Traditions Of Old College

Grumpy Interview

I wasn’t my usual chipper self when giving this interview, and when I received the notes back I realised that I sound like a proper arsey little madam!

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Looking pretty arsey here.

 

1. I was surprised when you told me that Porters in a College don’t actually carry any bags for anyone. They simply guard the keys.

Portering is far more than just guarding keys, I assure you! The Porters ensure the smooth running of the day-to-day business of College life, handling everything from the post to broken hearts. They are the backbone of academia – providing security, advice and a friendly ear at any time of the day or night. Guarding keys, indeed. Pah! Philistine. 

2. PorterGirl is a work of fiction but based heavily on your life as the first female Deputy Head Porter at a Cambridge college. What was the hardest thing about writing this book?

There was nothing hard about writing the book at all, I loved writing the book. Editing the book, promoting the book – that’s another story.

3. Was there lots you had to leave out so you weren’t sued? If so, can you hint at some of them?

There was never any question of me being (successfully) sued, the libel laws in this country leave a lot of scope for satire and parody. Although the publicity would be handy right about now, don’t you think? There are certainly things I could have written differently to give a more accurate account of my time there, but it wouldn’t have been as much fun. If you are hinting at nefarious goings on, well – it’s all in there, one way or another, if you know where to look.

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4. It is a story about a woman finding it hard to fit in to what was a male dominated world. What are your views on that word then and now?

I came into that world wide-eyed and dumbfounded by the history, the elitism and the sheer otherworldliness of it all. As a very working class girl with little education to speak of, it really was like entering Wonderland. The casual misogyny was quite amusing at first and, to be honest, in reality it was limited to a few antiquated old duffers who probably still thought there was a war on. A lot of people were quite pleased to see me. That didn’t last long. Although it is a world I could never really fit in to, I have enormous respect and admiration for Cambridge University. You don’t get to be at the top of your game for over 800 years without doing something right.

Actual real-life Portering occurring before your very eyes

5. PorterGirl isn’t a super hero though some might think she sounds like one, you just need the cape and knickers over your trousers. What super powers would you give her and why?

Invisibility, so she could listen in to all the plotting, unnoticed.

6. And what about you Lucy Brazier, what super powers would you like and why?

A bottomless stomach and a psychotic metabolism, so I could eat all the time and not get fat. Also being able to turn water into wine would be cool. I can do it the other way round, but that’s not so special.

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Head Porter, your breakfast is making me laugh.

7. PorterGirl is a murder mystery, I’ll not give too many spoilers, of who, how or when. Who are your favourite murder mystery writers and why?

Agatha Christie is the absolute last word in murder mystery. No one does it as well as her. Her mysteries are so devilishly crafted and her characters beautifully presented. In all her books, the clues are there for the reader to solve, if only they can pick them out. She is also the master of the red herring, a notoriously tricky thing to pull off in writing.

8. If PorterGirl was made into a movie or TV series who would you like to play the lead role and why?

It has been mentioned before that Sheridan Smith would be perfect. Although Eddie Izzard in drag would probably be closer to what I am actually like.

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9. If they did, would you do a cameo role and if so what part would you give yourself? 

Absolutely not, I hate being on camera. But if I absolutely had to, I would play a visiting food tester who embarks on a passionate affair with Head Gardener (played by Sean Bean).

10. Are we to read more PorterGirl murder adventures? If so can you hint at the next story?

There will certainly be more PorterGirl, but the murders are the sub-plot, really. The next tale will involve a mysterious theft and relations with arch rivals Hawkins College will be further inflamed when they are implicated. But all is not as it seems and our bowler hatted heroes find themselves embroiled in something quite unexpected. Old College has a bloody and brutal history, however, and that isn’t going away any time soon.

11. Is there romance in PorterGirl’s life? If so, when and with who?

I have no idea how to write romance, so the chances of her having anything beyond a passing flirtation are slim. She has always held a torch for The Dean, of course, but College hierarchy could never allow for a relationship between a member of The Fellowship and a College servant. There is a quirky American Professor who joins Old College at the same time she does and there is definitely an attraction between them. We will have to wait and see how that develops. Illicit romps with Head Gardener (played by Sean Bean) are a possibility.

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12. How much of you is in PorterGirl and how much of her is in you?

Deputy Head Porter is just me with all the flaws airbrushed out. When I first started writing the blog, I was still at the College and it was a documentation of my time there, so I was writing very much in my own ‘voice’. She is a heavily filtered version of me. The unfiltered version of me would not work well with cosy fiction.

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Unfiltered

13. What do you like most about writing PorterGirl?

It just writes itself! It is an awful lot of fun to write and because it doesn’t fit squarely into any particular genre or style, I can write it just how I want.

