of no earthly use to their more specialised alchemical pursuits.’
‘Well, perhaps they know the core bar snacks and popular fruits,’ says Ren. ‘Peanuts and oranges. But I agree. They may rely, for the more obscure comestibles, on nipping over to the science library when the topic comes up in conversation.’
‘As I’m sure it would if the VC walked in and was pelted with so many tomatoes that the issue of tomato poisoning came up,’ says Compton.
Compton was someone that Ren had been immediately drawn to when he arrived at Grayvington, not only because he is, in Ren’s view, if no-one else’s, good company, and not only because he is even more down on Continentalism and postmodernism than Ren, but also because he is the only person Ren has ever met in academia who is a conservative, and isn’t afraid to admit it (although he only admitted it once he had got his permanent appointment). That was something that Ren, who had only started recovering a couple of years ago from a standard dose of leftica idiotica acquired in his teens, admired.
Ren decides that this is a suitable time to talk about the TITE because none of the Department’s Continentalists are here (they are, of course, staying away because today’s talk has been an analytic talk). He’s wondering how best to bring up the topic up, when Compton says, ‘So you were going to tell me what happened yesterday at the titty.’
‘Yes, I’m afraid it’s all become very titty-politti,’ Ren says, sounding a bit too pleased with his prepared line. He starts to fill Compton in on what happened in the TITE yesterday. Some of the other philosophers present – Walter Clutterbuck, Tristram York, Martha Gelber, George Bagnall, Bill Porterfield, and Derek – keep half an ear on what he is saying, as much as they can with Hedley and Beresford bashing away at their other ear. They’re mostly sympathetic to what Ren is saying about the TITE. Derek is as hard left as they come, but he has no truck with Continentalism. The rest are analytic soft leftists, and regard Continentalism, in their understated way, as ‘unfortunate’. But it’s hard for Ren to be heard as the visiting speaker and his antagonist are continuing their pointless and loud argument at the other end of the group. Ren can see Douglas, who is stuck next to them, looking over at Ren’s end of the group wondering whether he could politely move away, now that Beresford and Hedley are fully preoccupied with demonstrating how ignorant the other is.
‘Oh dear,’ says Martha to Ren. ‘I was afraid something like that might happen with that course, but I didn’t think it would get as bad as that.’
‘It’s that Balderstone chap,’ says Bill. ‘No wonder it’s like that with him in charge.’
‘It’s not just him, though,’ says Compton. ‘This is what the people behind it wanted. The whole of SADE are like that.’
SADE, which stands for the Staff and Development Unit, is the department that runs the TITE and other staff development courses.
‘This is the beginning of there being no escape from the left,’ continues Compton. ‘You will be forced to be a leftist if you want to be an academic. Eventually it will become law that you have to be a leftist, not just in academia, but in the wider world.’
‘You always exaggerate these things,’ says Derek. ‘And I’d rather you didn’t call them leftists. The real problem with the SADE lot is that they’re foisting mumbo-jumbo on intelligent people who have previously been trained to think well. What we need is to make academic people teach what they know better, not to cloud their minds up with poison gas.’
‘From what I’ve heard none of the SADE people know anything about teaching academics to be better teachers, it’s not just Balderstone,’ says Ren. ‘They’re terrible teachers themselves.’
‘Yes they are,’ says Martha. ‘I went on one of their short courses a few years ago, it was a disgrace.’
‘Not a surprise,’ says Walter. ‘You know they’re all just rejects from other departments?’
‘Are they? What do you mean?’ says Ren.
‘I mean that most of them have not been hired in as teaching specialists. Most of them don’t have a background in education at all. They’re people who their original departments wanted to get rid of, because they were no good at research or teaching, or both, but as it’s hard to sack an academic, they got shunted off instead to SADE.’
‘Great, so we’re being taught by third-raters who couldn’t hack it as proper academics themselves,’ says Ren. ‘So where does Balderstone come from?’
‘He’s one they did bring in from outside. But I don’t know what his background is,’ says Walter. ‘Do you?’
