academic

Old College – A Visitor’s Guide

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.

Hierarchy

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

‘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 even he is currently locked in a dungeon in a French chateaux.

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.

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 I am sure 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.

lucy tiff queens for pops

Here I am, doing some actual Portering.

Bedders

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.

Formal Hall

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

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.

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Fairly frantic punting

(Bit random – but click here to see William Shatner punting in Cambridge)

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. You’ll never leave…

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First Lady Of The Keys – preorder NOW!

Porters & Knights

Without doubt, my biggest mistake in the early days of my Old College career was trying to apply my hard-earned real-world logic and thinking to the academic environment. It has taken me a long time to tuck away the intellections of Her Majesty’s Finest and finally wrestle my mind towards the Machiavellian and contrived thought processes that govern the internal workings of Old College.

In fact, you almost have to approach thinking as if you were a person who had never thought at all. It really is that random. Having considered this at some length, I can only conclude that the academics have heads so full of dusty nonsense that there is little room for much else. Porters have plenty of room inside their heads. That is what makes them such a wily and adaptable breed.

And this is precisely the thing that will be of help to us here in Chateau de Chinon. Having learned from the Antique Shop Owner that the Templar carvings in the cave resembled markings found in the dungeons of the Chateau, our next point of progress seems clear. It is gaining access to the buggers that could prove difficult.

“If the Curator and his staff are the only people who have access to the dungeons, there must be keys or a device that controls entry,” I say to my captive audience of The Dean and Professor Duke.

“That stands to reason,” replies The Dean.

“Do you suppose the Curator might give us a tour?” asks the Professor. “Especially if we asked nicely?”

“Maybe,” I reply. “But probably not. Judging by the young lady’s reaction to our mention of the dungeons I would suggest that it is a place they would rather keep to themselves.”

“So we need the keys, then” The Dean says, his feet shuffling against an urgent need to pace. “Well, I’m up for a scuffle as much as the next man but taking them from the Curator by force could land us on the wrong side of the Gendarmerie, you know.”

“I have heard,” continues the Professor “That those fellows don’t have a right side. Imagine going through life with no right side, too. Poor chaps.”

“For once, I don’t think violence is the answer,” I reply.

“If not violence, then what?” asks The Dean, genuinely perplexed.

“A place like this must have hundreds, maybe thousands, of locks,” I say. “And that means lots and lots of keys. They must be kept somewhere. The Chateau must have a sort of equivalent to our very own Porters’ Lodge. Keys can be difficult articles and they most definitely demand a place to be kept.”

“Wowawee, you’re right, Deputy Head Porter!” exclaims the Professor. “Genius! I imagine, though, it’d be hard to find the place where they’re kept, you know.”

“Hmm, my thoughts exactly,” I reply. And then, I say something that I feel cannot go unsaid. “But it is not a task that should be attempted on an empty stomach. Breakfast was ages ago, you know.”

We are able to obtain a delectable selection of crusty breads, meats and cheeses from the visitors’ canteen and set up a cheery little picnic in one of the courtyards. The afternoon air is fuddled by a warm breeze, skipping its way from the Vienne River and we watch happily as children explore the corners and crevices of the courtyard, no doubt imagining themselves as Knights of old. It is quite the perfect accompaniment to our lunch.

A watchful eye from a place unseen bears the dark sheen of a sadist’s delight. If truth is what they seek then let them find the truth. But truth is naught without eyes to see and ears to hear and air to breath. A helping hand to guide to truth is what I gift you now…

“You know, I’ve been thinking twice over,” announces Professor Duke, between mouthfuls of brie. Oh, this should be good. “With the crypt, the cave and now the dungeons, it strikes me that the Templar spent quite a lot of time underground.”

“Well, they were greatly persecuted, after a time,” The Dean remarks. “If you were accused of heresy and threatened with execution you would hardly be strutting about the landscape, would you.”

“Oh, I bet so,” the Professor retorts, defiantly. “I would strut about proudly, and then accuse them of heresy and threaten them with all sorts of evil things…”

I hop to my feet to shake off the inordinate amount of crumbs that have accumulated about my person. The saddest truth about crusty bread is that far too little of it finds its way into the mouth. As I am performing my little jig, I am startled by a hand snatching at the hem of my waistcoat.

“Hey!” I swipe it away rather too enthusiastically and find myself back-handing an unfortunate young man who now looks absolutely terrified.

Je suis désolé!” he wails, holding both hands to his stricken cheek.

“Oh.” I struggle to come up with much more, other than “Sorry about that.”

“Now what’s up here?!” Professor Duke leaps to my side and gives the young French gentleman a hard stare. “You can’t go about grabbing…people! It’s not appreciated, you beast!”

“Oh, he’s French,” says The Dean, waving a lump of cheese around dismissively. “It’s probably a sport to him.”

Looking down at my waistcoat, I suspect the thing he was so interested in was the College crest embroidered on one side. I look from the crest to the lad and the face he returns suggests that this is the case.

“You have a coat of arms?” the lad asks me in hesitant English. “You are Knights?”

“Of a sort, I suppose,” I reply kindly, not wishing to upset the chap further. He is clearly no threat to us. “We are on something of a quest. Following some other Knights who came before us, a long, long time ago.”

“Very famous Knights, no less!” says the Professor. “They were kept here in the dungeons, back when the Chateau was brand new. And, yes, I’m a knight of sorts.”

“Oh!” exclaims the French lad, suddenly seeming quite enthralled with us. “I know the Knights you mean. S’il vous plaît – you will follow me!”

