Reading Porterhouse Blue in 2018

For many university lecturers, late February and early March in 2018 in the UK have been defined by a strike in defence of pension rights. However, beyond this there is also a rebellion of sorts against the current marketization and the managerialism of Higher Education. Most academics want intellectual life to be placed back at the core of how universities are run. However, it is useful to remind ourselves that anti-intellectualism in the world of Higher Education is not something new.
It is easy to feel demotivated at the moment, and reading a campus novel can be a good distraction. One could go for the fun of Starter for Ten (David Nicholls) or the sweet melancholy of Jill (Philip Larkin), but it may be best not to turn to the despair of Jude the Obscure (Thomas Hardy). The satire of Small World (David Lodge) or Porterhouse Blue (Tom Sharpe) seems in principle like a safer choice, but even escapism can turn sour, leading some readers to anger or scepticism, particularly if they lose their sense of humour.
Porterhouse Blue was first published in 1974, but it feels depressingly contemporary. Things in the UK do not appear to have changed very much. Porterhouse is a fictional college in Cambridge University populated by what nowadays would be called “change-resistant academics”, although the nature of the changes they fear is different. The strength of Porterhouse is not intellectual, but culinary. It has been a very long time since one of their students achieved a First Class degree. The new Master is intent on changing a situation that, however, for some, has already changed too much. For example, for the Head Porter, Skullion, the students have altered beyond recognition: “The young gentlemen weren´t the same. The spirit had gone out of them since the war. They got grants now. They worked. Who had ever heard of a Porterhouse man working in the old days? They were too busy drinking and racing” (Sharpe, 2002, Chapter 1). The Master soon finds out the root of the problem. Porterhouse is a poor college, which forces them to accept unqualified pupils from public schools in exchange of a college endowment subscription from their families. Here, “austerity” is claimed as a reason to thwart change. As the Master comments, it is actually the rich who tend to use “the plea of poverty” more often (Sharpe, 2002, Chapter 7).
Nowadays, such students could have made use of the online marketplaces for essays. We call them essay mills, but in the world of Porterhouse Blue it is the Head Porter who is quite happy to make some additional income acting as an intermediary between penniless postgraduates and the relevant undergraduates. Such a breach of academic conduct is abhorrent to us, but the fellows of Porterhouse turned a blind eye. In fact, for them, anti-intellectualism is to be praised and encouraged: “Together, though never in unison, they had steered Porterhouse away from the academic temptations to which all other Cambridge colleges had succumbed and had preserved that integrity of ignorance which gave Porterhouse men the confidence to cope with life´s complexities which men with more educated sensibilities so obviously lacked” (Sharpe, 2002, Chapter 18). Their conclusion is that “if a little knowledge was a dangerous thing, a lot was lethal” (Sharpe, 2002, Chapter 18). All this is essential for creating an incurious elite “imbued with a corporate complacency and an intellectual scepticism that desiccated change. They were the guardians of political inertia (…)” (Sharpe, 2002, Chapter 19). As it is well known, many members of the elite are still educated at public schools and Oxbridge colleges.
In many respects, it is uncanny how familiar the universe of Porterhouse Blue can feel to readers in the twenty-first century. At some point, for instance, the Dean exclaims: “I have never placed much faith in expert opinion” (Sharpe, 2002, Chapter 21). Ideas akin to “post-truth” can be glimpsed in a “disassociation from reality” typical of Cambridge in which “everyone in the College sought to parody himself, as if a parody of a parody could become itself a new reality” (Sharpe, 2002, Chapter 5). Interestingly, perennial mistrust of the EU in the UK materialises here already, as mistrust of the Common Market: “He told two amusing stories about the Prime Minister´s secretary and finally, when the Senior Tutor ventured the opinion that he thought such goings-on were due to the entry into the Common Market, launched into a detailed account of an interview he had once had with de Gaulle” (Sharpe, 2002, Chapter 15).
For tourists worldwide, the spires, turrets and gates of the colleges of Cambridge and Oxford are imbued with romanticism. In spite of the difficult situation that universities and their staff face in the UK, it seems fitting and somewhat uplifting that Higher Education can still be connected to forms of idealism.

Sharpe, T (2002) Porterhouse Blue [ebook reader], London, Arrow Books

Bridge of Sighs, Cambridge

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