‘He conveniently doesn’t have a staff webpage,’ says Ren, ‘so I don’t know what he has. But he appears to have never seen anything so outlandish as an educational research finding, so I doubt he would come from Education.’
‘Well, you say that,’ says Compton, ‘but a lot of Education departments have been colonised by the left, and their training is now worthless.’
‘You mean colonised by the Continentalists,’ corrects Derek.
‘Education departments were colonised by the left a long time ago,’ says Compton. ‘That opened the opportunity for them to be further colonised by Continentalists, which has now happened. And now they’re got their foot through the door into the rest of the University system.’
‘Well, I’m going to ask Grant, as Head of Department, to write a letter of complaint on behalf of the department,’ says Ren. ‘My other issue with the course is the inordinate amount of time it takes up. The whole thing needs to be completely overhauled, or dumped.’
‘They won’t dump the general idea of having training courses for new lecturers, that’s here to stay,’ said Compton. ‘So the line has to be that it should be taken over by empiricists. It should be shorn of the politics, and it should be reduced in the time it takes up.’
‘You know we’re only doing one afternoon of video work?’ says Ren.
‘One afternoon a week?’ says Walter.
‘No, one afternoon in total,’ says Ren.
‘You mean where they video you giving a mock lecture?’ said Bill.
‘Yes, apparently four of you get to do it in a group, which means you get about half an hour spent on you for filming and analysis. This course goes for two whole years, and we get half an hour of video work. Half. An. Hour. Out of two years. That sort of thing should be the basis for the whole course. Regular filming of yourself and analysis of how you’re doing, are you speaking too fast, too slowly, are you being too boring, how comprehensible are you for the level you’re teaching at, are you getting better at this as you go along, and so on. That’s the sort of thing that’s needed. A proper nuts and bolts servicing of your teaching over a couple of years. Not half an hour of it, and then five hundred hours of postmodernist propaganda, which you must parrot back, or pack your bags. You know, I might just not go any more.’
‘But don’t you have to pass the course, otherwise you don’t pass probation?’ says Walter.
‘Yes, but probation is three years long. My contract doesn’t say that I have to start it in my first year. I could re-enrol next year, when it might have improved.’
‘Or got worse,’ says Compton.
‘Well, I’m going to get Grant to do something. I’m also getting some of the other people on the course to get their Heads to do something too.’
‘Another drink for anyone?’ says Walter.
‘Another pint of Mildewmelter, please,’ says Ren.
‘Or whatever it’s called. Mildewmouse? Something like that.’
‘Would our guest…’ begins Walter, before raising his voice, ‘Would our guest like something as well?’
‘Yes thank you,’ says Beresford, looking up from the argument. ‘Another red please.’
Walter looks embarrassed. ‘I, er, meant our guest speaker, but of course I will get you a red, Beresford. Hedley, would you like a drink?’
‘I’ll have red too, please.’
‘Medium or large?’
‘Oh, large I should think. Thank you.’
‘Large for me too, thanks,’ says Beresford, who isn’t going to let Hedley outdrink him.
Half an hour later taxis arrive, drinks are hastily finished, and they head off to a Chinese restaurant called Taste of Dragon. This isn’t a place they’ve ever been to before, but the Beagle had said he wanted Chinese when he’d been asked a few days ago. Everyone was hoping that Beresford wouldn’t come, because his argument with the Beagle has become tedious (so much so that Douglas and Garret had declined the offer to come taste some dragon), but Ren is glad Beresford is coming because it means that they aren’t all obliged to feign interest to the Beagle about his talk, and he can talk to the others about the TITE and whatever else they feel like talking about.
Ren notices that Compton avoids sitting near Derek at the restaurant. Although the two have quite a lot of in common, and can sometimes engage in witty conversation together in a public setting, privately they hate each other, and each greatly disapproves of the other’s political beliefs and moral character. Also, Derek has a tendency after a few drinks to start going on about his pet interest, French political rebels, and they’ve all heard what he to say on this topic eight-hundred and seventy-three times, except for the new boy Ren, who has only heard it five times. It’s this Francophile tendency that has earned Derek his long-established nickname, ‘The Frog’, although the recent students assume it’s because of his looks, which are becoming more amphibian as he ages. Previous generations of students, in the days when Derek was not so jowly and squat, assumed it was because of the shaggy old green fisherman’s jumper he would always wear. Other students swear that it’s because he’s always wanting student princesses to kiss him, although if he’s still doing that now, in his fifties, it’s doubtful he’s having much luck.
