My dear readers, the festive season is upon us and in amongst the associated shenanigans I have been working hard on the new PorterGirl novel, Sinister Dexter. I had hoped to cobble together a Christmas video for you all, as is usually my wont at this time of year, but time and circumstance have conspired against me and the best I can offer you is an excerpt from the aforementioned book itself. There are no spoilers as the main thrust of the drama is revealed very early on. Welcome back to Old College, my friends…
A Place In Society
At least Head Porter has made contact. He is no doubt lurking somewhere about the place but where? And what is he doing? I wouldn’t mind betting that he is deliberately avoiding all the to-do regarding the bottom of the garden and leaving me with the dubious honour of managing the matter. I shall have words, I tell you.
Daylight is a fleeting thing this time of year and dusk is already rampant across the skies. I can taste the beginnings of a frost in the air, but none has yet settled anywhere that I can see. Perhaps it is an illusion. I have learnt never to trust the obvious where Old College is concerned. And then I spy the one thing about Old College that I certainly can trust – it is The Dean and he appears furious. A man not given to guile or subterfuge, The Dean is a man who not quite wears his heart on his sleeve, but definitely wears his mood on his face. Whatever it is that The Dean might be feeling at any given moment, he is very keen to make sure everyone knows about it.
“Deputy Head Porter!” he calls out as he spots me. Why am I so easy to spot? “Deputy Head Porter, I am furious!”
“So I see, Sir” I reply. I would ask what the cause of his rage might be, but furious is his default setting. It could be anything from the collapse of Western civilisation to the wind blowing too loudly.
“Come on,” he says. “Let’s get a drink. You’ll need one after you’ve heard what I’ve got to tell you. Actually, you’ll need one before as well, I shouldn’t wonder. Lot’s of drinking, that’s the thing.”
“You know I shouldn’t drink on duty,” I reply. “And anyway, I’m off to the Lodge, Head Porter wants me to give him a ring.”
“Neither of those things are relevant, Deputy Head Porter,” cries The Dean, wagging a finger and displaying wonderful disregard for anything that doesn’t involve him. “We are going to the bar.”
I’ve just come from the bar and I don’t think this is a very good idea at all. There is a growing swell of collective student inebriation forming there and is certainly not the place for The Dean of College. Nor the Deputy Head Porter, come to that. Although there are no hard and fast rules on the matter, patronage of the College bar is predominately the privilege of the students. The Fellowship have their own little nooks and dens for the purpose of excessive imbibing and the College servants really shouldn’t be partaking at all.
“Sir, maybe we should go to your rooms instead.”
“Deputy Head Porter! You cheeky thing!” The Dean almost giggles. “I see your thinking but no, there is important work to be done. This is no time for a repeat of the last time.”
A brief – but remarkably intense – wave of horror crashes over me. I don’t know what he thinks I am suggesting but I can assure you, I am most certainly not being a ‘cheeky thing’. More worryingly, I realise that he is referring to that lost, drunken night during the summer, of which I remember nothing at all. Perhaps the bar is a good idea after all.
Recent events coupled with the presence of DCI Thompson and friends has cast a grim shadow over Old College, but the bar retains a familiar air of jovial anarchy. After all, Maurinio was not well-known among his contemporaries and dead bodies tend to bring out the bravado within certain swaggering types. The free flowing of alcohol invariably loosens lips, so there may be a tactical advantage in having a quiet drink and keeping my ears open. Then again, I am here with The Dean, to whom ‘quiet’ is an unknown concept, unless it is applied to other people.
Old College is at the very peak of the upper echelons of the academic elite, a seat of learning for some of the most privileged offspring in Britain and beyond. As such, the College bar serves as something of a glimpse into the salons and lounges of exclusive establishments of the future; smatterings of an elite prospective society banter over two-for-one cocktails and pork scratchings, forging alliances that will last for decades. A microcosm of tomorrow’s captains of industry, parliament and creative influencers are currently swarming around the sticky bar, instigating increasingly outlandish dares whilst ensuring that their heads will be unbearable the following morning. I am rather fearful for the future, I can tell you.
