WRITE ACROSS SUSSEX
Dr. Diamond Keeps His Cool by Mary Lowerson
Another entry in our Write Across Sussex competition.
‘By the way, Jeff’s leaving at the end of term, and it’ll be the usual shindig - drinks , speeches from the VC, a festschrift to follow’.
‘I thought he was far too trendy for that cod - Oxbridge stuff’.
‘Well- wheel’s turned full circle, he IS the establishment now. Do you want to come?’
‘If you’re going, I suppose I ought.’
Jeff Diamond was the hippest , trendiest, professor in the university ; one of the first ever in the whole country to be appointed to a chair of Media Studies, - ( a non- discipline in the sterner views of the more traditionally intellectually rigorous members of faculty.) He was nevertheless a cult figure invited on numerous TV chat shows and a contributor to ‘cutting-edge’ debates, but he was beginning to seem somewhat passe. All those references to Derrida etc., he was now one of the inevitable casualties of the post-modern irony he had exploited. So perhaps his early retirement was a relief, a chance to bow out gracefully before he was yesterday’s man and a figure of mild derision.
On these occasions I’m happy to play, perhaps perversely, the role of dim faculty wife; a role so grotesquely unfashionable it’s positively eccentric and totally throws the more earnest politically correct feminists, who make up a large section of this (and doubtless most) universities; but it has great advantages for playing fly on the wall, and I’ve witnessed some very interesting ‘pas devant la bonne’ conversations when seeming to be nigh invisible .
Jeff had been a post-grad at LSE, back in the heady 60’s days of ‘Les Evenements.’ An acquaintance of ‘Danny the Red ‘at the Sorbonne & Tariq Ali at home. He was however rather too keen on making references to that ephemeral LSE alumnus, Mick Jagger, who was several years his junior, rather than the staider figures of Sidney & Beatrice Webb, who though very much his senior, it must be said, conveyed a good deal more gravitas. It was this courting of facile popularity that had earned him the opprobrium of the traditionalists. A rumour which he did nothing to dispel was his being the original ‘History Man’ in Malcolm Bradbury’s novel, though I believe there are several contenders for that not particularly attractive role.
Though I hardly knew him, I was quite keen to attend the party, perhaps for rather discreditable voyeuristic reasons; to see if the old poseur was as tiresome as he seeemed. I’d seen him occasionally on the box, and celebrity
always has a certain glamour, it must be said.
The party was to be held in the only old building on the campus; and I mean old, not one of the concrete monstrosities, which though under conservation orders will probably decay before the dignified and well-proportioned Georgian house which had been acquired by the University at its founding in the 1960s. A small specialist library, consisting almost entirely of a collection of classical & theological texts in the original Greek & Hebrew was still housed here. It had been donated by a local elderly scholar, & now was hardly ever used as only a handful of faculty & students either could understand ancient languages or had an interest in such unfashionable subjects. It did however provide a perfect background for small elite gatherings , & appealed to those who liked the university, (dubbed ‘The Dreaming Spires of the Shires’ in its heyday) to have a feeling of an Oxbridge college.
I was rather amused to find this had been chosen for Jeff Diamond’s retirement do. Perhaps from a sense of irony, for I’d have expected him to choose one of the ‘New Brutalist’ concrete buildings, the interiors of which made a proud boast of their naked breeze blocks- no concession to fancy outmoded elitist décor; the view from the windows a distant sight of the now reclaimed slag heaps. Jeff had made the point many times in articles & broadcasts of such triumphant phoenix-like symbolism. He had in fact featured this landscape in a TV programme titled ‘ The Subtext & Semiotics of Going to Ground’
By the time we arrived, rather late as we’d both dithered on the important question of what to wear, a good number of guests had arrived. I was relieved to see that everyone had probably been through the same dilemma concerning sartorial matters, and decided ‘anything goes’. Jeans, from designer to M&S; artfully casual cashmere, (both sexes); formal suits with college or bow ties (men) figures in kaftans & beads- of strangely indeterminate gender, & several extroverts: from undiluted Vivienne Westwood to the more eclectic creations; eg, punk meets Carmen. Last, but not least, the inevitable fraying woolly jumpers of the woolly intellectuals,de rigeur in a modern University. I felt comfortable’ in a ‘low profile’ linen shift.
Prominent in the gathering were the VC & various media people, some of whom were Jeff’s old students, all looking rather self-important and gathered round a small polished oak table at one end of the library. Outside it was now dusk and small pools of lamplight shining on the wine glasses being refilled by a butler gave the room the feeling of one of CP Snow’s novels. But from the murmurs of conversation that rose I heard, not devious conspiracy, but a steady refrain of ‘where’s Jeff?’ - ‘Hamlet without the Prince’, - ‘The Invisible Man’- these comments muttered by members of the English faculty – ‘Jeff bin in?’ - heavy sarcasm there. ‘ Conspicuous absence just makes presence more emphatic’, - cooed one of his female acolytes. ‘..The Real Absence..’ was the irreverent riposte from the chaplain .