Beresford and Hedley have simmered down for now, and are talking to George Bagnall, who has managed to get in between them, but Ren notices with suspicion that Derek is making extra sure that they both get plenty to drink.
Compton and Ren are sitting next to Walter Clutterbuck, a trim, neat little departmental veteran, and a former Head of Department. They are talking about their current Head of Department, a late middle-aged man of Hungarian-descent called Professor Grant Kapshar, who came into the department a few years ago. Kapshar, it is rumoured, has been instructed by senior management to improve the department, shaking it up if need be. Walter and Compton are speculating that this suits the desperation he has to feel important, something which he isn’t getting adequately from his publishing, which is mostly quantity over quality.
Kapshar is chiefly distinguished by three things: his platinum-blonde hair, his proficiency at getting funding, and his inability to feel human emotion. Or at least to display it. Hence his nickname, Robot, bestowed on him by Compton. (He had other nicknames before, like Warhol and Dracu, but now it’s mainly Robot. This nickname has not yet been drawn to his attention.)
‘How to explain Robot?’ says Compton. ‘What is the point of Robot? Answer: He is a machine for getting grants.’ Compton is enjoying being able to trot out some of his best lines again for Ren’s sake. ‘That is his purpose. That is what he excels at. What’s more, he is the most efficient grant-getting machine in the world, because he manages to extract great wads of grant money with the most meagre material ever submitted to a grant panel. Somehow the thinnest gruel, with hamster-powered intellectual content, that varies only slightly from what he has submitted the previous five times, convinces the people who are supposed to know who to shower with moolah to shower it over him. He’s like a fifties B-movie hypnotist, holding up a telephone book and they throw money at him, stuffing it into his shirt and his socks.’
‘At least each grant gets credited as another departmental success,’ says Walter. ‘We’re not complaining too much.’
‘Maximum monetary output for minimal intellectual input,’ says Compton, who hadn’t finished.
‘So how does he do it?’ asked Ren.
‘For one thing, he knows how to write grants,’ says Walter. ‘I’ve had to look over quite a few of his before they’re sent off, and he writes in precisely the way you have to with a grant application.’
‘That’s because he’s on so many grant panels himself, making decisions on who to give grants to,’ says Compton. ‘He’s learned how to do it. That’s his real area of specialisation.’
‘Yes, all the main grant players are on these panels,’ says Walter. ‘They’re the ones who know how to write them, because they know what grant panels are looking for. He’ll tell you himself – if you want to learn how to write grants, get yourself on a panel. Good advice.’
Their conversation stops as some food is placed on the table, and Derek pours more wine for everyone around him, making especially sure to fill Beresford and Hedley’s glasses. George keeps trying to change the subject, but Beresford especially is itching to get the conversation back to the topic of time. It appears now that they have genuine areas of disagreement.
‘It’s a big job, putting in a grant bid,’ says Compton. ‘There aren’t as many grant bids put in as you’d think.’
‘The sheer amount of numb-numbing work involved in submitting even one puts most people off,’ says Walter. ‘And most people haven’t a clue how to do an effective one.’
‘Yes, why put so much work into something you think you have little chance of getting anyway?’ says Compton. ‘And for most philosophers there isn’t really any need to have a grant anyway. For now, at least.’
‘Another problem,’ says Walter, ‘is that many of those that are submitted have something not quite right somewhere in them. Ticked the wrong box, submitted the wrong figures, written outside the box. Grant is good at getting it all right. Ticking all the right boxes, literally and metaphorically’.
‘It’s the perfect job for someone who is at heart a bureaucrat,’ says Compton. ‘If his grandparents hadn’t left Hungary he would have made an ideal Communist functionary. When the robots have put the rest of us out of work he’ll still be there.’
