Half an hour later taxis arrive, drinks are hastily finished, and they head off to a Chinese restaurant called Taste of Dragon. This isn’t a place they’ve ever been to before, but the Beagle had said he wanted Chinese when he’d been asked a few days ago. Everyone was hoping that Beresford wouldn’t come, because his argument with the Beagle has become tedious (so much so that Douglas and Garret had declined the offer to come taste some dragon), but Ren is glad Beresford is coming because it means that they aren’t all obliged to feign interest to the Beagle about his talk, and he can talk to the others about the TITE and whatever else they feel like talking about.
Ren notices that Compton avoids sitting near Derek at the restaurant. Although the two have quite a lot of in common, and can sometimes engage in witty conversation together in a public setting, privately they hate each other, and each greatly disapproves of the other’s political beliefs and moral character. Also, Derek has a tendency after a few drinks to start going on about his pet interest, French political rebels, and they’ve all heard what he to say on this topic eight-hundred and seventy-three times, except for the new boy Ren, who has only heard it five times. It’s this Francophile tendency that has earned Derek his long-established nickname, ‘The Frog’, although the recent students assume it’s because of his looks, which are becoming more amphibian as he ages. Previous generations of students, in the days when Derek was not so jowly and squat, assumed it was because of the shaggy old green fisherman’s jumper he would always wear. Other students swear that it’s because he’s always wanting student princesses to kiss him, although if he’s still doing that now, in his fifties, it’s doubtful he’s having much luck.
Beresford and Hedley have simmered down for now, and are talking to George Bagnall, who has managed to get in between them, but Ren notices with suspicion that Derek is making extra sure that they both get plenty to drink.
Compton and Ren are sitting next to Walter Clutterbuck, a trim, neat little departmental veteran, and a former Head of Department. They are talking about their current Head of Department, a late middle-aged man of Hungarian-descent called Professor Grant Kapshar, who came into the department a few years ago. Kapshar, it is rumoured, has been instructed by senior management to improve the department, shaking it up if need be. Walter and Compton are speculating that this suits the desperation he has to feel important, something which he isn’t getting adequately from his publishing, which is mostly quantity over quality.
Kapshar is chiefly distinguished by three things: his platinum-blonde hair, his proficiency at getting funding, and his inability to feel human emotion. Or at least to display it. Hence his nickname, Robot, bestowed on him by Compton. (He had other nicknames before, like Warhol and Dracu, but now it’s mainly Robot. This nickname has not yet been drawn to his attention.)
‘How to explain Robot?’ says Compton. ‘What is the point of Robot? Answer: He is a machine for getting grants.’ Compton is enjoying being able to trot out some of his best lines again for Ren’s sake. ‘That is his purpose. That is what he excels at. What’s more, he is the most efficient grant-getting machine in the world, because he manages to extract great wads of grant money with the most meagre material ever submitted to a grant panel. Somehow the thinnest gruel, with hamster-powered intellectual content, that varies only slightly from what he has submitted the previous five times, convinces the people who are supposed to know who to shower with moolah to shower it over him. He’s like a fifties B-movie hypnotist, holding up a telephone book and they throw money at him, stuffing it into his shirt and his socks.’
‘At least each grant gets credited as another departmental success,’ says Walter. ‘We’re not complaining too much.’
‘Maximum monetary output for minimal intellectual input,’ says Compton, who hadn’t finished.
‘So how does he do it?’ asked Ren.
‘For one thing, he knows how to write grants,’ says Walter. ‘I’ve had to look over quite a few of his before they’re sent off, and he writes in precisely the way you have to with a grant application.’
‘That’s because he’s on so many grant panels himself, making decisions on who to give grants to,’ says Compton. ‘He’s learned how to do it. That’s his real area of specialisation.’
‘Yes, all the main grant players are on these panels,’ says Walter. ‘They’re the ones who know how to write them, because they know what grant panels are looking for. He’ll tell you himself – if you want to learn how to write grants, get yourself on a panel. Good advice.’
Their conversation stops as some food is placed on the table, and Derek pours more wine for everyone around him, making especially sure to fill Beresford and Hedley’s glasses. George keeps trying to change the subject, but Beresford especially is itching to get the conversation back to the topic of time. It appears now that they have genuine areas of disagreement.
‘It’s a big job, putting in a grant bid,’ says Compton. ‘There aren’t as many grant bids put in as you’d think.’
‘The sheer amount of numb-numbing work involved in submitting even one puts most people off,’ says Walter. ‘And most people haven’t a clue how to do an effective one.’
‘Yes, why put so much work into something you think you have little chance of getting anyway?’ says Compton. ‘And for most philosophers there isn’t really any need to have a grant anyway. For now, at least.’
‘Another problem,’ says Walter, ‘is that many of those that are submitted have something not quite right somewhere in them. Ticked the wrong box, submitted the wrong figures, written outside the box. Grant is good at getting it all right. Ticking all the right boxes, literally and metaphorically’.
‘It’s the perfect job for someone who is at heart a bureaucrat,’ says Compton. ‘If his grandparents hadn’t left Hungary he would have made an ideal Communist functionary. When the robots have put the rest of us out of work he’ll still be there.’
‘The robots will be programmed to copy him?’ says Ren.
‘To a tee.’
‘The other thing,’ Walter says, ‘is that he has no qualms about writing the sort of inflated puffery you have to write about your research to be in with a chance of getting a grant, because he believes it. You have to big your research up. Make it sound grander than it really is. Most of us old-fashioned British academics are much more modest about our work, at least in public, and we’re not used to talking about our work as though we’re writing about someone else.’