A romp in the groves of academe

Those who couldn't pull undergraduates took each other to bed in a fit of promiscuity and infidelity
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The Independent Culture
IT WAS something of a shock, I admit, to read that my old pal Charlie Guernsey has gone public with a plan to cover the homosexuals of Solihull with pig manure. A wood on his estate is a favourite spot for gay trysts, The Times revealed last week, and Charlie, now known as Lord Guernsey of Packington Hall, rather wishes it wasn't. Fencing had been broken, disruption caused, he said, not to mention "all manner of items relating to men's activities strewn about". Hence the pigshit, which was to be liberally spread throughout the woods.

Doubtless there are already plans for a pink protest march, with poor old Charlie becoming an emblem of heterosexism, class privilege and homophobia in the columns of the gay press. In vain will he point out that he is not shocked by the behaviour on his land - as a farmer, he sees far worse every day - but is simply concerned by the litter and possible effects on ground-nesting game. Unless he has changed a lot since we were at Cambridge together, which seems unlikely since he was one of those people who was 50 even when he was 20, a kinder, more tolerant and easygoing man could not be imagined.

Perhaps the best defence that he could offer is to point out that exclusivity is not the preserve of heterosexuals. This very week Manchester's Mardi Gras Gay festival has introduced for the first time a charge of pounds 5 to be paid by any heterosexual man who wishes to join the party. In addition, straight men will be required to wear a Pledge Band on their arm, presumably to avoid misunderstandings and save time. "For far too long the Gay Village has been overrun by straights," the editor of Gay Times, David Smith, has explained. "I'd rather have a heart to heart with another gay man about the ups and downs on the relationship front and get his gay take on the new football season."

If finding converts to his cause at the Manchester Mardi Gras is difficult for Charlie (and I can't see him being able to contribute much to the gay take on the new football season), he could always return to our old Alma Mater, Trinity College, to discuss matters of intolerance with Dr Eric Griffiths, the English don who humiliated an 18-year-old interviewee on the grounds that she was female, came from Essex and was called Tracy.

Although much has been made in the press about the fact Dr Griffiths is gay and the son of a docker, neither background nor sexual orientation have anything to do with his peculiar taste for sadistic snobbery. His problem is simply that he is a modern literary academic.

Shortly after Charlie and I came down from Trinity, university life became more complicated. Lecturers started sleeping with their students, frequently allowing non- academic talents to influence the marking of papers. Those who couldn't pull undergraduates took each other to bed and an unseemly fever of promiscuity and infidelity gripped the academy, leaving rage and disappointment in its wake.

Young academics in English faculties were subjected to a further torture. The brighter of their contemporaries - David Lodge, Malcolm Bradbury, Andrew Davies and others - took to writing campus novels and dramas and became media celebrities. The division between learned criticism and the vapid opinion-mongering favoured in Sunday newspapers and late-night arts shows on TV became blurred. Caught between envy and contempt for their more visible colleagues, a whole generation of English academics went bonkers and tried to destroy reading altogether by teaching literary theory.

The luckless Griffiths made his name at Cambridge just when these changes were taking their toll. He wrote his one book, developed a reputation for the rough-tongued campery that passes for wit in academic circles, and became a judge on the Booker Prize. If ever there was a cry of pain, it was his description of A S Byatt's Possession as "the kind of novel I'd write if I didn't know I couldn't write novels."

Some have said that it is healthy that such people are in positions of power at the modern university. They point out that many students of Dr Griffiths have used his crash-course in brutality to good effect - Vanessa Feltz humiliating people on TV, Amanda Craig writing a take-no-prisoners satirical novel, David Sexton causing the same novel to be withdrawn and rewritten. They argue that, had Tracy not fled from the interview in tears, she might already be on her way to a career in one of the rougher areas of the media.

It's possible. In the meantime, I hope that those contemplating a pink protest at Packington Hall will remember that intolerance covers both - in fact, all - genders.