‘The robots will be programmed to copy him?’ says Ren.
‘To a tee.’
‘The other thing,’ Walter says, ‘is that he has no qualms about writing the sort of inflated puffery you have to write about your research to be in with a chance of getting a grant, because he believes it. You have to big your research up. Make it sound grander than it really is. Most of us old-fashioned British academics are much more modest about our work, at least in public, and we’re not used to talking about our work as though we’re writing about someone else.’
‘He will attempt to re-program you, you know,’ says Compton. ‘Soon you’ll be pressured to write a grant with him. He will induct you into the dark arts of grant-writing. He’ll be doing it for himself, and the department’s sake, but he’ll also think he’s doing you a favour. Which he is, if you want grants.’
‘And as a young person, you should do,’ says Walter. ‘That’s the way the Humanities are going to go, grants and funding will matter more and more over the next few decades. Glad I’ll be retiring before all that comes. So if you can stand it, let him teach you.’
‘I get the impression Ren isn’t the type,’ says Compton. ‘You’re lucky you had that postdoc position so you could get those papers published, I think if you hadn’t the department would have hired someone with a more modern attitude.’
‘More compliant. More timid. A team worker, i.e. do what the Head tells you. Your sarcastic attitude has been noticed. They don’t like academics having their own personalities any more. I’ve found this out myself. Why do you think Derek’s never been promoted?’
Compton lowers his voice so he can’t be heard, not that there is much danger of this, as Beresford and Hedley are starting to argue more loudly again.
‘He may be a left-wing arsehole,’ says Compton, looking carefully at Derek, ‘but that’s not why. It’s because he’s too fond of his status as an iconoclast.’
‘I thought it was because he never publishes?’
‘Well, that too. But he’d still have trouble getting promoted, because he says, shall we say, unhelpful things, especially to the higher-ups.’
Compton glances at Derek again. ‘Let’s just say he considers them sell-outs. Traitors to the cause.’
‘He’s got a point.’
‘Indeed. Robot wanted him to apply for a grant recently, but he just said no. Didn’t go down too well.’
‘You never just say an outright “No” when the Head asks you something like that,’ says Walter. ‘If you don’t want to do it you’ve got to be more subtle than that.’
‘What would you say?’
‘You’d say something like, I’ve love to, but I have X, Y and Z on my plate at the moment. Or you suggest a future project instead when you have more time. You’ve got to find something that makes it reasonable of you to say no. Or gives the appearance of being reasonable.’
‘Robot is pushing things back again to the old style of department where there was a big Professor who rules the roost and he just tells everyone what to do, based on whatever he thinks is right,’ says Compton.
‘Or in his case, whatever the higher-ups approve of,’ says Walter. ‘All he cares about is looking good on the metrics so he can get promoted to senior management.’
‘Why would anyone want to go into senior management?’ says Ren, who’s still young and naive enough to be enjoying his research.
‘As you get older some people lose interest in their research, and money becomes more important,’ says Compton. ‘Senior management is where the really big salaries are. And the bigger your final salary, the bigger your pension. You no longer have to slave away at your research, or waste your time taking seminars full of undergraduate dimwits. You get to make the decisions, and you’re pretty insulated from their consequences. You swan about with the great and the good at fancy restaurants. And you get a secretary who does a lot of the drudge work for you.’
‘It won’t ever happen for Grant, though,’ says Walter. ‘He’s uncomfortable to be around. Being a bastard is no impediment, not that he’s really that much of a bastard compared to some of that lot, but you’ve got to have a bit of charm, which he doesn’t.’
‘Yes, he’s about as much fun as flat lemonade,’ agrees Ren. ‘The permanent frown, the weary impatience with human frailty… I can see why the higher-ups might want him running a department, but you wouldn’t want to have to deal with him all the time yourself.’
‘He’s valuable to them where he is, doing what he’s good at,’ says Compton. ‘So although he doesn’t realise it, he’s never going to get to that level.’
‘But how does he manage to make any friends? How does he get on with people in his field, and on grant panels?’
