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.


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:


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.


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

Sinister Dexter – The Dean Discovers A Thing

An excerpt from the forthcoming PorterGirl novel, Sinister Dexter, where The Dean is delighted to share with Deputy Head Porter the results of his haphazard investigations…

The rooms of The Dean are in their usual of state of familiar chaos; the elderly red leather settee groaning under an avalanche of books and folders, shelves stacked high with miscellaneous items with no discernible arrangement or order and, of course, the well-worn rug in the middle of the floor, its threadbare centre testament to The Dean’s favoured pastime of pacing. The Dean paces when he is thinking, when he is furious, when he is in good humour (a rare one, this) and at any other time he isn’t physically nailed down somewhere. Except when he is drinking, another preferred pastime that has the apparent importance of being secondary only the breathing. It is most odd that, although I have seen The Dean drinking on endless occasions, I have never once seen him drunk. There was an occasion, during the summer, when I foolishly accepted an invitation to drink with The Dean and I awoke the next morning on his red leather settee with a pounding head and absolutely no recollection of the previous evening. It soon became clear that I had revealed something of note to him, but he has never repeated it and I am too embarrassed to ask. It has given our relationship an unexpected quirk that I could probably live without.

There is something remarkably different about The Dean’s rooms today, however. His beloved tropical fish tank has acquired a jaunty miniature castle and the colourful little finned fellows within seem rather pleased with it. I also spot several very tasteful paintings on the walls and his high-backed leather ‘drinking’ chair has a purple crushed velvet throw draped over it. It isn’t like The Dean to trouble himself with interior design so I wonder who could have been responsible? There doesn’t seem to be a sensible way of broaching the subject without appearing nosy, so I plump for an insensible one. Hauling the purple throw around my shoulders like a cape, I strike a superhero pose.

“I like this, Sir,” I announce. “Very swish.”

“You like it? Take it. Have it. Get it out of here. I hate it.” The Dean waves his arms dramatically, as is his wont. “My sister has been interfering. It’s her way of trying to thank me but it’s just buggering about and interfering. Mind you, the fish like their new castle very much, as I’m sure you can see.”

“Indeed I can, Sir,” I nod approvingly. “I’m sure your sister had the best of intentions, Sir.”

It would be rude to ask why she felt the need to thank him, but luckily The Dean tells me all about it anyway.

“My young nephew got himself into a bit of a pickle at school,” The Dean explains, with some vigour. “Not his fault, you understand, the school are clearly idiots. His teacher said that he was too clever for his own good, which I fail to see how such a thing can even be possible, given that there is no such thing as being too clever. If everyone were as clever as me, Deputy Head Porter, the world would be a very different place, I tell you.”

It would be a very frightening place indeed, I imagine. The Dean’s particular brand of intellect is not for the faint hearted. But anyway. He seems to be enjoying himself and is pacing with gusto, now. The Dean continues.

“Preparations for the school nativity play are underway and all the children were to be assigned a role. My nephew, being a forward sort of a fellow, suggested that he might be all three of the wise men, due to his inarguably superior intellect. Far too bright to be just one wise man, that would be a veritable insult. Three wise men is more like it. Very reasonable, you might think! The blasted school, however, took a very different view.”

“Shocking, Sir.” I’m beginning to sense a familiar family trait, here.

“Shocking, yes! The buggers. They thought they could make amends by offering him the role of Joseph. The bloody cheek!”

“What a cheek, Sir.”

“As my nephew quite rightly pointed out, there might be some chaps about the place who would be quite happy to be the husband of a woman carrying a baby that wasn’t even his, but that chap certainly isn’t him! My nephew flat out refused to play a cuckold, even if the man cuckolding him is The Almighty.”

Obviously refusing to play second fiddle to God runs in the family.

“And so his teacher – ridiculous woman – starting crying or some such nonsense, my nephew was suspended with immediate effect, stern letters were sent home and my sister was at a loss. What could I do but pop along there and show them the error of their ways? I told them straight – the amount I’m paying in school fees surely gives my nephew the right to point out these things and shouldn’t they be delighted that they have such a moral and upstanding young man among their ranks? They soon saw things my way, I tell you.”

I’m sure they did. When dealing with The Dean there is usually little option but to see things any other way. Whilst I pity the poor school for having him on their hands, I find it remarkably touching that he takes such a keen interest in his nephew’s education. I never really thought about The Dean having a family, I suppose the thought that there might be more like him was too disturbing to entertain. Mind you, I only discovered that he has an actual name just recently, although I am disappointed about that as it is surprisingly pedestrian. But anyway. The Dean has finished his story and no doubt I am expected to make some comment or remark. It’s difficult to know what to say.

“What role did he get in the end?” I ask.

“Oh! He’s the director. Quite right, too, I say. But listen, Deputy Head Porter, I do wish you wouldn’t ramble on. We have important things afoot!”

To find out the thing discovered by The Dean, you will have to wait for the book, I’m afraid. Well, no one likes a spoiler, do they?