 

With Professor VJ Duke

 

Adventurers Assemble

Heading back to Old College, I am as happy as a bee. The sun is shining, Professor Duke is whistling a merry tune by my side and the prospect of adventure is beckoning us with a coy wink. A warm breeze tugging gently at my bowler sets a somewhat playful tone and it is only with the greatest of self-restraint that I am not skipping along the cobbled streets.

Although sunlight falls like shards of gold throughout the courtyards, Old College does not share the afternoon’s sunny disposition. Exams are looming large on the academic calendar and a miasma of anxious tension pervades the ancient stone walls and the sun-dappled cloisters. College rivalry is at its very peak at this time, the fight for academic superiority never more fiercely fought. To make matters worse, the boat races are but weeks away and the river is cluttered with noisy youths furiously practicing their strokes and threatening all sorts to their rivals. Often quite early in the morning.

Professor Duke and I return to the Porters’ Lodge to be met with an all-together different type of tension. Picking our way through a babbling crowd of students, we see a pink-cheeked Head Porter theatrically checking his watch. His wiry hair has unfurled itself and become stuck to his dampened forehead, a sure sign that he has had quite a day of it, by all accounts. I sense some stern words coming my way.

“Now, hold on a few and for a minute, Mr Head Porter, and give me a listen,” The Professor gamely approaches with a smile so amiable you would invite it to tea. “I know I have kept your Deputy away longer than I should have. Please accept my apologies. But I can assure you that she has been working very hard, all for the good of the College.”

Faced with the slightly vicious charm of the newest member of The Fellowship and coming to the conclusion that, actually, that did sound rather like an apology in a roundabout way, Head Porter relents.

“Well, I suppose it might be seen as College business,” says Head Porter, suppressing a little smile. “So then, what did you get him?”

“Hmm?” I reply.

“The Master – what did you get him?”

Oh, bugger! Yes. The Master’s gift.

“Ah. We haven’t quite got it yet,” I say.

Head Porter does not looked particularly amused.

“But we’re going to get it, and very shortly too,” The Professor jumps in. “In fact, we were just on our way to get it as of now!”

“Listen,” says Head Porter “I really can’t spare Deputy Head Porter for another minute. It’s been like Piccadilly Circus in here today and she still has her duties from this morning to attend to. I am sure, Professor, that you can manage the collection of a small gift by yourself.”

“But… but… but actually no! – I need the little scamp to help me with it” replies the Professor with alarming alacrity.

“Is it heavy?”

“Kinda not.”

“Well, then…”

“It’s the… Holy Grail!” I whisper with as much gusto as I can manage. Surely Head Porter will deem the quest for the Holy Grail more pressing than checking keys? Then again…

“The… what?” Head Porter is rendered almost speechless. It is nice to know that I can still surprise the old chap, even after everything. “The Holy Grail? Really? Oh, no no no no no. I’m not having this. I just knew this was going to happen.”

I exchange a puzzled glance with Professor Duke and shrug, willing Head Porter to explain. With a drawn out sigh and solemn shaking of the head, he looks me straight in the eye and continues.

“Just when things were ticking along splendidly, nice and quiet – no dead bodies, no mysterious happenings… not a sign of ancient shadowy organisations! Along comes your top-hatted friend and all of a sudden you’re off searching for the Holy Grail. Unbelievable.”

“Who’s off searching for the Holy Grail?”

Before I can even begin to defend myself, a familiar vociferous roar fills the Lodge, followed closely by The Dean, strutting along with a serious looking tome tucked under his arm.

“Aha! VJ! There you are!” he exclaims. “I’ve been looking for you. I have got you this book, here. I thought you might like to read it, because I wrote it.”

“Now that sounds awesome!!” replies Professor Duke. “What’s it about?”

“Well, I can’t remember now, it was a long time ago,” replies The Dean. “You have a read of it and let me know, there’s a good chap. Now then! What’s all this about the Holy Grail?”

A brief, yet spirited, account of our dealings at Templar Antiquities leaves Head Porter once more shaking his head in despair, but The Dean appears to be delighted. His dark eyes shine intently beneath bushy brows and he slaps his thigh with great enthusiasm.

“Well, this is simply marvellous!” he exclaims. “You know, I was only this morning thinking that we could do with a corpse or something to liven the place up. I was of a mind to kidnap one of the gardeners myself, so this is rather good timing.”

“The best of it is,” begins the Professor, getting quite excited now “That the Grail is here somewhere in Old College grounds! We can be done and dusted in time for tea, I’ll bet you. What fun this will be and not at all vexing.”

“Hmm! Quite!” The Dean scratches his chin thoughtfully. “Now then… ‘the Grail sleeps beneath the dragon, watched over by minds of fire.’ Rather makes me think that it would be underground somewhere, don’t you think?”

“Yes, Sir” I agree. “And the minds of fire could very well relate to the academics, The Fellowship.”

“Pah!” exclaims The Dean. “Minds of fire are all very well but in the belly is where you really need it. With a bellyful of fire a chap is unstoppable!”

“But The Fellowship are about all over the place,” says Professor Duke “Where would they watch over anything?”

“I think it refers to the very top end of the academic hierarchy,” I reply. “The Masters of College. And there is somewhere quite specific where all Masters of College find themselves eventually. Beneath Old College.”

From the corner of my eye, I can see Head Porter place his head in his hands, his hopes of a quiet life crumbling before him.

The Crypt!” The Dean roars. “Of course! I bloody well knew it, you know. Right, then! Everyone to The Crypt at once!”

 

With Professor VJ Duke