‘You haven’t met those people. A lot of them are like him,’ says Walter.
‘They’re not exactly his friends,’ says Compton. ‘More like fellow droids with the same batch number, who have mutual interests.’
‘He’s not really that bad when you get to know him,’ says Walter, who sees the good in everyone.
Robot’s colleagues have noticed that recently he’s started showing an interest in human emotion. At least, an interest in simulating it. One of the most frightening things anyone’s ever seen is Robot’s attempt to replicate the human smile. It’s an awful thing to witness, which leaves anyone unfortunate enough to be in the firing line feeling like they’ve seen things humans aren’t supposed to see. A glimpse through a crack in the tent into the workings of the human mind, enough to give them the sense of how deflatingly gimcrack the whole thing is.
You can see it happening in slow motion. First there’s the opportunity for a smile which Grant fails to immediately register. Seconds pass. Then the realisation dawns on him that this is when he should be smiling. Maybe the worst part is that you can almost see the old-style Soviet-era tape decks in his head shifting around as a new spool is loaded, and cranes are brought into position ready for cranking up the mouth corners.
Then it comes. The ersatz, non-Duchenne smile. For most observers this is the worst part. The corners of the mouth go up, but it’s like a corpse having its features adjusted by the undertaker, an impression which is highlighted by the red lines Robot has coming down on both sides of his mouth to the bottom of his face, which stand out conspicuously against the almost albino whiteness of the rest of his skin, making it look like he has the hinged mouth of a venquilitrist’s dummy.
As the corners of his mouth are hauled upwards, the rest of his face stays exactly the same. Robot doesn’t understand that you smile with your orbicularis oculi – the eyelid – muscle as much as with your zygomatic major muscle. Some swear that his eyes become even angrier as his mouth is tormented into position, as though the eyes are registering his real feelings at the imposture he is being forced to adopt in order to deal with these erratic and untrustworthy flesh-based creatures. Robot is perhaps guided by knowing that meat-machine detection systems are often jury-rigged and are thus manipulable – the robin red breast, for instance, can be fooled into attacking a piece of red cloth if it’s on its territory. But Robot leaves his red cloth in place for the wrong amount of time, and then the cranes let go too quickly.
‘Can we kindly not talk about Robot’s smile when we’re eating, please?’ says Bill.
It’s getting hard to talk about anything now, as the two time lords have had a little too much Tardis fuel to drink. They’ve resumed battle, and are getting louder and louder, each denouncing the other’s field, much to everyone else’s embarrassment. George especially is looking red in the face, and looks to be about to faint from shame. The whole restaurant is being forced to listen, and the waiters are nervously hovering, waiting for their moment to rush in and politely ask them to be quiet. Compton, Ren and Walter start chatting again in an attempt to disassociate themselves, and to provide some auditory cover, but their efforts are futile.
Beresford is accusing Hedley of sticking his philosophical oar into areas he doesn’t understand.
‘Leave physics to the physicists,’ Beresford says. ‘You don’t even understand the basics of what’s going on, so your theories have no relevance to anything. You’re embarrassing yourself.’
The audience tenses at this. The argument has left the arena of specifics, and looks like heading into general drunken abuse territory.
Hedley is not fazed. A confident and polished Oxbridge product, he has dealt with plenty of this sort of attitude before from better physicists than Beresford. But he is getting fed up with the man and wishes he would go away. He is also drunker than he realises.
‘What are you playing at, buster?’ he drawls, with effortless contempt. He is winding Sadler up like a master. ‘You come along to another department’s dinner, and insult their profession? Who asked you to come?’
‘It’s not a departmental dinner, it’s the dinner for your talk which was open to all.’
‘The talk was open to all. The dinner wasn’t. It’s a private dinner and you’ve gate-crashed it. I never heard anyone invite you. Do you think a philosopher would dream of inviting himself to a Physics dinner and then spend the dinner insulting the field of Physics?’
‘Wouldn’t worry us,’ shouts Sadler. ‘We could handle him. We’d squash him like a bug!’ Sadler bangs his fist into his palm, perhaps unnecessarily, to illustrate said squashing manoeuvres. ‘I’d tell him to bring it on! Say what you want!’
