Straddling the ancient river of one of Britain’s most venerable cities, Old College is among the most esteemed Colleges of The City University. Even those with a firm grasp of the complexities of higher education are likely to be baffled by the anachronistic nuances of the academic elite, a world mostly unseen by those not permitted passage beyond those hallowed walls. A little light reading is required by any wishing to ingratiate themselves into College life, but it is well worth keeping in mind that even veterans of scholarly society don’t really know what’s going on. A quick glance at this visitor’s guide will have you swanking around like an alumni in no time.
Ruled by a sort of benevolent autocracy, Colleges have at their head The Master of College. This role is usually taken by a person of great academic achievement and often also of high standing within society. The Master of Old College is both a professor of economics and a Lord of the Realm, which is fairly impressive. A somewhat sinister and distant figure, he spends a good deal of time abroad, avoiding his sex-mad, surgically enhanced wife who is sadly devoid of any notable talents beyond those bought and paid for in Harley Street.
Luckily, Old College is blessed with the formidable force of nature that is The Dean to keep things relatively on track in his absence. Previously an international lawyer with a dubious past in Kuala Lumpa, The Dean is fearless, tactless and prone to random violence. A handsome man in his mid-forties, Deputy Head Porter has held a candle for him since their first meeting. Fraternisation between The Fellowship and College Servants is not so much frowned upon as simply unthinkable, and his often frenzied approach to enforcing discipline and maintaining reputation make any union between them unlikely. He is ably assisted by the softly-spoken Senior Tutor, whose remarkable tolerance makes him perfect for dealing with students and Fellows alike.
‘The Fellowship’ is a rather romantic title for the multifarious conglomerate of academics who make up the ruling body of College. Although there are some bone fide proper jobs performed by members of The Fellowship, a great deal of them seem to exist simply to occupy the dining halls and their only reason for being in College is that they haven’t anywhere else to go.
Keeping an eye on the vast sums of money passing in and out of College are The Bursars. Traditionally, one collects the money whilst the other spends it, although Old College is now down to one Bursar and he is suspected of being a Russian spy and serial poisoner.
Sitting firmly and distantly beneath The Fellowship we have the College servants. All the really important roles are covered by this somewhat pompous term – Housekeeping, Maintenance, Catering, Gardeners and, of course, the Porters.
Ensconced in the muted splendor of the Porters’ Lodge, the bowler-hatted jacks-of-all-trades are at the top of the humble servant pile, although other departments might dispute that. The Porters, naturally, are not the carriers of bags but the keepers of keys. The role is so broad and varied it is difficult to encapsulate concisely. Always on hand (except when they are sneaking off for a smoke), Porters act as security, deliver the post and are called upon to deal with everything from lost property to broken hearts. But woe betide any who upset the Porters. Think of Porters as butlers with attitude.
Housekeeping staff whose primary priority is keeping the student quarters from becoming biohazards. Bedders keep the College spick and span whilst accumulating some of the more salacious gossip, which makes them great allies of the Porters.
By definition, Formal Halls are formal dinners often used for the entertainment of College guests. As such they are governed by certain guidelines, customs and rules set out to ensure all College members behave themselves. Failure to observe these guidelines may result in punishment up to and including death, or something far worse than that – being sent to see The Dean. Eating and drinking (especially drinking) is taken very seriously indeed by The Fellowship and they expect everyone to attribute a similar gravitas to the consumption of victuals. Formal Halls are held once a week in full term and are seen as a way of keeping your hand in for the Feasts and Balls that are a common part of College life.
The Other Place
Among the upper echelons of British society, there are only two Universities given any consideration. Their annual boat races are a long standing tradition and the contention between them goes back centuries. It is considered bad form to utter the name of your academic rivals, hence the University that is not your alma mater is automatically known as The Other Place.
Punting is a prerequisite of proper City life. The art of gently steering a flat-bottomed boat with a twelve foot pole along the urban waterways is one which must be mastered by anyone wanting to be taken really seriously in College. Here in the City, we always punt from the rear of the boat, whereas The Other Place adopts the rather undignified practice of dragging the boat through the water, punting from the front. Heathens.
This covers the basics of a complex and convoluted ‘organisation’ (I use the term loosely) that, despite ambiguous origins and esoteric arrangements, has managed to thrive for eight hundred years, becoming inordinately wealthy and more powerful than government or the church. How the University wields its power is difficult to know, but how they maintain it can be easily observed.
Welcome to Old College. It’s quite an education.