14. What advice would you give to any up and coming writer or someone trying a new career for that matter?

I am still up and coming myself, so all I can advise is just keep writing, every day, no excuses. You are not a writer if you don’t write. Start by writing what you love, find your own style and your own unique way of putting words on a page. Then, look for your market, your audience – find out what they want and give it to them, but with your own stamp all over it. As for trying a new career, embrace the change! Comfort zones are overrated. Get out there and scare yourself. And maybe keep a diary, too, just in case…

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UK EDITION

US EDITION

 

The Choir Competition Commences

A weighty hush falls across The Great Chapel as several hundred pairs of ears strain in expectation of what is to come. There is a gentle tap tap from the conductor’s baton, then a soaring cacophony of ethereal voices sails aloft to the very rafters. For a moment I feel my own breath taken with it, such is the vocal beauty of the Wastell College Choir. I know in that instant that our own dear choristers – beautiful of face but less so of voice – could never achieve such euphonious heights. Organ Scholar and Penelope have done a fine job training them, certainly – but they wear their robes by merit of their looks and not their talents. These fellows here are a different breed entirely.

“So, The Master’s Wife didn’t want you to accompany her after all?” I whisper to Head Porter. He shakes his head.

“It’s a funny thing,” he replies “But I hear that The Master has returned unexpectedly from his business trip, so she didn’t need me after all. Thank goodness.”

“Jolly lucky escape, I’d say.”

“Well, quite.”

We settle back into silence and allow ourselves to be bewitched by exquisite choral enchantment. The previous night’s events melt into abeyance and my jangled nerves are soothed by song, so much so that I quite lose myself for a moment. Perhaps more than a moment, as Professor Duke is soon elbowing me in the ribs.

“Don’t you know it’s rude to fall asleep in public?” he says. “Anyway, look – our chaps are going to be on in a minute.”

“Oh! Already?” I wonder if I nodded off briefly. “Wastell College were bloody good, though, weren’t they?”

The Professor huffs a little and fidgets in the pew.

“Well, they have a half decent set of lungs between them, I’ll give them that,” he concedes. “But they are a rare looking bunch, wouldn’t you say?”

I have to admit that I hadn’t formed an opinion either way; the Professor, however, is quite astute about such things. But before I can reply, I spy Organ Scholar emerging from the nave, followed by the glorious looking ensemble that is the Old College Choir. I am somewhat concerned to see Hershel once again among their number, despite the fact he can’t sing. Worse, there is another extra chorister bearing the sumptuous red and gold robes.

“Oh my my!” exclaims the Professor. “Look what we have here! Why, it’s that harridan The Master’s Wife. We can only hope the bop on the nose has improved her vocal talents. The woman has a voice like drains being emptied.”

Oh dear. Despite taking charge of the College Choir (quite forcibly, from what I understand) The Master’s Wife has no musical talent whatsoever. Were it not for her husband being the most important man in College, she would not have got so far as the Chapel doors. It’s a curious thing, the abrupt vanishing of the Music Professor. We never did discover what happened to him.

Even from here I can see the consternation on Organ Scholar’s face. He exudes a wrath that seems most unsuitable for the task in hand and is certainly inappropriate for such an eminent environment. The Choir seem nervous, which is only to be expected. I am feeling a little nervous myself.

“He doesn’t look too happy,” says Head Porter, nodding towards Organ Scholar. “I’ve got a bad feeling, you know.”

“Pah! That’s probably just your breakfast, old boy,” the Professor replies. “I have every faith our chaps will do a stirling job. Maybe. Perhaps. Yes.”

Organ Scholar brings down his baton firmly on the lecturn and assumes the stance of a man who means business. The air is thick with anticipation as he deftly raises his arms and taunts the assembled choristers into rousing chorus. Penelope leads from the heart of the Choir – her strong, confident voice guiding the way for her companions. There is perhaps an uncertainty for half a bar before the boys and girls of Old College find a boldness that is really quite exceptional. They may not have the technical grace and lofty elegance of Wastell, but their performance has a renegade element to it that can only be described as inspiring. Go, Old College!

As the performance reaches a climactic crescendo, Professor Duke leaps to his feet and begins applauding wildly. Head Porter joins him and before I know it, I am also whooping with delight in a manner that is probably most unbecoming.

If this were a great dramatic tale of some importance, literary law would state that the rest of the assembled audience would soon join us in our acclamation with gusto, the likes of which had never been seen. Unfortunately, our story commands no such reverence and we are merely stared at as if we are lunatics. But it has raised a smile amongst the Choir, who beam back at us from the chancel.

We manage to compose ourselves before someone takes it upon themselves to throw us out and prepare for the next performance – our arch rivals, Hawkins College. Now to see if Hershel’s marvellous plan is a resounding success or something far much worse.