‘Do you know anything about philosophy of physics? Or even philosophy of science?’ says Hedley. ‘Have you ever read anything in the field, you ignoramus?’
‘Do you know anything about physics?’
‘I have a f**king Physics degree,’ says Hedley.
‘Undergraduate degree. Means nothing. You have a superficial and screwed-up understanding of everything.’
‘I doubt it, I read Physics at Cambridge, not at your department. Whereas you know less about the Philosophy of Physics than my third-year undergraduates. You haven’t even read any David Lewis. But then, my students don’t have the disadvantage you have of being at a second-rate University. I suggest you acquaint yourself with the literature before you go shooting your mouth off.’
‘Please,’ gasps George, who is holding his chest. Ren wonders whether he is going to complain about Hedley’s general insult to Grayvington, an insult which Hedley appears to be unaware he has made. ‘Please could we keep it down and not make it so personal?’
‘You wouldn’t know a f**king Boltzmann equation if I etched into your forehead with a f**king chisel,’ shouts Sadler.
So this is the famous Sadler temper, Ren thinks, that Douglas, via Garrett, has told him about. The two antagonists did not appear to be personally acquainted before today, but Ren wonders whether there is something in Hedley’s past that has made Beresford so hostile. Did he once insult Beresford’s sister? Did Hedley ever stop him getting a grant?
‘Do they let you play with chisels, then?’ says Hedley. ‘Is that what you try to split atoms with here?’
George has his head down on the table; he seems to be having a serious panic attack. The waiters are dumbfounded. They’ve never seen anything like this before. Everyone, the waiters, the cooks, the other customers, even the academics themselves, are now weirdly fascinated by the question that is hovering in front of their mind – what happens when academics lose it with each other? What exactly do they do? Do they just ramp up the academic references? Challenge each other to a fencing duel? Face off on a special edition of University Challenge? Hit each other with theses?
‘What does a philosopher split an atom with?’ yells Beresford, who makes the ominous transition from sitting to standing. ‘A piece of chalk?’
‘Sit down,’ says Hedley, who knows Beresford is close to losing it now.
‘A piece of f**king chalk?’ Beresford bends over to talk more directly to Hedley’s face. ‘You f**king chalky c**t.’
‘Sit down, you great gas giant.’
Beresford picks up a bowl of sweet-and-sour chicken and rice and shoves it across the prone body of George, who appears to be hyperventilating, into Hedley’s face. There are horrified-but-delighted gasps from the whole restaurant. It’s not like a fight in a restaurant never happens, but it’s not supposed to happen between academics. Ren can almost hear the other customers telling their friends tomorrow, ‘No better than animals, they were, those supposed eggheads.’ Which is pretty much what he’ll be telling people too.
Hedley grabs a fistful of prawn crackers and scrunches them on Beresford’s face. Beresford just stands there and takes it, as if to say ‘I’m Hemingway, that all you got?’ Then he quickly and, he hopes, expertly, jabs Hedley in the stomach. He expects this to knock Hedley down and finish the job, but although Hedley is winded, he still manages to walk around the table to pick up a plate of ribs, which he throws at Beresford. He clearly means for the ribs to go all over the larger physicist, but most of them scatter and miss the target. The greasy plate, meanwhile, has slipped out of Hedley’s hand by accident and it cracks Beresford on the forehead, and breaks in two, one half falling onto George, who has deciding that feigning complete unconsciousness is the best policy. Beresford’s head has been sliced, and blood starts seeping out of the wound. Hedley looks annoyed with himself for losing his cool.
‘Well, you brought that on yourself,’ Hedley says. Then, as though realising that a witty retort is what will tip the scales back in his favour, he adds, ‘Physics in action.’ The restaurant is silent. He realises that his line hasn’t quite done the job, so he says, ‘If that’s how you’re going to treat a visiting speaker, I’m off,’ and he stalks out of the restaurant unhindered. The waiters part to let him through.
