‘Well, they’ve got a lot to protest about,’ says Ren to George.
Ren and George are attending a reception being thrown by the University for the visiting Murnesian Head of State. They nervously scan the crowd protesting the visit. There’s no sign of the usual protesters like Derek Lucas, Tony Shaver, Verna Leach, Harry Smales or Lucius Birch – they prefer to protest against democracies. The protesters are mostly Murnesian students and migrants who’ve experienced the semi-Communist one-party Murnesian state for themselves. There are far more protesters than Ren expected – they must have come from all over the UK for this opportunity to protest against the Murnesian government in a free country.
Ren is not happy about being part of the official reception for Ding Pingajing, the current Great Dignitary of the Worker’s Paradise of Murnesia. Ding is generally regarded as the Murnesian Head of State, although some Murnesian commentators claim that the real power lies with Fan Jimjam, General Secretary and Inquisitor of the National Peoples’ Consultative Committee of the Murnesian Communist Procuratorate. Tonight’s reception has been brought forward from Friday, which most people have assumed is an attempt to thwart the protesters, but it’s really because Ding needs to get back to Murnesia pronto to see off any attempt by Fan to officially replace him. (The University did consider banning all protest against the Murnesians, but eventually decided that this would look a bit too… Murnesian.)
Ren is part of the reception because Robot has leant on him to go. Robot has been dropping heavy hints about probation; he’s unhappy with Ren for various reasons, such as the TITE situation. Although Robot agrees with Ren that TITE is unfit for duty and needs to be reformed, he doesn’t like the way Ren caused so much trouble over it last year, nor does he like the fact that Ren is still refusing to go back on the course (Ren’s grounds are that Balderstone is still running it, and nothing much has changed). Ren needs Robot to support him getting through probation – without that support he’ll lose his job. Although it would be a very unusual step for a Head not to support a lecturer in such a situation, especially one who is doing well with his publishing, Ren can’t be sure that Robot isn’t going to fuck him over while he has the chance. Hence, Ren is representing the department at the Murnesian State visit, which no-one else in the department wanted to do.
George has been roped in as well because he also wants to throw Robot a bone – he’s refusing to retire on health grounds, even though he’s officially sixty-three and near retirement anyway (and departmental gossip has his real age at more like seventy-three). Since his collapse at Tyson Kipnis’s talk he’s been fine, and carrying on as normal, but Robot, who wants to get rid of him so he can hire in someone more current, who’ll apply for grants, keeps telling him he should retire before he dies giving a lecture. George says that he’s going to go somehow, so why should it matter if it’s in the middle of a lecture? Robot says that staying on in the job will make it more likely that he dies, but George says it’s the other way around. Ren thinks with the way George is puffing and wheezing tonight with the effort of walking that he’s going to die soon either way. But who knows? Maybe he’ll outlive them all with his long-life dieting.
Philosophy is expected by the VC to have a presence at the reception because the Murnesian government has asked the University to set up a campus in Rankpo, one of its industrial cities. The idea behind the campus is that an exact copy of either Oxford or Cambridge will be built. (’Oxford or Cambridge’ meaning, of course, the University colleges and buildings – the Blackbird Leys estate is unlikely to be included.) The choice of Oxford or Cambridge has yet to be decided; possibly a combination of the two will be the final result.
Both Oxford and Cambridge have rejected the offer to be involved out of hand, and both have threatened legal action should any of their buildings be copied. But the Murnesian government insists that there are no legal impediments to copying buildings in Murnesia, and has been courting various other UK Universities who might be interested in running the resulting University. Grayvington University is now in pole position to be in charge of ‘Oxbridge University at Rankpo’, which will earn it a massive fee, enough to outweigh, at least in Raven’s mind, any resulting fallout with Oxford and Cambridge. (Raven’s thinking seems to be that, as the University’s relations with both Oxford and Cambridge are very low to start with, those relations can’t get much worse. Also, he considers Oxford and Cambridge to be elitist institutions who need taking down a peg – although he’s happy to talk in elitist terms about Grayvington when it suits him.)
As Philosophy has the reputation (whether truly or not) as being of central importance at Oxbridge, the VC has stressed to the Philosophy Department that it is important that Philosophy is represented at the reception. Robot was initially a bit reluctant, as he wasn’t sure whether that would go down well in the wider philosophical community, but colleagues from other Universities assured him that no-one would care. It’s not like Grayvington philosophers are going to shake hands with George Bush or Ariel Sharon. (Robot, being a kiss-up/kick-down type, would have acquiesced regardless.) So Ren and George got the squeeze to represent the department, along with Robot. The media hasn’t been very interested in the Murnesian visit, to Raven’s disappointment – he regards this collaboration as an event of historical, world-shattering importance – so there isn’t going to be much in the way of publicity, whether positive or negative, anyway. Ren has only seen one camera crew here, and he recognises the woman speaking to camera – it’s just a local news show.
The two philosophers walk past the protesters, who are behind barriers. Ren thinks of giving them a thumbs-up sign, but he decides it’s best to do nothing. There’s no knowing how they would react to that – they’re really, really furious, shouting and screaming at everyone involved in the event. The air they’re expelling at furious pace from their lungs threatens to knock George over; Ren holds onto his arm to steady him.
‘I’m all right,’ says George. ‘My friends and I used to play cricket on the roads in the suburbs of London during World War II after they’d been bombed. I’m not going to get frightened by an unruly crowd.’
Hmm, thinks Ren, if you really were playing cricket in the war then you’re probably older than sixty-three. But he keeps quiet. He’s angry that he’s been forced to do this event honouring real-life tyrants. He’s angry with himself for agreeing to do it. The Murnesian state may not be as bad these days as in the time of the mass-murdering leader Kum Kwat, but it’s still a place of terrible abuses (and there still exist forced labour camps), not to mention the fact that Pingajing is a veteran murderer from Kwat’s time (as is his rival Jimjam). He wonders whether he can walk in and then sneak out without Robot realising, before he remembers that he and George are supposed to be sitting on the front row. Still, it’s a good experience to see all this in action, even if he’d prefer to be with the protesters.
There are private security guards in front of the barriers, although not as many as there should be, given just how many angry protesters there are. The Murnesians are surrounded by their own security people, and Ren can see one of the Murnesian agents filming the crowd, which worries him. Will the video will be used later for identifying dissidents? There are also some white guys in suits he suspects are British security agents. They wear their suits far too well to be suited-up academics.