UCD ex-president tries his hand at campus novel
Fornicating students, professors who are full-time but not whole time, meddlesome managers – Patrick Masterson draws on a long academic career for his fiction debut
Patrick Masterson: in 1986 I was appointed President of UCD, where I exercised my only administrative skill of wise delegation!
My comic novel Quality Time at Saint Chinian is situated in an imaginary French provincial university. Life is good at the young University of Saint Chinian in sunlit southwest France. All involved enjoy a happy time. The professors are fulltime but certainly not whole time! Some teaching is required of them but research is entirely optional. The students too are a joyful group. For a moderate amount of study, which does not greatly encroach upon their leisure time, they are assured of a fairly decent degree and a job – possibly even a pensionable one. They have plenty of free time to engage in the serious business of hanging around, drinking coffee, playing pinball and fornicating.
However, this blessed state of affairs is under threat. The authorities in Paris have imposed a visit from an external committee of international experts to compile a detailed report on the academic quality of the university. The cold wind of managerial intimidation, so common in other areas of contemporary life, is about to blow through the hallowed halls of academe. The serpent is insinuating itself into paradise.
I have been told that Malcolm Bradbury’s The History Man was based on Desmond Williams, a remarkable colleague at UCD
The university assembles all its resources to counter and subvert the work of the Quality Appraisal Committee, which arrives to spend a week of searching investigation under the chairmanship of the formidable Prof Hans Kerstin from Hamburg. Professors and students rally under the leadership of their benign and tolerant President Guy Boulanger to meet the assault. This comic novel follows the hilarious events which unfold throughout the week of the committee’s visit. It culminates in an epic confrontation for the soul of the university between the proselytising commercial passion of Chairman Kerstin and the relaxed humanistic composure of President Boulanger.
This is my first novel. My previous books are of a more sober philosophical complexion. My beloved wife Frankie had unsuccessfully encouraged me to write a novel. Shortly after she died a few years ago my devoted but disrespectful children urged me to take a break from my “incomprehensible philosophical scribbling” and write something they could understand. Saint Chinian is the result.
The theme was probably inspired by the writings of two great campus novelists, Malcolm Bradbury and David Lodge. I have been told that Bradbury’s The History Man was based on Desmond Williams, a remarkable colleague of mine at UCD. Others claim Williams as the inspiration for John Vaizey’s Barometer Man – I would not be surprised if both were true. I met Lodge, author of Changing Places, when we were both very junior academics with young children on a rainy holiday in Connemara.
I have had the pleasure of experiencing various phases of academic life beginning as a student in UCD and Louvain University. I moved from one side of the student bench to the other with a UCD staff appointment in 1963, enjoying the splendid title “Assistant Lecturer Grade 3”. I journeyed on through various stages as College Lecturer, Professor and Dean of Philosophy. In 1986 the relics were translated into administration and I was appointed President of UCD, where I exercised my only administrative skill of wise delegation!
Some years later, as I was preparing to return to my philosophical ruminations, I was invited to take the post of President of the European University Institute in Florence, where I spent eight most interesting years. It was while there that I had the lively experience of being a member or chair of university quality appraisal committees in several countries. This combined with my own university experience qualified me to address the theme of my novel from the viewpoints of both poacher and gamekeeper.
Since 2002 I spend much of the year in a small village in the Languedoc region of France close by Saint Chinian. Here I have my library and I try to do some, mainly philosophical, writing. Although of very meagre physical ability I also cultivate a small field of 500 vines. The great event each year is the delivery of a few hundred kilos of grapes to the local cooperatif. I believe that these are mixed with other dubious offerings and the product sold by hose from a petrol lorry!
Quality Time at Saint Chinian by Patrick Masterson is published by Liberties Press, € 14.99