As he slams the door behind him the restaurant erupts with excitement, anger, and outrage. Ren notices that George is making strange-sounding moans, and it’s him that some of the others are attending to, rather than the gash-headed Beresford, who is in disgrace. Then Ren realises that Hedley has left something important behind.
‘His briefcase,’ he shouts over the tumult. ‘Hedley’s left his briefcase behind.’
Hedley’s train tickets are probably in there, so Ren picks it up and runs out of the restaurant, his unconscious registering some surprise that George has been placed on the floor. He looks around for Hedley, and sees him a long way further off than he expected. Hedley is stalking off determinedly, looking like he is trying to get as far away from the damage as quickly as he can. Ren eventually catches up with him.
‘Hedley,’ he shouts. Hedley ignores him, hoping that he has misheard and that wasn’t his named being called.
‘Hedley. Hedley, you left your briefcase behind,’ Ren says. Once Hedley realises he’s not being chased by the manager, he turns around.
‘Ah, my dear boy, thank you so much. I’d completely forgotten about that in all that commotion with your oaf of a colleague.’
‘I’m sorry about that guy, Hedley. Like you said, he wasn’t one of us, so I wouldn’t call him my colleague. I’m new here, but I’ve already heard stories about him from people I know in Physics. Apparently he does s**t like that a lot.’
‘Quite all right, no need to apologise, young man. Are you rushing back to the scene of devastation now at Chase the Dragon? I’m not sure that’s wise, there may be police arriving soon.’
Ren doubts that, but he can’t say he’s very keen to rush back to the restaurant. As organiser, his meal is free, so there’s no need to pay a share of the bill. (Whoever pays for it tonight will be reimbursed by the department.)
‘I need a drink after all that,’ says Hedley. ‘How about we jump in a taxi and go somewhere more salubrious?’
‘Well…’ Ren looks doubtful. Not going back to the restaurant is one thing, but just going off drinking with Hedley seems a bit much. And what was up with George?
‘The drinks will all be on me. As long as you take me somewhere chic.’
‘Well, I can’t really say no to that. C’mon, there’s a taxi rank around the corner from here, I think.’
Ren knows nowhere chic in Grayvington. He’s not sure there is anywhere chic in Grayvington, but then he’s only been here a few months. He tells the taxi to take them to the Cock Up, a fairly pricey cocktail bar.
At the bar Ren, who is a cocktail fan (or, as Miles says, a girl), sets about ordering the most exotic and expensive cocktails he can. An amused Hedley follows suit. Hedley is clearly keen not to talk about time or the philosophy of physics any more, which suits Ren, but then he starts going on about how right-wing Tony Blair is. Why, Ren thinks, are the Cambridge smoothies always so left-wing? Does the ghost of Philby still haunt the place? Ren nods and murmurs, bored, wondering how many Eastern European agents Beagle would happily condemn to death, like Philby did. Perhaps we’d better talk about time after all, he thinks, and gets Beagle talking about temporal parts.
‘The trouble I have with the idea of temporal parts,’ said Ren, ‘is what’s the relationship between them? What connects temporal parts, and makes them add up to a physical object?’
‘The relationship between them is a causal connection,’ said Hedley.
‘How is there any causal connection? Does the earlier time-slice of the object, call it X, cause the later one, Y, to come into existence? They’re numerically distinct things. How does X cause Y to come into existence?’
‘Well, Y arises out of X.’
‘What does that mean, though? On your theory there’s just one thing at t1, and another similar but numerically distinct thing at t2. And how can X causally affect Y anyway, if X exists at t1 but not t2 which is the only time Y exists?’
‘But how do you overcome the problem of temporal intrinsics? I was sober earlier in the day, now I’m drunk. Two incompatible properties. How can I have both properties? Is it that the properties I actually have are really being-drunk-in-the-afternoon and sober-in-the-evening?’
‘You mean the other way around.’
‘Do I? Oh yes, the other way around. Hic. But those don’t seem like the actual properties I have. I’m drunk simpliciter, not drunk-in-the-evening. And being sober and drunk don’t seem to be relational properties either, so don’t say what I have is the relational property of being drunk in relation to this Wednesday evening.’
