Anyway, all this, or rather none of it, is going through Ren’s head as he approaches the staff club bar. What’s in his head is the intent to purchase a beer. Which beer he should get is a complex decision which involves weighing up various factors, such as the beer’s alcoholic strength, its price, the awfulness of the taste – most beers taste bad to Ren, but especially ales, bitters and wheat beers – and the embarrassment quotient of buying a lager, whose blander taste he can more easily tolerate, but which will elicit scorn and mockery from those of his colleagues who hold that the only beers worth drinking are obscure ones which have sticks and ambergris and bits of beak floating in them, and which smell to him like they contain a mould that has evolved to be resistant to alcohol. Also to be factored in are how many of his lager-deriding colleagues are here tonight, and what mood they are in. And also how much of a shit he currently gives about the venting of their opinions on lager drinking.
He eventually decides that tonight his preference is to avoid another tedious round of lager-bashing, because he wants to get the conversation quickly onto TITE before Hedley drags everyone into a conversation about his views, so he orders a pint of something awful called – as far as he can remember three seconds later – Mildewmarch, an ale which the beardies from the Campaign for Right Proper Gravy, Whippets and Brews have given the seal of approval to. And, of course, a packet of pork scratchings.
He notices even before the barlady returns that something isn’t right. The delicious home-made pork scratchings in a clear packet that the staff club used to serve have been replaced by a commercial variety in a brightly-covered tinfoil pack, bearing the name ‘Oinkers’, which he knows from previous empirical research to be an inferior product in every way, unless you prefer your scratchings to taste and feel like popcorn mixed with puffed-up honeycomb. Ren reflects that if the bearded campaigners were really serious about keeping British pubs the way they should be then they should be complaining loudly about the replacement of wholesome, nutritious dead pig skin and fat with this tasteless cavity insulation. Perhaps he would write to them. But he would have to resist the temptation to start the letter, ‘Dear beardies…’, otherwise they wouldn’t take him seriously, and that would take all the fun out of it.
‘I’ve only been at this University for a few months and already it’s going to the dogs,’ Ren says, indicating the Oinkers, as he avoids sitting next to Hedley and Sadler and instead pulls up a chair to sit next to his friend and fellow Philosophy lecturer Compton Hart, a smartly-dressed thirty-something with curly, sandy-coloured hair, and a liking for cigarettes, which are becoming forbidden fruit at Universities. ‘The fatty esculants are not what they were.’
‘I think you’re the only person who comes here who eats pork scratchings,’ says Compton. ‘Those ones you’ve been eating recently had been on the shelves for ten years before you turned up and started eating them. Now you’ve eaten them all the manager finally had to buy some new ones.’
‘Not true,’ says Ren. ‘I’ve seen no less a personage than the Professor and Head of the Art History Department, Harold Furter, eating packeted pork rind.’
‘You mean old Frank?’ says Compton. ‘You’re really going to use him as an example?’
‘What, just because he’s the fattest man in Western academia?’
‘He’s the fattest man in the whole galaxy. He was eating deep-fried bits of Jabba the Hut, not pork scratchings. Why do you think they have a double door here for an entrance? That was put in a couple of years ago just so Frank could fit through. He got a grant for it. They’ll be rolling him around on his sides soon. Harold the Barrel.’
‘I expect he has a glandular imbalance. Or he’s big-boned.’
‘He has big dinosaur bones stuck in his throat if that’s what you mean,’ says Compton. ‘They keep his oesophagus wide so he can pour down beer direct from the barrel.’
‘No, no, no’, interrupts Derek Lucas. ‘Frank considers himself a cultured man. He might drink from the barrel, but it’s always good wine. He only eats pork scratchings when he thinks no-one’s looking.’
‘Why must my brethren be so ashamed of themselves?’ says Ren.
‘Are you not aware’, says Derek, ‘that pork scratchings were developed in the thirteenth century by medieval monks as a way to prevent young men from masturbating? That’s why masturbating really took off in the seventies, when the salt levels were changed.’
‘Never change the salt levels, I say,’ says Ren. ‘That’s like my motto for life. Never change the salt levels.’
‘Someone’s changed the salt levels for this department recently,’ says Compton.
‘A more pertinent fact,’ says Ren, ‘which you gentlemen may be unaware of, is that pork scratchings have more vitamin K in them than the equivalent number of melons in the University’s girls’ volleyball team.’
‘That one’s definitely a lie,’ says Compton.
‘Made-up, yes,’ says Ren, ‘but not a lie, because I don’t know it to be false. And it’s not obviously false. It could possibly be true, if melons have no vitamin K whatsoever, and the scratchings have a trace amount. And my knowledge of the vitamin K levels in melons is, shall we say… scratchy?’
‘Do pork scratchings have any vitamins whatsoever in them?’ says Derek. ‘That seems doubtful.’
‘How do I know, I’m a philosopher,’ says Ren. ‘Ask a biochemist. Bound to be one in here somewhere. Ask the bar to page a biochemist.’
‘A biochemist wouldn’t necessarily know anyway,’ says Derek. ‘The vitamin levels of assorted bar snacks and citrus fruits might not be the sort of information they make sure to always have at their command. It may be information they have, in fact, never possessed, it being of no earthly use to their more specialised alchemical pursuits.’
‘Well, perhaps they know the core bar snacks and popular fruits,’ says Ren. ‘Peanuts and oranges. But I agree. They may rely, for the more obscure comestibles, on nipping over to the science library when the topic comes up in conversation.’
‘As I’m sure it would if the VC walked in and was pelted with so many tomatoes that the issue of tomato poisoning came up,’ says Compton.
Compton was someone that Ren had been immediately drawn to when he arrived at Grayvington, not only because he is, in Ren’s view, if no-one else’s, good company, and not only because he is even more down on Continentalism and postmodernism than Ren, but also because he is the only person Ren has ever met in academia who is a conservative, and isn’t afraid to admit it (although he only admitted it once he had got his permanent appointment). That was something that Ren, who had only started recovering a couple of years ago from a standard dose of leftica idiotica acquired in his teens, admired.