The very dull young people who attend the University of the Mid-Pennines have a tradition, their only tradition
if we don’t count certain unoriginal drinking games, which is as old as the university itself; that is, it dates from 2003. This tradition, itself rather dreary, has depopulated the British Isles. It seems likely to end human civilisation. And before the disaster’s complete, I want to record how it began.
The fatal tradition at Mid-Penn (but they call it Pig Pen) is for each intake of ‘Freshers’ to invent a class mascot: an imaginary student who is duly registered, fulfills the sparse quota of essays required for his course, passes his final exams, and is awarded his degree, all without existing.
This is easier than it sounds. Classes at Pig Pen are enormous, faculty and staff desperate, numb, indifferent. Which of us ever learned the names of any of them: the hundreds who sit farting and dozing through Business Concepts 101, eternally fiddling with ’phones under their desks? In every windowless over-lit lecture-hall the tiers rise up, tier after tier of desks. Every tier is burdened with ten students; each student is soft, limp, T-shirted, listless from video-games, pale from excessive masturbation, a mouth-breather. They are indistinguishable as molluscs. It is perfectly easy for them to share out the mascot’s essays, and for one of them to sit his exams with a forged student card. The mascot always passes, in fact does rather well. They bother about this game more than they bother about their own work.
No one minds how badly we do here. That has been the secret of our happiness. There’s enthusiasm for doing badly. It must be painful working at a failing institution. Mid-Penn cannot fail. We can decline absolutely, but not relatively, which is the important thing. All of us, students and staff, take a certain cockeyed pride in being the nonpareil, the reliably worst university in England, in Europe, possibly in the world apart of course from the United States where fraudulent schools propagate like bunnies.
Nine classes have graduated since Slaggyford Industrial Institute, boast of the South Tyne valley, was gloriously transformed by an Act, a very brief Act of Parliament, into a degree-awarding university. Nine classes have gone forth into the world from Pig Pen (motto: Omnium mediocritas est spes singulis), and each of those nine classes has contained a phantom, whose degree, usually Golf-Course-Management, now and then Office-Design, is conferred in absentia amidst frantic cheers.
These cheers never failed to puzzle our Vice-Chancellor, a disgraced union grandee, left over from the age when there were union grandees, when, indeed, there were unions. How long ago he was disgraced, knighted, and packed off to the academic gulag! Before some of our students’ parents were born. Almost before I was born. His name is Rodney Dist.
‘Ursula!’ Dist would hiss down at me, year after year, at graduation, covering the microphone with his fat left hand, his right hand fluttering the embossed programme in which were listed the graduands, those with us in the flesh, and those present spiritually: ‘Ursula!’
And year after year I, sitting just behind him on the stage, would turn up to him my dashing self-contained face. ‘Vice-Chancellor?’
‘What are t’ bastard puppies yelling ab’t?’
Then I would send my attractive death-stare to range over the thousand gowned yobs crowding Slaggyford Methodist Memorial, the only hall big enough to hold them all.
What did he think it was about? At every graduation for nine years they’d howled at the class mascot. Yet Dist was surprised every time, and every time asked me the same question in the same words. Drink has the happy effect of buggering his memory so that Pig Penn bores him, perhaps, scarcely at all.
I would take to drink too, if I thought it would have that effect. But it doesn’t. My drunkenness merely intensifies the greyness. Slaggyford is all chromatic greys: tower-blocks, sky, mountainsides, my colleagues’ faces. Even our university colours happen to be grey and brown. Such a palette shrinks the human form. I have a superstitious fancy that the saturated colour of our concrete leaches out, to dye the grass and air. Certainly as I patrolled the grey campus, very like a mole, the students struck me as white shapeless sunless worms dropping from wormholes.
Me the greyness has not dyed. Before I recount the apocalypse you must grasp this. I was at home in the world that is ending. I am handsome, an attractive woman. I have been desired. What has happened, which is to say what I didn’t do, can’t be understood if you don’t understand that much of me.
It has always been my delight to turn my face, firm, smooth and polished as a slammed door, to overbear the looks of others. Once I did it to men (only now and then, I admit, and some time back) who had love in mind. But my gaze works just as well when it is snubbing hatred, or complaint, or excuse-making, or back-biting. I’m untouched by it all. I’m like a full moon lighting massacres in the woods. Best of all, I am untouched by greyness and nullity. Nullity scuttles away from me. It goes and breeds elsewhere.
That’s me. That’s all there is. Perhaps the complexity of human individuals is an illusion. Tear away a person’s random accumulations and the core is simple. Certainly my own elemental essence is nothing else but this: the pleasure of facing down horrors with my smooth classical face. Imagine an Artemis overlooking a sack of Troy. Nothing perturbs.
Whatever fates or gods there may be naturally chose to test this trick to its breaking-point. Which (you’ll be pleased to hear) has been reached. But it had not been reached then. At every graduation I would run my marbly half-smile over Methodist Memorial Hall, and return it to the Vice-Chancellor.
‘Popularity, Sir Rodney,’ I would suggest, year after year.
And he always hissed back: ‘But why is’ (as the case may be) ‘Sheila Hoare (B.Go.Man.)’ or ‘Shaun Dick (B.Off.D.) so bloody popular?’
I always shrugged.
‘You’re t’ Registrar, Ursula, you ought’ (subdued belch) ‘to know,’ he said, every year, turning away; ‘finger on t’ pulse.’ The racket was dying down, he was about to read the next name.
I did know. I just didn’t care enough to explain. Which is why your blood is on my hands, you millions whom it is too late to address....