‘I wasn’t going to say any of those. I agree they’re not satisfactory. You four-dimensionalists always bring up the problem of temporal intrinsics, and it’s not something I claim to know how to deal with. But I’m interested in what a prominent four-dimensionalist says about the relation between temporal parts. I can never get a straight answer to that issue.’
Ren had asked for it. A straight answer was definitely not what he got; Hedley rabbited on for half an hour with his views on this issue, until Ren managed to change the subject again. Ren wasn’t sure Hedley’s answer made much sense, but it was hard to tell as they’d been drinking so many cocktails. It was even harder to tell the next day, when Ren could remember little of it.
Last orders are called. ‘Are you not gedding a train then?’ said Ren. ‘Where you stayin?’
‘I was gedding a train. I’ve forgotten all about thad. Fug. Fug. Fug. I’ll have to gedza hotel room for the night. Shid. Hope I can still ged one at this late stage.’
‘You can crashz at my place if you wan.’
‘Is it fid for human habidation?’
‘Give it three more monthz and it won’t be, but I haven’t been here long enough to completely bacherlorise it yed.’
‘Do you have anything do drink there?’
‘Juss some beer and a bol o’ whikky.’
‘Will I have to drink out of a doothbrush cub?’
‘I’m not a complee animal. A number of glazzes exist, and some of ‘em may even be washed and located in clean cuberdz.’ Ren quickly corrects himself. ‘Relatively clean cubberds.’
‘Hokay, lead da way.’
The two ramsquaddled academicians stumble out of the cocktail bar and find a taxi, which takes them to Ren’s place. They are supposed to be men of wisdom, and sagacity would firmly suggest to them that they call it quits at this point, but they left her in their dust a while ago, so instead Ren opens the whisky and pours them two large glasses full.
They carry on like this until 2am, when Ren pulls out his spare mattress and duvet for Hedley to sleep on, and stumbles off to bed. His head has not been on the pillow for very long, and he is about to fall off a sheer sleep-cliff, when the door opens. Hedley enters, swaying. It’s hard to see what’s up because Ren only has the hallway light to see by, but something about Hedley doesn’t look quite right. What’s different? Ah, it’s because he has an erect penis sticking out of the middle of his boxer shorts.
‘Ren, loog at dis.’
‘Have you god an SDD? Better gedda doctor to loog at it tomorrow. I can’t diagnose id.’
‘It needs your addenshun.’
‘There’s some coddon buds in the bathroom cabinet, ged some out and tage a swab for the doctor. Nuttin I can do, I’m not qualified.’
‘No, I wan you to put it in your mouth.’
‘Cud it out, dude. That’s nod hygienic. Go way.’
‘Just give it a rub.’
‘You dirdy old basdard. Jesus Crize, stob wanging in fronta me. Fug ov.’
‘Ren, but you don’ uddersdan. I haven’t had a proba sdiffy for over a year. A year. God one now. Don wanna waste it. Wanna share it. Wid you. It’s my gift. For all the whiggy. And your marvellous companee.’
‘The neighbourz godda dog, go and fug that if you’re horny. I think ids a boy.’
‘He’z come to life cossa you, you should celebrade wid me.’
‘You’re ov ya fuggin head, just go away and led me sleep. Bazad.’
Without realising it Ren goes off the cliff, into a deep, deep sleep. Later on he is disturbed by dreams of the Beagle trying to bugger next door’s dog, which in his dream is a Beagle, though in real life there is no neighbour’s dog. Which is good, because he would struggle to look it in the eye again if there was. The dream goes on for an uncomfortably long time, as Hedley stumbles around in pursuit of the unwilling dog, his anniversary boner sticking out of his boxers which he tugs with one hand while he tries to catch the dog with the other. Thankfully he doesn’t ever succeed in having his way with the dog, but his pursuit is relentless, and Ren is fearful that at some point Hedley will become enraged and suddenly clamp his hand with frightening ferocity around the dog’s neck and insert himself into the dog’s behind.