Last in is Simon Pastygill, a young Senior Lecturer, a publishing success, and a rising analytic star. Or, as Ren thinks of him, a spotty and pale weed with a creepy, lopsided smile, who’s had inexplicable publishing success, and who speaks what Compton refers to as ‘extreme Welsh’. Pastygill regularly confuses people when he speaks, not because of his accent, but because of his habit of asking sardonic questions in a rhetorical tone of voice which leaves it unclear whether or not he’s expecting an answer. For this, and other reasons – in Ren and Compton’s case, his constant complaining about the corrosive effects of capitalism – he is generally avoided. Although Pastygill is an atheist, Compton has dubbed him ‘creeping Jesus’ in honour of the way he will suddenly appear beside you, and the way he makes public pronouncements about the evils that follow from the possession of money. Ren, on the other hand, usually refers to him as ‘Pantywaist’.
One of the other reasons Pastygill is avoided is his tendency to turn all conversation around to his passion for church architecture, especially Welsh church architecture. Pastygill travels extensively in Britain and Europe seeking out churches to view, and is always ready to offer his opinion, should it be sought on such a matter, as to why English and Scottish churches, though they have their undoubted merits and are definitely worth visiting, fall short of Welsh churches on three or four points of interest. Pastygill had never been known to offer a view on the merits of Continental churches versus Welsh churches; perhaps he does have an informed opinion on this matter, complete with half an hour’s worth of pros and cons, but no-one has ever been foolhardy enough to enquire, or to let the conversation get that far.
According to rumour Pastygill has a list of all known churches in Britain and Europe, and is ticking off the ones he has already visited. The walls of his office are covered with pictures of churches, which at least makes a good impression on the students, although it makes some of them wonder if he’s a religious nutter. One of Compton’s tutees once asked him this question; allegedly Compton replied with, ‘Pretty much, although in his case it’s socialism rather than Christianity.’
Robot calls the meeting to order. There is one apology – Panos Costadopolous, known as ‘Costa Brava’ to his colleagues, a nickname he revels in, although perhaps only because it’s better than being called Costa del Sol. Or perhaps it’s just because he’s shameless – he is known for constantly slipping off to the Continent for a short break when he shouldn’t, coming back even more sun-tanned than before. As Robot does not announce what Costa’s official reason is for missing the meeting, everyone expects that he’s gone off to the Continent again. No-one is quite sure whether to be pissed off with him, or admire him. Although those people who have been lumbered with having to do his marking in the past are definitely in the former category.
‘First item on the agenda is a proposal to change the dates that essays have to be handed in for next semester, says Robot. ‘You will see from the first appendix at the back of the agenda that we have three deadline schemes on the table. These by no means exhaust the possible schemes, and it may be that during the course of our discussions we come up with some more to consider. You will see a list of pros and cons for each proposal.’
Robot drones on and on. And on and on. And on and on. Then every possible problem with each of the schemes is considered. Will scheme two not give the students enough time between essays? Does scheme three give too much time between essays two and three? Does scheme one require essays to be submitted too early for first years to be able to handle (assuming this scheme will be applied to semester one next year)? Won’t scheme two be confusing for the students because one of the deadlines is on a Friday, rather than the usual Thursday? Can it be on a Thursday? No, because of administrative and other reasons that Ren has already forgotten.
Ren expected this fairly simple matter to be over and done with within five minutes, but an hour has gone by, and there’s no end in sight. Derek Lucas and Tristram York are the main culprits. Ren can’t imagine that either of them really has much interest in this issue, but it seems that each has nothing better to do than wind the other up. Robot is incapable of drawing matters to a close, and insists on considering in detail everything that is said, no matter how trivial, and even if it’s said merely in jest (his jest detector, it appears never got switched on like it was supposed to).
After an hour and fifteen minutes has gone by, lunch, coffee and tea is brought in by the catering staff, and left in the corner. By this stage everyone is exhausted, even – perhaps especially – the innocent bystanders.
‘Perhaps we’d best take a break at this point, and have some lunch, and come back and consider this further after we’ve eaten,’ says Robot.
Ren looks around, unable to believe what is happening. He is unsure whether it’s his place to say anything, but surely something has to be said? He has a lecture to finish writing.
‘Excuse me, Grant,’ he says, ‘but we’re an hour and a quarter in, and we’re still on agenda item one, out of eighteen items. I don’t see how we’re going to get through the meeting at this rate. I was told the meeting should take two hours, three at most. I have a lecture to finish writing this afternoon, so I can’t sit around all day debating these issues endlessly. Perhaps we should move on and revisit item one at a later stage?’
Robot looks peeved, but finally says, ‘All right, Renford. I’m not sure we are going to get any resolution on agenda item one today, so we’ll move on with the rest of the agenda after lunch and try to hurry it up.’
As the meeting breaks up for lunch, Derek laughs and says, ‘Ren is discovering that everything in academia proceeds at the proverbial pace of a shelled gastropod.’ Well, yes, Ren thinks, but in this case it’s mainly because of you. Derek clearly isn’t in any hurry. No wonder he doesn’t publish much. He’s renowned for endlessly rewriting his papers, regarding them as never quite good enough to send off, no matter how many years he’d spent polishing them, and no matter how good everyone else thinks they are. Ren doesn’t want to be one of those academics who think in decades, but everyone says that’s how you end up, no matter how much of a hurry you are to start with.
If I’m still here at Grayvington in ten years, he thinks – hell, if I’m still in academia in ten years – then I’ll go down to the science area, take what the students call the ‘Elevator to Oblivion’, and hurl myself off the top of Bleak Tower. Bleak Tower, real name Blake Tower, is the monstrous, soot-stained, sixties-era concrete high rise in the science area that, as whispered rumour has it, extra-depressed students used to alleviate their suffering. Alleviate with extreme prejudice, that is. ‘The Concrete Cure’, the student wags call it, nodding towards the Tower as they say it. It’s a pity I can’t legally hire a hitman to take me out if I’m still in Grayvington in ten years, Ren thinks. That’d get me a move on.