People began to shift nervously, the temperature rose and voices got louder as wine glasses were re-filled for the third & fourth time. Then the door burst open and in rushed Jeff Diamond, and for a man who prided himself on his cool , distinctly harassed. He was in a suit- white, the Tom Wolfe/Martin Bell thing, and had had his head shaved, a trend much favoured by those going bald, which at his age is not unusual. Behind him , also flustered was his latest girl friend in top to toe Gucci. What was this all about?
A drink restored his sangfroid, and after a short obligatory round of small talk & general bonhomie he joined the bigwigs ,& readied himself for the inevitable speeches. The VC began with a paean of praise for all Jeff’s pioneering work; such cliches as ‘cutting edge’, ‘new paradigms for academia’ , ‘anti-elitist’ etc surfaced as the speech droned on. This was followed by students past & present adding their tributes. One, a youth sporting an almost identical suit spoke about his dyslexia with pride, for reading & writing were no longer necessary; his thesis (he winced at this elitist word) was on video, a ‘loop’ of ‘rap’ music that celebrated street culture and raised sexism and obscenity to an art form. It was heartfelt thanks to Jeff for his revolutionary state-of-the-art ideas & contribution to what would be a new ‘canon’ of 21 st century culture; …and so it went on .
I was aware of movement at the back of the room, and turned round to see a young man & woman, earnest & sober-suited both , making their way methodically to the front; Jeff saw them & blanched.
They were politely & eagerly waiting for their turn to speak. When the clone’s glottal-stops had finally trailed off, the youth cleared his throat nervously and in a pleasant and well- modulated voice introduced himself and his companion as head boy & girl of Dr.Diamond’s old school. He named a well-known public school, an ancient charitable foundation in London, with a highly respected academic tradition. The school was, he continued , very proud of their illustrious old boy and a deputation had been sent to honour him in a fitting manner. Dr.Diamond’s extreme modesty had tried to prevent this – ( so that was the reason for the delay and harrassed air-) But they felt they must prevail, after all they’d travelled 100 miles, they & the school would be disappointed not to make the presentation.
The room was agog, What could it possibly be?
The boy and girl now rather pink and self-conscious faced the gathered guests and it was her turn to speak. ‘Dr.Diamond was the top classical scholar of his year, he won the Houseman Prize for Latin Oratory , a highly prestigious award that gives an automatic place at Balliol. Josh’, she indicated her companion who blushed further, ‘has won it this year. He now would be honoured if Dr. Diamond would hear the speech he’s prepared.’ They both looked at Jeff respectfully and Josh added, ‘I just hope it comes up to scratch sir, I know yours was legendary.’
The atmosphere was electric as the boy began.
‘Laudes igitur tibi, Jefferson Carolus, etc……’
A stunned silence greeted the final words of this encomium, not many could understand it, certainly not Jefferson Charles Diamond’s students. Was it a hoax, perhaps? But the youth seemed both dignified & serious. The man himself was as white as his suit .As spontaneous applause broke out for the boy’s efforts I wondered if the dilemma of how to reply was torturing him. Convention demanded it should be in Latin , but he would doubtless lose street cred. The surprise of these totally unexpected events gave him some moments to play for time.
‘Jefferson ! He kept that quiet,’… ‘Balliol? He kept that quiet, too..’ ‘ So, the ‘Brat’s from Cheapside’ eh?’. were some of the comments. A sense of schadenfreude from his less friendly colleagues was in the air ; when disaffected dons are baying for blood, their viciousness knows no bounds.
I turned to my husband and rather loudly in the general excitement said mockingly, ‘Latin’s the new rock’n roll!’ and we giggled hysterically. Jeff must have picked up my remark, for with an air of relief he suddenly gathered composure , waited for the murmuring to die down, then addressed Josh with
‘Tibi gratias ago’....
A pregnant pause, then in a voice noticeably less Esturine than customary, ‘ I fear I no longer have such a command of the language as you display so admirably…Alas, I now have little Latin & less Greek…’ and so he continued.
He’d pulled it off! He glanced at his students who seemed bemused, but certainly not hostile, and at the young orator who seemed relieved to have got his ordeal over and was admiring the ancient texts on the shelves.
There was a noticeable relaxation of mood all round and everyone resumed drinking & chatting , and so the party continued comparatively uneventfully.
A week or two later I was on the train back from London and
from the corner of my eye caught sight of the gaunt figure of the wife of the Professor of History. I rather hoped she hadn’t seen me, but I resigned myself to the inevitable as I couldn’t ignore her form looming over me. A traditionalist in regard to academic standards she was in warrior mode
‘Look at this!’ She waved a tabloid excitedly at me.
‘Latin the New Rock’n’Roll sez Diamond Geezer’ - proclaimed the headlines.
‘In a puff for his new book on Elvis- title - ‘The King ain’t Dead, Vivat Rex!’
(That’s long live the king for you non- eggheads) Jeff Diamond, pundit of all things trendy tells his students at uni that the coolest cutting edge types now just can’t get enough of that state-of the art old lingo. In fact his motto is vivat Latin…. Dead it ain’t,.’ …..and more in that vein.
Gimlet eyes sought mine to share disapproval, ‘Well really, how vulgar, the sort of publicity the University could do without.’
But I refused to play, just smiled enigmatically; Dr.Diamond had kept his cool.
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