‘Balls!’ said the Bursar and continued skipping vigorously. As her skirt rode higher, vast quantities of satin eau-de-Nil directoire knicker were exposed to Amiss’s enchanted gaze.
‘Sod this!’ she shouted a couple of minutes later. Flinging the skipping-rope into the corner of her office, she marched back to the desk, threw herself into her chair and lit one of the pipes that peeped out from under the litter of papers.
‘You’ve lost me, Jack. What precisely was it I said that you consider to be balls?’
‘That blather about the tranquillity of Cambridge after the hurly-burly of London.’
‘I was just being polite,’ said Amiss testily. ‘One has to say something.’
The Bursar yawned, leaned back in her chair and planted her feet on her desk. She took another deep pull on her pipe. ‘Drink?’
‘It’s a bit early for me.’
‘God, you’re so prissy.’ She swung her legs off the desk, reached down to the drawer on her right and pulled out a bottle of gin. Two glasses followed. She poured a generous slug into one and let the bottle hover over the other.
‘Oh, all right,’ said Amiss. ‘But weak, please, and may I have some tonic?’
She sloshed what to Amiss’s anxious eye looked like a treble into the second glass, shook her head and reached down to the left-hand drawer to get the tonic. ‘Ruins the taste of good gin, you know. Always take mine neat. Learned that trick in the Navy. You young people are all such wimps.’ She shoved the glass over to him. Amiss took a small sip and choked. He grabbed the tonic bottle and filled the glass up to the top. The Bursar took a mighty swig and smacked her lips appreciatively. ‘I like gin,’ she said.
‘That is patently obvious. Now what’s this all about, Jack?’ ‘Less of the “Jack”. You’re going to be very formal with me here. I maintain my distance from colleagues. It all helps to put the fear of God into them. I don’t want anyone to know that we’re friends. Spoil the whole effect.’
‘Bursar!’ A note of desperation was creeping into Amiss’s voice. ‘Why am I here?’
‘Because I need an ally to sort out this, this…’ ‘Mess?’
She shook her head irritably, ‘just searching for the mot juste,’ she said. ‘Try another.’
She shook her head. ‘You don’t know a word for witches’ brew?’
‘Sorry, I think it’s normally known as a witches’ brew.’
‘Oh, anyway,’ she said impatiently, ‘the nub is that St Martha’s is in such a state that even I cannot tackle its problems alone.’
‘And in essence what are they?’ ‘Money and politics.’
The Bursar knocked out her pipe with some savagery on the heavy brass ashtray. ‘Here, sex is politics and politics is sex.’ Amiss felt his head swimming. The Bursar’s darkly impenetrable briefing, the gin and an empty stomach were cumulatively taking their toll.
‘Where do I come in?’
‘I’ll get you in. Do what I tell you and you’ll be a Research Fellow by next week.’
There was a knock on the door. The Bursar’s roar of ‘Enter!’ was loud enough to make Amiss jump. A tiny, elderly, whiskery woman tottered in. She was wearing district nurse’s shoes, thick grey woollen stockings and something grey and woolly underneath her threadbare gown. Much of her hair was confined within a bun on the top of her head, but although it was encased in a brown net which contrasted rather oddly with her white hair, enough had escaped to make her look deranged.
‘That minx, Bursar! That dreadful, dreadful minx!’ ‘Which one?’ asked the Bursar wearily. ‘Sandra or Bridget?’ ‘Sandra, of course. I said the minx. Bridget’s the hussy.’ ‘What’s she done?’
‘She sent me this commentary on my reading list–’ she brandished several sheets of paper– ‘and it’s full of all that awful gibberish, you know.’
‘Don’t tell me,’ said the Bursar. ‘All that DWEM stuff again.’
‘I don’t understand any of it. It’s all full of words like “Anglo-centric” and “neo-colonial perspective” and “patriarchal dominance”.’
‘So what’s new?’ asked the Bursar. ‘Why don’t you just ignore it?’
‘She’s circulated it round all my students and you know what will happen.’
‘Have you talked to the Mistress?’
‘Not on a Tuesday morning.’ She sounded shocked. ‘Sorry,’ said the Bursar. ‘One forgets. Leave it with me,
Senior Tutor, we’ll have a word about it later on today and don’t let the…’ she paused for a second, ‘minxes, get to you.’
The door closed on the afflicted don. The Bursar hurled the papers viciously into the corner. ‘“Minxes”, indeed.
“Vipers” would be more like it. They’ve got that poor midget in a fearful state.’
‘Do I gather you are suffering an outbreak of political correctness?’
‘You can say that again. They’ve gone to war and the enemy is the Dead White European Male. The battle cry is, “Get the DWEMs off the reading list and bring on the one-legged black lesbians.”’
‘But that’s a pretty normal scene on many a campus these days, isn’t it?’
‘This time the whole future of the college is at stake. Come on, drink up and I’ll take you out for a decent lunch. I’m fed up with this health kick.’
‘What health kick?’
‘Well, I’m trying to lose weight,’ said the Bursar stiffly. ‘Why do you think I was skipping?’
‘What about the gin?’
‘Gin isn’t fattening. How could it be? It’s a clear liquid.
Anyway, I’ve got to keep my strength up.’ ‘Why are you trying to lose weight?’
‘Well, look at me. How would you describe me?’ ‘Plump?’ hazarded Amiss politely.
