Month: February 2018

The Bursars Strike Back

This post comes from my original blog, when I was still working at the College and anonymously documenting my adventures. It was swiftly deleted and never appeared on this blog, but has recently resurfaced during a clear-out of old files. The prose is a little clunkier than it might be these days, but I thought I would share it with you anyway…

It is Tuesday morning and the sun is shining. The unnecessarily cold and miserable spring has finally given way to an optimistic-looking semblance of early summer, which has cheered things up no end. I have just had a week’s leave and, although not desperately happy to be back at work, I am feeling rested and relaxed, not to mention a few pounds heavier. All is as it should be when the phone on my desk rings. It is an internal call.

“Good morning, Porters’ Lodge”

“Deputy Head Porter. Senior Bursar here. Would you come to my rooms immediately?” The tone in Senior Bursar’s voice tells me he is not a happy man. Not at all.

“Certainly, Sir” I reply, but the phone has already been put down.

Hmmm. Some how, I can’t see this ending brilliantly, but I can’t for the life of me think why. What could possibly have happened? I haven’t got time to think it over, I decide the best thing to do is to get there as quickly as possible. It shows willing, at least.

I pause to catch my breath at the door to Senior Bursar’s rooms. I make a vague attempt to smooth my hair… and knock, knock.

“Come in!” The dulcet tones of Senior Bursar come from beyond the door.

I walk uneasily into the room, to see Senior Bursar is joined by Junior Bursar and the friendly, quiet woman from Human Resources.

“Do take a pew,” Senior Bursar indicates a vacant spot on the sofa in front of him. This is not good.

Then, I see it. To my horror, I realise that the table between the two sofas is covered in print outs of computer screen shots. Of my anonymous online blog.

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To cruelly add terror on top of the already pretty horrendous horror, I see that some excerpts are highlighted. They’ve had a bloody good read of it, then. Oh bugger, bloody bloody bugger. Suddenly, I can only think in expletives.

A strange calm comes over me as I practically stagger onto the sofa. Can they really be that cross with me? Oh god, of course they can. They are going to be absolutely furious, aren’t they? I don’t know why I am so calm. Maybe I’m having a stroke or something.

Senior Bursar speaks, but he is muffled to my ears. It is like hearing through water. This is a common side-effect of suddenly being thrown into intensely stressful or fearful situations. Tunnel vision is another, but that doesn’t seem to have kicked in yet. My hands and feet feel a bit numb.

Senior Bursar is proffering to me a selected print out. I take it and examine it, briefly toying with the idea of protesting innocence. Obviously, that would make matters far, far worse. I nod mutely before finally forcing out a word:

“Right.”

And then, “Yes.”

And finally, last and by many ways least – “Okay.” Pathetic.

I can see, from the many highlighted sections, that any pleas of ignorance would be met with evidence carefully extracted from my works. Parts where there could be no doubt that I had written it. I don’t think I can bear having edited highlights read to me by the very people I have portrayed. In another time, another place, I think I would have loved that, actually. Right here, right now, I am not enjoying it one bit. Neither, evidently, is Senior Bursar. Junior Bursar is giving off curious signals, however. It looks like he is smiling a little bit, but he could just be enjoying my obvious discomfort.

“Some of the characters here are very easily identifiable,” Senior Bursar tells me.

Well, they bloody well are now. The look on his face assures me he has spotted himself within the pages and he is not especially pleased with my depiction. I level out for a second now, I rack my brains but I struggle to think of anything particularly uncomplimentary in my portrayal of him. I must be missing a point.

Panic spreads through my brain as I wonder how many of The Fellowship have seen this. Will they feel the same fury as Senior Bursar? My mind is racing now – who did I write about?! What did I write?!

Then, the biggest penny in the world drops in a sudden epiphany of clarity and despair. He knows. He knows I ate his biscuits. Now, he knows.

I am in so much trouble.

“Yes, a lot of this is very familiar,” continues Senior Bursar “I distinctly remember of some these events myself. However, there is a particular passage which has annoyed – no – enraged, would you say, Junior Bursar?”

“Oh yes, he was enraged, certainly,” Junior Bursar happily confirms

“He was very annoyed – is this bit where you talk about Head Porter…”

“Oh yes,” Junior Bursar joins in, and rather too gleefully for my liking, “What was it? I like the bit where you said something about ‘he looked at me like I’d eaten his children’, or something?”