The University population functions in a similar way to the wider society that exists beyond its physical and metaphorical walls. Clutches of kindred spirits band together, creating hierarchies both within the groups and of the groups themselves. The athletic brethren seem to fair best in these unspoken rankings, their physical prowess a conspicuous outward affirmation of their superiority. Whilst not always top of the class in their chosen subjects, their academic credentials are nonetheless assured as students of Old College. The rowing and rugby teams are the most ostentatious in displaying their supremacy, no doubt emboldened by the esteem derived from sporting excellence. The exponents of both pursuits possess most excellent thighs and a number of them are gathered around a beer-sodden table, talking boorishly of not only their own personal and sporting conquests, but also tearing into vicious character assassinations of those perceived to have caused them offence of some kind. It is impossible not to overhear their bawdy conversation, conducted as it is at decibels designed to quell the chatterings of lesser mortals.
One company – perhaps the only one – who fail to cow to the braggadocio of the athletes, are the engineers. Consummate all-rounders, not only do they have the brains and expertise to match mathematicians and physicist alike, they possess an ingenious creativity akin to any of the artistes, coupled with an innate practicality that is glaringly absent from almost all of the academic persuasion. The engineers consider themselves to be the alpha pack – but a hesitation to defend the claim against their brawny rivals prevents them from noting this too loudly. As The Dean and I head towards quieter corners, we pass a gathering of them, making jokes I don’t understand and constructing impossible things from beer mats.
A nest of mathematicians are drinking quietly yet with great purpose, whilst philosophy students confuse the English literature scholars and those with political leanings argue among themselves. The mid-table groups of University society battle it out between themselves as to which has greater standing than the next. The only thing upon which they all agree is who sits at the bottom of the pile. In The University, this is the history of art students. Unlucky enough to have selected a subject that is neither intellectually demanding nor requiring talent of any kind, these unfortunates often find themselves adrift from the cut and thrust of College life. Occasionally a musician might take pity on them, or they may find themselves under the wing of a stray gaggle of misfits, but largely they are scholastic pariahs and not taken seriously as either intellectuals or artistes.
Of course, it is possible to cling to the coattails of elitism, even if you are a history of art student. There are numerous student bodies and organisations that need figureheads or patsies to fawn over them. Social standing can be acquired through romantic connections to those higher up the pecking order, although this is a last resort in an environment where personal achievement is everything. Still, it is not to be frowned upon too firmly, as this would undoubtedly be my most likely option of social climbing had I ever, by some miracle, found myself as an Old College student. The other sure-fire way to becoming a collegiate legend is to join one of the ancient and notorious drinking societies that have both blighted and enriched academic life for centuries. Each college has their own drinking society and there are also exceptionally exclusive University-wide institutions that invite only the finest scholastic imbibers to attempt initiation.
And the initiations are quite something. The University does love its nonsensical and elaborate rituals and the drinking societies are no different. Old College’s own drinking society, the Lesser Dragons (named after the Order of the Lesser Dragon, itself a secret society that founded the College in 1448) has one of the less horrendous rites. In order to be admitted to the Lesser Dragons, prospective members must place a flaming sock on their genitals and down a bottle of Châteauneuf du Pape before said item can be removed. The Sybarites, Bacchus-loving brethren of our near neighbours and sworn enemies, Hawkins College, have an initiation that involves drinking a bottle of Bombay Sapphire through a prophylactic. A typically pitiful and cowardly ritual, if you ask me, but I have come to expect such things from those buggers next door.
The Beefeaters Club is a highly exclusive, inter-college society that on the face of things is fairly decorous. Their meetings are held in high-end establishments, evening dress de rigueur, and involve a lavish seven-course meal. The appearance of respectability falls apart somewhat when you learn that each course is accompanied by one full bottle of wine for each diner and that the host establishment serves the meal in a room covered entirely in tarpaulin, to minimise the risk of damage.
There are even annual fights between rival drinking societies, organised with the same care and deliberation one might apply to a garden party, and scores have been meticulously recorded through the centuries as if they were The Ashes. Membership to one of these illustrious yet nefarious clubs would elevate even the most socially inept of students to a respectable rank, therefore improving their communal and romantic prospects considerably. But this is of little concern to The Dean. He has important things to discuss.
The perfect Christmas gift!
Christmas Tales with Lucy Brazier & Paul Butterworth
Christmas Eve At Old College
The Tale Of The Cursed Hat