A debate over erecting statues to honor two British university heads reveals some of the farcical ambitions, bureaucracy, and cant that are found only in academia.
Welsh crime writer James (First Fix Your Alibi, 2016, etc.), known for the Harpur and Iles series, posits two provincial universities in one city with opposing reactions to government austerity in the 1980s. Under the bumptious Lawford Chote, Sedge is millions over budget, while Victor Tane has kept Charter Mill’s finances in line with reality. The story moves back and forth between 1987, when Chote is mulling unrealistic plans to take over the other school, and 2014, when a committee of the schools—which in fact were merged under Tane—is mulling whether statues planned for Chote and Tane should occupy one plinth or two and on which campus they should reside. Readers will simply have to suspend disbelief in the idea that two provincial university principals would deserve statues under any government budget. Some of the humor is rather forced, but the committee meetings are often funny in their deadpan mockery of self-important educators given license to opine. One character is so perfectly absurd it’s hard to read him without having the image of Stephen Fry constantly in mind. Another humorous thread begins with a talk on Lady Chatterley’s Lover by Martin Moss in which he refers to some physical variation by the gamekeeper and the lady with a phrase that manages to arouse Chote’s wife from her snoring, gin-deadened state in the lecture hall’s front row. Principal Chote believes thereafter that Moss is something special, while allusions to his Chatterley trick pepper the novel.
James can be entertaining, and he may stir warm memories of academic satires by Kingsley Amis, Mary McCarthy, or Randall Jarrell, but his effort isn’t up to that pantheon.