Messing About On The River

We do not have to wait too long before Head Porter and Headmistress are soon having a shove up the River, their young chauffeur chattering enthusiastic nonsense as they pull away from the Boat House. The Professor and I emerge from the tool cupboard and head out to find a punt of our own.

“We must make many sure to get the the quickest and fastest punt ever,” the Professor says, casting a critical eye over the fleet before us. “It must be a punt worthy of two warriors.”

I do admire his meticulous nature and have not the heart to tell him that one punt is pretty much as good as another. Nonetheless, he seems to find one that suits his exacting requirements and hops in nimbly, seating himself right in the middle of the punt.

“The sudden, this is perfect!” he enthuses. “Come come, Deputy Head Porter, let’s hit the seven seas, yo!”

“I’ll be doing the actual punting, then?”

“Oh. You know, yes, because I didn’t even know what a punt was last year at this time.”

I turn to the pole rack and select a likely looking instrument. Traditionally, punt poles are made from spruce and are about 16 feet long, making them somewhat unwieldy to the uninitiated. There are more modern aluminium poles available and although they are lighter and easier to manage, they don’t carry the necessary weight to really get a good turn of speed.

I heave one of the narrower poles from its holding and use it to help me balance as I take my place at the platform of the rear of the punt. There are those that might choose to punt from the head of the boat, but in The City we consider pushing the boat through the water much more dignified than dragging it.

Punting is something of an art form and as with all true arts, the experienced practitioners make it look deceptively easy. For every punter you see gliding elegantly through the water, rhythmically feeding the pole through their hands, in and out of the water, you will see a dozen hapless souls floating aimlessly, poles floundering or – at worst – poles finding their way to a watery grave, leaving their owners stranded. Whatever you do, never, ever let go of the pole. I have spent many a happy afternoon in the Porters’ Lodge, watching the calamities on the river and drinking tea. A great cheer goes up whenever anyone falls in, which is most heartening to hear.

Thankfully, I am blessed with some proficiency in this field and we are soon scudding through the water with some elegance. The bright afternoon sunshine causes me to squint a little, although it offers no warmth at all. My physical endeavours prevent me from feeling a chill but I wonder how the Headmistress is faring. No doubt Head Porter will be on hand to offer some warmth and more besides.

Before long, we see them up ahead, the punt chauffeur still rattling off made-up facts, ten to the dozen. Head Porter and Headmistress seem oblivious, giggling too loudly, their hands idly brushing against each other accidentally-on-purpose. It is quite the heartening scene, the backdrop to the River dressing it perfectly.

“Aha! I see them!” exclaims the Professor. “Anddddd…by the look of things, it’s going smoothly smooth.”

“It does appear to be,” I reply. “Maybe we should just leave them to it after all.”

“Nah! What sort of spies would we make then? Let’s get closer. I must needs hear what he’s saying…”

I sigh. Resistance is futile where Professor Duke is concerned, so against my better judgement I redouble my efforts on the pole to bring us in a little nearer. Without our usual College attire we shall not be quite so recognisable and the happy couple seem so enraptured that I feel brave enough to pull alongside.

“Oh, Head Porter – tell me another one!” Headmistress sniggers.

Head Porter is in his element.

“Alright then, how’s this:

There was a young man from Newcastle,

Who could wrap himself up like a parcel,

In that position

He did a rendition

Of God Save The Queen through his…”

“Hey, hey, and a few!” the Professor cries, just in the nick of time.

“Oh look!” Headmistress exclaims, pointing at the Professor and me. “Look, it’s the waiters from the other evening. Hello there!”

She starts waving enthusiastically and the Professor returns her greeting. Head Porter is looking at me like I have just eaten his first born.

“What are you two doing here?” he growls, glowering beneath a set of furious-looking eyebrows.

“We are…we are working off dinner by rowing a boat, of course!” replies the Professor, somewhat ingeniously, I feel.

Head Porter looks unimpressed.

“Well – that’s quite… weird, frankly,” he says. “This is a private conversation, if you don’t mind. Excuse me, punter!”

The young man chauffeuring nods to Head Porter before giving us a look that could melt steel. He clearly thinks we are some sort of depraved voyeurs or something. Taking a firm grip on his pole, his lithe limbs quicken their pace and the punt is soon gliding off, leaving a trail of froth-tipped water in its wake.

“This is war!” huffs the Professor. “That was so rude. We must chase them.”

Before I can make further comment, something on the bank side catches my eye.

“Hey, look,” I say, squinting at two figures standing by the riverbank, seemingly engaged in animated debate. “Isn’t that The Dean over there?”

“Oh boy, it is. Forget the war. Let’s go see what he’s about.”