‘God, what a mimsey word. Portly is more like it. I’m portly. Mind you, in this bloody place I’m not allowed to be portly. “Differently-sized”, that’s how that half-wit Sandra described a fat student the other day. Anyway, I’ve been doing a bit of huffing and puffing climbing the stairs so it’s time I did something about it. Come along. I know where we can get some excellent bloody roast beef and a decent bottle of claret.’
The trouble with Jack Troutbeck, wrote Amiss to Rachel, is that though she is a particularly splendid old bird, and one with whom I worked and occasionally caroused very happily in the civil service, once she has decided you’re intelligent it’s almost impossible to get any information out of her: she assumes you pick up everything by osmosis. However, I applied myself to extracting the salient details and have now got a grip and awfully entertaining it all sounds.
St. Martha’s has been staggering along on a shoestring in an undistinguished sort of way for 80 years or so. It’s the least well-known of the Cambridge colleges for reasons which I haven’t yet sussed out. Jack said something darkly about the founder wanting them all to be seamstresses rather than scholars. They seem, these days at least, to have people who can’t get in anywhere else and don’t really want to come to them in the first place, and that applies to dons as well as students.
Now the even tenor of St. Martha’s life has been disrupted by a shattering event. An old girl has left a bequest of ten million quid to be used at the discretion of the Mistress for a specific project. This is the root of the problem: apparently the benefactor, Miss Alice Toon, was not one of those who fears lest her left hand find out what her right hand has been up to. She wished her light to shine free of bushel, hence the stipulation of something that can have her name attached. Forget minor improvements and running costs. What St. Martha’s really needs is money to cure the dry rot in the loo seats and the rising damp in the under-gardener, with a bit of money thrown in for scholarship. But that isn’t the sort of thing Alice Toon had in mind. She saw it more in terms of the Alice Toon Memorial Ante-Room or the Alice Toon Chair of Cosmic Understanding or whatever.
The decision has to be taken by the end of this term, and the Fellows are at war over what it should be. With her customary delicacy, Jack describes the two main tribes as the Virgins and the Dykes, with a minority party called the Old Women.
The Virgins are what you might expect. Head Virgin is the Mistress, Dame Maud Theodosia Buckbarrow, who is a medieval historian—a ‘decent old biddy’, according to Jack, who was contemporaneous with her at St. Martha’s forty years ago, but not a bag of laughs. She lives, breathes and exhales footnotes and lives a life of abstraction, purity and fixed routine.
Equally virtuous is Emily Twigg, the pint-sized Senior Tutor, who is an authority on Beowulf, looks like an intellectual grey squirrel and, according to Jack, is a complete innocent about everything except, of course, English literature. There are a few other similarly chaste and dedicated ancient bluestockings in the college, all minded to keep the fires of rigorous scholarship alight. To this end they are devising the Alice Toon Postgraduate Scholarships in Theology, Palaeography, Medieval Law and so on. Dame Maud Theodosia is compiling a definitive list at present of the most unpopular subjects anyone can think of.
The second lot, the Dykes, are fewer in number but they’re better street-fighters. For instance, their leader, Bridget Holdness, was clever enough to get a Visiting Fellowship for her frightful sidekick Sandra Murphy, who turned out later to stand for everything that Dame Maud hates. Jack thinks Holdness is an apparatchik who is using the politically correct movement entirely cynically and marshals her troops well. Her lot want to spend the money on a centre for Gender and Ethnic Studies.
The Old Women are in fact men. I don’t know how they came on the scene but there are three of them, who also have some nascent support among the uncommitted Fellows. The one Jack mentioned, Francis Pusey, inspired her to a rush of expletive-spattered denunciation which escapes me now but the gist of which was that he was a namby-pamby mummy’s boy who spends most of his time doing embroidery. What Pusey and his pals want is to call the whole college after Alice Toon and spend the money on making it extremely comfortable for the Fellows—rewired, replumbed, equipped with a decent wine cellar and a good cook. Jack is morally on the Virgins’ side, in her heart she’s on the Old Women’s side—but all that matters is to do down the Dykes. I’m being dragged into this simply because Jack is ever a woman to seize an opportunity and I am that opportunity. Jack had screwed out of her ex-colleagues in the civil service the money for a temporary Research Fellowship to study the relationship of government and academia: the holder is to examine the situation on the ground, as it were, and come up with a thinkpiece on how Whitehall and academe could snuggle up together more productively. The person chosen has dropped out at the last minute and having heard from a mutual friend that I was resting, she thought it would be a good wheeze to get me along to hold her hand through the weeks ahead. She’s persuaded her civil service contact to insist that work start on the agreed date, i.e. at the end of the next week, so she’s been able to cut corners in getting a shortlist together for the selection committee to meet next Tuesday. She’s rigged it to the best of her ability and now I’ve got to pass muster with a rather disparate group which includes one of the Dyke faction and the midget (sorry, vertically-challenged) Senior Tutor. My instructions are to be cunning, play it by ear, and dress the part. ‘What part?’ I asked. ‘Work it out’, she said and abandoned me to my fate.
Of course, I’m going to give it a whirl. It will be a good billet, if I get it, from which to job-hunt and besides, I like old Jack. I still remember with deep pleasure the occasion when she became even more frank than usual at a Permanent Secretary’s sherry party and told a Treasury mandarin where to put his Public Sector Borrowing Requirement: the only effect alcohol ever seems to have on Jack is to make her even less inhibited.
Now I’m off to choose my wardrobe for Tuesday, working on the principle that the Virgins won’t notice what I wear, so I’d better dress for the Dykes. I can see I’d better take advice.