Senior Bursar adjusts his glasses on his strong, perfect nose, and proceeds to read demonstratively from a highlighted segment

“…Head Porter looks at me with the coldest, darkest look I have seen in a long time. I have looked into the eyes of murders, rapists and child abusers. But never have I felt the aggression and coldness I feel when I return the gaze of Head Porter… Now, I know you don’t actually call him a child abuser…”

“Oh come on,” I find my voice, but it is small and a little defeated. “You can’t think… look, I was drawing on experiences from my past and putting it in the context of this… it is a bit of a theme throughout the blog…”

“Okay, I realise that, but what you have written could be seen as very offensive. Head Porter was very upset by it and came to see us. Who else in the Porters’ Lodge knows about your blog?”

“No one,” I reply, which is true to the best of my knowledge.

“Have you any idea how he found out? Head Porter wouldn’t tell us.” So someone else must know. Someone must have tipped him off. But who?

I shake my head. I really don’t have any idea.

“This… this whole thing was just meant as a private thing, for my family and close friends, so I could share my experiences with them,”

Senior Bursar relents, a little.

“We realise that this is a parody, and is written predominantly for humour, but it has caused a great deal of upset for Head Porter. You now have a problem. We have a lot of changes coming up for the Lodge and a lot of work already ongoing. You have to able to work together. Deputy Head Porter, you need to sort this out.”

Oh yeah, right. I need to be able to work with a man who grasses me up to the Bursars the first chance he gets? This is someone who I need to punch in the face, not work with. And he clearly doesn’t want to work with me, either. He could have confronted me about what I had written, but he chose to inflict the most damage possible by opening up my literary adventures to two of the unwitting stars of the show. Still, I am the one in the wrong here, so pointing this out right now would not be the wisest manoeuvre.

There follows a conversation, of sorts, in which I realise I am not participating nearly enough. I try as best I can to explain my genuine affection for Old College, which is the very reason I write about it, but I feel it falls on deaf ears.

Senior Bursar concludes, “You need to consider the wisdom of continuing with your project in such a public forum, Deputy Head Porter”.

“I will remove it all as soon as possible,” I reply. At least they don’t actually demand I take the blog down. But I am pretty sure they will have another ‘conversation’ with me if I don’t. Well that’s that, then. Hang on, have I been sacked? I didn’t hear them say I had been sacked.

“Sort this out with Head Porter and that will be the end of it,” says Senior Bursar. I can’t believe it. Although, how the buggery I deal with Head Porter over this is anyone’s guess. I am sure I will think of something. I usually do.

“Well, that’s it, thank you,” Junior Bursar says, still sort of smiling. I get up to leave, but I don’t want to leave it like that. I don’t feel I have justified myself, quite.

“Look, I know it’s irrelevant,” I explain, my heart simultaneously in my mouth and on my sleeve (if that is even possible) “It was meant… it was written affectionately. I wouldn’t have written it if I didn’t feel… strongly inspired…”

Senior Bursar looks decidedly unimpressed and unmoved. “Thank you, Deputy Head Porter.”

I walk back to the Lodge on legs of jelly. I feel a little hysterical, I think, as I keep giggling to myself. They’ve only bloody read it! Come on, didn’t some part of you want that – from the very first sentence? Apart from anything, it would make a brilliant blog post, wouldn’t it? Oh the irony…

Then, red-hot pangs of blind panic – He knows I ate the biscuits! Oh no, the things I said about The Dean… a moment of clarity, here. In reality, The Dean is a very down-to-earth chap with a fairly dry sense of humour. Actually, I think he revels in his reputation as a strong character of Old College and plays up to it a bit. He might see the funny side. Might. Probably won’t. Oh no! I said Dr J was fat! He won’t like that…

And then, the realisation that Head Porter will know exactly where I have been, and why. This is going to be a challenging afternoon, and no mistake. He will get his apology, as requested by The Bursars. But not right this minute. I need to think. There is far more to this than meets the eye. Got to think. Think!

I remember this incident well and at the time couldn’t believe that they hadn’t sacked me. I also struggled to understand why Head Porter had knifed me in the back in such a cowardly manner… but when I eventually found out who put him on to the blog, perhaps I shouldn’t have been so surprised…

“You’re a sexy suburban housewife on the make and I’m a bent copper. Let’s cut to the chase.”*

Being a writer can mean many, many different things. Sometimes, it means hours spent alone, dragging reluctant words from the depths of a troubled mind, forcing ink onto the blank page, one uncooperative phrase after another. Other times, it means acting as ringmaster to a cacophony of uncontrollable characters who fly across the pages with minds of their own, wilfully disregarding your own intentions for them. On occasion it seems almost impossible to stem the flow of pulsing purple prose from your fingertips as hours race by unnoticed, strings of sentences clicking into perfect place like links of literary gold chains.

Other times a writer’s lot will be that of a researcher, chasing down facts to support the inspiration, carefully noting the things that will never make it to the page but must be understood, nonetheless. Writers are the mothers of their works, yet must also be the butchers of the same – and be brave enough to wield the editor’s sabre, even to the most loved of their compositions.

There are times when to be a writer means to be one swathed in rejection and broken dreams, yet still find it within them to take up the pen once more, in spite of the negative tides that cast them time and time again against the rocky shores of disappointment.

But sometimes – on a damp and drizzly Monday in Cambridge, say – being a writer means sitting around in your pants, nursing the remnants of a head cold and watching re-runs of The Sweeney. Because life’s funny like that.

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Top quality line from the endlessly quotable Jack Regan, from The Sweeney

As If By Magic, The Shopkeeper Appeared (I Am Mr Benn’s Love Child)

Finding myself in a kind of literary limbo – waiting for news about my new book release and the next stages of a couple of other projects – I decided to decamp from sleepy Cambridge for a few days to the illustrious streets of South West London, to quell my itchy writing fingers and clear the mind in preparation for all that comes next. I have family links to the Putney area and thought that now would be a good time to investigate a couple of particular family legends originating from my Nan’s side of the family.

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My grandparents have always been a rich source of unlikely tales from way-back-when, especially my grandfather and his naval exploits. Whilst he hails from what was once the rough-and-tumble East End, decades before the fashion of creeping gentrification, my Nan came from the slightly more gentile area of Upper Richmond Road in the South West. Her father owned a large, double fronted tobacconist and sweet shop, where Mumsie remembers sitting on the huge wooden counter as a child, sucking the sugar off the bonbons before putting them back in the jar. Heath and safety regulations were presumably somewhat more slack in the 1950s than those we enjoy today, but one hopes that the young Mumsie had nothing but the best interests of customers’ dental health in mind at the time.

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Never short of quirky characters in our family, Mumsie had a cousin called Tom who at the time was famous for walking his pet chicken, Phillip, up and down Putney High Street on a piece of string. In days long before the easy availability of cameras, the only record that remains of this scintillating piece of local history is the word-of-mouth recollections of our good selves. Hoping that such a sight might have caught the interest of locals at the time, I intended to search the local history section of Putney library to see if any photographs of Tom and Phillip existed and also to track down my great grandfather’s sweetshop, which by now is likely converted or even demolished.

Mumise was very small at this time (she isn’t very big now, to be fair) and my grandparents’ memories are foggy after eighty six years, so no clear information about the location of the sweetshop is forthcoming. Despite being unable to trace this elusive emporium, nor finding any pictorial evidence of the enterprising Tom and Phillip, a happy couple of hours were spent exploring both the historical records and lively streets themselves.

Putney is perhaps the closest thing to Cambridge that you can experience in London. Here you will find the starting point of the legendary Oxford and Cambridge boat race and the banks of the Thames boast boat houses of varying grandeur, homes to all manner of top-notch rowing clubs. The bright, crisp afternoon was perfect for wandering along the river, watching a bit of rowing and hunting for another historical location – Festings Road.

For those of a certain age, a certain bowler hat-wearing children’s character by the name of Mr Benn needs no introduction. Created by David McKee, Mr Benn was a smart London gent whose address was the only slightly fictional 52 Festive Road (next door to McKee’s own address at the time of 54 Festing Road). Every day he would leave his house, dressed smartly in a black suit and bowler hat, to visit a fancy-dress shop where a mysterious shopkeeper would inexplicably appear and suggest he try on an outfit. Mr Benn would dutifully don the outfit du jour then leave through a magic door and embark upon an adventure related to his costume.

This was a successful quest and I merrily hummed the Mr Benn theme tune and jauntily announced the infamous catchphrase of ‘As if by magic, the shopkeeper appeared!’ with the kind of gusto you can no doubt imagine. So pleased was I with my own adventure, that I had to go to a nearby public house to raise a glass to the fellow who served as an early influence of my love of bowler hats. Sharing details of my endeavours of social media, as one does in this day and age, I was delighted to receive a tweet from Mr Benn himself! His Twitter feed suggests that he spends less time in costume shops these days, preferring to visit classic car shows, but the similarities between our profile pictures leads me to believe that I might be his love child.

Mumsie has some explaining to do, I suspect.

More bowler hat adventures!

First Lady Of The Keys – Amazon UK   Amazon US

The Vanishing Lord – Amazon UK   Amazon US